The Joys of Walking

There are places where walking is no longer allowed. Especially in densely populated areas where the coronavirus is raging and ravaging the population. Talking to my parents the other day, the father sounded strangely dull. A little prodding revealed that the evening walk was cut from his list of allowed activities for a few days, and I felt keenly for him. I, like him, enjoy nothing more than tying my hands behind my back (unladylike as my mother often said when I was growing up), and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the air around me. Often, I don’t remember where all my mind has wandered during these walks, but I always come back strangely uplifted, the day’s conundrums a little clearer, and life’s perspectives a wee bit sharper.

I sympathized with the father and told him that all we could do was to make the best of the situation. For instance, I told him,  I had not enjoyed tea in my backyard for all this time. My work spot is a good 50 miles away from where I live, and I spent many an hour getting to and from work. Silently sipping my tea in the backyard before the day at work began the other day, I felt strangely grateful for this time – the time that I would ordinarily have been rattling to work on a crowded train. But that morning as I sat under the cypress trees, watching the sycamore sway in the breeze outside, I slowly raised my head upwards and was dazzled at the most beautiful blue that greeted the eyes.

The father lightened up at this little piece of my day that I shared with him, for he enjoys our backyard too when he visits, and spoke fondly of the squirrels. The squirrels really are admirable as a means of entertainment. They titter, run and make merry all day long in the fruit trees, and before you know it, a pleasurable time has been had by the entertainers and entertained alike. 

Walking makes philosophers of us. How many times have I admired the mallard ducks and the geese for their spirit? All these little creatures that we share the Earth with have to be the most engaging lesson-givers in the world. Squirrels, cats, butterflies, dogs, geese, ducks, and blackbirds – they are all marvelous teachers to the philosopher willing to take in lessons.

We fell into discussing the joys of walking, and he spoke of Thoreau and a number of writers who were known for their musing during their daily walks. We laughed at how some of our best ideas after hours of walking were nothing short of ordinary, while these authors of whom he spoke so highly had truly world-changing ideas at the end of theirs. One day at the end of a long walk, I came back with an epiphany about ducks, I said, and I wasn’t joking. 

ducks

T’was one evening after a nice long walk, I sat by a lake. The waters were clearly more than 20-30 feet in depth, and I remember wondering whether ducks felt any qualms about plunging into waters that deep. Do they examine their toes studying the webbing and decide to swim? Do they stretch their legs knowing it is waddle-worthy? I have watched the ducks hatch their little ducklings countless times in the spring, and watched them teach their young to take to the waters. But how do they know their capabilities? Do they stretch their wings knowing it is intended for flight?  Ducks have to be the most admirable creatures for they adapt to any medium with ease, and seem to enjoy  it. They waddle, swim and fly with ease. 

How about that? 

“Anyway, why don’t you watch what you eat since your daily walks are also cut?” I said taking a large dollop of ice-water and pouring it over his igloo.

The mother came hissing into the phone like a queen bee in-charge of delivering the daily news updates to the BBC at this, and said, “As if! Now, because he is bored, he eats almost continuously from 4-8 p.m!” . We all landed up laughing at this. 

“Must see how these ducks control their diet Appa. But now that I got the chance to observe squirrels, I don’t think they control their diets very much. Munching on fruits all day long, and talking bites out of them and flinging them to the ground without even properly polishing them off!” I said.

And on this note, we said toodle-oo to each other. I continued on a walk grateful that I could indulge in this activity though my mask made me feel sweaty and hot. He went to make himself some coffee to go with his mid-morning snack. We both pondered on life.

A Philosophy of Walking

Star 🌟 Stuff?!

I don’t know if you have tried comet chasing every night for a week. A week in which photographers from the world over posted photographs that suggested a flaming, brilliant torch tearing past our heavens with an urgency that made you realize life was short, our journeys spectacular, and a whole lot of poetic asides.

The husband, the bright matter energy source in the household, if anything, shored up even more bright matter to counteract all the dark matter in the universe. His resolve only wiggled a bit when he saw these brilliant flaming pictures of the comet as though it was an olympic torch blazing through the heavens, when in reality, the comet looked like a Pluto after a good cry. (After the astronomer’s good cry, not Pluto’s!)

The son, kept his running commentary on photons, light years, superclusters, cosmic addresses, and the pair of us dreamt on.

The daughter, pragmatic as ever, squashed The Poetic Outlook like a bug under a hippo’s knee. Some teenagers may find it cool to tag along with their parents on adventures chasing 💫 comets: ours rolled her eyes, and the drag of the eye roll did resemble a comet’s tail.

