School in Covid Times

The week has been a blur. The son bounced into lunch the other day, and said, “Do you have a meeting at 12:30?”

Seeing us shake our heads, he said, “Yes! Finally I have a zoom meeting at 12:30! Gosh – it is so good to have something to do again, right? I mean, I was always the vetti one.” (vetti in this context means jobless one)

I love it when Tamil words and phrases creep into their conversations like this, and I said so. The children scoffed. “Oh stop already with this know-more-than-English thing. Indian people are so annoying!” 

“Well, I know my Chinese friends speak Mandarin at home, and go to Mandarin classes. My friends and colleagues from Russia have their kids learn a smattering of Russian. So …” I said shrugging my shoulders. 

The children exchanged glances that said “Parents will be parents! Let it go!”, and I smiled.

School has reopened in completely virtual mode, and the children have been thrilled. I feel bad that the usual back-to-school euphoria is muted with zoom calls, and not the raucous meeting of friends after a long summer ritual. The children felt it too. 

“I would have liked to meet my friends and the classroom amma. I mean, now, it is like looking at our pictures instead of us – you know the people?”

I laughed at the description, for it was true. The e-world has managed to make two dimensional beings out of us. Entire personalities squashed into a grid on the screen. 

On the second day of school, he spent the minutes prior to the zoom call getting things ready for the day: A Dr Seuss book, one of his comic book creations (with illustrations of superheroes fighting valiant battles with super magnetic force-fields against a turbulent tornado crusher etc), an Avengers action figure, his microscope and binoculars.

I looked amused at this collection of objects laid out by his computer. He saw me looking at these and said, “Oh! The teacher said she wants us to know each other better. So, I am looking for things that best describe what I like to do.”

I gave him a huge smile and thumbs up and awaited the news at lunch time. Say what you will about the Covid-situation, I am grateful to be home when school is done. It is a luxury I have seldom had, and the outpouring of chatter when they let out has been marvelous for me. My own batteries are not drained by a meaningless commute eating into my day, and I am more receptive to what they have to say.

“You know how we were supposed to get to know each other and bring stuff that represents us?! One fellow brings a football, because he likes football, and then he brings a basketball because he likes basketball, and then points to his shirt – a baseball shirt since he likes baseball. Really – you like Sports, we get it!” he said and looking at the smile on his face as he said it, I could see he already liked this fellow.

“I heard what you told your teacher! Really kid?! Sour patch candies and Pirates Booty?!” said the teenage older and supposedly-wiser daughter.

There was a train of giggles at this and the fellow gurgled on about how his teacher asked him if he knew more than 1 language and told him to practice speaking Tamil at home, so he doesn’t forget it. The words of wisdom coming from a teacher’s mouth meant that he took it to heart, and I could see him sprinkling in a couple of words here and there. 

I spoke to my school teacher-parents later that day and told them how their teacher had tried different things to get to know them, and my father said, “Poor  teachers and students ma! Most dedicated teachers come to the profession because of the joy of being surrounded by young people: their energy and personalities are truly a joy to be with. To have that replaced by a series of zoom meetings seems so sad! It will be okay soon. Don’t worry da kanna – you will get to see your school mates soon okay?” the grandfather’s voice boomed over the oceans like a foghorn of wisdom to his grandson, and he smiled and said, “Thanks Thaatha! So, when are you coming here?”

Well, in the words of Miss Read:

“Life went on. No matter what happened, life went on … But somehow, in this continuity, there were the seeds of comfort.” 
― Miss Read, Emily Davis

While I sincerely hope the children’s social aspects are not unduly affected by social distancing, I am grateful for what interactions they do get. While I have my gripes about technology, I am also grateful for it.

Life is full of paradoxes and that is as it should be.

Weather Monsters

“Have you gotten your bags ready?” my friends’ voices piped over the phone. 

“Uh – not yet. Got a bag down from the loft – will get to it.” I said shuffling my feet as I said so.

“Well..what are you doing now?”

“Writing about the weather over the past week.” I said somewhat sheepishly, and a loud laughter emanated from the other side. 

We toodled off with the sentiment of “Well Nero fiddled, I write!” but I am not going to lie. I was rattled, and went off to pack the emergency kit. The wildfires were too close for comfort – the air has been thick with smoke.

