The Secret of the Wings

So many days in the past few weeks, I have tried desperately to snatch a moment here, and a moment there, in the midst of hectic, crowding days of meetings, expectations and deadlines. Sometimes, I peek out of the window in the precious moments between ‘Leave meeting’ and ‘Join meeting’ to catch a glimpse of the beautiful November days with its soft sunshine through the yellowing leaves, each leaf 🍁🍃🍂 taking its chance to show its beauty to the world in a grand flourish before it lets go. The evenings are dark by the time the little tiles on my meetings are gone, and I clutch my coat about me as I stare at the tiny ✨ dots lighting up the night sky instead. 

So, we went:  before the crowds hit the mountain resort for the Thanksgiving holidays, the husband worked his magic and found us a little house that was free for a couple of days only. 

All of the Californian plains that we traversed for the 100 odd miles was bursting forth with fall colors. The reds were particularly fetching against the browning hills. Traffic was very light, and as we started climbing the Sierra Nevada mountains, a nippiness crept into the air. It is the lunar waxing phase, and the moon was out early in the afternoon keeping us company as we climbed the mountains. The fall colors gave way to the snowy reaches, and soon, it was apparent that here, it was no longer Fall. Here it was Winter.

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The journey reminded me of the scene in the Tinker Bell movie where the warm fairies peek into the winter lands. The orange, yellow and the brilliant reds slowly gave way to evergreens and a world blanketed in snow. There is nothing half as marvelous as a sunny day with wispy clouds against the azure skies and a snowy backdrop. This was winter wonderland alright. 

Mulish as I was, I took off on a walk as soon as we reached our destination. I huffed and puffed up the steep hills, my lack of exercise clearly showing in the panting under the mask. I was grateful for the mask for it held the warmth of my breath in as I walked on towards the snowy reaches affording a view of the vast Lake Tahoe from up above. The moon twinkled its milky light on the snowy  reaches below, and I stopped here and there to take a picture. I remembered reading in The Sea Around Us that some of our ancestors thought the moon was made up of ice (it was a much older notion of course). It was an appealing theory – standing there in the light of the moon, with the thin glint of the snow light all about me, I could imagine how our ancestors came up with that one. 

I like to see how we made leaps in understanding, and I feel the joy of every discovery almost anew as I gain even a little understanding deeper than before. One of the things that still astounds me is the spatial intelligence required to figure out our position in the cosmos. I watch the constellations change their positions in the sky every night, I notice the moon at a different place and time, and yet, every time, I marvel at the leap of understanding for mankind. 

Read: The Man Who Deciphered the Heavens – a post on Nicholas Copernicus

That evening, the movie of choice was Tinker Bell’s Secret of the Wings. The daughter and the son overruled all the action packed thrillers suggested by the hardworking man who found us the cabin in the first place, and we settled in to watch the feisty fairy instead. Tinker Bell, the impulsive little thing that she is, is curious to see what the winter wonderland is like. Since the fairies of the warm lands are banned from going over to the winter side, of course she wants to go. It only seemed fitting to sit and watch the little movie together. 

Closeted in what looked like an adventurer’s cabin, with the soft light of the snow reflecting against the moonlight outside, a fun movie, and the warmth of food and beverage created the magic that Tinker Bell and her friends were creating up in Pixie Hollow. The pixie dust swirled and poured out in to the world, and we did the same with our comments. 

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We sought peace in the less popular trails. It was a trip meant to process the year, and say thanks to the world in spite of all that has happened during the year, or because of all that has happened during the year. I feel most like Anne of Green Gables when she says she does not know how to pray, but when out in the woods, looking up at the great gifts of nature, she can just feel a prayer and let it out into the universe. 

Isn’t it magical when our most positive thoughts take on wings and soar?

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“I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer. …” Anne of Green Gables, By L M Montgomery

A Medley of Hope

When I started reading to the children in my son’s elementary school classroom, I was a little worried. I could see the little tiles in the zoom classroom when I explained the theme I had planned out for that morning. I had planned Poetry and paired a fiction book by Dr Seuss with a non-fiction memoir by Margarita Engle.

