Starting Over

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

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Appreciating the written word

I haven’t felt like this in a while, the familiar after-effects of bingeing. Sated, like a python that has swallowed a large prey. I sit still, digesting and assimilating the contents. I am reluctant to move, preferring instead to stew in the juices that have spewed forth in response. I breathe deeply, trying to nourish myself on this feast.

I am in the stage that follows a reading binge. I did that a lot when I was a kid. Spent many solitary hours each day to finish a good book. Even today, ideas of others, made incarnate through words, with beautiful language, ignite my metabolism and saturate my thoughts. Many of the books I read attempt to answer existential questions, other kindle more enquiry. I can’t see it, but books stimulate neurons that connect, reflect, radiate and reinforce new ideas. Another level of consciousness is born.

As a child, there were times when I was happier in the company of books than people, not because I didn’t understand people but because I understood the world through books. The world was larger then. Books were the road and the aircraft that whisked me away. No one in my family had left the shores of India. The English language books I read talked about places that I could only imagine, times that belonged to the past, people who had blond hair and blue eyes, wore hats, ate scones, owned slaves. I read comics and classics. Murder mysteries and romance novels. I loved Scarlet O’Hara, Sherlock Holmes, John Galt and the town of Macondo. Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, V.S. Naipaul and Enid Blyton equally enthralled me. My reading binges made the scorching summer holidays bearable. I measured a good school break in terms of number of books I read. Finish one. Start another. A mantra that worked.

Growing up demands sacrifices. Life has a way of sneaking up on you, diverting you with visions of pleasures you could have once you get a job, a promotion, a husband, children, a home theatre, a dream holiday and any number of gadgets. It’s all good stuff but I had traded my uninterrupted reading marathons for a regular grown-up life. Reading affords me a joy like no other. I don’t read in order to be instructed but I have to admit that books have been my deepest influence. Life lessons come from living and books provide those in a compact form, within the pages of a bound volume.

I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things today, all 880 pages of it. A grand novel that moved slowly but kept my interest going. A lot happens, very slowly. Not a racy page-turner but a book that haunts. I feel sluggish. Heavy with the weight of ideas, with the results of the author’s research, the depth of scientific enquiry and insight that is necessary to bring forth such a book. I remember feeling exhausted after I read “Gone with the wind”, confused by Ayn Rand, and impressed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like a sweetheart from long ago, books can evoke feelings that are hard to define, not entirely unpleasant or complicated, they appeal with a hint of nostalgic charm.

As a reader I admire books and their authors. As a wannabe writer, I feel inadequate. There are days when I feel there is nothing left to write, all the great writers have written before me. On other days, I know I could never say the same things as well as they have. But reading is the prelude to writing. And appreciation must precede attempt. The key is to stop and watch. Watch and admire. Admire and learn. What we appreciate, we tend to imitate. The beauty of creativity is that it is impossible to duplicate the talent that belongs to another. While we may strive to write like an author we admire, our inimitable essence tends to shadow everything we create.

My mother and I attended a music concert many years ago. It was a beautiful rendition of a traditional song. “I wish I could sing like that. I wonder what it will take for me to get there” I said aloud. “The fact that you can appreciate this music is the first step. There are so many who cannot see the beauty in this, and you can. With this first step of appreciation, you can move towards your goal” she replied. I thought about it then. I understand it now.

On the days I am paralyzed by self-doubt, there is one sure way to get moving. I make sure I read. And I ensure I appreciate. Thank you Mom.

A parent is inexcusable who does not personally teach her child to think – Elizabeth Gilbert in “The signature of all things”


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A mom who writes

multiple motherhood picIt’s not easy being a mother. I agree.

It took me years and considerable effort to become one. The day I held DQ in my arms for the first time, life became more hectic, more complicated. At the same time, something miraculous happened; totally unrelated but important. I started writing. As naturally as waking up at night to nurse my baby, I stayed up a little longer to scribble my thoughts. I wrote about little DQ, diapers and daily dilemmas. Could I handle DQ on my own, after my mother left after a few months of support? I mused about my own mother and my transition to motherhood. Was I being a good mother? I stressed about work and guilt at leaving DQ in daycare as I pursued a career. I wrote essays and stories, penned columns and commentaries. Motherhood triggered a hidden source of creativity, which seemed most natural. I was not sure about by mothering abilities but I had found an outlet that helped me cope.

I find it harder to write about motherhood now. I am a new mom to Princess, whom I have known only for a few months. She handed me a funny card yesterday for mother’s day. DQ just gave me a hug saying Happy Mother’s day. I know it’s a Hallmark holiday, commercially driven and exploited. But it is a tender thought. To set aside a day to honor mothers, a day to give them a break, to give them credit. With two kids at home, should I have expected more or with the new family that we are putting together, is this all I can expect?