Exactly a week ago:

The days had been stifling in the heat wave that gripped the land. Oppressive waves rose from the shimmering hills nearby, and the eyes squinted for respite after the briefest strays outside. Some evenings had a splattering of clouds giving rise to splendid sunsets, and while I swooned my way through the evening walk, I yearned for a bit of rain, if nothing but to smell the parched sizzling earth cooling off a little bit. 

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I may have wished too soon.

For the very next day, I was looking at the most improbable of sights. I had set a whimsical alarm to rouse me at 5:30 a.m on that Sunday rearing for a hike before the sun started beating down on us. 

While I am always crooning about Nature and talking about it being the greatest soother of all time and all that, I often forget nature’s fury. I live in California where we pay a weather-tax. For the most part, the weather conditions are soothing, flowers bloom the year around, and though I yearn for more rains, it is a mellow nature that greets me most days. But that morning, I listened astounded as thunder rumbled overhead and the noise penetrated the double-paned windows, and then in the darkness the whole house stood illumined for a few seconds. I glanced unwittingly towards the sleeping children, and I stood awed.

We have easily gone more than two decades without thunder and lightning storms of this magnitude in this area. What was going on? 

I whispered to the husband – “Wow! Rain was not even in the weather forecast huh?” and stood mesmerized by the window wondering whether a walk was still on the cards if not a hike.

The husband looked at me and said, “Are you nuts?! Who goes out in this weather? Hiking at that. Nothing doing – if this is you wanting to watch the rain, pull up a chair and sit by the window!”, and he went right back to bed.

So, I did just that – I woke the son and showed him the lightning and the rain pelting down. It made for a magical morning, but I hadn’t completely realized the harm a storm of this magnitude can unleash on an already dry and parched Earth. In under 6 hours, there were more than 10,000 flashes of lightning starting over 300 fires that continue to rage across the Bay Area.

Time Lapse based off Satellite images of the Lightning strikes and subsequent fires in the area.

In just a few days we had experienced everything from heat waves to lightning and thunder storms – all in the midst of a pandemic no less. The air quality deteriorated significantly as the fires raged and fire fighters poured in from everywhere to contain the fires. 🔥 The sheer magnitude of the fires 🔥 they were dealing with had simple folk like me blanching, but these teams had strategy and they were working tirelessly. The tenacity for a job like that! 

In our skies, an angry sun shone through when it could through the smog.

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One week later:

Wildfires continue to rage over thousands of acres of land. Beloved forests and mountains ranges that have provided solace and comfort to millions of people over the years have been lost to the fires. My heart caught at the news that Big Basin Redwoods were damaged badly. Though redwood trees are supposed to be extraordinarily resilient to fires  and would probably make it past these fires, I grieved. Every time I visited these forests, I have come back not just refreshed, but spiritually in a better place as have thousands of tree huggers over the years. A true space for forest bathing or shinrin yoku as the Japanese call it.

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It has been a week since the lightning strikes. 1 week in which more than 60,000 acres of land have been burnt, with ominous statistics of 5% fire contained, fire alerts etc.

California Redwoods 

2020 seems to be determined to make its mark.




 

Turmeric Magic

I felt a surge of amusement when I made cauliflower last time. The grocery lists needed love, and the results were showing.

“Yay Cauliflower!” yipped the young son, beaming like the early rising golden moon at this wonderful treat. Moments later, the moon face drifted under the clouds and his face looked disappointed as he looked at the pale muck of a curry that had been ladled onto this plate. “This isn’t Cauliflower curry! Isn’t it usually golden?” he said.

“Yeah ma – this one looks so pale. Like it needs some Vit D or something – should I take it for a walk in the sun?” said the daughter.  

I laughed at their reaction. Running a home can be tricky business in the best of times. My grocery lists are not things one writes home about even then (newspaper articles maybe but not to one’s mothers). In Covid times, I beam when we get by with everyone fed at reasonable times. Of course, this means I had to throw 2 tantrums since nicely asking did not seem to work. (I know!)

  1. Tantrum#1: 
    1. Venue:  work
    2. Subject: No meetings between 12:30 & 1:15! 
    3. Result: Sheesh kebabs reactions but people finding ways to accommodate this unreasonable ask
  2. Tantrum #2:
    1. Venue: home
    2. Subject: All people requiring daily sustenance will come to eat between 12:30 & 1:15!
    3. Result: Jeez-whats-with-her flavored eye rolls, followed by expressions as if indulging the local idiot 

Anyway, what happened was that we had run out of turmeric powder. As any decent south-indian cook will tell you, this simplest of spices is a must in almost everything that makes its way to a stove-top. It was only when one does not have the little sprinkling does one realize the joy and gaiety in the dishes thanks to it. It is like a drop of sunshine in the blobs of goo, and the children picked up on that. 

