Blooming Time?

In a small corner tucked away from the hectic panting of the world lives a small ecosystem,  nestled in a range of hills that is fast losing its unique beauty to ‘progress’. It is the place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up.

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Primrose jasmines – Image by Wouter Hagens[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The thought of flowering lupines takes me to Iceland; lotuses to a temple tank surrounded by trees with the breeze rippling the tank waters; primrose jasmines and Kurinji flowers back to the Nilgiris.

One of the marvels that is highly unique to the Nilgiris is the flowering of the Kurinji.

These flowers only bloom once in 12 years, and when they do, they are a joy to behold. I have only seen them once, and I remember thinking that for all this drama of blooming once in a dozen years, they should be, more grandiose, more robust, a trifle less ephemeral. But that is the thinking of an ignoramus, and I sensed the idiocy of the sentiment even then.

The flowers were beautiful, and the fact that there is a plant that knows the time to bloom when the rest of the world needs alarms and clocks to rise and shine is nothing short of marvelous. We need apps, calendars, schedulers, reminders and alarms to go about our daily business of living, and yet these unassuming flowers go about their act of procreation, maturing and enthralling the world without any such aids. What is more beautiful than that?

The kurinji flowers were in bloom last month, and I lived vicariously through a few friends of mine who live in the beautiful Nilgiris and posted the pictures. Entire hillsides clothed in royal robes of purple, swaying and billowing in rainy wind splattered skies, or waving and tossing their crowns to the blue skies with the scudding clouds.

 

 

 

 

The beauty of a functional model like a flower is a joy to behold. Imagine my joy then, when I opened the book, What Do You Care What Others Think – By Richard Feynman and the very opening of the book spoke straight to my kurinji-flower yearning heart.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman. This brain pickings article links to the beautiful animated video made by Fraser Davidson based on his ode to a flower.

I could not see the Kurinji flowers this time. I know many hillsides that were carpeted with these marvels have now become home to resorts and hotels. So, I wrote to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers requesting them to try and obtain a sample of this marvel: a tiny piece of magic tucked away for generations to behold. I hope they can.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
– William Blake

 

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We Belong on Earth – Part 2

One sunny day, I felt a surge of happiness to find the latest book by Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer. I heard it was like none of his other books, but just as poignant. The moment of realization came a moment after the surge of happiness – how could I be happy to find the book that drove home the sad truth of refugees – of that child whose dead body floating in the sea inspired the book?

Child name: Alan Kurdi

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Was I really ready to have my heart wrung out as I am sure it will be when someone as competent as Khaled Hosseini wields their pen on the sad plight of refugees? I picked up the book late that night, long after the moonlight had transformed the late summer landscape into a luminous wondrous land.

I always hesitate to start a book of such deep issues, and for good reason. I was in a flight once, and delved into my book. I was about halfway in when tears started streaming down my face. A co-passenger asked me if everything was alright and I pointed to the book, feeling sheepish, but she replied that she had cried after reading that particular book too, and I felt like I had met a kindred spirit. Like P. G. Wodehouse said, “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature. “ .

The book was In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner.

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Vaddey Rattner writes of the child trapped in the horrendous events of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I said it before and I shall say it again: There never is an upside to War. The worst affected are the children, and we have no excuse to maim their psyches thus. I read the book more than 5 years ago, and yet it stays in my mind. Vaddey Ratner draws you into the human experience through the suffering so beautifully that words fail me.

The book made me realize what it must have been like for an old colleague of mine.

I remember the shock with which I realized she was a refugee from Vietnam. We were both heavily pregnant with our first-borns and often traded tummy-tales. We were hallway buddies. I wished her a Happy Birthday, proud of myself to have remembered, and she gave me a rattling wholesome laugh in response. Then, with her characteristic good sense, she told me about how someone took a look at her and assigned her an age when she got off the boat. “They said I was 5 then. Looking back, I see I was given 3 years of my life to live again. “

I did not know what ‘got off the boat’ meant at the time. I looked at her quizzically for she said, “Oh, because I was pretty sure I was 8 then, but I did not know English, and I did not know that when they pointed at me, they were estimating my age and they gave me a birthday too. With the war I was malnourished, bones sticking out, and I am short too, so I suppose I could easily be mistaken for a 5 year old when I came here. I don’t really know my birthday, so I just celebrate this day that was given to me. “

Over the course of our pregnancies, she told me tidbits here and there about how she had escaped Vietnam as a refugee and came to the United States.

