Worries & Worm Moons

The evening was a gentle spring one. My friends and I walked on into the evening, as the full moon rose in splendor on one side, while the sun set with elegance on the opposite side. The Worm Moon, as the full moon in March is called, was exceedingly beautiful against the spring evening as we walked on.

Though this time of year seems to signal that all is well with the world, there are spots in the trying world as we make our way through it. Life is full and with a full life comes a good helping of worries. We walked on swapping tales and confiding the worries of life that seem ubiquitous.

Somehow, the worries seem to reduce in size in the shared experience of it all. Just in the acknowledgement of it. It reminded me of the marvelous children’s book, Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival.

In the book, Ruby is a happy child who loved to explore and be herself. 

Until one day when she finds a worry. 

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The book talks beautifully about the concept. How the worry stays with her, and seems to grow in presence and size though no one was able to see it. It was there with her in the classroom, on the swing, and even occupied half the school bus. 

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It is a beautifully pictured concept with the worry inching in everywhere till poor Ruby is unable to be happy at all.

Then, one evening at the park, she finds a boy sitting alone and a worry looming over him. She goes over and they share their worries and talk about it.

“As the words tumbled out, Ruby’s Worry began to shrink until it was barely there at all.

Soon, both of their Worries were gone!”

It is a simple tale of friendship and worries shared, and yet the book captures it all in so beautiful a manner. You wonder and marvel yet again at the profundity of childrens’ books. 

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That evening as the worm moon rose and sprinkled its silvery little sparkles over the lakeside, the same thing seemed to be happening to us in real life too. To nature, peace and friendship whispered the evening.

P.S: March Moon is also known by various names: Eagle Moon, Sugar Moon, Wind Strong Moon or even the Lenten Moon.

Article here: Full Moon in March

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The Joy-o-meter

“I read the book like Appa watches a movie! Done in 15 minutes, but got the gist. “ I said to general laughter. When the Spring cleaning bug bites, the family scuttles, and shy away from me like a horse that choked on plastic flowers once, and whinnies at the fresh wildflowers in the fields. 

“Really Amma! You too?” said the children

I admit I usually do not resort to the skimming technique. But this time, I read the Marie Kondo book on The Magic of Tidying Up.  “Well …. You know how some books have all they need to say in an article, but make books and songs out of them? That was this book. In essence, the table of contents should suffice, but if you want the nub of the thing, it is: If something doesn’t spark joy discard it!” 

“So, why are you still here?” Came the answer pat. Really! The speed of the repartee, I will never learn I tell you. I just walk into traps, and then goggle like a famished gargoyle, with these smart-alecks in the home. 

I sniffed a haughty sniff, and continued. “Anyway, I am going to apply the concept to the whole house. So, if something sparks joy in you, keep it, else junk it. Spring cleaning starts tomorrow!” I said in my best energetic cleaner voice. Dark looks were exchanged, some mutterings were heard, and talk was ripe of hoping that I would head out into those long walks that have me famished by the end of it all, so I spare the lot the anguish of losing things. The problem is of course that the things the children are passionate about and the things I am passionate about, are not an intersecting set. Consequently, the last time, I threw away a cardboard box, I spent a trying afternoon with the son who behaved like a gladiator losing his arena. I have since learnt my lesson, and they are given a warning. 

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I started the morning with my closet feeling like Mole spring cleaning his home in The Wind in the Willows.

The Mole had been working hard all morning spring cleaning his little home.

I must tell you. How do you mean ‘spark joy’? Some clothes you see are out of fashion, have some problems, faded etc. But mostly I seem to have clothes that I liked. So, how to deploy the joy-o-meter by them? 

Almost all my ethnic clothes evoked memories – does that count as sparking joy? For instance, I picked up the pink skirt bought in a bazaar in Jaipur. The blue hand-drawn elephants were not exactly life-like, but I could not stop the memories from marching in. The sister-in-law and I had had a tete-a-tete with the skirt vendor, and we landed up enjoying tea, pakoras, and a long chat on local artisans and design techniques, while the husband stood nearby sounding like a cooker letting out impatient steam.