I’d like to think that I was the calm influence that steered the boat into the cosmic oceans. The husband turned to give me an amused look, the son’s laughing rattled the comet to go back into hiding, and the daughter pulled her coolest teenage look of scorn and said the all-encompassing word, “kook!”.

“You know? I don’t see why people are wasting so much  time with the skies. I mean, if you  do see  the comet, I suppose it is nice and all, but  what’s the point of sitting there for hours on end and trying to find something hurtling through space. Huh-hmm!” she said, her lips thinning just the way her grandmother’s would.  I love it when the mannerisms of her grandmothers slip into her speech in unguarded moments like these, and couldn’t help smiling.

“I  mean – what sort of career is that? And what use is it?!” she cried, clearly asking for it.

The son & I, inferior debate  companions as we are to her sharp tongue, rose up to the occasion.

“Hey  hey hey! Going at the rate we are, scanning the skies may give us an opportunity to find another habitable planet to expand into. The same can be said of all kinds of research – the actual research does not immediately yield results, but every little bit of understanding advances us  a little bit further.”

“Yeah – also we need to know where we are in the universe! Are we in Milky  Way, Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe:  what is our address?” said the son.

Location_of_Earth

Andrew Z. Colvin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The daughter’s tongue could have  sliced an apple in an instant as she rattled off our home address and said, “Why do we need to know huh? I mean, here we are. This is it. Live here, what is all this knowing where-we-are stuff? Waste of time. What is it going to do for us?”

The son & I blanched. You see: the pair of us are dreamers, standing beneath the stars, and endlessly wondering whether we belong to the Lainakea supercluster (is it the same as the Virgo supercluster?)  After the observable universe, then what? What if all the observable universe in inside a massive black hole, and time is only  something in this space? 

“But we are made of star stuff – isn’t that magical? Star stuff!” said the son wistfully.

“Yeah – duck poop is is also star stuff – deal with it!” said the daughter. The son wilted under this argument. The daughter caught sight of my eye looking like an angry comet, and mollified the little poetic fellow. “But duck poop is good star stuff! Heh??!!”

I cannot say the debate went anywhere. It was a disappointing bunch of evenings after all, and the teenager felt it keenly. I mean, when one has posted  to one’s friends that they are going comet gazing, and then come back after hours, having  grazed on half a luna-bar, there is bound to be a dearth of the poetic. 

“You know young lady, I have just the book to cure you of this disappointment.” I said and gave her the book, The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

The illustrations in this book make it an absolute treasure. In the past few days, after a clearly disappointing  comet gazing experience, I found myself gazing at the marvelous pictures in the book instead. 

stuff_of_stars

The 💫 Comet 💫 Life

The past few days have been a flurry of activity with tiny little bursts of stardust and magic spun into the day.

We traipsed home tired, sleepy but triumphant. This was a Sunday morning well spent: we had finally sighted the elusive comet, 💫  Neowise. The previous morning, we had run outside at a similar time, and stood pinching our eyes, squinting at a resplendent Venus and thinking that if you cocked your head to one angle, and yawned loudly enough to get tears in your eyes, you could spot the tail. This technique made for some hilarious moments, but comets don’t seem to care much for sentient beings on some transient planet trying to catch sight of them in the wee hours of their morning, and we had to accept defeat and head home.

The next morning, however, we had managed a grainy sighting of the comet and we were jubilant. When the chocolate drink was gulped, and the little fellow was tucked into bed again, I lay in bed thinking of the comet 💫 . I could not shake the beautiful image from my mind’s eye.

img_8934

To the naked eye, it looked nothing like the images taken by setting one’s camera to a long exposure, but it was there alright. The burning star with a yearning, a lone star shining its torch as it scorched its way by numerous stars treading a path it had set for itself. An unconventional celestial object. Compared to the systemic order of the rest of the universe, there was a object that was definitely unconventional , a trail blazer (get it, get it?) Why an elliptical shape, and why 6800 years?

I went about the days after the comet sighting with a faint gasp in my demeanor. Imagine, as we are holding all these important meetings, combating pandemics, and trying to protest against all things unjust, here was an icy blob just spinning away on its own elliptical. 6800 years before it can peek at us again. Often as I went about my day, I wondered whether there was a possibility of sentient life evolving on comets. Comets and asteroids have been known to be microbe transporters, seeding the possibilities of life as they hurtle through the vast dark emptiness.