The fast flowing rivers of my consciousness, combined with the changing people-scapes around me, meant that I thought about her every now and then even though I lost touch. I am fairly sure that she must be enriching the world around her somewhere. For her, this life was too much of a gift to throw away and not live and contribute to the fullest.

Who was it who said, that we affect the world around us simply by being, or some such thing? Just thinking of her gave me the courage to read Sea Prayer. I opened the book and was transported to the town of Homs in Syria.

Sea Prayer is more of a poem in the form of a short letter written from father to son. A few words is all that is necessary for him to take you into a grandmother’s hut where the child played.
“We woke in the mornings
to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze,
to the bleating if your grandmothers goat,”

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A sample of the artwork by Dan Williams

A few strokes of the brush is all takes for the artist, Dan Williams to set the tone for ‘The skies spitting bombs. Starvation. Burials.”

It is a very short book, and not like Khaled Hosseini’s other works, but it is a book that reminds you to think of the human condition. The book finishes on this note.

”Sea Prayer was inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015.

“In the year after Alan’s death, 4,176 others died or went missing attempting that same journey.”

Where do we belong? To Earth surely.

Read also: Do We Belong On Earth?

Recess The Basis of Culture

This article was published in The Hindu (Open Page) dated 14th October 2018.

There is a beautiful park that is frequented by many in our suburban area. The geese, gulls, squirrels, grebes, mallards and pelicans are a constant source of joy, and I feel much refreshed when I spend an evening there. One day over the week-end, off I went to the park for a brisk workout. It was particularly crowded as people were enjoying the last few weeks of sunshine before the fall and winter cold set in.  

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I found myself in several places having to slow down and take it easy, thus enabling me to listen to what people were saying from time to time. One time I found myself listening to a couple of women talk about the malady of modern times – the over-scheduled child’s life. The women were discussing the schedules of their 5th grade children.

As soon as he comes back from school, he has to go for Taek-wondo for 2 hours, then, violin class, and then his Math or English classes. I also want him to play basket-ball, so, the week-ends, he has Bala Vihar (the equivalent of Sunday school), swimming and basket ball. He asks me, – Amma, when can I do my homework? Poor fellow! I told him to skip his recess times, and just finish his homework during recess so that he need not be stressed about finishing it.

I turned around to see if they were joking, but they weren’t. They were genuinely worried about the children’s activities and wanted to solve the problem of finding homework time.

My heart went out to both the worried mothers and the harried children. 

I thought of how much I loved recess as child, and how much the children love recess now. I love listening to the recess games, and recess tales. I like to watch the elementary school children at play while dropping off the son to school in the mornings. It is a heartening sight to see the children find their friends, their faces breaking out into slow, wide smiles, and a spring in their step as they bound off to play.  

A few girls play the jump-rope. They stand on either side of the jump rope and swish the rope up and down while the person in the middle tries to jump as the rope comes under their feet. Every time one child trips, she smiles and good-humoredly lets go, while her friends cheer her on with their own smiles.

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In just a few weeks, I see the children have gotten much better at the game too.

The days I am able to see the children play the jump-rope I feel as though a lovely light permeated my soul, and whispered to me that all would be well. These children will be the new leaders in a few years after all. If they know how to encourage each other and work together to lift everyone up, we will be fine, won’t we? 

Most days when I ask about school, I get recess-tales. The best lessons in life are those imparted at recess: The strength of companionship, the solidarity of friendship, the simple choice of being present for one another, and so much more.

Read here about a German philosopher who said Leisure is the basis of culture – from Brain Pickings

The daughter, I remember, used to describe in marvelous detail about how they transformed the playground into an underwater coral reef, and played a game called Sharks & Minnows. (That child should have been born a mermaid!) The son shows me his callused hands from attempting the monkey bars and the various shenanigans possible with this simple play structure.

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I pondered on the solution the mother gave her child to skip recess and finish homework instead. Often we find ourselves in spots like this, where we are trying to solve a problem without changing any of the variables. But it was an important lesson to me, maybe sometimes we need to see what variable can be changed – in this case, what activity can be let go. Or schedule in a Magical Do-Nothing Day Or Magical Do-Nothing hours.

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After all, like Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

 

Do We Belong On Earth?

I envy these people who can quote things in passing with confidence. I have not that kind of eidetic memory. But I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that one of those great philosophers of yore, Socrates or Plato or one of their ilk, said something to the effect of the worst thing humankind has ever thought of was the concept of countries. I heartily agree. For what is a country boundary if not a line in the sand?