Or the carefully hand woven and fabric painted dupatta that I had decided was too much to buy in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk bazaar, and settled for more utilitarian lunch boxes.  Imagine my glee then, only to find that the lovely dupatta was bought for me by the loving family on a subsequent shopping trip seeing how much I liked it. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

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Or the dancing saree that captured my spirit? The one with ballet dancers and Bharatnatyam dancers printed on them in unison – East-West collaboration at its saree best. 

The only ones I could apply the rule to, seemed to be the mass produced mall clothes bought in ‘Sale’ sections, which wasn’t much.

If there was a usage ratio to apply, almost all of the ethnic clothes can be set aside. If there was a cost to the environment ratio to be applied, one must keep these clothes till we use them at least a few times before discarding them. Over this, one must apply the cultural umbrella of using new clothes for every occasion, and the result is a sorry state of affairs.

I wonder if joy-o-meter designs can use all these variables. 

I looked pityingly at the disappointing results of the morning scourge. Feeling a bit of a hypocrite, I told the children to save anything they liked, and almost instantly regretted it, for the son ran for the largest cardboard box set for the recycling bin and said – “Dibs! I want this in my room!” 

No wonder the Mole preferred to scurry outside into the beautiful spring rather than finish spring cleaning his home.

“The joy of living and the delight of spring made him jump into the air, and he raced across the meadow ….” – The Wind in the Willows

The Joy-O-Meter swung to the right, and all was well with the world.

Spring Fever

“Why do goats looks so stern? I thought they are happy especially now in spring-time. Like lambs in spring-time could also mean like goat-kids in spring-time, no?”

The children exchanged looks. They knew to diagnose my bout of Spring Fever. I am seen scuttling off to sniff the air and marvel at life sitting up and stirring from its sleepy winter state. I head into the house looking flushed and happy. By evening, I am tired, but refuse to reduce the dose of spring bounding. But still this talk of stern looking goats had them worried.

“Ma?! You okay? Why are we talking of goats now?” said the daughter a mock-solicitous look in her eye, and I laughed out loud, and told them the context of the goat-ish tale.

“Well, it all started like this. Do you remember last Friday evening being  particularly beautiful? So, I shut the laptop with a whim, and headed out into the sunset. The hills were alive with the magic of spring. I told myself poetically that I could not bear to be a cell in a spreadsheet anymore. I wanted to be a newly sprouted leaf on a tree, a whimsical flower fluttering away in the mild breeze, or a Finnish fainting goat chewing thoughtfully at that latest blade of grass.

“Not for me the confines of mankind! Get rid of the shackles, and head out! “ I said.

” Uh-hm – someone would think you have a mission you are fighting for. How many times will you take pictures of the cherry blossoms and the clouds, and the sunset, hmm?” said the children but I waved these things away. Days like this are not meant to be wasted indoors arguing about the wisdom or lack thereof of going outdoors.

For a few months of the year, our neck of the woods resembles fairy lands, or the lands of the gods, or maybe heaven itself. The occasional rains, the burst of wildflowers, and the sunsets are all glorious. So much so that I find myself wandering around the countryside apparently lost, but really just finding the inner self. At least it is what I tell myself when that pile of laundry needs washing or that closet needs cleaning. Marie Kondo urges me to better myself, but Early Spring is more inviting. 

The fox squirrels atop the plum blossoms look naughty, while the fainting goat looks stern, the horse in the pastures peaceful, and the sunset glorious.

Where was I? Yes, on the stern looks of Finnish fainting goats. I had often wondered while reading the Three Billy Goats Gruff why the author went in for Gruff, but I see the choice of the word as I stood there admiring the serene setting against which the Finnish Fainting goat stood in its patch of farmland.