For the next few days, I quietly turned up more discolored dishes. The jokes became more raucous. Even the taste seemed altered. It is curious how tuned our sensory systems worked: taste seemed better if we liked how they looked, they even smelled more appetizing when they looked that scintillating yellow. Seeing that the world seemed a less vibrant place sans turmeric, the husband quietly made a special grocery run after the third day of discolored dishes. 

That day, I felt like a particularly gifted potion maker working her magic with the spices:

“…The beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…” – Professor Severus Snape – Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.

I am glad to say that the folks seated around the table glowed from the rays of the yellow mellow sun at this meal.

“Wow! Everything is golden and sunny again!”

“Yep! Appa got turmeric at the grocery store!” I said, and the children cackled.

“Who’d have thought we would miss turmeric?” said the daughter. 

“Well Marco Polo certainly did!” I said. “The world was altered thanks to turmeric, pepper and ginger! So, I suppose it is okay to miss it.” I could see the little titbit had their interests piqued, and they listened in spite of themselves. 

The Travels of Marco Polo

“Many explorers started out in the medieval ages trying to find newer and better routes to the Indian subcontinent for spices. Marco Polo attempted an exploration that lasted almost 24 years . He made his way from Venice in Italy through the Mediterranean seas, past the harsh climates of the deserts in the middle east and the Himalayas in the north and north-east, as he went on past modern-day Tibet all the way to the Gobi Desert in China. His travels along the silk road were published in 1298 and are still sought after – The Travels of Marco Polo! “

“I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed”
― Marco Polo, on his deathbed

“So, you see – It is probable that this brave explorer in search of turmeric, pepper and other spices, altered world history and our grocery lists forever!” I said. 

The discussion then turned to European explorers setting out to find new routes to the Indian subcontinent, silk roads and trade routes. The history of the world, and how we have always been more interconnected on this planet than we realize, is fascinating.

The golden dishes took on an extra flavor with the story of the spices, and I sat back contented and grateful for a good meal in these times of the pandemic.

The Grapes of Wrath

We were driving through the countrysides of rural America. Vast landscapes stretched on all sides reminding us once again of the beautiful and vast nature of this country. The countryside baked in the hot Californian sun as we made our northward. We drove past fields and small towns that reminded me of the areas featured in the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in more ways than one.

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The Grapes of Wrath evoked a sense of economic ruin, human struggles, and the helplessness of it all. I walked around for weeks pulled down by the plight of the millions of Joad families who had to survive post the Great Depression. 

You see, I was prepared to see a certain level of isolation. Covid-19 has changed the landscape unimaginably with the service sector and the retailing industry in hiatus. What I was not prepared for, was the eerie and pervasive shadow of desolation and ruin. The divide between the haves and have-nots a deep chasm yawning wide and deep. 

https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/employment-by-industry-1910-and-2015.htm

The husband and I were in a somber mood as we made our way back, and fell to discussing the nature of work and how it is has changed so drastically in the past century. Just under a century ago, there was a good percentage of the population working farming jobs, then factory jobs. So, there still was a dream for a middle-class life – a life that promised reasonably good education for the children, relatively good health care, a decent home, and food on the table. It seemed the only jobs left for people to work in these small towns were in the service sector or the retail industry. With both these sectors impacted so heavily with Covid-19, it was a terrifying sight. 

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

If the elections bring the current president to power again, he will find a way to make things much worse – maybe even go to the extent of inciting riots and civil unrest. If another president takes the reins, I do not envy the poor president-elect – what a mess to unravel and what a huge responsibility to the citizens. 

How would the world get back on its feet? 

“But how on earth is the stock market holding up?” I asked, for wasn’t that supposed to be an indicator of the economic conditions on the ground?

There – right there, is what is called a mystery. Anthropologically, mankind has been through worse survived more, but there is no doubt about it  – we have rough times ahead of us post-corona. As children, when we sang the hymns in our school, we liked some, loved the lyrics of others, and some stayed on with us through the ages. The first song that came to me that day was this one:

“We shall overcome .. We shall overcome…We shall overcome…Some day….”