I was in a taxi a few years ago heading from somewhere to somewhere in the madness of Bay Area’s evening traffic. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me if I came from India or Pakistan.

He then went on to say that he had just dropped someone who came from Pakistan. He loved the Biriyanis in the Indian and Pakistani restaurants. What delightful spices, he said and the conversation moved towards the role of spices in the world economy. He taught Economics in a small college in Greece before the country collapsed and he managed to move to the United States and he now drove taxis for a living.

While there are multiple things to spin out from this little interaction, I would like to draw the attention to a little thing said almost in passing. He thought India and Pakistan were one and the same, and I have often experienced the same sentiment and kinship whenever far away from the Indian subcontinent.

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Image from The Night Diary – By Veera Hiranandani

It has always been something refreshing to note – especially given the continuing tensions in the region ever since the partition in 1947. It amuses me and gives me hope when I see how Pakistanis and Indians bond over a common culture, similar culinary traditions etc outside the Asian subcontinent, but within the sub continent the tensions continue to simmer.

A friend had recommended Veera Hiranandani’s book, the Night Diary. One of the largest human migrations in Human History at the time took place during the Indian independence from the British Raj. The India-Pakistan segregation is fraught with gore, bloodshed and the unfathomable rivalry that can be brought about by politically divisive acts.

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The book itself is lucidly narrated – a twelve year old introverted child, Nisha, writes in her diary to her late mother as often as she can. She is lovingly cared for by her father, their paternal grandmother who lives with them and the cook, Kazi, who has been with the family for a long time. Her best playmate is her twin brother Amil.The mother, who passed away when the children were young, was Muslim, and the father is Hindu. It is heart-rending to read the way, the twins Nisha and Amil puzzle over what would have been the case had their mother been alive. Would they have to leave her and go to the Indian side?

“I had never wondered about being safe before. I just thought I was.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

I thrust the book in my mother’s hands to read, for I knew she would appreciate how cooking forms the bond between Nisha and their cook, Kazi.

Image from Wikipedia on Indian Spices:

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This image was originally posted to Flickr by judepics at https://www.flickr.com/photos/43546466@N00/409841087. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

The spices as they pass through the hands of Kazi and how Nisha derives a sense of creation and wholeness is captured as only one who loves the art of creation can. The feel of the dals and the peppers in the hands, the smell of the saffron in the rice and the whole time in the background a tension is brewing, a rift simmering when one night it is upon them – the pressure bursts, and the little family has to flee.

“I needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

Millions of people fleeing Pakistan, and millions making it into Pakistan in the opposite direction. Mobs ready to inflict violence at the slightest opportunity.

War is meaningless, and it is particularly unfair to the children.

14 million people were displaced in those few months of turmoil and over 2 million killed during the partition. One line in the sand that suddenly determined belonging or the lack of it.

One would think one learns from these events, but look at the numbers.

In the world today, there are currently more refugees than ever before. The rise of populism and nationalism means that the situation is deteriorating everyday. As of Jun 2018, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world had been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

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Screenshot from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html – Jun 2018 figures

Source: UN Refugee Agency

We belong on Earth, do we not?

Fiction Inspire Non-Fiction?

While reading a good piece of fiction, I often wonder about the inspiration behind the writing.  Dune, for example, is a book that immediately lets you know the author must be a personality of prodigious learning. The ecological angle, I was delighted to read in the note by his son, had its origins in Frank Herbert’s work for an an Op-Ed on the Shifting Sands in Oregon. The government was toying with the idea of planting grasses that could help with stopping the sands from shifting and collapsing onto roads and rivers. 

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Quote: 

In 1957, Dad flew to the Oregon coast to write a magazine article about a US department and Agriculture project there, in which the government had successfully planted poverty grasses on the crests of sand dunes, to keep them from inundating highways. He intended to call the article “They stopped the Moving Sands” but soon realized that he had much bigger story on his hands

Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworts guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represent, among other things, the finite resource of oil. The planet Arrakis features immense, ferocious worms that are like dragons of lore, with “great teeth” and a “bellows breath of cinnamon”.

Planetology is a marvelous word for taking in the intricacies of a life sustaining planet (Dune makes reference to planetologists for figuring out survival strategies),  and the effects of our consumption of finite resources. 

I would love to study Planetology.We know that we are stretching the Earth’s resources – National Geographic came up with a simple number: we are currently using 1.71 times Earth’s resources every year and it is increasing. The effects are everywhere.