“Anyway, ” I said getting back to the point of stern goats, “I suppose if I had foul folks like me boggling at their spot of residence in that manner just because it is Spring, I would be gruff too! But the goat has a manner that is at once endearing, sober and majestic. The clump of fur on its chin growing away like a goatee (Get it? Get it? Goats have goatees!) made it look wise, and the green grass it chomped on made the world look a sweeter place.”

The children moaned not unlike the goat, and said, “Why not just call it a goat, why this fancy Finnish Fainting Goat?”

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“That is easy my dears. Google assures me that the picture I took of the goat is a Finnish Fainting Goat. And in any case, I doubt you would have listened patiently if I said I would tell you a story about a goat. No you would not have. But a Finnish Fainting Goat got your attention, did it not?” I said feeling clever.

“Ma?!” said the daughter, clenching her teeth. “You haven’t told us the story of the goat. You told us about the goat…you know what?! Never mind!”

“Yes…Never mind.” I said using that conciliatory spring-time tone, and said, “I will take you hiking there to see the old fellow. I am sure you all will like him. Looks like a satyr of your Greek myths. There is your story! Percy Jackson stuff on our next hike! ”

I ignored the ensuing groans. The fainting goat satyr and narcissus blooms will help.

Musings: Whally Mousical

 I was reading to the son’s classroom. I had planned out two little sections – one from the Tale of Despereaux and the other a true story of a pod of whales saved from the iced in waters of Siberia. The theme linking the two was music. I started, and the little musicians looked thrilled. I was too.

As I turned to the start of Chapter 4 in which the little mouse who was different finally understands what that honey-sweet sound was. I felt like Despereaux myself as I read about how little Despereaux felt a welling in his heart for the music, and how he slowly forgot where he was, or what he was doing. Slowly, he inched out from his hole, listening, mesmerized to the king playing music. As I read it out aloud to the children, I wanted to stifle a laugh, for a childhood memory peeked out of its deep hole the same way that Despereaux did. 

“And he discovered, finally, the source of the honey-sweet sound.

The sound was music.

The sound was King Phillip playing his guitar and singing for his daughter, the Princess Pea, every night before she fell asleep.

Hidden in a hole in the wall of the princess’s bedroom, the mouse listened with all his heart. The sound of the King’s music made Despereaux’s soul grow large and light inside of him.

Oh,” he said, “it sounds like heaven. It smells like honey.” 

Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux

We lived in the chilly mountainsides, and often times, the cold outside attracted rats and mice into the warm house. Several times, when music was playing in the old tape recorder, we would notice a mouse peeping cautiously and just listening. Curious as to what the noises meant maybe, but maybe not. One of the family would shriek, and the pater would at first try to quieten us down saying it was just a little mouse enjoying some music – so what, or something to that effect, only to have a somewhat more hysterical reaction. 

Almost reluctantly would ensue a hilarious game of hockey sticks against furniture trying to get the mouse. Mice are as nimble as well, mice, and humans are – how do I put this kindly? Clumsy. Well-fed humans have several disadvantages stacked against them as they go about the mouse chase:

* Leaning back in the chair after a good meal listening to music in the background has made them soporific, so while the hockey stick is meant to be a tool, it is often used as prop against which to lean on to catch a breath

* They lack the right motive to catch a mouse. The human’s motive is to see if they can tumble in another gulab jamun into the tummy before bed. The mouse’s is to get to the hole

* Crowd sentiment is hard to gauge. The mouse chaser is in the tough spot of being a warrior and a saviour. While the shrieking indicated that something must be done, if something were done, the shriekers would be devastated and clamor for animal rights. So, the mouse chaser has to diplomatically chase the mouse, but not harm it in anyway.

 By the end of this jolly game of mouse chasing, the furniture has received several whacks from the hockey stick, and the mouse has strolled into its hole, while the music lilts on from the tape recorder. Which takes me to the curious scenario of mice in kings courts. I wonder how a mouse must’ve been treated in the king’s court. Would the musicians stop playing, while the commotion continued, or would they lilt on? The shriekers would be more, and therefore the motive higher. Would the courtiers gallantly prove their loyalty to the king by mouse chasing themselves, or let the warriors go for it?

