Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Happiness is….

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Drama Queen (DQ, who is now 16) must have been about four when she asked me,

“Amma, did you ever want to be a dog?”

She was a huge fan of Clifford, the big red dog cartoon on TV and had watched a show in which the little kid imagines life as a dog. An ardent dog lover then (and now), we were having this conversation on our way back from day care. The Los Altos hillside looked green and graceful, as I pondered on an appropriate response.

“No, but when I was a kid, sometimes I wanted to be a boy.”

“Why?”

“I had two brothers and I felt life would be more fun being a boy, doing boy stuff, I guess.”

I turned around to see her scrunch her face in concentration in the blue car seat. She was quiet for a few minutes before she knocked me over with her reaction.

“But if you were a boy, you could never be my Mommy.”

Getting into “mommy school” probably has been the toughest educational experience in my life, notwithstanding my Ph.D., which in retrospect can be called a cakewalk. I know I am not the only one who says this. The not-so-fun part of motherhood is in knowing early on that you will never graduate from this institution, which is as old as humanity itself.  The daily grind of mothering that begins with breastfeeding and diapers continues into constant supervision of meals and homework and unending arguments about friends and Facebook. It is a course of study that only underscores what you already knew the minute you held your baby in your arms – once a Mom, always a Mom.

Working full time with a small baby left me with very little bandwidth to enjoy the big moments. But we found happiness when we stopped to appreciate the small, uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….watching a snail on a sunny afternoon with your toddler.

Happiness is ….counting the colors of the rainbow after a brief rain shower.

DQ and I have both grown together, the years filled with toothless smiles, cheeky grins, hugs and laughter giving way to pimples, cramps, boys and non-specific teenage angst. The baby with a round face and stubby nose has morphed into a gangly teen with a perfectly oval face and a sharp nose. People say she looks like me but she doesn’t. She stands shoulder to shoulder with me, looking like the girl I wished I was when I was 16. She already exudes a quiet confidence, grace and sense of self that has taken me years to develop. She can do stuff that I can’t. She swims effortlessly and loves the feel of the wind in her hair as she bicycles down slopes. When she insists on shopping for new clothes, again, patiently trying on outfits, I know she didn’t learn this from me. When she enthusiastically gobbles up sickly sweet cupcakes I see a tiny reflection of my sweet tooth. She exasperates me with the number of hours she sleeps when she should be studying. The phone is glued to her hand and when its not, there is an iPad at her fingertips. And did I mention, fingernails dipped in brilliantly colored nail polish?

When she is nice, we discuss her day at school, laugh at her weird dreams and sometimes, boys. When I am nostalgic I remember that she was really good with naps but was a fussy eater in her toddler years. We drool over “hot” movie stars and play the same song over and over to get the words just right. She doesn’t borrow my shoes any more, they don’t fit her “giant” feet, a sore point over mistaken genetic selection. I share my love for books with her, forever pushing a suitable selection her way. She configures my phone and thinks I am cool for not wanting to “friend” her on Facebook. There are unreasonable demands at times but tears are rare.

I watch her closely, trying not to crowd her. I am always unsure whether I have got the balance right, allowing enough freedom with its consequent responsibility without sparking a teenage rebellion. We argue occasionally but hang out together more. I nag. She bickers. I bake. She eats. And once in a while, she gives me a giant hug. The “thank yous” are few but heartfelt and unexpected. DQ has been my anchor, my one constant during the years it was just her and me, when her dad and I parted ways. We continue to define happiness in the small uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….getting piggy-back rides from your daughter in the swimming pool

Happiness is ….sharing a vanilla cone on the beach after sunset

And now, in a new country, with a stepfather and stepsister, she is once again the rock on which I rest when I feel jittery. She made me a birthday card shortly after we moved to Singapore. It simply said “Home is where Mom is.” It’s probably a cute phrase she lifted from the internet but it shows me that she still binds her coordinates to mine, no matter where my journey takes her. I didn’t imagine my life taking this detour but I was strong for having a daughter to hold my hand. I don’t know how life will unfold but I now have another one too. The big questions can wait. I know this for sure. All I need to do is find happiness in the small, uncomplicated moments.