Do extremophiles have what it takes to feel?

I mean, if we were to have evolved on a comet rather than a planet, would we have had such success in determining the nature of physics and the laws that holds the cosmos and the universe within which we thrive? How would time be measured on a comet? If rhythms helped us discern music, what would music have been in a comet-ic life? Our own days on Earth are neatly sliced into hours, minutes, and these days blend into weeks, months and years. Before we know it, we have made one full circle around the sun, and the seasons have changed along the way in predictable ways.

But none of that would be true if sentient life such as ours had evolved on a comet instead. There would be no days, no seasons, no predictable cyclical rhythm to our days. The sense of adventure as we drew near other stars and planets would probably fill the time. But time itself may have no more meaning, or much more meaning depending on how one perceived it.

These musings were sources of mild amusement, while life itself marched on with a comforting rhythm down here on Earth – dawns, days, dusks, nights, weeks.

Did the seagulls, deer and ducks think of such things?

Ahh! Comet life!

Comet Chasing * Chocolate Charms

The children have a shared liking for Calvin  & Hobbes. The adorable pair have been the source of many hysterical giggles between the siblings in our home. In the son’s room, there is a cartoon clip of Calvin & Hobbes that seems to tickle both his whimsy and his innate rapture and curiosity of the universe we live in.

calvin-gif

If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they would live a lot differently  ✨- Calvin & Hobbes

A few weeks ago, I was typing out an email with the ounces of concentration I could muster at the end of a 12 meeting day, and I wasn’t exactly thinking  about 💫 comets, stars, pulsars, neutron stars, black holes, and parallel universes, when the little fellow shot into the room bursting about comets. I turned around , and my face probably looked like some of the spreadsheets I was looking at, for the son gave me a pitying look that seemed to indicate, “What good is a day when you haven’t thought of these important things?”

I laughed at the incredulity on his face: Stars, superclusters, muons traveling the speed of light, quirky  quarks are all thriving right beside his world of super-powers for super-heroes, who are incidentally gifted with important sounding superpowers such as gamma-rays and electromagneto-muon-transporters and what-not. 

“Did you  know Halley’s comet is going to come again in 40 years?” said the son still bouncing and glowing from the stash of chocolate chips he has been chipping into while reading his little books on Physics.

img_8953

“Yep! Sounds about right. I was around your age when I saw Halley’s Comet. So once in 76 years means …” and I trailed off.

“What?! You’ve seen Halley’s comet? Aww…..so lucky!” said he, and I had to laugh at his yearning. I did remember the cold nights awaiting the turn at the telescope to catch a grainy sight of the Halley’s comet. I must say that the whole experience felt worth a lot more given the rapture with which he listened to the comet sighting. I seem to remember the hot chocolate provided to the young astronomers more than the telescope and the grainy image itself.

Maybe the universe really did hear his yearnings that day, for within a few weeks, another comet came our way: the Neowise 360 comet sighting was supposedly possible from where we lived. I was so happy for the little fellow. He could barely contain the excitement in his system when his father said at the lunch table that the comet would be visible at 4:30 a.m. He got up and ran upstairs to his room. We were exchanging quizzical glances at this when he tumbled downstairs and said, “Yes! I set the alarm for 4:30 – I cannot wait to see it!”

I had to admit; the young astronomer’s enthusiasm put us to shame. So, for the next few nights, we bundled up and comedically traipsed from location to location in the wee hours of the morning looking for a comet sighting. The clouds were there in one place, some low mountains in another, and then, finally, we managed to find a plain spot in which we caught a grainy sighting.

img_8934

Knowing that we caught a fleeting glimpse of something that is not going to come by to see us for another 6800 years is strangely moving. I have to tell you though, that similar to the Halley’s comet sighting, the hot chocolate after coming back, and the the long tail of wishes accompanying the comet sighting, definitely made the hustle worthwhile. 

That morning, the rest of the comet chasers had no problem falling back to sleep, but I did – the comet had kindled dreams of long ago: dreams born of comet chasing and chocolate charms; dreams woven with the magic of stardust 💫 and comet trails – bright, shiny, sparkling, path-breaking and aspirational.

Bill Watterson was absolutely right: People who spend time looking up at the night sky do live life differently!

 

Shoshin Seeking & Science Writing

Shoshin is a concept dear to me as regular readers know. Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist word for ‘beginner’s mind’, denoting the capacity to bring wonder and open-mindedness to learning anything.

