How To Be a Good Companion

Simba who was introduced me around a decade ago passed away last week. This post was there in my drafts for over a year since I read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Simba’s passing made me acutely aware for the gratitude I feel for these furry friends.

Ask Sanku, Simba, Bogie, Luna, Timothy, Sanku, Tinky and Bolu, and they will all unanimously tell you that I may be a good sort in general, but the best past-time they have is to see me when in their midst. Sanku, Simba, Bogie and Luna have been introduced to me later in life, and though they may not believe it possible when Timothy tells them, they are seeing a mellowed person of years.

Timmy, named after Timothy, the dog in the Famous Five Adventure Series by Enid Blyton. (Timothy (The Famous 5 one) was a raucous, energetic dog who would have done anything for his 4 human companions. ) Having such an illustrious name to live upto, you would think Timmy would have been a better companion to me. Instead, he was a vicious little yip who forever found me atop bushes or gates, where I had scrambled in my haste, squeaking like a rat waiting for help. Timothy has seen the hot stuff. ‘Hot dogs!’, he used to say to himself and go ‘bow-wow-wow’, lackadaisically, sometimes not even bothering to stir from his kennel (which I helped build lovingly with wood panels and nails by the way), and I would find myself scrambling through hedges with spiders in my hair, looking demented and scrappy.

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One flip of a puppy, Bolu (I remember thinking that self respecting mice would scoff at the name), had me charging up 67 steps at such a scorching pace that the physical education teacher leaning on a tree nearby chatting with his friends, promptly placed me on the relay team, where my performance was nowhere close to what it was with Bolu on my case.

The daughter yearns for a dog, and would gladly give Bolu & Timmy a sharp kick for giving their mother this unreasonable fear of dogs. But my recent canine companions have done much to help me overcome the fear.

Simba, Sanku, Bogie and later Luna, have been marvelous in their quest to make me become less eccentric around them.

 

I have often wondered how I would react to people who made it clear that they were uncomfortable in my presence. Would I leave them alone, and feel bad at such a seemingly irrational reaction? I must say the deportment of my canine friends in later years have put me to shame. If anything, they have taken the discomfort with sagacity and a grace that we will do well to learn from. They taught me with patience, and took me under their wing with the understanding of having to deal with a dim-witted student.

Patiently, they initiate me into the art of relaxing in their presence. First a small wag to indicate they think I am a good-ish sort, and then a little curiosity followed by an affectionate brush up against my leg was their method. They instinctively seem to know how to be a good companion.

How can one be a good, even perfect, companion? This excerpt from My Family and Other Animals comes close to addressing the question.

My Family & Other Animals is a wonderful read for anyone looking to experience the wondrous world around us with humor and candor. I admire the work of naturalists as regular readers know. The author wrote of his life in Corfu near Greece, and his adventures on the island were magically transformed by his deep affection for his dog, later dogs. He writes:

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(Pic my own)

In those early days of exploration Roger was my constant companion. Together we ventured farther and farther afield, discovering quiet, remote olive groves which had to be investigated and remembered. He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good humored tolerance for my eccentricities.

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He goes on to say about Roger – who sounds like the ideal companion anyone could wish for, that:
If I slipped when climbing a dew shiny bank, Roger appeared suddenly, gave a snort that sounded like suppressed laughter, a quick look over, a rapid lick of commiseration, shook herself, sneezed and gave me his lopsided grin. If I found something that interested me – an ant’s nest, a caterpillar on a leaf, a spider wrapping up a fly in swaddling clothes of silk – Roger sat down and waited until I had finished examining it.

Reading about Roger almost makes me wistful for a companion like him during my nature saunters in my youth. But in later years, Simba, Bogie and occasionally Sanku have come with me on hikes, and I have never felt more alive in the natural world than around them. No sniff was too blasé for them to consider, no dog they met on the trail deserved the ignominy of no-greeting. The trails came alive with them around. The flowers, grass, insects and squirrels were granted the same courtesy of curiosity and unflagging acknowledgement. When their human companions flagged in energy, they made their intentions known – “You can do it. I am with you.”