My brain was doing a quick ‘Maybe’ check in the background: Maybe this was too much for them. Maybe I should have gone with a simpler theme. Maybe I should keep it simple and just switch to a sweet little book that everyone would feel comfortable and cosy with. I could’ve switched, but then I remembered the words of wisdom by E.B.White

Never write down to children – E.B. White 

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

More sound advice I have never heard in my life, for the children settled into the themes even if it was a little heavy going before the Thanksgiving holidays for them. 

I had chosen a book by Dr Seuss, The Butter Battle Book. The book is a brilliant satire of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Dr Seuss’ brilliance was in full display. The book is about Yooks and Zooks: The Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down. This leads to escalating differences and a long curvy wall is built between the two lands.

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Soon, both sides start fighting by using weapons of increasing grandeur and magnitude starting from the Tough Tufted Prickly Snickle Berry Snitch to the Eight Nozzled Elephant Toted Boom Blitz. The book finishes with the Yooks and Zooks sitting on either side of a wall threatening to drop the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, signifying the nuclear threat.

We discussed the long years of Cold War and how it was a true lesson in diplomacy that the two countries managed to keep from blowing us all up together. From there, we moved on to  the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then switched to the memoir, Enchanted Air, by Margarita Engle.

The author’s maternal side hails from Cuba, while her paternal side fled from the Ukraine – then a part of the USSR.

Dancing Plants of Cuba

In California, all the trees and shrubs

standstill, but on the island, coconut palms

and angel’s trumpet flowers,

love to move around,

dancing.

..

Maybe I will be a scientist someday

studying the dancing plants of Cuba

Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.

Two countries

Two families

Two sets of words.

Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond.

Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.

In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:

Apparently, the length 

of a grown-up’s

growing up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration 

and escape.

In the poem October 1962, she writes about the standstill known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Grim news

Chilling news

Terrifying

Horrifying

Deadly.

US spy planes have photographed

Soviet Russian nuclear weapons

In Cuba.

Hate talk.

War talk.

Sorrow.

Rage.

The children looked sober and serious at the quiet tone of the poem. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. When asked for their opinions, they shared prescient observations, and looked stricken. I moved on quickly to the poem, Hope, that is the last poem in the book.

Hope

An almost war 

can’t last forever.

Someday, surely, I’ll be free

To return to the island of all childhood 

dreams.

Magical travel, back and forth.

It will happen.

When?

“By Jan 2015, independently announced by both countries, Cuba & USA restored  relations . ” I said to the class.

There was a palpable air of relief in the room. The children cheered while their proud teacher beamed at them. The questions that followed left no doubt in my mind about how well the children had perceived the stories. The more I heard them discussing how important it was to patch up between human-beings, the more I felt comfortable in future diplomacy. 

If only children could help counsel us, we would be far wiser.

November Gifts

When the colder regions of the United States start rejoicing in the beautiful colors of Fall in October, California is still reeling with hot summers’ last gasp. Wildfires, and heat waves sound alarms of summer fading out. We are almost there, we pant to each other, as the withered flowers cling to their stems, and dust settles adamantly on cars and rooftops. Parched rivers, dried up lakes and dusty trails with wildfire warnings are the norm. Then suddenly, as though, there is a secret message that Halloweens cannot be during a hot spree, the days become nippier in the evening.

Elsewhere in the colder regions of the United States, it is the Octobers that are splendid, but for us here in the Bay area in California, November is the month of brilliant fall colors. A splendid sight that I had not fully seen in my initial years – in the unseeing way in which I rushed from one spot to another, in the unending rush to and from my job. Post the autumnal equinox, the sunsets became a rarity as it would be dark by the time I left the office and got out of the train. But over the years, I have noticed the colors with more appreciation every passing year. 

This year,  as I set out on walks on clear November days, I feel the gratitude for a less rushed commute and I sometimes get the feeling that all of this wells up within me to burst forth into the myriad colors in the universe I see around me. As I stood last week, first under an oak tree, then a sycamore tree, and then a large maple tree, a gingko tree and a willow tree (it’s hard to stop once you start!), I felt a sense of liberation in the air. The leaves were maturing, and some of them were letting go of their own volition.  (A lesson the occupant of the highest office in the nation can learn from if only he took the time to stand under a tree.) 

I stood there for a few minutes without rushing about my walk, and quietly reluctantly, when I moved away, I reflected on the gifts:

🍁 The music 🎶 🎵 🎼 of the wind rustling through the trees, to the accompaniment of chirping birds, and tittering squirrels, is music enough, and a soft lesson of symphony.