They say a mouse’s brain is closest in structure to the human brain, so is that why we enjoy music together? 

New Items: Lab Rats Listen to Mozart and Become Maze Busters

So Mozart turns rats into maze-busters. But does it have a similar effect on humans?

I suppose The Pied Piper of Hamelin knew what he was doing. 

The story of the effect of Classical Music on Whales is equally mesmerizing. From the book, The Symphony of Whales, By Steve Schuch

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 the icebreaker ship, 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.

Some musings are whally mousical, and all the more whimsical for it. The children seemed to enjoy the reading too. Their wondrous brain did not once question why a mouse liked music or how whales, mice and humans liked the same kind of music. 

Coming Soon: Musicophilia

The Girl Who Drank The Moon

I was dawdling one evening. Quite uncharacteristically I might add. For the evening walks I go on are brisk and filled with purpose: I focus on getting the day’s stresses out of my head and to appreciate the larger world around us. I arrive after these walks, therefore, a trifle breathless maybe, but mostly refreshed in mind and spirit. 

“Are you tired?”, asked a solicitous neighbor. 

I smiled and said truthfully that I had been very tired when I set out on the walk, and after briskly taking in the sights, was now rejuvenating myself in the magic of the moonlight. “Moon-Bathing!” I called it, and she gave me an indulgent smile knowing my leaning towards nature.

Sometimes, all it takes is a peek of the waxing moon, or the brilliant hues of the setting sun, or the clouds in the skies painting a thousand pictures for us, or a hummingbird flying in the light of dusk, or geese flying overhead with the light of the moon on their wings never failing to remind me of the beautiful song in The Sound of Music : These are a few of my favorite things.

All good things are wild and free. – Thoreau

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Other times, it is inordinately hard. I find it very hard to leave the village behind as Thoreau says. 

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”  – Henry David Thoreau

I feel the Earth works doubly hard at these times. Always granting a little something extra by the end of it all to make up for the time lost in thought and worry. The wintry evenings of the past few days have been working hard at setting my mind at ease and helping the stresses of the day take flight into the unknown tendrils of the night. Lost in space, till I can grab newer positive strands from the cosmos and replace them consciously.

That evening that I was dawdling, had been one of these evenings. The light of the full moon shone through the clear dark skies, and I felt the strength of its benign light seep into my very being. The wintry skies have the magic of starlight, but the days when the moon is also at play, the nights feel vibrant with possibilities and magic.

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Maybe I was feeling poetic because of all the beautiful poetry in the book I had just finished reading. For those of you wanting a strong dose of magic, I strongly recommend The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill.  

“The heart is built of starlight 

And time.

A pinprick of longing lost in the dark.

An unbroken chord linking the Infinite to the Infinite.

My heart wishes upon your heart and the wish is granted.

Meanwhile the world spins.

Meanwhile the universe expands.

Meanwhile the mystery of love reveals itself,

again and again, in the mystery of you.

I have gone.

I will return.

Glerk” 

Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon

It maybe because of the waxing and waning of the moon, and the fact that we have only one moon, the sheer delight of catching a glimpse of its benign light in the evening skies is magic enough. The son, as regular readers knows, is a cosmologist and a curious wonderer at heart. One night, when he was a toddler, he asked me, “Imagine how it must be to take a walk on Jupiter, and you look up and see 64 moons in the sky.

Note: Jupiter has 79 known moons, and more are being discovered.

I suppose the magic of that sort of walk must be exemplified, but for now, I am grateful for a peaceful Earthly existence, with the ability to gaze and gain peace with the one moon we do have.

How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel

When the Covid lockdowns started, many folks went on a buying spree (we all know the toilet paper jokes). Ever the dutiful one, off I went too. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when I got an extra bag of rice, and headed onto the library (to get books to tide us over during the lockdown).  When the husband called to ask where I’d gone, I sheepishly said that I was at the library just in case we were unable to get books during lockdown. I could hear a sound like a paper bag bursting – his version of a cross between a snort, and the urge to laugh. I bragged about the extra bag of rice, and I could see his face wondering why he had to be landed with someone, who in P G Wodehouse’s language, ‘must’ve been bumped on the head as a baby’. 