 

How to be a good creature by Sy Montgomery is a children’s book in which the Author writes of what different creatures taught her. The essays on her Dogs and her Pig are particularly good reading.

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Simba passed away last week, and his passing has made me consider the fundamental question: How to be a good companion?

Classical Whale Symphony

Soft instrumental music was lilting in the background, and the sun’s watery rays were streaking in through the recently rain-washed window-panes. It was a beautiful week-end morning, and the kitchen was bursting with activity. The children were helping by putting away the dishes as noisily as possible. I was making a mess of things by changing the menu nimbly depending on what my refrigerator had. (Grocery shopping had taken a backseat the past few days and rations were thin on the ground)

The children were giggling about something when the teenage daughter said to hearty nods from her little brother. “By the way, what is this blasted toing-toing music you are listening to?”

“Melodious and uplifting for the soul, my dears. Classical Instrumental Music. Changes the way neurons interact.”

She shook her head, “Changes the way my nerves react!”and changed it to something that made my eardrums pick up the dishes and bang them viciously inside my head, while she chatted. Teenagers, I tell you!

“Whales like Classical Music.” , I said weakly.

“Well, I’m not a whale am I?” said she giving me a fish-like look- not the fishy look, the glassy gleam. I saw the piscean divergence in the gene and agreed. Though she could be, given her favorite doodles are themes under the sea

Art work by the Daughter:

Ever since I read in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about Whale Songs, I have been enamored with the language of music, and the myths of the whales.

Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan on the Humpback Whale songs:
These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I was naturally was attracted to the book, The Symphony of Whales by Steve Shuch. It is based on a true story in a village near the Arctic circle. The onset of Winter had been swift, and a pod of whales found themselves iced in near Siberia. Unable to get out in time, the whole pod faced death in the iced-in waters.

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According to the book, a child, Glashka, who had always been blessed with the ability to hear Whale song heard them over the sound of the snowy storm. That night, they came to her in her dreams, and she knew they must be in trouble.

The next morning her father gathered the villagers and off they went to a sound over 30 miles away by dog sleigh looking for the pod of whales. It was true. The whales were in trouble. The pod had not anticipated the icing in of the waters so quickly, and were facing death. The villagers from all the neighboring villages started chipping at the ice to cut through the blocks of ice, so that the whales could surface and breathe.

“Look!”, said Glashka’s grandmother. “See how the whales are taking turns, how they give the younger ones extra time for air.”

The village elders had also radioed for help. A ship, an icebreaker, Moskva, was on its way to help.

The story, is based on a real incident that happened in the narrow Senyavina Straits of Siberia. Over 3000 beluga whales had been trapped by the rapidly freezing waters in 1984-1985. For seven weeks, the people of the Chukchi peninsula, and the crew of the Moskva risked their lives to save the whales.

The story does not end there. Once Moskva had cleared the way, the whales had to follow the ship out into the open seas, but they were reluctant to do so. The crew tried playing whale song to lure them. While they reacted to the music, they were not assured of human intent, and were still scared of the engine sound. They lurked in the waters.  Then they tried Classical Instrumental Music.

“The crew found some classical music. First, the sweet sounds of violin and violas, next the deeper notes of the cellos and, deepest of all, the string basses…and way up high, a solo violin…
Everyone fell silent as the music carried over the waters.”

That had done the trick. The ship’s engines started and the whales slowly followed the icebreaker out into the open ocean.

Would this heartwarming episode make it into Whale Song? That humans can be helpful too? I don’t know, but I do hope it makes it into our myths – maybe as one embracing a humane side to humans.

Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem – Seneca

As long as we are human, let us be humane

Read also:

Cosmic Nature of Living

Weaving The Sequins of Time

New York Times Archived Article on the Incident

The Three Selves

Mary Oliver’s, Upstream, is a book of many marvelous essays. One in particular stood out: Of Power and Time. This one is about the three selves in many of us:

  • The Child Self
  • The Social Self &
  • The Eternal Self.

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Reflecting upon the piece, I realized we should know this by now, and we probably do at some level, but it takes a clairvoyant writer to set it out so neatly.