🍁 Watching a yellow, orange and red world bathed in the November light with the leaves fluttering down at their own pace is an unhurried lesson in pace.

🍁 Every now and then, a blue jay flies down from its perch, a couple of little yellow thrushes swoop in joy, while the melodious blackbirds and the nimble hummingbird go about their day. I can rejoice in the glorious feeling of the heart soaring with the birds. A lesson of hope and joy.

🍁  I see the younger gingko trees in our neighborhood already brilliantly yellow, but gingko trees apparently wait and coordinate among themselves to shed their leaves in unison. The older gingko tree isn’t quite there yet. It is working its way through the green leaves and slowly turning to yellow. The splendid yellow young ones are waiting patiently. A lesson in gracious patience.

🍁 How could I forget the squirrels with their final nut collection drive? A lesson of work while stopping to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.

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November is also the month of celebrations. Hot on the heels of Halloween when the adults find the child in themselves, comes Deepavali, the beautiful festival of lights indicating the victory of light over darkness, good over evil etc, and then just before pulling gracefully into the zone of gratitude and thanksgiving, I get to celebrate my birthday.

What isn’t to love about November? It is a time for hot tea, butter toasts, fall colors, the sounds of pattering rain, the warmth of a sweater, and all the wonderful things of Hygge.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Science as an Art

I caught sight of an artist one day, sitting in the garden and painting the profusion of life around her.  I stood there drinking the contentment of the scene in. Here was beauty, poetry, art and the science behind it all in one grand stroke. How marvelous it is to stop and observe someone paying attention to the world around them?

I remembered the piece in a book recommended to me by a writer friend, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The book is an example to show how each one of our stories is different in its own way. This memoir is written by a dedicated scientist, and covers among other things a rare friendship, her bipolar disorder, and her journey of a life with trees. 

In the book, Dr Jahren writes about the science and its demands on its lovers. Her writing is lyrical, and when she writes of her research and her little moments of leap, it is nothing short of poetic. For instance, she writes of studying the structure of the seeds of  hackberry trees. It is the kind of research that is, as she says, ‘curiosity-driven research’.  Dr Hope Jahren is a paleobotanist, and she goes on to say that her research is the kind of work that “will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain – or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me. “ 

I have always admired the tenacity and perseverance of endeavors such as these. In the world of instant gratification, working on fields where the gratification may not arrive in your lifetime is nothing short of phenomenal. It is the work of an artist: working on something solely for their interest, because they have the aptitude to understand life around them, and to persevere in the face of odds.

In the book, she captures some moments along the path of a scientist’s life that are magical. For instance, she writes of the time she was studying the structural makeup of the seeds of hackberry trees, and she unmistakably finds traces of Opal in the seeds:

“It was opal and this was something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was – in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation,…Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone.”

How could one not smile at this? How beautifully she marvels at understanding the ecstasy of life. Walking along a forest path, I’ve often wondered how, that of the millions of seeds dropped in there, a few decide to take the leap and sprout into sapling, clawing their way up towards the light, while digging deep and finding their roots. It turns out there may be no definitive answer to that. If you were a seed, what are the parameters you would use to sprout your wings and decide where to put down your roots, knowing fully well that from then on, movement is out of the question?

There is more to the miracle of our ecosystems than we can imagine. The ones who study this profundity – astrophysicists, anthropologists, scientists, ecologists, geologists – and then, go on to share their journey with us is marvelous. #Shoshin.

Who was it who said that – when you read a book you live a thousand lives, but if you don’t read, you only live once, yours?! 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

What would we do without the internet to give the answer right away?!

Complement with:

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

Autumn 🍂 🍁 🍃 of Hope

T’was the week-end of gifts. I had no idea how much I yearned for the promise of hope, till I felt the nimble feeling in my heart again.

I stepped out into the autumn 🍂🍁🍃 day with the children after a bout of dancing in the kitchen. The day was beautiful. Overnight, the Earth seemed less harsher, with the summer heat replaced by a nippy feel in the air, and a blue, blue sky with wispy clouds lilting away their day. I bent every now and then picking up a autumnal bouquet of sorts. Yellow, maroon, red, greenish-yellow, yellowish brown, greenish-red, and everything in between. 

“Don’t you feel like dancing 💃  though?” I asked the daughter, and she said firmly. “No! Not out here.”