Well, I must say that when we staggered home with books for the children and self, I felt better. The local library has been one of my favorite spots to visit of course, but over the Covid period, I felt like Rapunzel in the book: How the Library Saved Rapunzel (Not the Prince). The library allowed us to schedule an appointment and arrange to pickup books on hold. What was more, they were kind enough to include a few picture books of their choice if you requested them to do so. I am eternally grateful to have access to libraries.

I felt almost an irresistible urge to increase my Science based reading this year (maybe this is a tiny rebellion for the disturbing anti-Science strain emerging with the 45th POTUS office). Starting the year off by re-reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set the stage for the year ahead. The following books gave me no end of pleasure and learning over the year. (My Science writing class for children)

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2020 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

  • Unbowed – Wangari Maathai (in progress)
  • On Looking  – Alexandra  Horowitz
  • Losing  Earth  A Recent History – Nathaniel Rich
  • This is the Earth – Diane Z Shore & Jessica Alexander, Paintings by Wendell Minor

Bill Anders said: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

What a lovely statement that is, and together with his Earth Rising image, contributed to the concerns around Planet Earth that led to founding of Earth Day in 1970.

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It was also a wonderful year to take in poetry. Mary Oliver & Margarita Engle were always welcome in a year when poets alone seemed to know the right turn of phrase for the bizarre. Dr Seuss & Jackl Prelutsky always know to turn one’s frown into a smile. 

  • Blue Iris – Mary Oliver
  • Enchanted Air – By Margarita Engle
  • Dog Songs – Mary Oliver
  • Owls and other fantasies – Mary Oliver (Yes! no!)
  • Be Glad your nose is in your face – Jack Prelutsky
  • Dr Seuss books (always worth reads and re-reads). I found a few gems that truly tickled the mind and got out some belly laughs.
    • Horton hears a Who
    • Horton Hatches an Egg
    • Sleep book
    • Oh the Thinks you can Think
    • How Lucky You Are
    • Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose

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With the Black Lives Matter movement, the year was ripe for educating oneself on the inequities of society and civil disobedience. The local library, news media, and friends all helped with an excellent array of reading material. Notable among the works read then were:

  • Becoming – By Michelle Obama
  • Black Panther – by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Sneetches and other stories – Dr Seuss
  • A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela‘s children’s book version
  • My Many Colored Days – Dr Seuss

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With uplifting books and humour, life can be truly marvelous. My all-time favorites kept me company, and I am eternally grateful to their influence of course but a few others were added to the list this year.

The world isn’t such a good place either, and reading books such as these helps to remind us about the many problems that still beset society

The lure of power, and how we are seeing it all play out in real life

  • The Fate of Fausto – Oliver Jeffers
  • Louis I – The King of Sheep – Oliver Tallec
  • Yertle the Turtle and other Stories – Dr Seuss
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (pieces relating to the Minister of Magic refusing to acknowledge Voldemort’s return so he could stay in power)

Of course the true magic of life is never complete without children’s books. There are so many of them in this genre, that I did not even note half of them. But a few of them lit up my life

  • My Grandma is a Ninja – By Todd Tarpley, Illustrated by Danny Chatzikonstantinou (When I become a grandma – though it is a few decades off, that is how I wish to be 🙂 )
  • Gondra’s Treasure – By Linda Sue Park
  • Enchanted Wood – by Enid Blyton (old Saucepan Man, Silky and Moonface with the lands above the enchanted tree – though it doesn’t hold the same level of magic it did as a child, it still has its charm)
  • The Red Pyramid – By Rick Riordan (this was the son’s recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyable it turned out to be romping down the Egyptian myths!)
  • The Quiet Book – by Deborah Underwood
  • A Fun Day with Lewis Carroll – Kathleen Krull & Julia Sarda
  • Peter Rabbit’s Tales – Beatrix Potter
  • Why is my Hair Curly – By Lakshmi Iyer
  • A History of Magic – Based on Harry Potter Universe
  • Tintin Comics (a fair few)
  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • The Velocity of Being – Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick

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On that magical high note, here is wishing everyone a healthy, happy new year in 2021. Things are already turning around, and looking hopeful. Keep reading, and sharing 🙂

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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.