A friend and I were discussing the lack of tree cover in a country like Iceland for instance. Blessed with enormous natural beauty, the lack of tree cover is quite unnerving. Everywhere you turn is green because it rains a lot, but there are no trees. Apparently, excessive logging first got rid of them, and replanting did not take root as intended for sheep grazing ate away the saplings and the seedlings before they had a chance to sprout. 

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This too is not a new phenomenon. World over there are examples of over-grazing that edged out forest cover( Ireland, England, Mauritius are all examples of how our lifestyles has altered the ecosystem drastically). In the book Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell, the author is on a mission to collect endangered species from Mauritius so he can bring them back to the Conservation Center for breeding and releasing into the wild. He writes about Round Island and how the simple act of introducing goats, sheep and rabbits into the ecosystem by humans has eroded the tree cover irreparably. 

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From Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell – Round Island

While reading this book, I realized the inspiration behind his fiction book, Mockery Bird. This hilarious fiction book, Mockery Bird – was based on a story doing the rounds in Mauritius surrounding the Dodo bird and the loss of certain trees. The knowledge gave me immense pleasure. How lovely to see the inspirations behind good fiction.

 

Just as fiction draws its inspiration from reality, reality too can draw its inspiration from fiction.

In the Dune universe, the planetologist, Kynes, shares the visionary dreams for the planet Arrakis – a vision outlining a glorious self sustaining future for the planet that will take three or maybe four generations to come to fruition. We can derive our inspiration from fiction and set ourselves on a similar path working towards setting aside half the planet for forest cover to reverse global warming, sustenance etc. (News item : here)

 

A Planet of Wizards & Prophets

I was reading The Wizard & The Prophet by Charles E Mann on a crowded train one evening, and a pair of young girls shared the seat with me. The name of the book is a highly appealing one especially to little girls, and it piqued their interest too.

One of them was probably in the 1st or 2nd grade, and showed a precocious interest in my reading material. Her curly hair was made into numerous tiny plaits, and her eyes shone with a curiosity that would make her teacher’s heart sing. Her mother’s heart though, quailed. She said, “Now…now don’t bother the nice lady there, let her get on with it. “ I looked up at the mother, and told her that I love reading to children, and though this particular book sounds pedantic when read to children, I did it anyway. It taught me never to under-estimate children – the child soaked in everything, and asked the most engaging questions.

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I saw a certain amount of editing would need to be done if I were to sustain the interest of a 6 year old. The book is a non-fiction tome going strong at 678 pages – pages richly adorned with facts and figures, and life histories of all the people involved. I had already been through about 300 pages, so I knew the interesting bits, I knew the bits where a child’s wonder can be kindled. For the rest of the hour, I told her about wheat strains, water tables, and climate change.

The Wizard & The Prophet is a marvelous title because it encapsulates the polarity of our thinking so beautifully, and in this sense, they are both required for us to thrive. The Wizard in the book is Norman Borlaug, who is credited with leading the way for GMO strains of wheat production that along with stalwarts in the field such as Dr M.S. Swaminathan saved billions of people from hunger and starvation. 

William Vogt is the Prophet, who during his study in the Mexican coastal areas observed how we are stretching our natural resources and the effects it has on things as far-flung as bird migratory patterns and climate. In many ways, he is the one who set up the first bells of Global warming and Climate Change. He is the Prophet.

Do you believe in Climate Change? asked the girl wide-eyed.

I told her I did not need to believe Climate Change at all, and the experiments were here to show me how we are changing the air around us, and I showed her the pages outlining the experiment where humanity managed to pin down Carbon Dioxide as the problem-maker in the first place. 

I cannot deny that global warming and climate change has always intrigued me. Carbon Dioxide only accounts for 0.03 % of the atmospheric gases, a remarkably small proportion for it to be causing global warming on such a scale as to change weather patters and cause severe climatic catastrophes, is it not? 

In The Wizard & The Prophet, the author outlines the experiments used in determining that it is indeed carbon dioxide that is the culprit and how our industries are directly contributing to its increase. The correlation between carbon-dioxide levels increasing and global warming followed. I found it a fascinating experiment and one that school laboratories can demonstrate I hope. 

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By Scrippsnews [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeling_Curve

(During the spring, there are dips because the Arctic tundra sprouts plant life and plants absorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. )

Looking at the worried expression in the child’s face, I asked her, Did she know what we can do to reduce the carbon dioxide?

