The King’s Stilts

A few years ago, the pater looked at me with an amused smile on his face, and said, “I’ve been seeing you walking around with that book for weeks. Do you plan to finish it?” 

I gave him a mock sorrowful look. It was true. That summer, life had been jolly and full. The son was a baby then, and any time I could snatch away from my highly demanding work spot was split between the visiting folks, the kitchen, housekeeping, and the children. I cannot say that I felt effective in  any of these areas, but I was stretching myself as best as I could. Without a book to help me get a perspective in, I felt even more unmoored. So, I did the next best thing and walked around with the book in hand. The intention was there, when the moment presents itself, I could glance a page here, and a page there, I told myself.

No one in the household but the pater noticed that I had the same book with me for weeks. 

“Never fear! These are phases that will come and go, and once the children are grown, you will be able to read again.” , he said. Luckily, it turned out to be true. I did get a little more time on my hands mostly snatched during public transit commute times, or when I finally wound down at night, all the demands of the day done, and a fresh set of demands not yet hankering for attention till dawn. 

As I opened my library account, I realized the same thing had just happened again. I had gone for several weeks with the intention of finishing several books, and did not get the opportunity to do so. I felt like King Birtram in The King’s Stilts. A Dr Seuss book that I did manage to finish owing to its size. 

King Birtram is the hard-working, conscientious and just king of the low lying kingdom of Binn. He starts his day attending to all his administrative duties at the crack of dawn, signing papers and making decisions while taking his bath, eating his breakfast and is finished with his paperwork just in time to start his duties as commander in general who is in charge of keeping his cat army in tip-top shape, and motivated to protect the kingdom from the Nizzard birds.

His cats, are after all, critical to the functioning of the state. They keep the pesky nizzard birds at bay. The gizzard birds weaken the dike trees, and weakening those marvelous trees means the kingdom of Binn could be flooded within days since the trees are the only ones that are able to keep the waters at bay. 

King Birtram, however, never complains. He knows what needs to be done, and he is proud to do it. His moments of relaxation comes in the evening when his boy brings his stilts out for the king to play. The evenings with the king striding  across the kingdom playfully in his stilts endears the man to his subjects and all is well. 

Written with Dr Seuss’s characteristic humor, style and illustrations, the story takes an interesting turn when a judgmental courtier hides the King’s Stilts. The climax draws nearer and the perils of the water destroying the kingdom is even closer with every page. Does the King find his stilts? Is the kingdom a happy, prosperous place again?

Where am I going with this? Yes! The lack of reading made me feel like King Birtram deprived of his stilts. Lack-lustre, if you see what I mean. So, imagine the joy when I obtained a rare afternoon and evening in which I could read uninterrupted, and with no expectations of any kind?

Wild Souls – Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World By Emma Marris will have a special place in my heart for providing me with this rare luxury last week-end. I have not galloped through a book that quickly or without guilt for a long time. 

Walking in to Utopia

I had been ruminating about all the problems that had beset the world – pre and post elections in the USA for sure, but also the interconnected economies of the world, the problems that a once-in-a-century virus mutation showed us all too clearly.

A spectre is haunting our world!

The perfect cure seemed to call for a long walk. I could not help admiring the physician who prescribed the slightly hypochondriacally inclined Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat the following that could not be filled at the pharmacy.

“1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.”

I had substituted the steak with (white rice, avial, and rasam), and the bitter beer with (tea – Earl Grey & Lipton with milk and sugar ), and was now ready for the middle portion of the prescription.

“1 ten-mile walk every morning.

1 bed at 11 sharp every night.”

So, I set off. The beanie cap lopsided on my head, hands tied behind my back, pace at about 5 duck waddles per quack, and at spots of true inspiration speeding up to 15 duck waddles per quack. There is something so invigorating about an evening walk in solitude: admiring the setting sun, and the birds lending their musical accompaniment to the dazzling show put out by the sun and the clouds is truly magical.

img_0715

By the time the sun had set and Jupiter and Saturn had come peeking in the early evening skies (so close that only those in Galileo Galilei’s time had seen it this close before), I had formulated sections of all-that-is-wrong and how-to-fix-it. I don’t know whether Karl Marx took any long walks when he was writing his little manifesto. All I can say is, I am sure it would have been a lot better if he had.