The Fabled Life of Aesop

When we think of literary bodies of work that have endured over Millenia, we think of epics such as the Mahabharatha, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey, or the Bible. But there are so many endearing little tales that have endured just as long, and have passed down morals, lessons and fun along the way.  I am referring to stories such as Aesop’s Fables & Panchatantra tales.

The library had a wonderful picture book on The Fabled Life of Aesop: the book was not just a collection of his most fables, but the life of the slave we think was Aesop. 

 

Written by Ian Lendler, and illustrated by Caldecott winner, Pamela Zagarenski, it is a book with marvelous reading material, and highly imaginative pictures.

2500 years ago, a baby boy named Aesop was born to slave parents in Greece. Aesop, as a child born to slaves, was taken from his parents and sent to work in the hot grape fields of Samos. As a slave, Aesop learnt to speak carefully. One of his friends who talked about their master’s smelly feet was taken away and was never seen or heard of again. So, the slaves learnt to speak in code.

 “Did you hear about the lion? He stepped on a thorn and his paw got infected.”

“Oh!” said Aesop. “So that’s why his paw smells!”

Aesop learned to speak in code.

I could not help remembering this snippet from a poem by Margarita Engle in the book, Enchanted Air :

Tyrants always

try to control communication.

They always

fail.

The human spirit is not meant to be caged, and tyranny somehow tries to do just that every time. 

Aesop’s talent in spinning stories with morals using the animals around him was soon noticed by his master Xanthus, and he was tasked with more challenging tasks in helping his master’s life. One time when his master had a falling out with his friend, Aesop was called to mediate. Aesop was but a young boy and he was scared. If either his master or his friend felt offended, they had the power to put him to death. So, he came up with a story about the lion and a boar who fought over who should drink first at the watering hole. It was only when they noticed vultures circling overhead that they realized it was better to share the water rather than have the vultures eat the loser.

The master, Xanthus, and his friend, Jadon, were so impressed with Aesop, they sought an amicable resolution. As a peace offering, Aesop was sold to Jadon who continued to seek Aesop’s help in his business and personal affairs.

Aesop’s stories helped his masters live their lives with honesty, humility, and kindness. His stories warned against greed and deceit. 

Many of them taught another hidden lesson as well. It was something no master would pick up, but every slave or powerless person would understand. “

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Eventually, Aesop was set free, and his stories have been handed down from generation to generation helping millions of us glean the wisdom and morality handed down by these endearing tales.

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Freedom

I have often wondered about what it means to be human. Is it opposable thumbs, or imagination, or tool use, or brain to body ratio, or empathy? Maybe the complex combination of all these things, and the collective will to make things better in spite of all our failures is what sets us apart.

We have heard of scalded cats staying away from milk. Maybe our power is in ensuring that we do not  make the same mistake again and again,but learn from it.  

The world around us always has lessons for us: Octopii, whales, monkeys, dogs, crows, geese, herons, squirrels, rabbits, trees, and to that I am grateful.

 

Enchanted Air

I read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle, expecting to read a good memoir about two cultures and two wings one grows as a result of hailing from mixed origins. What instead happened is difficult to describe in words for it was not a reading, it was a feeling. A transformative one. 

It is a children’s book. Each chapter is a small poem that stands in and of itself, but also ties into the whole narrative. There were so many places in the book when I found myself stopping to savor a poem, reading it again, and swirling the feelings it evoked in my mind. Later, I found myself passionately explaining it in far less elegant terms to the husband and children, scurrying to get the book, and fumbling through the pages to find the right poem.