Happiness is ….. having two daughters!

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Blending in

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HH brought some office colleagues over for lunch yesterday. Six people sat at my dining table enjoying the assorted items I had made – Chinese-style fried rice, sautéed baby potatoes, Indian chole served with middle eastern pita bread, a falafel-like starter with coriander-yoghurt sauce, mini idlis and banana nut muffins for dessert. Why not a purely Indian spread, colorful and spicy? The reason is that Singapore is amazing in the versatility of the people who live here. Whether it is the people who attended a writing class with me last week, or patients waiting at the doctors’ office, group of kids signing up for tennis coaching or just the people riding on the bus with you, they represent multiple countries and continents. My lunch guests included a tall, reclusive South African, a talkative Vietnamese Australian, a bubbly Singaporean Chinese lady, a bright-eyed, almost Indian looking gentleman from Egypt along with two garden variety Indians, including my husband. My challenge was to assemble a vegetarian meal that had adequate protein along with a balance of flavors that would appeal to an international audience.

Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries where the diversity of its population is not just visible but prominently highlighted. I take the bus everywhere and it helps me notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving. Every Friday I observe large groups of men wearing the traditional white caps on their heads as they walk to the neighborhood mosque for the afternoon prayer. The churches dot the skyline as do the colorful facades of the Hindu temples, located not just in Little India but all over the island. The Buddhist temples with red pillars and fluttering prayer flags, the perfume of joss sticks burning, provide stark contrast to the monotony of the high-rise buildings next door.  In the few months that I have been here, the large banner at the nearby park has conveyed wishes from the town council members to the residents for Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

The obituary section in the newspaper is always interesting at first glance – large color pictures of the recently deceased, faces of loved ones of all ages and many races. The announcements at the underground stations carry instructions in various languages in addition to English. Official forms are available in Malay, Tamil and Chinese where you are asked to identify your race as a matter of routine.

I smile at the cashier at my local grocery store who may be a dark haired woman with a bindi or a young woman wearing a pretty hijab. The hawker center food courts offer Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Muslim Indian and Chinese food choices at budget prices. Saris and cheongsams, noodles and rotis, Siam coconut and Singha beer – everything defines the unique confluence that is Singapore. Not yet 50 years old, Singapore is a work in progress, a flowing fusion of cultures as it updates its national identity.

When a new immigrant group enters a reasonably homogeneous society, they have to make changes in order to blend in. My father told me the story of the Parsi community in Bombay who originally came to India as immigrant centuries ago.

When the Parsis came from Persia, they landed on the shores of the western state of Gujarat. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel “brimful” of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

What wonderful way to visualize the mixing of cultures which could add flavor to the existing mix? Living in Singapore serves a daily reminder of that sentiment. Not because it is written in the constitution but because it is on display everywhere; not just outside my home but also within where I join the laughter of the group that has been invited to lunch.


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Pinderella

She held my hand as the flight took off, but a little too firmly. She put her arm around my neck, tight enough to choke me. She squeezed and pinched and laughed when it caused pain. “That’s what the relationship between a stepmom and stepdaughter is supposed to be like” she giggled, looking out of the airplane window at the lights of the city she had grown up in becoming tiny specks.

We were on our first flight together towards Singapore where we would start our life as a family – she and her dad, my daughter and me.

“Hold on” I said to my new stepdaughter (who was later conferred the title of tween Princess). “ All the books I read said it was the step mom who was mean to the girl, not the other way around. This doesn’t look like Cinderella to me. Are you saying our story is going to be different?”

She smiled but didn’t reply.

“We should find a new name for our story.”

“How about Pinderella?’’ she ventured, with the diffidence of a ten year old who wasn’t sure about the turn her life was about to take.

And thus began the story of our life.

When my husband, HH (short for His Highness on account of the girls being named, Drama Queen and Princess in chronological order; or Handsome Husband, which is what he secretly wishes to be called) and I decided to get married, we braced ourselves for exciting times ahead. And five months later, it has been all that and more.

Becoming a mother is a unique and universal experience.  Each woman who has given birth can attest to the contradictory feelings that motherhood sets off in us after months of pregnancy. While multi-tasking like never before, you feel inadequate. While dealing with the strength of maternal instinct, you grapple with vulnerability where your child is concerned. You love fiercely, live fully and revel in the maze of motherhood. A large part of motherhood is based on instinct, honed by the special relationship you had with your biological child in utero. How then to prepare for mothering a child who is now yours but who did not, as Kahlil Gibran puts it “come through you”?

Being a stepmom is tough and it begins with the title itself. No matter how old the child is, or who has been the primary caregiver, you are the one who starts with the wrong title. I never liked that term, with all its negative connotations, assumptions and behaviors.

Princess calls me “Ma”. I call her “my little girlie” when she is good and “Pinderella” when isn’t. She tells me about school as she sits on the kitchen counter while I cook. She sulks when I ask her to clean her room and makes faces when she has to eat veggies. I comb her hair. She teaches me how to swim. I ask her about her friends in the new school. She enquires about my job hunt. She borrows my sandals. I take her shopping. We bake sometimes. And talk for a few minutes each night before bed. She is learning to share her dad with me. I am trying to see how best to help her turn into the bold, brave, beautiful young woman I know is hiding below the tantrums and tears that have been her coping mechanism thus far.

One day on a bus ride, we both observed a little baby, busy playing with his toes, the pacifier, a rattle and his mother’s hair.

“What did you want Drama Queen (DQ) to be before she was born, boy or girl?” Princess asked.

“I knew I would have a daughter” I replied.

“What did you want me to be?” she asked, tongue-in-cheek.

I was speechless.

I had always hoped to have another baby, a sibling for DQ. But life did not grant me the chance to have a biological one. Instead I was handed this child, many years after I gave up on that dream. I was not given the luxury to choose. It was a package deal, a husband plus his child. I embraced them both. This time around, I am learning to expand my heart further. Once again, a wife; once more, a mother.

The day after we got married, we visited the home of a childhood friend. His kids were friends with Princess just as their dad and HH had been all these years. The grandmother of the children was home that afternoon. HH introduced me as “Princess’ new mother.” I smiled in relief.

I will take the title of “new mother” for a while, until its time to graduate to just “mother”.

As Gibran says in “The Prophet”

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”


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Keeping me whole

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“Yoga is not exercise” emphasized the gentleman with kind eyes and a soft voice. Although surprised, I listened intently to the instructor in this new yoga class that I joined today in Singapore.

This isn’t the first time I have found myself in a yoga class. The first time was more than 15 years ago, at the gym at my workplace in California. I was at the office 6 weeks after giving birth. My body was a shapeless over-inflated balloon, my eyes seemed permanently encrusted with sand. I dragged myself to work each day and took naps at my desk when I thought no one was looking. “Its always easy to spot the new moms” said my colleague with a smile, pointing to the tell-tale drool marks on my left shoulder.

My supportive boss who pretended to look other way when I was slumped in my chair, showed me the poster announcing the lunch-time yoga class. I was the only Indian woman (other than the instructor) in a class of 20, predominantly female employees. I was the novice, the one who came from the land where yoga originated. “You had to come to America to learn yoga ha?” smirked the woman on my right. “I had to come here to be stressed enough to need it” I replied haughtily. On that tart note began my initiation into the ancient practice of yoga, one hour at a time, twice a week. By the time the 12-week session ended, I was a rejuvenated woman. I looked forward to the classes and to each day. My eyes got back their shine, my body started looking a little bit like my former pre-pregnancy shape (just a tad thicker around the middle though) and only the baby took naps during the day. I was a happier mother and my boss was an overjoyed manager.

The journey into yoga that began with a single step into the aerobics room at work has taken me places.  Whether I lived in California or India, labeled a new mom or newly divorced, working woman or entrepreneur, I held fast to my yoga practice. From was initially a purely physical improvement program, the simple practice of being with myself for that one hour on the mat, allowed me to transcend daily travails. I inhabited a space of oneness.  

I stood tall in the tree pose; it enabled me to write every night about my baby, about being a working mom and my tightrope walk across the chasm of guilt that divided these two selves.

I did 12 sun salutations the day I left the home I shared with my husband after we moved to India, taking only my daughter and a few clothes with me.

I sat in the lotus pose as I pondered how to create a fruitful life as single mom in a culture that frowns on divorced women.

I bent over in surrender in a forward bend while accepting that death of my parents, both of whom died within a few years of each other.

Like a mother, yoga suffered with me in the days when all I wanted to do was weep in bed. Like an older sister, yoga quietly watched me trying to quiet my mind as it ran off in a hundred different directions, afraid of what would descend once it stopped moving. Yoga stood by me watching like a proud parent when I turned my life around to find meaning in each day. Like a mentor, yoga showered me with blessings when I found a wonderful man to once more share my life.

I have tried different styles of yoga, different gurus. I experimented with various routines, at various times of the day. I spent a month at a yoga teacher’s training camp at an ashram. Yoga is always on my mind, if not in my body during the months I practice daily and even the days when I waver.

I don’t weigh myself to monitor my gains when I practice regularly. I just observe myself many times a day.

I don’t go to a gym. I watch in silence as the sun comes up shyly over the hill that I can see from my bedroom window.

I don’t need a therapist. I stay present to my feelings as I experience them.

And I have yoga to thank for it. Ever the patient teacher, yoga helps me gently come back to my center whenever I wander too far.

I asked my first yoga teacher “how do I know if I am doing the asanas correctly when I do them at home?”

“It’s simple. Do you feel better after your practice? If yes, you are doing it right.”

I feel great. I must be doing it right.


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Apple or lemon

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My phone has not been well lately. Suffers from fever, lack of energy and impaired cognition. I plug it in every chance I get, but it gets exhausted very quickly. I took it in for a diagnosis, which led to its being admitted for further observation. Ultimately it was discharged, not cured. “Motherboard problem” they said.

If it was any other phone, I might have made my peace with the outcome, bought another phone. Moved on.

But I am in denial. I still hold on to this sick device that is just about 7 months old, too young to be abandoned, even in these times of rapid upgrades. I cannot accept the immutable fact. Because the phone is an iPhone!

Sometime ago, during my “Apple-less” days, I read this article an Indian newspaper, The Hindu titled “Think different?” by Nissim Mannathukkaren, an Associate Professor, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University.

No point for guessing what the subject of the article was. I was so impressed by the author’s logic and writing style that I took the trouble to send him an email. He graciously replied. Then I made the grievous error of sending the link to a friend who at that time owned an iPad, iPhone and a Macbook. She assumed I had joined the rotten apple bridge for bashing the company that not just made her favorite gadgets but bestowed upon her, the status of “cool”. I had never owned an Apple product, neanderthal that I was. Uninitiated into the joys of owning a user-friendly gadget that would make my life easier and more meaningful. While I wasn’t an Apple fan, I wasn’t against the company or those who owned their devices, swearing eternal loyalty to the brand. I was an amused bystander who thought Apple product owners were no different from followers of cults who sought to convert the “others”. While other manufacturers made and sold similar products they were unable to clone the rabid following that Apple had. Not having a business degree, I just found the whole business “silly”.

About a year ago, I needed a new laptop that was light on my shoulder and easy on my eyes. While it wasn’t easy on my wallet, I have been happy with MacBook Air that I bought. And then I succumbed to the pressure to buy an iPad to mark my daughter’s 16th birthday. And before I could say Blackberry, I was gifted an iPhone by my husband. So we had a houseful of Apple gadgets,a fact that never ceased to thrill my friend who finally saw me as the ultimate turncoat. And it gave her great joy to remind me of the Hindu article and its aftermath in my life.

Perhaps I did switch over to the masses that believe Apple products are by far the only gadgets worth owning. Perhaps I did get used to the easy user interface. Perhaps the sensible side of me agreed that it was worth the premium pricing it commands, for its reliability. And a part of me felt a wee bit sheepish. Not for handing my life and loyalty to Apple but for being a late adopter, if not a total skeptic. Until last week.

I was totally shocked at the poor performance of my phone – a unit that I have used sparingly for about 6 months, it hasn’t fallen, cracked or been dunked in water. It hasn’t been exhausted by constant use of high speed data. In fact, the one thing my phone hardly does since I moved to Singapore, is ring. And for such gentle use, I get rewarded with a basic hardware problem which the service center is unable to fix. I have been asked to pay $350 dollars to get a new instrument. This seems a particularly harsh ending to the budding love story of me and my Apple gadgets. Do I feel disappointed? Yes. I am saddened by the lack of ruggedness of my phone but even more by my reaction. Expecting a mere device to last long, even though newer models have already made an appearance, expecting my phone to be my guide, my savior, my connection to life itself. Like Elizabeth Gilbert says about marriage in her book “Committed”, I piled on all my expectations onto a puny device. And I blamed it for my unhappiness, for my disconnect from the wired world.

I haven’t been on the phone lately, I fear the burn mark on my ear if I hold the fiery instrument to my head. I do things the old fashioned way. I wait for a bus until it arrives – without relying on the bus App for accurate timings. I look out the window as I enjoy the bus ride, instead of plugging in the earphones. I used a pay phone to make a call. I knocked on a neighbors door to communicate a message. How retro!

While I would like Apple to send me an apology (or a free replacement) for the poor performance of one of its millions of phones that it makes, I owe Apple a thank you. For releasing me from a dependence on devices, for opening my eyes to the world around me, for challenging my brain to live my life. For bringing me back to a saner life. For giving me a lemon, not an Apple.

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Tap for entry

“Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle.”

                                                         Susan Sontag

He gave it to me the day I landed in Singapore. “Keep it with you at all times” he said, a little sternly. It looked like a cross between a ticket for admission to a theme park and a regular credit card. It had the letters “ez link” on one side.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You’ll need it to travel here. It works on buses and trains. It has other uses too.”

He showed me how to enter the bus from the front door, tap the card on the reader, observe the $ value at entry and then again upon exit where the fare for the bus ride was mysteriously deducted.

When the weekend ended, he left for work. I put the card in my wallet. It was my constant companion from the time I got on the first bus and went for a ride. The bus went past the spiky dome of the Esplanade and the impressive towers of Marina Bay Sands. The Singapore flyer inched along in its giant orbit providing a grand view of the waterfront.

I loved my little blue card that wasn’t a debit card but had money, wasn’t a credit card but had value; the little blue card that was my ticket to independence. As I continued my forays into the corners of the city-state, the value on my card kept dropping. I worried how I would manage the next day. He noticed. He took the blue card and gave me a black and white one that had “Passion” printed in a wild font on one side.

“It’s an auto top-up card. You don’t need t worry about it running out.” And much to my amazement, each time the value dipped to less than a dollar, it once again climbed up to a reasonable number, invisibly blessed by the bank account to which it was linked. So I used it more. Like my brain, the more I used it, the more uses I found for it.

I could borrow books at the library with it – books that comforted me with their familiar heft and transported me to other worlds. Now I was literally and figuratively a traveler in a foreign country. I explored unfettered.

I could get discounts at movies with the Passion card. I signed up for classes at the community club. I bought bread from the vending machine downstairs. I earned points while shopping for groceries.

One day I realized I didn’t feel new here anymore. Or was it Singapore that wasn’t new to me? With that realization came a twinge of regret. For the gentle swoosh with which I had transitioned from seeing what was before me as “foreign” to “familiar”. For the loss of innocence that accompanies familiarity. For the disappearance of naiveté that is necessary to immerse yourself in the experience of living in a new country.

While travel is exhilarating, it takes time to learn the nuances of a new place.  Two decades ago I lived in a semi-permanent state of wonder at the magic of ATMs and automatic car washes when I moved from India to the US. The world has since then indeed become smaller. With the advent of technology and its reach, the world is more similar than different. While connectivity has given us many advantages, it has robbed us of the simple pleasure of discovering something first hand. The joy of truly widening your eyes at an unexpected scene, the delight that opening your hearts to novel experiences brings.

As I attempt to put down roots in Singapore, I hope to preserve that child-like curiosity and tell about it in my “Settling in Singapore” series of essays.


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What now?

This is the post I should have published first. The reason why I thought my life, which is strangely the same as anyone else’s but still very different, was worth writing about. And it had to do with an ad on Indian TV for jewelry.

I had been a loyal Tanishq customer long before I saw the ad – the one that shows a dusky bride walking to her wedding ceremony holding her little girl’s hand. As the bride and groom walk around the ceremonial fire, the groom picks up the little girl as well, including the child in the commitment to the new life with her mother. Not surprisingly, the ad made waves in the media and in urban Indian society. It was a wonderful visual, a great statement on the changing mores of Indian society that favored fair-skinned virginal brides for eligible bachelors of all ages. How wonderful for a woman to get a second chance, to be deemed worthy by a man who is willing to accept her child as well!

A friend sent me the link to this ad, soon after its debut in India. It reminded her of my wedding, she said. I had had a wedding ceremony the month before. My 16 year old daughter participated in it. So did my husband’s 10 year old daughter. It was the second time for both of us. And so we came together, each with a “plus one”.  Our respective families and close friends attended the event, blessed us, gave us gifts. We smiled for the camera, sorted through our material possessions and started a new life in a different country.

As individuals we knew what marriage entails, what we knew and expected of each other. In India marriage requires marrying the entire family, usually implying an acceptance of parents, siblings and varying extents of each other’s extended families. But in our case, this involved our children from our previous marriage as well. As we walked around the sacred fire, we solemnly took vows towards a peaceful life with each other, vows written for first-timers. What about our responsibilities to each other’s children? And to their extended families which do not include us? As we took seven steps together as husband and wife, we also had to step up to instantly becoming a step-parent. Was there any advice for that role?

As a child, the logical part of me always questioned what happened after the prince and princess stepped into the sunset hand in hand. There were no books then for the “happily ever after” sequel. As an adult I know there are innumerable books that offer advice now for happy marriages but I can’t seem to find anything to guide me in my personal situation. Undoubtedly I am older, perhaps a little more sensible, if not wiser but have very little experience to guide me through this phase of my life. A lifelong bookworm, I have looked to books for escape and enlightenment. The Chicken soup series provides some feel-good tidbits but there are no guidebooks for this first year of married life with a new spouse for an Indian woman.

After our quiet wedding we got down to the nitty gritty of starting over –  finding a new home, moving, getting the kids out of one school and into another, figuring out how to operate a household of four. Honeymoon, you ask? Even holding hands seems unlikely on most days. We go for family movies on Fridays, outdoor treks on Sundays and deal with schoolwork and homework on the other days.

My past unhappy marriage experience has taught me one important lesson – I must prioritize my relationship with my spouse if I want to build a happy family. And that seems the hardest to do.  Each of us prioritizes what needs to be done for the family and self and as we tick each item off the list, the hours in the day dwindle. Sometimes the only time we have together is the few minutes before we sleep, a time I would have spent reading a book.

Most days I feel bereft. All I seem to do is wait for the family that I sent off to school and work in the morning to come back home. I read, send out resumes, do errands. I write, I Skype. I do yoga. And I wait. Literally and figuratively – for structure and substance, for goals and guidance, for insight and inspiration, for enthusiasm and encouragement. I know that it will not be revealed to me in a momentary flash of brilliance. After all, the fairy tale took a while to get to the point of the happy couple walking into the sunset, but ever after is a very long time.