You see? By the time I had hit the ‘Walk’ button with my elbow at the signal near the house, I was happy, fueled on by my own thoughts in my little utopian world. All that was needed was to document this in a letter to President Obama. President O, on seeing the letter dripping with wisdom, and great ideas then clasps the letter, and says, “Bring forth the author!”. He even  goes on to offer the daughter a leadership position in his institute.

You see? I had solved several sections

  • Job pipeline
    • By skill and
    • Education levels
  • A new model of Capitalism
    • This model rewards not growth but sustainability
    • Stock markets pander for reusability, energy conservation, and factories pride themselves on N-I-W models (Never in Waste duh!)
  • Manufacturing pipelines by sector
    • Ensuring there is know-how and skills within the country
    • Capacity to sustain internally in case a despot ruins relations with the rest of the world (Case in point Corona virus medications)
  • Changes required to the US constitution
    • Electoral College done away with, and the popular vote to count instead
    • Having more than 2 parties to be major players in the elections
  • Environmental Responsibility
    • Clean Fuels
    • Energy Consumption
    • World leaders promoting sustainability as a model
    • Expanding protected lands and waters
    • Climate Change
  • Research & Funding
    • Funding for scientists is skewed and too reliant on industry
    • Bold bets – personalized medicine, geo thermal cooling, space explorations
  • Military Spending & Gun Control
  • Healthcare
    • Women’s health care
    • Geriatric care

I walked into the home looking flushed and happy. I regaled the children about how accomplished I felt. The daughter happily chimed in. “Doesn’t it feel awesome? Mostly by the time I come back, I have given some very powerful messages to the antagonists on my story! My speech to the world has changed the lives of folks everywhere, and all is well. I love it when that happens Amma!”

“Yeah! My villains are destroyed by the awesomeness of the imaginating sequence!” said the son kicking his feet into the air and swirling in the middle of the room closely missing a jar of cereal precariously perched nearby, and the pair of them burst out giggling once again.

the_world_playground

The next day, the husband joined me on my walk, and I told him all about it. He looked thoughtful after every section, and said, “Yes..hmm. But didn’t India already try that in the 1970s? I don’t think that was a success.”

“Hmm…you are right. Burma does try that, but can a happiness index be as effective as a stock market index for world economies?”

“That is a socialistic thought right there … so it may not work out so well here.”

I gave out a big sigh – maybe there was no point after all. It is better to muddle along just as we are, and let one politician after the other try things out, so long as it is not badly botched.

“And what did Obama invite our kids for?” said the husband, looking amused. The idea squasher! I gave him a peeved look and said, “Don’t ask me why? Inconvenient Questions – pish tosh bigosh!”, and haughtily pressed the walk signal to head on home.

As a Secret Santa Christmas present, I received ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama. I plan to read it, and see if he still needs my letters and thoughts.

I suppose it is time for me to get to the last line of the prescription:

 “And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”

The End

“We have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite.”

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.

butter_battle

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 Other Side of the Glass

There is a girlish delight in tucking oneself in the mode of Being, away from the duties of a Doing life on a Saturday morning. As I watch the minutes blend into hours, I sense my senses relax and delve deeply, calmly and yet completely enthralled at the prospect of indulging in my favorite pastimes of reading and writing. I feel the privilege in that sentence as I write it, for I recognize it for what it is: a luxury.

I hear the bees buzzing in the beautiful Spring day outside, a pair of blue jays have chosen a tree nearby to make their nest, and I watch the pair of them flit about busily during their days. Every now and then, one of them would come and peck on the window pane as if to check on me, though I know that comes from the human longing for self importance. The blue jays may just like the sound of the glass against their beaks, or probably; the reflection of themselves as they fly past. Whatever their motive, it is one of their many acts that I relish from the other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

What a wonderful way to observe the world? The internet is rife with jokes on humans sheltering in place with animals peeking at us, with their clever commentaries of us, and I must say I relish it. For once, we are all unanimously united in that state of achieving inner peace against the steady dripping of the news around us.

So, here I am sitting comfortably and reading the book, Uncle Tungsten – Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks.