Why does motherhood make me unsure? It doesn’t matter whether you are a mom or stepmom. I don’t have a reference manual. I don’t even have my own mother this time around to turn to for guidance. I am probably doing a few things right. I am surely doing many things wrong. I have the usual doubts – am I a terrible mother? Do I worry too much? Am I too casual? Should I spend more time with the kids? Should I take up full-time employment? Am I too strict? Do I let them have their way too often? And then I have new worries – am I being fair? Should I have different rules for the two different personalities that I have to handle? What do others think? Is this stance acceptable as a stepmom?

Am I ambivalent because I am a mother or is it because I am a woman? Should I go to the gym after work knowing that it cuts down on family time? Should I accept the invitation to join my girlfriends for a movie when the kids have exams? Most women have these internal debates; I wonder how many men think about it. Men look outside for validation to justify they are no worse than their peers as husbands, as fathers. Women look at female peers and want to out-perform them. First you compete with men in the workplace to prove you are no less. Then you compete with other women to show you are better.

Why? We strive for perfection, knowing that it is unreachable.

The hardest thing about motherhood is not the hours spent in caring for your children or worrying about their well-being. It is in carving out an identity for yourself that is uniquely you, one that includes your mother persona keeping all the other facets intact while leaving room for new ones. Turning into the person you need to be is a lifelong quest. As Anna Quindlen puts it, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” Before I had DQ, I assumed that becoming a mom would make me special. And for a while, it did. It granted me access into the exclusive mother’s club. Albeit a very large one. Motherhood maybe the single largest uniting factor binding women all over the world. So how do I retain my special essence? Who can I talk to about this?

HH says I should confide in him. But men and women have different needs for communication. I need to vent; he wants to solve. I feel; he thinks. I want all my feelings to be accepted as legitimate; he wants to dissect them to show me how illogical they are. It’s not his fault; the person I need is mom. No one else will listen sympathetically to my whining or force me to spell out the exact source of my dissatisfaction. With mom, all my feelings were valid. She didn’t always have answers, but she listened attentively anyway. Today she is no more. I can’t call her. But I can certainly recall. Her words, her actions, her influence.

Motherhood is confusing. There is no perfect way to reach the finish line. In many ways, you never stop being a mother, even when your time here ends. My mom taught me to read and write. But she also encouraged me to think and voice my opinion. I feel her presence now, pushing me to write. I don’t have all the answers but at least when I write, I have a way to cope.

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Keeping the glass half-full. Always

DQ plays a song on her phone. “Remember we used to listen to this in the car” she questions. I do remember – a sunny day in Hyderabad with just DQ and me in my new car. The music wafts in the air-conditioned interior that has a distinct new-car smell. The car is quiet, the road is clear. I am free, like a bird just released from captivity. I was happy then. Does happiness arise from ownership?

Two months ago I successfully received a Singapore driving license, after preparing for and completing a fairly intense written test. The license enables me to drive a car. I don’t own a car here. But I was happy. Is happiness an outcome of effectively completing a prescribed course of study?

In a few weeks, I will meet some of my girlfriends when I visit India after many months in Singapore. The prospect of hanging out with people who know me well, who have been my anchor and stress-relief system fills me with pleasant anticipation. Is happiness derived from future plans?

The one good friend who used to accompany me on mid-week shopping trips and afternoon movies has taken up a full time job. I miss her company but I am glad she is finally doing what she loves. I am happy for her. Is my happiness a side effect of the happiness of others?

The statement “pursuit of happiness” inspired me once upon a time. Is happiness a treasure to be found? Or a wayward exotic horse that must be chased fervently?

You live in a beautiful house – does it make you happy? Is happiness a response to a hotel survey that asks you to rate the room in which you spent a day?

Your children are smart and well-behaved, do you feel happy about it? Is happiness a hard-earned grade in the examination of life?

When people ask – are you happy, what is the right answer? If happiness was a temporary phase of euphoria akin to the period after a dental extraction and before the anesthesia wears off, the answer probably depends greatly on the timing of the question.

Much of our obsession with feeling happy, being happy, making ourselves happy causes us to be anything but happy.

“Happiness is a state of mind” proclaims the bumper sticker. But the mind is more fickle than a butterfly, called “monkey mind” for not holding still (although I would guess that a monkey that stands still is not a very happy one). And therefore happiness is hard to grasp, literally and figuratively. Happiness has been defined, studied, dissected, pursued and even measured by a metric as Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

Am I happy? I generally am. Except when I am not.

What I am is, an optimist. I am often accused of always viewing the glass half-full. As if it’s a crime. Not equal to manslaughter but definitely a misdemeanor at times. I am not the always-smiling bubbly optimist. I seldom shout from rooftops. I prefer to quietly point out the silver lining in the looming clouds that gather around. I am wired to be an optimist. I don’t control it just as I don’t control my heartbeat. For me optimism is a state of being. Although being an optimist doesn’t automatically translate to being happy.

A vital step, a giant leap actually, is required to move from optimist to happy, to transform the permanent state of being to the temporarily elevated state of mind of happiness. That critical step, one I can and do control, is enthusiasm.