To continue the quest in Shoshin seeking,  I volunteered to take an online writing class with a focus on Science for elementary school children. 

img_1763

The idea for the class was inspired by multiple factors:

(1) A sense of wanting to be useful while doing the socially responsible thing of staying home during the Corona-virus shelter-in-place. 

(2) My brain after years of running around from Place A to Place B found a method to calm down from the frenzied lifestyle that modern man prides himself on (The Virus is a reminder of something lost long ago – an essay by Alan Lightman – a writer and physicist at MIT) 

(3) Combining the marvels of Science and keeping the wonder of Shoshin alive is pretty much what my writing has been about (at least in the past 1/2 a decade). An area of passion that I was happy to share with the children, from whom I learn Shoshin in spades.

(4) A love for children and young minds has me yearning to be like them on multiple levels. I live precariously through this yearning by reading children’s books, squabbling childishly with my own children, and much more.

The result of this was a marvelous month in which I went about reading topics that had long since been pushed to the back of the brain. I wondered as I prepared for the classes, how we wasted those marvelous moments of youth with all these fascinating subjects. I understood as the class went on:  sometimes the children were enthusiastic and wanted to write all about the topic under discussion. Other times, they liked the sound of music-like science lilting in their ears, and they nodded along sagely. The rays of the afternoon sun filtering in through the window made for warm, cozy sessions in which one saw one’s friends on the zoom call, and answered when one felt like being a part of the discussion. This was nothing close to the normal they knew, but they adapted with ease and their customary good sense. All in all, it made for a marvelous time, and with the children happy, so was I, their teacher. 

If post-Covid, some children recall sunny afternoons with thrilling science to a background of their classmates trilling in the background, while taking a leap of imagination, it is time well spent, in my opinion. 

I remember distinct moments when something piqued the children’s attention. The time I told them about giraffes in the savannah, or when we played the little game of hearing frequencies, or when we spun off pretending to be whales using sonographic techniques to unearth something really unexpected.

I am going to sign up for another 4 week session in which I hope to have as much fun, learn as much and enjoy the companionship of younger authors, who are by  virtue of their youth also leaps ahead in imagination and spirits.  Wish me luck!

The Glimmer of Hope

I sat in my backyard reading on a hot Saturday afternoon. It was the 4th of July week-end, and I had pages to go before I slept. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, I resolved to read more about the life of minorities, racism, civil disobedience and much more. The son & I had painstakingly collated a list after reading several lists online, suggestions from friends, teachers, colleagues, and the companies we worked for. If there are any other recommendations, please let me know in the comments section. (Thank you 😊 )

  • Becoming – by  Michelle Obama
  • Civil Disobedience – by Henry  David Thoreau
  • Sneetches and other Stories – By  Dr Seuss
  • A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela – Abridged by Chris Van Wyk
  • Black Panther – by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • XVIII – 13th Netflix Documentary
  • Hidden Figures movie

img_8883

While I sat reading, there was a faint niggling guilt to the apparent normalcy of it all. Was it alright to be sitting calmly and reading in one’s backyard while the world around us was still reeling?  

I read as the sun overhead appeared to move towards the west, and finally got up to take a long walk. If anything, I had several things to think about in the book. There was a section in the book where she writes about failure being a feeling that sets in long before failure itself does. She writes about this in the context of the South Side in Chicago, and how the ghetto label slowly portended its decline long before it did. Families fled the place in search of upwardly mobile suburbs, the neighborhood changed in small, but perceptible ways at first, and then at an accelerated pace. Doubt is a potent potion, and when fed in small portions can quickly shadow everything.

The limitations of dreams are seeds planted in our sub-conscious slowly and surely so that we may fulfill what society thinks we ought to do, no more and no less. Minorities the world over know the feeling well enough.

Trevor Noah, in his book, Born a Crime, writes about the ability to dream being limited to what a person knows. If all people know is the ghetto, they can truly not think beyond that.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” – Trevor Noah – Born a Crime

The largest section of population to know these limitations must be women.

In the Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes in her very first introductory chapter, “All we need to uplift women is to stop pulling them down.” 

It was, therefore, in sombre mood that I set out for the walk, little knowing that Serendipity, that most mysterious of forces will work its magic by the end of the night. 