“Oh – its okay!” Said her little brother coming to my defense. “Everyone knows she is a bit of a nature kook, it should be alright!”, and I laughed. My reputation was intact with the children.

The gingko trees were waving their golden green flags in the air – proudly proclaiming the daily joy of living to those who would stop and take a moment to take it all in. I stood there thinking, that the day is a wonderful one indeed if we have within us the power to pause and wondersavor the simple act of Shoshin, and marvel at the sheer audacity of life. Every night reminds us of the cosmic wonder that is our life. It affords us a peek into the darkness in which we float, the bleakness of it all, if there were no light. Yet, there is light, and more importantly, there is life!

“Remember the gingko tree my dears?!” 

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“Yes! We do – we missed it last year, but if all the leaves don’t fall at one shot, you’re in for a rough time!” Said the daughter, her voice ripe with indulgence.

I stuck my nose down the yellow lilliums on the path, came up with a nose of powdered pollen, and promptly wanted to sneeze. 

The children gave me pitying looks and the daughter said, “Look at you! Like a little dog sniffing at flowers and raising that long beak of yours into the air!”

I had no idea dogs had beaks, but setting that aside, I said, “Behaving like a puppy?! What greater accolade could a mother get? I am a very happy puppy 🐶 indeed!”  As soon as we came home, read out to the family in one rapturous gasp a poem written by Mary Oliver in the book, Dog Songs:

dog_song

Luke

I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
touching
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk
with its fragrance
rising

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen

hovered—
and easily
she adored
every blossom

not in the serious
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.

Shortly afterward, I headed out on another walk. This time, because the day promised rain, and as the first droplets pattered down, I listened to the music of the heavens. How parched our dear Earth was, how bereft our souls without hope?

On the way back from another gorgeous walk, a rainbow 🌈 peeked out. Hesitantly at first, and then with pride, with conviction, the universe’s assurance of not just light, but light with wavelengths between 380 and 700 nanometers on the visible light spectrum.

That is Hope. Hope is Joy. Joy is Peace. Peace is Love.

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Eye of the Pumpkin

“What?! Dancing in the kitchen?!”, said the son smiling his dignified smile of indulgence. “I haven’t seen you this happy for a long, long time!”
 
 
“Yes! I am dancing 💃 young man! You dance 💃 in the kitchen when you have a dignified President! You dance 💃 when a woman’s ambition is finally rewarded. You dance 💃 in the kitchen, you dance 💃 in the streets, you dance 💃 in the woods, you just dance 💃!” I said kicking my feet up in the air.
 
 
The men smiled at each other exchanging significant glances.
 
 
“We are going to throw the drishti pumpkin 🎃 out! Oooh yeah! ”
 
 
“What?!”
 
 
“Well!” I said, catching my breath after the dance💃 routine and proceeded to talk about pumpkins, evil eyes and the evil eyes of the pumpkin.
 
 
It isn’t uncommon to see a pumpkin out on the street: During Halloween, 🎃👻, in the United States, but anytime on the streets in India.
 
 
I remember being shocked the first time I saw a pumpkin being flung out on the streets as a young girl. I was less than a decade old, and had wrestled my little brother, and then out-debated him in a secret language to get to the window seat as we travelled from the Nilgiris to my grandmother’s village near Trichy. The entire 8 hour journey is a picturesque one. As the bus winds its way down the Nilgiris, and then slowly descends into the plains, the air gets warmer and warmer, and the scenery changes from misty hillsides to lush green plains with the final stretch of road between Karur & Trichy by the river Cauvery. For several hours, the trees on either side of the road tip their branches together and whisper little messages to each other across the road as the buses, trucks, jeeps, cars, motorcycles and cycles rustle by underneath trying to get a wisp of the whispers above. The river flows on murmuring at places, serenely flowing along at others, but always providing a pleasing backdrop to life in these South Indian plains. The little villages along the way, could be Malgudi, and just peeking out is enough to provide a R K Narayan-ish story.
TH10_Nilgiris-COLLAGE
 
I was daydreaming in the bus looking out and imagining a myriad things when I saw a sizable pumpkin lying squashed outside a house. Coming from a family that frowned upon wasting food of any form, I wondered what they would say about this great waste of a large pumpkin?
 