Each day we live, we have things to do, chores, deadlines, appointments, errands. Some we like doing and do so effortlessly. Others are a drag, but essential nevertheless. Going through a day with enthusiasm is the only way I know to breeze through the tasks at hand.

I whole-heartedly (and enthusiastically) support Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts –

Enthusiasm is a terrific quality. The more I think about happiness, the more I value enthusiasm. It can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical, and it’s certainly much easier and safer to adopt that sort of stance. But enthusiasm is more fun. Enthusiasm is generous, positive, energetic, and social. It’s outward-turning and engaged. It’s unselfconscious, warm-hearted, and kind of goofy.

Happiness is a moving target, hit or miss, depending on the kind of day I am having. Optimism allows me the liberty of missing without being to critical for doing so. But enthusiasm is what makes me try again. You can’t gauge a person’s happiness but you can’t ignore enthusiasm. I would pick an enthusiastic but inexperienced player on my team any day over a dour expert.

On the days I feel blue, I choose to confront it the same way I approach everything, with enthusiasm. So if I see a glass less than full, I am that optimist who enthusiastically fills it, not always completely, but definitely until it is half-full.

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A right to remember

tulip 2Was it the beautiful pictures of the Jefferson Memorial on Freshly Pressed a few days ago that made me nostalgic? Or was it the newspaper column on Sakura in Japan last weekend? Or did the pale pink bougainvillea flower that wafted into my balcony this morning trigger the memories? Maybe it’s just that time of the year when cherry blossom trees all over the world make their debut after a barren winter. And oh, what a debut! So many sweet memories rushed in to fill in the gaps left by time.

I remember the annual ritual that we followed each spring in those years when I lived in Maryland. I would take the train from Baltimore to Union Station and then transfer to the metro. A short walk and then – the breathtaking view of the Jefferson Memorial flanked by blossoming trees! Thousands of cherry blossom trees that dot the circumference of the Tidal Basin in Washington DC flowering in unison, a grand symphony of petals, responding to the baton of the most accomplished of all conductors, Mother Nature.

I still feel a twinge when I see cherry blossoms. Reading about the devotion of the Japanese to sakura makes the memory more poignant. It’s a flashback to a simpler time of my life, a phase of contentment, fulfillment even. I was a full time graduate student then, loving every day I spent in the lab pursuing my Ph.D. I was young, newly-wed, full of promise, in the country where dreams were supposedly routinely fulfilled for a person from India. DQ was not even a glimmer in my eye. We would sometimes pack a picnic dinner, complete with disposable plates, cans of Coke and even a piece of cake. Some years we found a carpet of flowers covering the walkways, ripped from the branches by the cold callous rain. At other times, we would drive down from suburban Maryland on a weekend to showcase the spectacular flowers for friends visiting from New Jersey. We hardly ever watched the parade. There are pictures in old albums stored away now in boxes, proof of happier times.

It doesn’t seem right, almost adulterous, to allow these memories to surface now. After all these years, to smile at the simple pleasures that had made life meaningful before things turned sour. I used to be equally enthusiastic about a regular day at school, a weekend in Atlantic City, a summer job in Delaware or a quiet evening walking around the Washington monument. Trudging around in a silk sari is one of my favorite memories of the Lincoln Memorial. Two weeks after arriving in DC in December, when we steeped out after the office Christmas party, a blanket of snow had covered every street and structure. My first snow! Neither the cold, nor the incongruous boots hidden within the folds of my magenta sari could hold back the sheer delight of stepping into fresh snow.

Am I doing something wrong? Allowing myself to be swept onto this pleasantly nostalgic train of thought? Why is it more acceptable to reminisce about the unhappy ending to my first marriage? In spite of my best intentions to move forward, pictures of innocuous cherry blossoms are sending a trickle of happiness climbing up my spine. It’s a pure unadulterated feeling. No blame for what followed. No regret for what could have been. No guilt for messing up. It’s like unexpectedly finding a family heirloom of special value.

It seems right somehow. There is a phase of anger and finger pointing. There is a time to grieve, for lost relationships, for a future that may have turned out differently. And when all such emotions are spent, there is a time to understand, to forgive. To know that there were good times, folded deep within the reams of memories where the repeating motif was sadness. Life is layered and rich. Every phase that throws up a challenge, also holds within it a lesson. I matured as much from the adversity that came my way as in the moments of calm. I learnt from my academic endeavors and also by handling what transpired outside the centers of education. Wisdom resulted from soul searching but peace arose from the gratitude for times like these.

With honesty and the clarity of hindsight, I find myself today in a place of forgiveness. Self-forgiveness. Like charity, compassion must also begin at home, with the self. As I think back to the younger me, excitedly throwing her arms out to feel the mist of Niagara Falls on my face, I smile indulgently. I am still that same person. Easily enthused by simple pleasures, licking my ice-cream slowly, giggling when caught in a sudden downpour, picking up a smiling infant on a bus.

I give permission to the real me to take charge.

tulip 1The tulip display in the Flower Dome is impressive. I stoop down to take a picture and I feel a bubble of laughter bursting forth.