After all:

“Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create – this is man.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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The Boat of Life

Driving through the Pacific North Western coast can be lovely. Even though the vast areas around us shimmered in the heat, we were upbeat inside the car- the Umpqua river was keeping us company on the drive. Umpqua river – What a river! What a name! It was beautiful as the roads snaked and curved and we never once knew on which side the river would emerge. 

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Looking at people trying to get their canoe afloat on the river that afternoon reminded me of Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome again, and I resolved to read it again soon. With Covid rampant everywhere, the world around us seemed more muted, but the river seemed to assure with its little gurgles, eddies, swirls, and bubbles that life will go on. This too shall pass and any number of things we tell ourselves when in need of lifting our spirits. 

The truth is that Californian summers in the Bay Area can mean slim pickings with vibrant rivers. The Oregon coast was different – the Umpqua river was full, mature with the strength of the waters from the melting snows of the Cascades and we were driving right alongside its path as it made its way into the Pacific Ocean. 

As the road rose over the ridge carrying us over the valley of the Umpqua, the mists gradually rolled in signaling one thing –  we were nearing the oceanfront!  The trees were towering over us, and my spirits rose on that mist-filled afternoon.

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“The hills are alive with the sound of music! “

I bleated along as we drove through the hills, and the children exchanged a look that confirmed their worst suspicions. Their Mother Nature was with them. And with this Mother Nature in attendance, there would be no dawdling and letting things be. This would mean hiking and looking at things, and singing along. Sure enough, I ended my bleat on a howling note with great pride and turned around to see the cubs splitting with laughter. I coaxed and under the threat of more of my own singing, they relented.

Pretty soon, there we were, playing a weird version of Antakshari – we took a word or theme of the last few words we sang and started off the next one. Sometimes, the sentiment was enough. We were off trying to coax musical notes from made-up lyrics, singing with mesmerizingly accurate actions to our imaginary orchestra, and completely off-tune. 

“The wind never bothered me anyway….Let it go! Let it go! “  I said drawing in a wisp of the wind by lowering the window,

The daughter piped up from behind:

“The cold never bothered me anyway…”

“What?”

“It’s not the ‘wind’, it’s the ‘cold’.” Said the daughter and I said, “Yes dear – that’s what I meant. “

“MA! You can’t just change up words when you are singing them and say that is what I meant! ”

The husband and daughter are wizards at memorizing the lyrics. Yours truly, on the other note, is only magical when it comes to making up nonsense to fill in the tunes. 

“Yes you can! I sang nonsense to you kids all the time when you were babies!” I said

“Yep! Yay! And see how well that worked out!” said the daughter – sarcasm dripping from her voice, and we all burst into laughter. Say what you might, it seemed a perfect philosophy for a lovely life given all our little imperfections.

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

I feel like I must say something witty about boats of life, and how it is the very thing that could turn into your life-boat, etc, but the lyrics elude me at the moment. Stay tuned – for you never know when inspiration will strike.

The Kaleidoscope of Life on Earth 🌏

“Hmm…how Covid has changed things right Amma?” said the daughter when I walked into her room one day, and spotted ‘Greece’ sprawled across the whiteboard. She has been spending her summer making minor changes to the decorations in her room. As most teens do, she has a fond attraction to her room, and one day I found her looking at the pictures she had printed out to make a sort of picture collage. Her teenage eye-roll and monosyllabic answers fell away as soon as I showed an interest in the choice of pictures she had laid out on the floor arranging and rearranging them to see the best patterns.

How do you see the best patterns in a kaleidoscope? Everything seems beautiful, everything seems fine, and yet the artistic piece of her fussed with the layout and order of the pictures. There were pictures of happy people, little cafes, books, beaches, forests, city lights, quotations, rainbows, flowers, and small towns. The collage was eclectic enough to interest me. She gurgled and burst forth with the thought that went into them. I listened amused. 

By then, her excited voice had attracted her little brother and fond father into the room. Her brother painstakingly wrote ‘Mars’ below ‘Greece’.

“Mars! Seriously dude- next thing we know you will be lugging us into black holes and having us all burst into all the tiny starry bits like your Avengers or Star Wars superhero dudes in their adventures! No! No space travel!”

“Just yet”. I added and she gave me a look that indicated that this idiocy with space is because I indulge him with this stuff. I laughed out loud, and the children joined in too.

“And while we are at it,  no fictional or mythical places either. Only places that we can locate on a known map of the world.”

“Sheesh – she is so strict!” said the young explorer of the cosmos.