 
It turns out, that certain pumpkins are meant to be thrown out. That particular pumpkin, I was surprised to learn, was there to ward off the evil eye, and needed to be thrown out. The ‘evil eye’ or drishti is one of those things of folklore in India. There are many rules, laws, workarounds and theories at work here – it is dubious, but entertaining nevertheless:
 

 

  • When something bad happens, it may be a good thing, for it offsets the evil eye.
  • When something good happens, then one must remember to throw out a pumpkin to ward off the evil eye. (#Prevention better than #1?!)
  • When nothing happens, you squash a lemon or a smaller pumpkin to ward off the evil eye that slowly accumulates – like dental plaque I suppose.
  • When lots of things happen at once, and one cannot figure out whether it is good or bad, you trash a pumpkin just in case.

 

Now, many times in the past few years, I have referenced the pumpkin used to ward off the evil eye. If the United States has spent so much time being the world leader, championing climate change, leading scientific research and helping democracy thrive in different parts of the world, it must’ve accumulated oodles of drishti mustn’t it? When the 45th President, Donald Trump won in 2016, I cried. I cried not because I am particularly close to any policies or any such thing. But because such a great country would elect a boorish bumpkin like Donald Trump: a man hellbent on thwarting democracy.

 
 
This must be our drishti, I thought. Well, how does one know that? Refer to rule #1.
 
“The gods grow jealous of too much contentment anywhere, and they show their displeasure all of a sudden.”
― R.K. Narayan, Malgudi Days
 
 
Today, it is time to throw the drishti pumpkins, carved with those evil eyes, out.
 
 
Today, it is time to dance 💃 like no one is watching for the whole world is watching us reclaim our dignity.
 
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Continue reading “Eye of the Pumpkin”

Why is it all Political?

I was listening to an author, Sayantani Dasgupta, speak the other day, and she said, “Imagination is a political act.”

I jotted down the phrase. Several times during the next few days, the phrase would peek out at me as I went about my work. I mused and smiled when it unexpectedly caught my eye.

Four years ago, I had traveled to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania the week prior to the elections after mailing in my ballot in anticipation of the journey. The day of the 2016 elections, I was at a conference in Texas. The day was busy enough. I moved from session to session assimilating, learning and wondering a little how the elections were going. But I was not overly concerned. My focus was on learning. The polls had shown that Hillary Clinton will be in power soon. There was nothing to fear. I was ready to join the Pantsuit Nation in celebrating our first ever woman president. 

That night, alone in the hotel room in Texas, I switched on the television, after a hot shower, though all I wanted to do was sleep. It had been a 14 hour day, and I found myself drifting off to sleep every now and then.  Finally, when the tides began to turn, I thought my over-tired brain was playing games. The next few days were indeed one of shock, and given that I was far from my family and friends, I held it in as best as I could. Racism and bigotry seem to have received an amplifier and I felt more vulnerable than ever. I was not white, not male, not a Christian, not this, not that, and certainly not anything. How could one individual suddenly make me, a being of flesh, blood and emotions,  into so many things I was not?

Since then, we have seen things happen that are indeed too strange for fiction. Divisive people have a way of polarizing the environment around them. Slowly, I noticed how the literature around me changed: Posts and books giving us hope, filling us with age old wisdom. Every blustery tweet or policy was analyzed and we have had the busiest most riled up period in recent memory. 

But it also helped us all grow in so many ways. To realize that we are all different. All different in our ideologies, all different in what is important to us, all different in what  affects us, and how it does. For all of the politics, and whether or not people supported the Democrats or the Republicans, I do not waver in one thing – people are inherently good. They do want the best for themselves, theirs and the larger community, and in that regard, we are the same despite our differences.

Some days, I think of the Dalai Lama, meditating on the state of the world for 3 hours every morning. I wonder how he does it, and I marvel at the compassionate view he takes of humanity. The 45th President has taught us that no matter how strongly we feel about somethings, we cannot change how others feel about the same things. He taught us grudging acceptance. He taught us to value competence. He showed us how everything could become a political act with a dictator. 

everything_is_political

Travel became a political act.

Health became a political act.

Climate Change became a political act.

Science became a political act.

Now, Imagination is a political act.

Today, the only political act I can think of in my power, is Voting. 

Before Being becomes a political act, it is time to act.

Continue reading “Why is it all Political?”