Trees? she said, and I nodded yes.

I went on to tell her about the excellent example set forth for us by the Kenyans in The Green Belt movement, and how a person called Dr Wangari Maathai helped the Kenyans plant millions of trees over the past 30 years.

Planting the Trees of Kenya, by Claire A Nivola, The Story of Wangari Maathai

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Planting the trees of Kenya – Wangari Maathai

She glowed at the simple solution thought of by Dr Wangari Maathai, but her stop had come, and she stepped off the train with her mother who was now listening to her daughter talk to her about The Wizard & The Prophet.

As I reflected on the chat with her, I realized that the narrative around Climate change and Global warming is quite confusing.  It is no wonder that the child framed her question as – “Do you believe in Climate Change?” The prophets in this case are doing their job, but the question of : “How does one realize when an extreme storm or flood is part of a natural occurrence and when it is a direct result of our tampering with the delicate balance of the climate?” is a vexing one.  

The Prophets have sounded the alarm bell often enough, and the Wizards have yet to think of a sustainable solution to it. But there is hope: I am glad to read that China proposes to plant and nurture a forest the size of Ireland to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. 

China to create new forests covering area size of Ireland

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A Life Well Lived

One of my earliest memories were of sitting next to the grand old man and pressing the mole on his hand. It was a button, he said, that made him laugh. Every time I pressed it, he sent a shiver down his body and laughed. That is the kind of game that cannot ever tire a 4 or 5 year old child. I’d press the button at random times hoping to catch him off-guard. But the button always worked. It even worked last year when I showed the button to my little son as an adult. The great grand old man laughed.

He was known as Pattu-Mani, a loving nickname given to the bluish—gray-eyed handsome boy with a twinkling smile and pleasant personality.

He was the closest my mother had to a father. (How I Mother Saw Her Father)

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My Mother Being Given in Marriage By Pattu-Mani Maama(Kanya Daanam – usually given away by the girl’s father)

I remember listening wide-eyed to the stories of my maamas (Pattu-mani and Ambi as they were popularly known) and how they raised and educated my mother, their little sister. (My mother was the last born in a family of seven. When she was 3 years old, her father passed away. A shock that left the family bereft, and sent their mother into a decline from which she never recovered. )

The one who regaled the story was often my father. He was the story-teller in the household. In his stentorian voice, he would go on to narrate how they educated their sisters making them the first graduates in their village, in a time and age that girls were married off before completing high school.

These people were the true heroes of the #HeForShe movement.

The same loving, doting aunts and uncles who bathed us in the warm glow of their smiles were heroes?

As a young girl, I cannot quite describe the impression it made on me.

Clad modestly in cotton dhotis with no fancy degrees or awards, living lives of modest means in normal houses with dignity and self-uplifted from poverty; the ideas of personality, achievement and greatness conflicted with the world’s idea of greatness. Was it not always associated with wealth and fame?

Confusing as it all was as a child, it helped me understand that greatness comes in so many shapes and forms. It helped me understand that life is unfair, but we have to fight fairly anyway. That there is no correlation between (wealth, fame), and (wisdom, greatness). Sometimes, the wealthy and famous are also wise and great, but not all wise and great people are wealthy and famous.

So, what constitutes a worthy life?

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Is it in the fact that every one of us nieces, nephews, and grandchildren felt they were special to him?

Is it in the fact that the entire town showed up to say farewell to him when he died last week? The very town to which he came barefoot and penniless, looking for work as a teenager after his father’s sudden death.

Or is it in the sparkling affection behind the smiles he bestowed on those around him every time?

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. William Shakespeare

Here is to a man who played every role well, who made the show enjoyable for all those who had the privilege of sharing the stage with him.

My heart aches, my eyes tear up as I hear things like ‘end of an era’, ‘great soul’ etc. Maybe his parting gift is the meditation on what constitutes a good life, and working towards the very qualities he embodied.

TED Talk on a Worthy Life: here

The past few days have been a glorious recollection of a life well-lived.

A life that shouldered responsibility with élan
A life that never questioned sacrifice and duty
A life that gave and accepted love
A life whose inner light lit the world around him
A life that showed us how extraordinary an ordinary life can be
A Life Well Lived.

I have a small birth-mark where he had a mole, I propose to make that my laugh button. My way to remember Maama and to remind me to laugh when life gets me down.

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I love and miss you dear Maama. Thank you for your influence, your love and your beautiful presence in our lives.