Travel_dreams

Cautiously, like deer in a prairie, we approached the topic of places we’d like to visit, ready to scurry back to Covid restrictions. Slowly, the name scrawled on a whiteboard set the stage. In the safe company of just the four of us, it felt good to take a peek into travel dreams again. It was done at first soberly – how happily we had taken international travel for granted? How happily we had taken good health for granted? Disconcerting as the Covid situation has been, it has also made us sit up and take notice of the beautiful things surrounding us on Earth. 

Once we started talking of lands beyond our day-to-day, a different energy gripped the room. Within moments, distances melted away, and the globe-trotters threw names on the board with no thought to distance or expense. Exactly how dreams should be.

Looking at the list on the board reminded us, however, that our lifetimes were not enough for this sort of ambition. How does one fit in a hike in the Himalayas for a zen feel, with a sort of Darwin-esque trip to the Galapagos? How can one fit the journey of civilization in Greece and Peru, to the pure sounds of nature as yet untouched by mankind? I suppose travel still has a lot to teach us, and post-covid, the world will start to cautiously explore once more.

We started, therefore, with a couple of day trips taken mostly on a week-day taken off from work, so we could avoid crowds. We looked for wide trails on which to get our dose of nature and exercise in. While for the first time thinking of a 2-3 day trip, we looked for godforsaken places. Places people do not usually go to for a vacation. But the house was a good one, pitched atop a hill with the nearest neighbor miles away. There was a  Jane Austen-esque feel to the whole thing. It reminded me of the poem by Wendell Berry: The Beauty of Wild Things.

On Being: The Beauty of Wild Things – By Wendell Berry

I set about the evening meal after the long drive there, while the children ran to find board games to be played that night. I cradled a cup of tea in my hands, as I set the water to boil, and rummaged the contents I had packed with me so as to minimize exposure to the outside world.  Slowly, the kitchen’s essence wafted around the room – smells, heat, textures all dancing together in an exquisite symphony of the senses. A symphony was playing as I cooked, and talked to the children. Here was a lively room packed with energy, activity, witty comments, and chaos that strangely translates to calm.

Inside this house overlooking a river valley, I felt the kaleidoscope of our life on Earth lap at me in waves. Watching the objects in the room around me evoked a strange sense of living  on this earth: the telescope, the books ,the music, the keyboard that promises the best music to those willing to invest in it, the creature comforts of a well-built house with the furnishings about us, the deer grazing in the hillside by us, the beautiful moon, the thousands of stars visible because of the distance from populated areas.

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The Peace of Wild Things: By Wendell Berry

I come into the peace of wild things

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

The daughter’s pictures had indeed done a good job of capturing life on earth.

Why Is My Hair Curly?

I remember reading Lakshmi Iyer’s blog many years ago, and even then found her narrative style very interesting. The way she weaved emotions, surroundings, objects and people together makes it all seem so simple. But as a writer, I know just how difficult it is to evoke this combination of feelings in a reader.

Then, given the attention spans on the internet, I lost touch with her blog, but I was so glad to find her writing again 5 years ago. By now, she was living a marvelous story.

I have a valued colleague who has a laptop sticker that says: “Live a great story!” and I love it.

Lakshmi seemed to be doing just that – she was raising her adopted twin girls and a biological girl. Her attitude and mindset have always awed me – given humanity’s preoccupation with skin color, here she was parenting white twins and her own brown child with aplomb and apparent ease.

Every time I read one of her posts, I come away soaking in a bit of wisdom, reveling in the ordinary struggles of womanhood and finding grace in the exceptional ways in which we can handle our journey.

Therefore, when I read her book, Why Is My  Hair Curly?, is up for publishing, I waited for it.

whyismyhaircurly

I know the book was out a few weeks ago, but I only write about it now, for I found her book was one of those few ones that linger on in your consciousness days after you’ve read them. I found myself thinking of Avantika when I least expected it: the sweet, emotionally mature Avantika and her resolution and acceptance of her hair.

My review on Amazon here:

Lakshmi Iyer has taken a premise that never really gets old (girls and hair troubles), and has managed to spin a delightful tale. The  story deals with important themes such as  inter-religious marriages, family relationships, adoption, sibling love and much  more. What’s more? She does this without being the least bit preachy.

I was also secretly happy to find a book in which Tamizh words crept into the narrative enhancing the read. My young son really liked reading ‘Thaatha, paati, kanna’ etc – words that are used in his everyday parlance, but rarely visible in children’s literature.

The Indian version of Anne of Green Gables is truly marvelous.