The world as seen by the prolific writer and physician – his boyhood escapades with Chemistry and the influences of his life, are fascinating, full of learning and wonder, and makes one acutely alive to the fact that each life is a magnificent journey on its own. To those of us who are lucky to see life as an act of not just being, but becoming, it is a subtle reminder of the love of living.

uncle_tungsten

Every now and then, a passage takes you by surprise, such as this one. Oliver Sacks was born into a family of 4 siblings to physician parents, Dr Samuel Sacks and Dr Muriel Elsie Landau (one of the first female surgeons in England).

Reading has a way of taking us into worlds other than our own. I was delving into London of a century ago in his memoirs. The act of taking our consciousness with it to a different place and the ability to anchor us to the here and now, is a unique gift of reading. I found that strange juxtaposition in this passage:

“When it was time for my father to open his own practice, he decided, despite this early training in neurology, that general practice would be more real, more “alive”. Perhaps he got more than he bargained for, for when he opened his practice in the East End in September 1918, the great influenza epidemic was just getting started. He had seen wounded soldiers when he was a houseman at the London, but this was nothing to the horror of seeing people in paroxysm of coughing and gasping, suffocating from the fluid in their lungs, turning blue and dropping dead in the streets. A strong, healthy young man or woman, it was said, could die from the flu within three hours of getting it. In those three desperate months, at the end of 1918, the flu killed more people than the Great War itself had, and my father, like every doctor at the time, found himself overwhelmed, sometimes working forty-eight hours at a stretch.”

Just like that, I had moved to the other side of the glass. 100 years on, here we are, sheltering-in-place with the Coronavirus pandemic, and watching a similar situation of our good doctors being overwhelmed, and resources being stretched to their limits, as the virus sweeps through the world.

The other side of the glass.

Shiva & Buddha Together

After all the years in which several girlfriends and I sat around planning grand trips involving sky-diving, snorkeling and weeks in Bali – we decided just like that, to set off to Sedona, Arizona. It sounded like the most exciting place on Earth. Like the son said, there is such a matching ring to it, that it is fun to say it together.

Driving to Sedona from Phoenix, Arizona was surreal and giggly. The full moon shone down on the desert landscape with giant cacti illuminated in the glow of the moon. The constellations traveled with us. I gazed out the window, not really knowing how harsh the environment was. It was all muted and beautiful in the moonlight. The cacti stood out tall and distinct, and I was wondering how tall they must have been to stand out like that. I was to find out two days later that they could be as tall as 40 feet tall, and not for the first time I thought of how precious life must be to thrive in environments like these. Arizona is of course very proud of its cacti: The Arizona State Bird is the Cactus Wren and the State Flower of Arizona is the Saguaro Cactus Flower.

Hiking in Sedona is an experience unto itself. The vast expanse is humbling, the red rocks, layers upon layers of it, that were once the ocean bed is mesmerizing to look at. Hiking to a vista point, each of us I am sure had different things in mind. I had my backpack on for no real reason. When quizzed about its contents, I sheepishly acknowledged that I had in there a book and a kindle among other things so I could sit in the wilderness and read. The friends had an amused expression on their face, and teased me about it, but found me a good spot nevertheless in which to leave me to it.

As I settled in to read, there was much head-shaking, but indulgent smiling. I tried to calm my senses to the levels reading requires. I had with me a travel book : The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book won the author the 1979 National Book Award in the category Contemporary Thought[6] and the 1980 National Book Award for Nonfiction (paperback)

snow_leopard.jpg

Traveling through the plains of the Ganges and eventually going up to the upper reaches of Tibet, it is a book that I have long wanted to read. The Buddhist teachings and Zen mode of life are especially attractive to me because of the restlessness that underlies our mode of life. If centuries ago, when technology was not as pervasive as it is now, philosophy saw the wisdom of building in pockets of stillness into our lives and forming affinities with nature, how come we are remiss in finding access to these fundamental things after all our progress?

ea670f7c-5d1a-43ab-ad4f-28944c7f3bd7

Do we need Science to point us towards these again? Science has already started acknowledging the importance of exercise, sleep, meditation. For Nature, there are now studies being instituted in various countries to see the effect of nature as we cluster round closer and closer to each other in urban surroundings. Forest bathing as a concept has long been practiced by the Finnish and Japanese. Known as Shinrin Yoku in Japanese effects on our well-being are now being studied from a scientific perspective. Would we embrace nature if Science pointed us to?