I walked on taking in the setting sun at a fast pace. My mask hoisted on the face was sweaty, and every now and then on the trail when there weren’t people nearby, I slipped it down to take a deep breath of the summer air. I was walking by the waterside, and slowly  feeling the calm strength of the waters. My thoughts were slowly lifting as the sun was setting, and the full moon rose in the opposite direction. Out in the distance, the sound of Fourth of July fireworks was providing an orchestra of sorts to the accompanying bird sounds, and the sound of water sloshing gently against the shores of the lake. 

img_20200407_195324-effects

“Bring the kids – sunset and moonrise marvelous and fireworks everywhere!” I texted the husband, and off we went in the approximate direction of the fireworks. We parked on a side road to take in the revels of the night. To stand there with the full moon behind us, and an array  of fireworks going off in front of us in a largely residential neighborhood was marvelous. 

Later, as we drove on, we listened to songs chosen with a special regard to the 4th of July. The children had aced the  list, and we drove on through the moonlight, lilting and dancing to the tunes.

“Behind the Clouds, the sun is shi—ii—ning. “ – What has to be one of our favorite Disney songs rent the car as we pulled into the garage. 

As I read the final section of Michelle Obama’s Becoming later that night, I found the audacity of hope (pun intended) stirring and this too felt different; worth examining. Politics is a dirty game, but Barack &  Michelle Obama had shown us what was possible. Dare we hope?  

P.S: I was blissfully unaware of (yet another) divisive speech by Donald Trump, and the announcement of Kanye West to run for President that night. I like to hold on to that glimmer of hope that permeated my heart as 4th of July ticked on steadily into the 5th of July.

Maybe hopes can translate to positive outcomes long  before they  happen.

 

Becoming – What a Title!

One would think that a book written by the former First  Lady  of the United States would not be relatable to a middle class couple living all the way in California. Not to mention that the husband and I hail from India from very middle-class  backgrounds. And  yet, that is the beauty  of the human condition I suppose, for I felt many places in the book where I could nod along and think, “Lord! How often I have felt that way!” 

becoming

The need to question whether one is good enough, and wanting  to over-achieve believing that to be the only antidote to counter that feeling of not belonging for instance. The keen angst of youth as you overcome every  small and large bump along the way is so beautifully written.

Or the very real struggles of raising children while holding down a full-time job and constantly feeling a bandwidth issue; tugged at by the veneer of the formerly ambitious career-oriented young woman who is now slightly at odds wondering why the career years, child-bearing and rearing years, all coincide in one large tug and pull. To read that sentiment written by a former first lady is both marvelous and what makes our country great.

Or the place where she writes about her young husband and his eternal optimism. I can so readily identify with that. While it is the wind of the husband’s optimism that sets our boat to sail, it is the cause of many veering off-courses as well. For instance, I laughed out loud and read out the following paragraph to the children who chuckled and said, “Appa!”

Becoming – By  Michelle Obama

“On my way, I was learning, was he product of Barack’s eternal optimism, and indication of his eagerness to be home that did nothing to signify when he would actually arrive. Almost home was not a geo-locator but rather a state of mind. Sometimes he was on his way but needed to stop in to have one last forty-five minute conversation with a colleague before he got into the car.”

The children all laughed out loud at this, and the husband grinned sheepishly for there have been countless times when the good man has been so caught  up in whatever  he is doing, or talking to one colleague who caught him on the way out, that he lost track of time. It is now a well worn thread in our household. The good natured ribbing has taken multiple paths- “We know you are almost here Appa, and we believe  you, but when does Google say you will get here?”

Michelle Obama’s keen intellect, solid grounding, and sturdy family values shine through in her writing. 

There are passages that bring across the feeling of being African American in Chicago’s Southside that made me want to read these places again. I am sure there are plenty of good books dealing with these aspects of life in the United States. She writes about her husband – portraying him in a pragmatic human light (but again, after the 45th President, the 44th President  with his middle class upbringing, scholarly attitude, and high sense of integrity seems like a dream.) 

The book makes us realize that greatness while destined for some, the need to be motivated, live the best possible lives we can, while holding true to our intellectual and moral integrity, is something we can all choose for ourselves. 

Of course, the identify-with portions of the book ended with Becoming Me, and Becoming Us sections of the book. The final section of the Becoming More is something that only 45 families can relate to: Life in one of the world’s most famous addresses, The White House. Where life has parts of fairy-tale, power, ambition, noble intentions, inspirations, horror story, emotional wringing, the ugly and beautiful humanity of it all.

What a marvelous title : Becoming.

It captures the time-space continuum, and life’s journeys in one word. 

Unrelated, but also a good read: Ta Nehisi Coates essay: here