For instance when she writes of ‘The Dancing Plants of Cuba’, she captures the essence of an island: 

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.

Dancing Plants

How can one not love the child then who is later to task by her teacher for inventing dancing plants, as plants are supposed to stay still aren’t they?

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.

This memoir is rich with details of her family, and her own dreamy self. 

She takes us along with her on her journey of growing up, and how her personality rows with ‘The Geography of Libraries’.

Spoken stories are no longer enough

To fill my hunger

I crave a constant supply 

Of written ones too.

As she grows, the mistrust between USA and Cuba, grows too. Their family is suspect simply for holding a Cuban passport, a part of her heritage cut off by souring diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs invasion. She first writes about the state of reality in the poem, Communications.

Abuelita writes letters in code,

inventing poetic metaphors,

to prevent the island’s censors

from understanding her words.

When she says Tio Dario 

is working hard in the garden,

Mom somehow knows that it means 

he’s been arrested and sent to a prison or forced labor camp.

In Secret Languages we learn

Right wing or left wing tyrants always

try to control communication

They always

fail.

The books ends with the poem, Hope.

It is no wonder that the book has won a string of awards. Looking at the history of the world, its themes are timeless too.

Books for the King

The son’s brisk questions were being met with sluggish answers and were wrong to boot. He looked at me with concern and said, “Ma! Are you okay?” 

“I feel like I need to read 3 fiction books back-to-back to start feeling myself again!” I moaned. The cuppa coffee wasn’t doing its job. I knew I had a long day of meetings, planning, production issues, and more news trickles along the way before that happy dream could be realized. 

What happened next should not have surprised me in the least, for that child has a knack for soothing frayed souls. He ran away at top speed and I went about lapping my coffee like a cat licking its milk out of the saucer on a cloudy morning.

After a few moments he tumbled into the room carrying three Dr Seuss books. “Don’t worry, I can read it to you for 2 minutes.” he said and proceeded to read from Yertle The Turtle and Other Stories.

He could not have selected a more apt book for the times  if he had thought about current world trends towards dictatorship and decline of large democracies, cross-referenced  it with philosophies on power and ambition etc. 

Yertle the Turtle was the king of the Sala-ma-Sond pond, but as often happens with power, he wanted more, and then some more. Maybe a really high throne would help him thought Yertle. So, he summoned some turtles on which he could perch himself . Yertle thought that the higher his throne, the greater he was. Everything in his eyesight could be his, couldn’t it?

Soon, a cow, a farmhouse and a blueberry bush wasn’t enough for the great Yertle the Turtle. More and more turtles scrambled, while Mack – the poor turtle at the bottom of the pile struggled. Mack’s complaints meant nothing. Yertle could see butterflies and birds, but what he really wanted was to get up there with the moon. 

In a fitting end to the story, the dictatorial Yertle meets his nemesis with Mack’s inadvertent burping. The pile of turtles totter and collapse sending Yertle crashing into the muddy swamps below. Yertle the Turtle learns his lesson. 

I know we ask of no formal training for politicians: there are no politician licenses, no courses one has to complete to take up public office, but I really think there should be a set of children’s books that they all have to read and re-read as refreshers every year in order to stay in office. We could call it the Butter Battle Course.

I’d definitely add these three titles to the course.

  • Yertle the Turtle and other stories – By Dr Seuss. (It even has a story about unbearable braggarts meeting their match in a humble worm who is trying to just till the soil underneath without the incessant brag-fests disrupting him)
  • Louis XIV – the King of Sheep – By Oliver Tallec ( A beautiful tale illustrating how Louis I the sheep became a king – the wind rolled a crown to him, and the same wind blew the crown away from his head)
  • The Fate of Fausto – By Oliver Jeffers ( This tale takes a megalomaniac’s obsession with ruling everything he sees including mountains, rivers, and sheep until he meets his match in the great ocean.