While I started out fake reading for a pose, pretty soon, I was transported to another world. Sitting in the hot lands of southern Arizona – the land of soaring eagles, vast expanses and red stone, I was joining the author on a journey to glimpse snow leopards in the Himalayas, passing stupas and taking in the Buddhist teachings on his journey. Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas is fierce and awe-inspiring as was the desert in which I sat.

img_4734

“Hey Girls! listen to this – Let me read out a passage out to you – see how Shiva comes alive here in Fay Canyon, Arizona?” I said, and started reading:

“Yet in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dot on the women’s foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile – that is the greatest miracle of all.”

By the time I looked up, there was much laughing and I looked to see that Shiva did not really need to dance in the spicy foods of the Ganges plain, A Shiva-ni was attempting a Shiva Tandavam right there. The poses were fierce, powerful, sloppy and funny all at the same time, and somehow totally at peace with the Garuda-esque surroundings of Sedona.

The giggling photographer looked slightly abashed and said “These girls lost you at Calcutta, and started dancing instead!”

I landed up giggling too, and like a bunch of tickled snow leopards fleeing the thudding of Shiva’s feet, we made our way out of the canyon lands towards our next stop.

I don’t know how much one’s readings can alter one’s surroundings, but I was quite astounded at our next stop. We were in a stupa with a Buddha statue. Sedona Arizona is well known for its mystic yearnings in its rustic surroundings, but I was still pleasantly surprised to find a quaint Stupa nestling in the canyons surrounded by naturally formed stupas of red stone, and a Buddha statue carved of wood.

img_4765

There probably is a reason for our richest myths and stories to emanate from awe inspiring places in nature, for it is where we can lose ourselves in order to come back to ourselves better.

Smell the Phone!

Literature affects people in different ways. There is a reason I like light-hearted fare and uplifting works in general. Bear with me while I traipse down a familiar path.

I have noticed my literary fare of late has been morbid, laissez faire or tepid.  After one book that made me want to cry while looking at tomato soup, I picked up some books with jolly titles : books with names such as ‘The Happiest People on Earth’, only to find that the happiest ones are probably the ones that did not pick up that book. Classics, good old classics should always set me back, I thought to myself as I picked up some classics to smooth things over – they turned out to be so depressing that I could not bear to even have sunny-side-up eggs for breakfast. It seemed like I was letting the author down by smiling or watching beautiful Spring unfold around me.

I usually spice things up a bit in my reading. One morbid, followed by two up-lifting. Then, one that hurts the brain followed by two that hurt the jaws while laughing. But really! Why is uplifting fare not given its due? This necessity to cry and make others cry is appalling. Schadenfreude is what it is. I have written about this with a certain whim before and shall do so again.

https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/the-indian-twist-to-the-schadenfreudian-principle/#comments

What then should I have done? Fallen back to my tried-and-tested pick-me-ups? But I did not want to do that just yet. There will always be misery, problems and what-not. Literature can and should teach us to take the rough with the smooth with grace. We need more authors who embrace the stout heart and the practical mind with a dose of humor. If any body has authors firmly placed in that league, please let me know.

With spring in the air, I thought I would be spending time sniffing the flowers and admiring the trees, but I got to tell you, this depressing reading has taken its toll. I haven’t exercised much, I have managed to fill my days up with a whole list of should-dos and have neglected my must-dos. (Incidentally, I read this piece about should-dos vs must-dos that I thought I must share with everybody)

https://medium.com/@elleluna/the-crossroads-of-should-and-must-90c75eb7c5b0

“This busy-ness is a malady.”, I cried as my husband and daughter rolled their eyes once more. I ignored it with a master stroke and continued, “What with the invasion of cell-phones and laptops into every aspect of our lives, our social lives blend with e-social, blend with the professional, where does one’s silly-side-up shine? Where does one get to be the person who stops to smell the flowers? “

smell the phone
smell the phone

My son took the iPhone, picked out a picture of the flowers and sniffed it. I started laughing.  That’s it folks, take the phone, smell the flowers and galvanize yourself to go out and embrace Spring. The sidewalk is filled with flowers if we stop to look and sniff.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/17/sidewalk-flowers/

Happy Spring while I go and read a wonderfully uplifting piece of work.

%d bloggers like this: