Is This Bohemian Chic?

We have been gallivanting across Boston and New York the past few days. 

I remember reading a children’s book a long time ago about the country mouse who came to visit his cousin who lived in the town. Not surprisingly, I commiserated with the little country mouse who was dazzled and sprazzled by the city. 

I felt the same way when I first visited Bombay, now known as Mumbai, as a little girl. From the hills of Nilgiris, where bus drivers stopped so we could safely straggle across while learning to ride the bicycle, and train drivers stopped for the mother running to the station, to Bombay, where no one, it seemed, stopped for anyone or anything else, was a long journey – 2 days and 2 nights by train to be precise. I clutched my father’s hand, the whole time in Bombay, and never let go, especially on the electric trains. Maybe, some of those calluses on his old hand, are from that trip. 

I have the same feeling in New York. The city sprawls in all directions. The people, the subway, the sights, the movements feel too fast for a country mouse. There is so much to do – the energy exhilarating and enervating at the same time. 

I said as much to the children, and they gave me pitying looks. “What you need is some Bohemian Chic!”, said the daughter diagnosing me with a severe expression on her face.

I had no idea what that meant, but told her we would do our best to find Bohemian Chic.

We had great fun running in one direction, only to find the little GPS dot turning slowly away from where we were supposed to go, and then charged back again. “Is this Bohemian Chic?” I asked.

One time, we stood looking diffident and muddled when a pair of flamboyantly dressed gentlemen stopped and asked us directions to get to some square. We told them we were new to the city too, and agreed that it was best to ask someone else. A good twenty minutes later, we had boarded the train in the wrong direction, gotten down at the next station and came back riding the train in the correct direction, and found the gentlemen boarding the train too. I swear they tipped their bohemian hats and winked!

I splashed into bed after 2 hectic days in New York City, and felt spent. I had no idea how much we had walked. We had spent so many hours and days in the city, soaking in sights and the sounds of traffic, that I yearned to see the moon rise over the hills, the ducks squawk and geese fly. I had no idea how much these things refreshed me. 

Subconsciously, I think, I had selected for my reading during this time of city-living, the book:

Birds, Beasts & Relatives by Gerald Durrell.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives (The Corfu Trilogy Book 2) by [Gerald Durrell]

A sequel to My Family & Other Animals, it is the second set of autobiographical tales by naturalist Gerald Durrell set in the beautiful sun-lit island of Corfu near Greece. After the hurried, panting days of New York, I bathed in the refreshing days of Corfu and the young author’s adventures ranging from rearing sea-horses and hedgehogs, to bear-dancing, and donkey-riding. It was all that was necessary. 

“Coming from the calm, slow, sunlit days of Corfu, our arrival in London, late in the evening, was a shattering experience. So many people were at the station that we did not know, all hurrying grey-faced and worried.”

Gerald Durrell – Birds, Beasts & Relatives

I remember feeling a similar kind of gratitude to Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard on a similar long urban trip to the crowded cities of South Asia.

Today, we decided to walk around Brooklyn and not much more. The day was sweltering: the children wanted a bookstore-day, and we ducked into a couple of them with gratitude. After a cool few hours, we staggered out with books, and very pleased expressions on our faces. 

Do you have any books by Gerald Durrell? I asked the lady at the counter, and she looked it up, and said, “I have My Family & Other Animals!”. I have the book, have bought it several times to gift it to others, but I still felt a strange sense of calm at this. 

Is this Bohemian Chic? If so, I like it!

I call it Tao

I lowered the tired frame gingerly onto the mattress. The once firm mattress sagged a little, and I felt the springs creak, as though mattresses moaned. The senses were feeling somewhat overwhelmed. It is often the case after a long day amidst crowds, and cacophonous sounds. Crowded airports, train stations, bus stations can all bring the feelings to a head.

After a couple of weeks of continuous travel, I felt unmoored from the Earth. I had been flying a lot: both for long hours and frequently. I felt euphoric amidst the clouds, but yearned to stretch my legs and feel that solid connection to the Earth.

My steps on Mother Earth between my travels gave me a rushed feeling as well. Asian cities are crowded, and I lacked the narrative of control in my feet. I shuffled along with the crowds to make it in and out of places. I was being harried and jostled to a particular direction. I needed to slow down, to take it all in at my own pace, in solitude. Maybe speed isn’t a good thing, and bullock carts were better off.

I don’t know how our ancestors felt after traveling a few days by horseback or bullock carts to neighboring villages. At first, I started my musings on the travels in time assuming simpler times and less problems, but my pragmatic side took over: If all our modern methods of comfortable travel still pounded the muscles and energies out of our system, how must rudimentary modes of travel have felt on their poor frames? After their tiring journeys, there were no instant methods of heating water, drinking tea, or cooking a meal after all. If the humans felt that way, how did the bulls and horses feel?

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No, maybe we all have bodies that need rest regardless of bullock carts or airplanes.

This is where I rewind to the place in the narrative where I lowered the t.frame gingerly onto the mattress. The m sagged and springs creaked, thoughts swirled. You get the picture.

I tried to calm the senses enough to sleep, but it was uphill work. I tried visualizing the misty mountain tops that I love hiking in. I tried imagining the body after a good hike amidst the mountains, but found I just could not! It was then that I surrendered to the written word with a deep breath.

In the Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen was on a journey to find snow leopards in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. Journeying into the heartlands of Tibet’s Dolpo valley, and possibly an inner journey much richer. The author was discovering the meaning of being present. He was walking a high cliff and looking down upon a distant meadow with goats grazing. The cliffs on either side of him a constant reminder that unless his entire being was concentrated on being there, he would not. There was a moment of clarity he says, when he realized that he would never set foot on that distant valley in this lifetime, and not be amidst the same goats in that distant wanderland ever. But he was given the opportunity of being there on that ledge-like cliff at that moment, and he took it.

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Of course, I realize I am doing a poor job of both my explanations and interpretations of the passage. (I was too tired at the time to jot down the passage for reference), but that was a clairvoyant moment for me. In one sentence, in one breath, I felt space both in me, and around me. I was in a cramped city with no parks or beautiful walkways nearby, but I was transported to the clear mountain ledge atop the Himalayas. Maybe we all have such moments of clarity, and appreciate them. Or the moments themselves vaporize and there is a vague feeling of contentment, I do not know.

I felt one such moment when I came home, and was standing in my backyard. Winter had come in, the leaves had all been stripped bare from the trees, and the wet earth squelched as I walked gingerly on it. There, in the glorious peek of the sun’s rays, I felt a moment of grounding, a moment so profound that I can visualize it now. The suns rays caught on the rain drops in a spider web that was gently swaying to the winds. The work of one creature that did its work in solitude, with perfection, and at its own pace. Though the web itself was spun well above the ground, it held against the branches of the trees, on a planet spinning very fast in its cosmic journey with the Universe.

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I remembered this passage from the book then:
“Before heaven and earth
There was something nebulous
     silent isolated
     unchanging and alone
     eternal
     the mother of all things
I do not know its name
I call it Tao

The Chrysalis of Clouds

Long flights are a time for introspection and solitude. Maybe given how little I get of this precious time unconnected, and alone, I am doubly appreciative of these spots of solitude gifted to me.

It is strange to think I am surrounded by sentient beings on a flight amidst the clouds. It was cramped being surrounded by people, but yet, free enough to let my fancies roam the beautiful worlds outside. The stars that I stare at from down below seem closer, and more familiar without the forms of the lit urban landscape to obscure the view.

Squinting into the night, it is faintly possible to remember a world swirling below and worlds swirling all around us, and worlds in which our problems are just that – fleeting wisps of cloud.

It is also rarely that I get to indulge in the beautiful meditations afforded by looking out the window. The tinkling lights of spots of civilization below make me think of how our problems look from above. I can think benignly of mankind just as I can do so when I am atop a mountain looking down at our lives.

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The rain bearing clouds were floating heavily as I surveyed them longingly from the airplane window. There is a strange uplifting feeling in being up among the clouds. When you are up there for hours together just quietly admiring the clouds, and the various lights that illumine them, there is cosmic beauty there. A calm beauty that words cannot do justice to. The idea of a soaring high atop a large thrumming bird watching the moonbeams light up the clouds is magical.

Watching the sun rise from above the clouds is even more magical. The transformation between dusk to night and from night to dawn is amazing. When on a long flight like that, it is doubly interesting to note that it is hard to imagine trees among the clouds. There is just a white/grey world tinged with silver, gold, yellow and orange against a black or blue sky. Where are the greens and purples that the eyes yearn for up there?

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Flying among the clouds, there was a strange sense of being transient. Aren’t we all transient beings, here among the clouds for a while? This world. While it feels beautiful to experience this fleeting sensation, it is also bourne upon us about the fragility of our beings. We are in pressure controlled vessels , being looked after by flight attendants with food and drink that our peculiar palates can accept.

As the flight announcements came on about our landing, I felt an unease. A return from the lands of fancy above to one tinged with reality. Was this how adventurers felt? Maybe it was because of the chapter I was reading in The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen as he wraps up his 6 month trek in the Tibetan Dolpo region on the lookout for snow leopards:
“To emerge gradually from such a chrysalis, drying new wings in the sun’s quiet, like a butterfly, to avoid a sudden tearing of the spirit. Certainly this has been a silent time, and a hallucinatory inner journey too, and now there is this sudden loss of altitude.”

The transcendental nature of flights,  watching the moonbeams, suns-rays and so on illumine the fluffy worlds below is a gift indeed. A time of mellifluous thought,  the landing to the earth is seldom smooth – do birds feel that way?

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A Poem From The Clouds:


The rain bearing clouds shimmer over the city lights below

Giving way to a darker journey where

The stars keep me company as they twinkle over the wing

Blinking and twinkling their friendly greeting as my eyes fathom their shapes.
The sun’s rays across the wing span creep in, slowly

Ushering in a new world

The same world blanketed by the stars

Or is it?
A billion diamonds replaced by one

One Star that outshines everything – The Supreme Star

Till Time takes charge at dusk again

A reminder that Time alone endures.

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)

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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?

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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.

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“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.

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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.