The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. I completely identify with that. I am decades away from my childhood, but I can dip into it like I only just grew up.  Everything felt keener and sharper as children, and that is part of the reason why The Child Self never really leaves us, I suppose. (Probably the reason why I forget the name of the person I met yesterday, but remember the names of my friends from when I was 5 years old : What is Time?)

While young, I yearned to grow up, and in the words of L M Montgomery realize that growing up is not half as fun as it is purported to be.

“That’s the worst of growing up, and I’m beginning to realize it. The things you wanted so much when you were a child don’t seem half so wonderful to you when you get them.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executer. The one, in short, that most of us find ourselves trapped in for the most part of our lives. This is “the smiler and the doorkeeper” as Mary Oliver so elegantly puts it. This self I am familiar with: metaphorically the whirlpool, the swift horses of time, the minute  keeper.

“This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”

The social, attentive self’s surety is what makes the world go around as she says.

Then, there is the third self: The Creative Self, the dreamer, the wanderer.
“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary, it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

The essay goes on explain the regular, ordinary self in contrast to the creative self. The Creative Self – the one that is out of love with the ordinary, out of love with the demands of time or the regular routines of life, is concerned with something else, the extraordinary. This is the self, she says, that makes the world move forward.

“The extraordinary is what Art is about. No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures it is seldom seen, It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes its solitude.”

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The essay was eye-opening in many ways. For I know many, including myself, have to fill our days with the demands of the clock. It is also easier to be the do-er, so that we may not have to enter that difficult place of teasing, figuring and wrestling the extraordinary out; to give shape to the nebulous clouds skirting in the recesses of the brain.

There is nothing wrong with succumbing to the demands of the clock, but it is a valuable lesson to teach ourselves to take our brains for a tease and see what results, isn’t it? We may land up surprising ourselves if only we give it the chance.

The essay ended on this note:

“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.”

What do we do to ensure that there is enough time in our lives to ensure the nurturing of the Eternal Self? (Read: The Art & Charm of Shoshin) I don’t know the answer yet, but when I do, I shall hop on social media and share it right away.

Note:

A version of the essay is found here: 

Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task 

Brain Pickings – The Third Self

The Touch of the Eternal

The daughter came hurtling into the room bursting with something to share, her brother in quick pursuit. I was sprawled on my stomach across the bed surrounded by a bunch of books.  She looked surprised at finding me indoors instead of hustling people to come and enjoy the outdoors, and said “How come you aren’t flitting with the butterflies?” 

The skies were blue, the air pure, the trees outside looked splendid and inviting, the first shy cherry blossoms were peeping out, the first of my tulip shoots were making their way out of the ground much to my delight.

I snorted and said, that just because the day looks awesome outside does not mean that I have to ‘flit like a butterfly’. Besides, it was perfect Gluggavedur weather. (Gluggavedur is a delightful Icelandic word that signifies, ‘Window weather’ – beautiful from the inside, but too cold to go outside.)

I know I have yearned for the right word many times. (A word for the cool breeze that hits your face when you run down a mountain for instance: Zephyr Tales) This book, What a Wonderful Word, taps into that feeling with words from many cultures across the world.

Book: What a Wonderful Word – By Nicola Edwards & Luisa Uribe

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: I looked dignified and mature. It is done by setting the chin at an awkward angle, and giving the impression of one finding a skunk when one lifted the bushes to find a squirrel.

“A mature adult can do many things!” I said.

“Like reading children’s books?” said she.

I laughed hard and she joined in. Mature indeed! 

One time she found me doing Yoga with a beautiful Children’s book open, and checking out the illustrations from various angles. This act of whimsy earned me the loving and coveted label that teenagers award rarely, “You are SO weird! That is such a you-thing, why am I not even surprised?”

Much later when I read Upstream by Mary Oliver, I was glad to see that I was doing something right – the whimsical part at least.

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” 

― Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Some of my favorite things to do is flip through children’s books. The illustrations on some of them made me admire the books on wholly different levels.

How an artist comes up with conceptualization, the drawings themselves, and the whole process that goes into making children’s books is amazing. Every book is a testament to creativity, teamwork, solidarity, the calling of the eternal, and so much more. When asked to critique a piece of Art, I would trip up on a few things like techniques, styles, brush strokes, paint colors, paint directions, canvas quality etc. But I can appreciate good Art when I see it, and describe it with the word, Beautiful.

I was book-flitting like butterflies, very happy with the set of books I was flitting through.

“See! See this book – how can people even conceptualize a piece like this? Hmm…what would we do without Children’s books?”

I was surprised she had no snarky comeback – it is seldom so. Blessed as she is with sharp wit, it is usually me that has Espirit D’Escalier episodes. I looked up, and saw her immersed in the beautiful drawing in the children’s book I showed her. She spends a good amount of her time doodling and definitely with more success than Yours Truly. 

Rob Gonsalves book, Imagine A World, was definitely mesmerizing. The almost seamless transitions within the Art that hid multiple layers and concepts was work of genius. A sample piece shown below  – you can also head on over to his site that has more Art work. 

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Rob Gonsalves work Book: Imagine a World

The book reminded me of Mary Oliver’s Quote:

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” 

― Mary Oliver

Magical Realism is Gonsalves’ speciality, and I am so glad to have picked up the book. It is easy to see the pictures over and over again – being immersed in them over again.

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I am the first to admit that I am no Art Critic, just a child admiring the work of artists whose touch of the eternal we are blessed to see. 

Also read: Dr Seuss’s Art

Philosophers & Tinkerers

I picked up the book Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin partly because I was intrigued by the poetic title, and partly because I like reading about our dear Cosmos, and its many mysteries. The skies have given me endless joy, peace and continue to do so, even though light pollution in our suburban areas mean that we cannot see the stars, planets and stars as clearly.

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Excuse me for a while, while I meander to a black hole of my own for a moment: I was appalled to note that a Russian startup intends to sell advertisements that can only be visible in the night sky. Are our products so important that we have to dwarf the shows the Cosmos puts up every night to sell toothpaste and whatever gawd-awful thing we contrive in our numerous factories? (I have a post clamoring and rattling in the brain waiting to get out on the number of contraptions that folks felt I must have, or I myself felt I must have, and now occupy valuable shelf-space in the home somewhere.)

Climbing out of the black hole then, the cosmos has given me endless joy and I indulge in dipping into its mysteries every now and then. What surprised me about detecting gravitational waves is the immensity of human endeavors. Theorizing and coming up with the supporting Mathematics to validate the concept is in itself a phenomenal achievement, but conceptualizing an experiment of such magnitude as to detect a stirring as faint as gravitational waves emanating when two black holes collide millions of light years away is astonishing.

As Janna Levin says, it is a project to fulfill a fool’s ambition.

“An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass.”
― Janna Levin, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory ) is astronomical in scope and dimensions. Janna Levin’s book takes us into the human dramas and the corridors of Caltech and MIT where much of this played out. While I did feel the flow and structure of the book could have been more crisp, and less about the human politics that plague undertakings such as these, it was nevertheless interesting.

As I read, I was amused at how humans unfailingly bring drama into our existence. At the altar of Science, many have sacrificed their egos, had their egos bruised, and have propelled or obstructed the flow of Science, but like a river it flows on and hopefully propels our understanding forward, not always cognizant of the applications of Science (One of my favorite sayings of Ursula K Le Guin:

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow).

After the monumental setbacks and roadblocks along the way, it is a satisfying end to the book that the experiment finally paid off. Twice, it detected Gravitational waves as they passed through the Earth from the collision of two massive black holes millions of light years away.

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(Image tweeted by @LIGO)

We do not yet know how this will change our understanding of the Universe, and its applications, but we can be rest assured that both are underway. We have come a long way from the Sun God riding the sky every morning on his chariot, though I am reading a fascinating book on this very myth at the moment.

Human-beings are philosophers and tinkerers at the very core, are we not?

Also read: Cranes of Hope (Essay of the Value of Science by Richard Feynman with A Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr).