Starting Over

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


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Why I need a daily dose of inspiration

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It behooves us, as humans, to make some effort to be inspired each day.

Watch the sun rise shyly through clouds, tentatively peeking with errant rays like naughty children, unable to hide their light as they slip out unwittingly, eager to explore beyond the curtain of clouds.

Listen to some music, allowing the notes to drown out mere sounds in the ether with a cadence that makes you listen keenly, through the cacophony of clutter that marks the day.

Read a meaningful passage, a powerful quote, a sensational story that jolts you out of the lethargy that arises from the depressing reports brought to you by newspaper on your doorstep or inbox.

Why?

Because we can.

A human life is many things – a gift, an opportunity, a journey, an adventure.

It may be a series of mishaps for some, a litany of tragedies for another; some privileged by birth and others immensely talented.

The human condition that connects us all is the ability to observe and introspect. Beyond the focus on food and fashion, on achievements and acquisitions, there lies a question dormant within our psyche.

Why am I here?

The answer may seem easy to find; obvious even, in the packaged text that appears on Facebook posts and corporate office walls, posters with pithy text in fancy fonts across breathtaking photographs. It is a trick question; a rhetorical one. What we are looking for is a reason to keep going. Reading the answer is not enough. It needs to be felt. What we truly need is inspiration.

Like any worthwhile endeavor, inspiration requires focus and attention. Just as respect and self-esteem cannot be passively handed over like possessions, being inspired is a personal experience. It requires looking below the superficial to find the sublime.

Inspiration may not answer the existential question but pauses the daily drama for a moment.

In her memoir, Seeking Peace, Mary Pipher defines “moments” as

“discrete time, complete in themselves and utterly distinct from the habit-bound wave time in which we all live much of our lives. While minutes are earthbound and can be measured, moments both merge with eternal time and exist outside time altogether.”

Its that point in the movie when the camera holds steady and slows down the background noise and you can see every tear, every wince, every wrinkle on the actors face. Just as in the movies, you blink and the moments of inspiration morph into the high speed chase that life represents for most of us.

In the fog of a busy life, moments are hard to catch. Slippery as mist, ephemeral. But think back to a special memory you have of a friend who is far away, or a parent who is no more, and you will remember not the days or years, but specific moments of togetherness, tenderness, laughter, joy. Stopping to see the wonder makes me younger and older simultaneously – younger because it takes innocence to be awed, older because I get to count these moments when I get nostalgic.

The depth of a life well-lived is measured in the storehouse of such moments. And the way to amass this treasure is simple. Devote some time to be inspired each day.

In a lifetime where the end is certain, the path is what holds promise. Great discoveries are made not in solitude on a mountaintop but in a moment of surrender.

Surrender to those small mercies that dot our existence. In the guileless smile of an infant, in the concern of a stranger who offers you a seat, in the absent pat on your shoulder that your parent gives you, in the curious compliment that you receive from your kids. The trick is to capture that moment and treasure it.

So hold that asana for a minute longer, that place where you find yourself rock-steady while standing on one foot, when the mind is focused on the body and your breath flows to keep it steady.

Savor the perfect balance of flavors when you taste what you have lovingly created, a meal for your family which will nourish more than just the body.

Share the beautiful pictures that you came across on a blog this morning that spoke to you wordlessly.

Like fireflies in your jar, for every moment you capture, there are many more out there. Get inspired.

 

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Am I a tiger mom?

Or a cub brought up by one?

The one enduring memory that I have of my mother is looking up from my bed late one night, delirious from malarial fever and finding my mom looking at me with concern. She kept cold compresses on my forehead and reassured me. Each time I woke up over the next few days, she was always there. I don’t remember her ever telling me that she loved me.

My brother sometimes refers to our mom as Hitler. In the era before washing machines, she made us wash our school uniforms. Clothes dropped carelessly on the floor were not to be seen in our home. Shoes were stacked, books stored away carefully after use and plates were taken to the sink after each meal. As we grew older and stayed out longer with friends, it was an absolute must to inform her if we didn’t plan to eat dinner at home. She didn’t talk about discipline.

Sometimes I was too tired to do my chores and she would ask my brothers to fill in just as I would have to do for them. She made us take turns to read books that all of us wanted to be the first to read. She would hold grandma’s hand as she negotiated the stairs and sometimes we would help grandma. I would go to my brother’s friends place to pick up schoolwork that my brother had missed due to illness. My brother would escort me home if I had to stay late at college. She didn’t talk about showing concern for others.

When my brothers started picking up filthy language from their friends, she quietly made it clear that it was not to be tolerated at home. When I started talking to boys, she asked me to invite them home. With three children of varying personalities, she knew who we hung out with, how far out of our comfort zones we had drifted, who needed to be reeled in, who needed a push. Very rarely did she praise us. If we didn’t do something well, she sat with us and made us do it till we got it right. I looked at other moms who were cheerleaders for their kids, afraid to correct them or advise them. The parents who thought their only job was to indulge. And sometimes I felt she didn’t care.

Love and care are two different things. For best results they must go together but one can exist without the other. What distinguishes the two is that they manifest differently. A parent who loves accepts the child as is. A parent who cares, shapes and influences each child uniquely. Love sometimes means glossing over the imperfections, care requires looking closely. Love binds, care releases. Love may create dependence, but when you take care of what needs attention, you foster independence.

My mom was strict, perhaps more of a disciplinarian than other moms but she was not a tiger mom, one who emphasizes academic excellence above all. I know she loved me because she was with me during what seemed like the unending years of growing up but also because she was with me in the delivery room when DQ was born, her eyes wet with tears, happy that I was now a mother. I know she cared for me not only because she stayed awake at nights to burp DQ and change her diaper in the early weeks of DQ’s life but because she encouraged me to make my own decision about staying in my unhappy marriage or moving on.

My brothers say that I sometimes sound like mom on the phone and I cook like her. I can’t say I agree with those observations. One thing I know. I learnt how to be a mother from her. I am a mother who cares. And that probably means, I might be nicknamed Hitler. On occasion, my children will storm into their rooms, unwilling to listen when I tell them what needs to be said. I will be called unfair and rigid for setting clear expectations of behavior and household rules. I will impose a curfew and confiscate devices if required. I will make them clean their rooms, apologize when needed and take responsibility for actions. They may even wonder whether I love them.

It may take years before they realize that I will be with them to celebrate their triumphs and also when their tears need to be wiped away. There will always be comfort food and a comfortable bed for them in my home as long as I am around. I will push them to do better and hold their hand while they do so. I will encourage them to soar and help them build their own nests. For their own good, I will tell them what many others may not tell them for fear of losing their love.

Because I am a mother who cares.


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Girlfriends – one is not enough

I promised I would not watch the new Hindi movie next week. I gave my word that I would wait until the following week when we could do it together. I didn’t see anything wrong in this. But HH was upset.

“My wife doesn’t want to watch movies with me anymore” he complained to his friends.

“Why?” they asked me.

“I already promised someone else for this movie” I responded.

“Who is this person?” they replied in unison.

“My girlfriend.”

Huh? The men were disappointed and confused.

I was choosing to go on a movie date with a girlfriend instead of my husband.

Is this so unusual? Do I need to defend myself?

In “Lots of candles, plenty of cake” author Anna Quindlen says this about Girlfriends –

..if you push her (any woman) on how she really makes it through her day, or more importantly her months and years, how she stays steady when things get rocky, who she calls when the doctor says “I’d like to run a few more tests”. She will mention her girlfriends. The older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us –and love us despite what they know about us- are the joists that hold up the house of our existence. Everything depends on them.

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I have many friends, all women, who form the bedrock of my life today. Once I moved out of my parent’s house, my girlfriends enabled my life.

There was a time when I had very few female friends – I typically hung out with fellow graduate students initially and then with colleagues. But somewhere in the busy but lonely early years of mothering in California, I turned towards women like me. It was the most self-nurturing gift to myself, the soothing company of women who were not my competitors, just fellow travelers on the same path.

We talked about teething troubles and terrible twos. We traded diaper rash remedies and strategies for handling tantrums in public. We gave and received used clothes, toys and books. And in the natural ebb and flow of life, I moved away from this circle when I returned to India.

Once more I found myself surrounded by a girl gang who sustained me when I was piecing my life back as a single mom. Into their willing ears, I vented my fears and frustration. In their undemanding company, I laughed. With their help, I rebuilt my life.

My girlfriends accompanied me to the lawyer’s office and to family court, took care of DQ when I travelled, helped me move into my own home, visited my Dad after he returned from hospital and travelled to see me get married to HH.

Like all vibrant relationships, my equation with my gal pals is one that wavers between seemingly contradictory but exciting states. My girlfriends provide support but also challenge me. They comfort me and inspire me to do more. They question, they pester, they send naughty jokes and gifts. We share clothes, quotes, exercise routines. With some I share memories of school days when we wore our hair in two braids. With others, I have created unforgettable memories of exotic holidays in places like Spain and Switzerland. Many others have helped me professionally.

It’s hard to say who is my best friend. Almost as difficult as identifying the best item in a delicious buffet. Your meal is perfect when you have some of each item and pair the flavors. Each of my friends appeals to the different parts of me that coexist though not always in harmony. One friend is great for relationship advice while the other is a spiritual mentor. I love to travel with one while I discuss books with another. One is a super mom while another never wanted children. I have over-achievers, homemakers, doctors and decision-makers who are my friends. My friends add variety and spice to my otherwise bland life. While the past binds us in many ways, it is the promise of growing (older?) together that keeps the bond going. We are at a time in our life when we are coming into our own, finding our voices, loving our bodies as they are and acknowledging the wealth of friendship that we share.

I wasn’t surprised at the innocuous-looking message on a Whatsapp group this morning that said “one of the best things a man could do for this health is to be married to a woman whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationship with her girlfriends”. Spending time with girlfriends boosts serotonin, combats depression, improves physical health and mental well-being. Need I say more? I have all the scientific information I need to back my stance.

I insist on watching that movie with my girlfriend. We will then have a lingering conversation over a cup of coffee or perhaps some ice-cream to reduce stress and boost immunity.


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10 things I learnt in an ashram

I spent a month in an ashram in Kerala last year. The goal was to get certified as a “yoga teacher” after the well-researched and intense residential course of study and a final exam. If there is one thing I take pride in, it is in completing every educational endeavor I undertake. I love exams. How hard could this be?

What I learnt was mind-boggling, uplifting and sometimes depressing. Depressing because the experience busted several of my myths about myself.

  1. I am a morning person

At home I enjoy having some time by myself each morning, a particularly productive time for introspection, inspiration and initiating the day in a peaceful way.

At the ashram, it took about three mornings in a row of waking up to the bell ringing in the distance to announce that there were only 30 minutes to the first task of the day that began at 6 a.m. By day seven, I was ready to get rid of the bell or the person ringing it, whichever was easier.

  1. I am a highly disciplined person who thrives in a structured environment

When I am at work, I enjoy the fixed routine into which weekdays and weekends fall into. When I am busy, I am motivated to accomplish more.

At the ashram, the morning and evening asana classes, the early morning and late night meditation routines, fixed mealtimes and the unyielding regimen crushed me more than any army boot camp. Each day I contemplated running away from the tried, tested, pre-decided schedule.

  1. I am generally open and accepting of others.

At work, I have done well on teams with people from different countries, backgrounds, cultures and personalities.

Each activity was monitored, every absence noticed and censured. I don’t know who I hated more, the teachers who seemed inhuman in their dedication or my fellow classmates who noted attendance.

  1. I can live with a variety of personalities

I grew up in a small apartment with two brothers, parents and a finicky grandmother. No personal space, no privacy, no problem.

My immediate neighbor in the dorm would stay up well after bed time rubbing cream into her face, an additional half hour on her hair each morning, time I would have gladly spent sleeping. There were nights when I came close to throwing a pillow at her to turn the lights off.

  1. I am not picky about food

A lifelong vegetarian, I love eating vegetables, happy to eat healthy.

The ashram food was timely, adequate and wholesome, day in and day out. Oh how I missed my daily caffeine, my regular desserts, my occasional junk food!

  1. I am physically fit

I have maintained a healthy weight all my life, practice yoga regularly and go for walks. I have as much stamina as people who spend hours in the gym each week.

After the 2+2 hours of asana classes each day, with multiple rounds of surya namaskars and pranayama, I had to drag myself up the steps to my dorm and collapse into a disturbed slumber.

  1. I can deal with heat and humidity

Mumbai is blessed with a hot and humid climate. I grew up playing outside every summer, traveled by trains packed with people and lived in a home with no air-conditioning.

I know now that April in Kerala should only be enjoyed from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. I could never be sure if my t-shirt was wet from sweat after an asana class or after a shower. I just know that it was always glued to my body.

  1. I am trained to do my work myself

My mother was a neat freak and wanted us to be self-sufficient. This meant learning to wash your clothes, cook your meals and keep your room clean.

A week into the ashram routine after I ran out of clean under and outer wear, I would have gladly paid anyone to would do my laundry. Why oh why can’t there be a laundromat in the ashram?

  1. I like being around people

Perhaps a result of growing up in a big city, I feel safer amidst crowds than on deserted streets.

With 120 classmates constantly hovering around from 6 in the morning, there was no place to hide, have a private conversation or even think. A quiet day by myself seemed a distant luxury.

10. I love practicing yoga

I really do. Yoga came into my life soon after DQ and has contributed greatly to my physical and mental health.

After 4 weeks of a brutal regimen, I had to seriously think about my relationship with yoga. Instead of a constant companion, for me yoga was more suited to being an regular but undemanding acquaintance.

It was an eye-opening experience. I was not too pleased to find out the limitations of my body, surprised at my mental strength that helped me stay the course and reassured by what I already knew – I loved the spiritual discourses on Vedanta the best.

Would I do it again? No.

What did I gain from the experience? Self-awareness.

Am I a certified yoga teacher? Yes, on paper. But as our asana guru said, “You can never be a yoga teacher. You can only be a yoga practitioner.”

That was what I was when I entered the ashram and that is what I am today. The journey continues.

As the Bhagavad Gita says “Yoga is the journey of the Self, to the Self, through the Self.

 


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Stepping into the unknown

“Don’t let go” I begged HH, holding his hand tightly. He couldn’t hear my words but could certainly feel my nails digging deep into his arm. We were in the waters around Bali, on a snorkeling outing. The mask covered most of our faces and I was trying to bite down on the mouthpiece and breathe through my mouth as instructed. The water was clear, blue and choppy. The old man who drove the boat out to the ocean and dropped anchor, shook his head. Probably wondering why a woman who clearly couldn’t swim, didn’t trust the life jacket to keep her afloat and wouldn’t let go of the side of the boat wanted to snorkel at all.

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I was thinking the same thing.

I have to assume, so was HH, though he didn’t voice it. Probably stunned speechless by the pain of my harsh grip. “I won’t leave your hand, just move away from the boat” he coaxed. I took a few short breaths and found that I could indeed stay upright. I learnt to breathe through my mouth and slowly titled my face forward and looked below the surface of the water. Blue fish! Yellow fish! Striped fish! Big ones and small, regular shaped ones and unusual ones! They were everywhere, near the flippers that extended from my feet, almost touching my fingers as I broke the bread into pieces. The old man helpfully handed me a long plastic rope attached to the boat to guide me in an attempt to convince me to move away. I lifted my face up to the sun and saw many others in blue and red life jackets bobbing up and down in the vicinity.

The light gently reflected off the water. The boat rocked vigorously as the waves crashed against it. I looked down and was once more drawn into this parallel watery universe under my feet. There was a whole world down there. Rocks on the bottom, swaying trees, schools of fish, a couple of scuba divers exploring the depths. I held on to the rope but moved away from the boat, engrossed in walking into this giant, live aquarium. I wondered at the mystery and majesty of nature, and at my foolish ignorance of what lay beneath.

Nature is a great teacher. With a gentle but firm hand, she cuts us down to size. How insignificant is our knowledge and our presence in this vast vibrant natural world? Can notions of self-importance and conceit hold in the presence of such beauty? How trivial are the daily dramas that we create in our petty lives? 

I felt a strong pressure on my arm and looked up startled. I had moved away from HH unaware of consciously doing so. He was giving me the thumbs up sign, relieved and surprised by my obvious pleasure at this experience. I smiled.

Peering into the water I realized how closely my willingness to try my hand at snorkeling even though I don’t swim, mirrored the way we tend to handle our lives. There is an entire, novel ecosystem within reach. A new life possible if we only let go of our need to control. Holding on to what is familiar, fear of change holds us back from all the pleasures and fullness that life can bring to our doorstep. I am not a great fan of change. Status quo generally works for me. Trained as a scientist, I like to experiment but need to know the general outcome based on the variables I can control. Throwing caution to the winds, jumping off the deep end is not my style. But I had done just that, not only in stepping of the boat in the middle of the ocean but in stepping off the tried and tested life path as well. And look what a wonderful experience it has been! Life is undoubtedly an adventure, even if you choose to color within the lines. Unless we trust in the goodness of nature, in the strength of our own abilities, it will remain a mere exercise in checking the right boxes. But stepping out without guarantees into unknown territory gives depth and insight, a prerequisite for making the journey worthwhile. . 

“Time to head back” said HH, holding out his hand. The old man tugged at the rope. Reluctantly I climbed into the boat. I peeled the wet flippers off my feet and leaned into the water, waving a silent goodbye to the fish. I smiled contentedly, happy as a clam. 


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A Mom who reads

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“You don’t need to check out every book in the library. They will keep it safe for you while you finish the ones you already have at home” admonishes HH when he sees the piles of books on the sofa, dining table, bed! I know I can always go back and get the books one by one but then, how can I experience the joy that having books within reach brings me?

I am a girl who reads. I love that blast of cold breeze that instantly chills me as I walk into my neighborhood library, taking shelter from the harsh afternoon humidity. My eyes take a few second to adjust to the dim interior though it is only a response to the sun’s glare. I feel soothed, as if I am sipping a refreshing cool drink although there is no food or drink allowed inside the library. Its the sight of books that calms me, rejuvenates me and recreates in my mind the endless days of my childhood where I read everything I could lay my hands on.

I have always been a girl who reads even though there were no public libraries in Mumbai where I grew up. But I always had access to books. I read everything in the modest school library, borrowed shamelessly from friends whose homes were virtual treasure troves of books, secretly read Harold Robbins that lay around my grandparents home, probably being read by an aunt. While there were no official-looking libraries, there was the local store which traded old newspapers and magazines and lent paperbacks for next to nothing. The store had entire collections of Nancy Drew, Famous Fives and all the staple English books, many of them authored by Enid Blyton in the era preceding Harry Potter. My brothers and I fought over who got to read the Tintin or Asterix comics first. We narrated the funny bits to each other and to our mother as she cooked dinner. We then traded up to Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. As I gravitated towards Mills and Boon and Danielle Steel, I veered away from the reading tastes that I had until then shared with my brothers. Reading habits marked my age, ability and personality. It tracked not just my tastes, but my maturity. It held my hand and illuminated the coming of age wonder years. Books were my friend, my guiding light and solace. And continue to be today.

I am a girl who reads and therefore considers access to the public libraries one of the greatest pleasures that life in Singapore offers me. The library closest to home is located in the mall at the metro station and has a limited selection. My favorite is the regional library which is 4 floors of book heaven. I love everything about it; the rows of neatly arranged, precisely labeled and accurately identified books, the long glass windows lining the walls with desks, chairs and thoughtfully provided outlets to plug in your laptop; a separate enclosed “quiet reading area” furnished with comfortable sofas where you can safely browse or drowse. And if you need a break or a bite, a café is located just outside.

I am also a girl who writes. I spent a productive afternoon at the library last week. I finished reading the last few pages of a book and then opened my laptop to write in that strange quiet of shared solitude in a public place. I was afloat in a stream of imagination with words as my oars to navigate the streams of thought. I had been feeling adrift in this new country with no friends to hang out with, to vent or to venture. But the library felt like home, the books like old classmates that I had missed while we had both been busy doing other things. Now I have them within reach. Like the ones closest to you, these books will support me, watch out for me and be there to provide their infinite wisdom when I reach out to them.

Every girl who reads wants her children to read. With DQ it was easy. She chewed the small hardback books I got initially, the ones with pictures and alphabets. She eventually learnt that books were meant for reading and provided food for thought. I used a book to teach her about puberty. I gave her “The Alchemist” when she floundered. I shared my love for music with her through “The Music Room”. When I don’t want to preach, books provide the medium for communication. When I want to share a poignant moment, I read her a poem. I am with her not through my words or my writing but through the writings of others. There is always a book by my bedside. She is free to read anything I read and quite often I insist that she read something that has moved me.

How to get a girl to read? That is what I wondered when I found that Princess hardly reads for pleasure. Like many of her friends, she prefers watching movies and shows on a screen, whether it is a movie theater, television, laptop or ipad. A plain flat paperback with no pictures and action is like a nerdy girl with glasses in a roomful of swimsuit models. Talking about books didn’t help, talking about people who read didn’t work either. She loved Harry Potter movies but didn’t show any inclination to read the books. So I gave up. She accompanied me to the library sometimes. Watched me read voraciously. Asked me what some of the books were about. She saw me read out a stunning passage to DQ. Or discuss a point with HH. And one day last week, she picked up Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief from DQs collection and started reading. She took it to school, read it on the bus, read it during dinner and has it by her bedside. She is now onto the third book in the series.

What more can a Mom who reads ask for?


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Boring sounds good

I was riding in the front seat of an ambulance. And I was not dreaming.

About an hour prior to this moment, I had found HH lying on the floor, in pain. I would say writhing, but he could not move, even an inch. He had returned home from a squash game earlier that day complaining of backache. A common enough occurrence, I had learnt, in the few months that I had known him. He knew his weak back and how to nurse it back to health. Some rest, restricted movement, a few stretches and he would be on his feet in a couple of days. His mantra was “absolutely no pain medication”. How ironic! I am in the pharmaceutical business with a fervent belief that my work helps at least some people feel better. Clearly those people do not live in my house!

I rushed to the floor to hold his hand and asked him if I could give him something for the pain. He said “Yes”. And I knew this was serious. Even before he started screaming. The pain seemed to come in waves, like contractions. He held my hand tightly during that time. He couldn’t raise his head to swallow the tablet I retrieved from my stash of medicines. I knew it was time to go to the emergency room. A friend showed up. So did the ambulance.

With the help of pain medications, muscle relaxants and a night at the hospital HH came home. He is resting now, not too thrilled about the limited mobility, as expected. It is a little strange – having him home on a weekday.

Not so long ago, the hours weighed heavily on me. Each morning after the girls and HH left home, I would settle into my weekday/weekend, morning/evening routine. How slowly the hours would pass! Silent hours. My phone would hardly ring. No white noise from the television. No one rang the doorbell. Loads of alone time at home.

Boring. Boring. Boring.

All I did was wait, for my family to show up, to hear the girls talk excitedly about their school, HH to recount some funny incident from work. The days had fallen into a predictable sameness. I craved some excitement. I hoped for some tension to break the monotony. Something.

Anything.

And that’s what I got. An ambulance ride on a Saturday afternoon.

“On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being no pain and 10 being excruciating, how would you rate your pain?” asked the petite, competent emergency response woman. “Six” replied HH. Really!! 6? I wondered at HH’s pain threshold that enabled him to pick a number below 100 for what I considered was equivalent to full-blown labor that he was experiencing with the recurring muscle spasms.

All that seems like a dream now. I am glad he is home; a little stiff but pain-free. I can hear the television in the other room, sometimes he is on a call. We have lunch together. Mostly I go back to my reading. And writing. I know the girls will get home soon. And there will be conversation, some teasing, some music playing on DQs phone.

DSCN0576Life is once again predictable.

Boring? Perhaps.

But it sure sounds good right now.