Starting Over

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


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A mom who walks

“Walking is a pastime rather than an avocation.” Rebecca Solnit

beach stretch“Are we going for a walk?” asks Princess. She skips out happily when I say yes. For her, it’s a special time to step out once dinner is done, after school and homework and cleaning her room and the countless demands and directions that mark her day. For me, it is the first time I have stepped out of the apartment and possibly the highlight of my day. Our nightly walks have become a daily ritual, a rite that binds our family. When all of us choose to step out, we walk in two rows of two each on the narrow sidewalk. Sometimes it’s just me with my girls, each trying to narrate the day’s events or one monopolizing the entire conversation. On rare occasions, HH and I walk as couple. On days when one of the girls is unusually quiet or deliberately giving me the silent treatment I don’t know whether this is a good idea. Is this helping us bond? Will the girls cherish this routine when they leave home?

As a lanky teenage girl, transforming from a book-loving non-athletic child to skinny young woman, my friend and I walked hand in hand, sometimes wearing identical clothes through the busy Bombay streets, two pairs of braids swinging around our shoulders. Some evenings we walked to the temple, on others we did some errands or stopped for spicy street food when we had money to spend. Traffic fumes engulfed us as we navigated streets crowded with vendors pushing cartloads of bananas, people queuing up at bus stops and beggars lining the pavements. We talked as we walked, trying to make sense of growing up, understanding the world of adults as we contemplated our future. We didn’t know then that she would get married young but remain childless, a lingering regret that she is yet to come to terms with. Neither could we predict the marital troubles that would plague me for several years before I decided to do something about it.

Walking took a back seat during the years I buzzed about the capital beltway to school and back, always in a hurry to get somewhere. The laboratory beckoned. So did last night’s dinner dishes in the sink. I walked in parking lots. From my car to the mall, in Safeway aisles, up the road to the 7 floor parking garage in downtown Baltimore. It was a barren time in my life, a period of intense activity with very little introspection or interaction. As a couple we maintained busy schedules. As an individual, I didn’t have time to make new friends. I didn’t know then that this self-centered upwardly mobile phase was the beginning of an unraveling; an emotional moving apart that put many miles of unspoken distance between us as we lived the DINK lifestyle.

family in the distance on beachI resumed walking in California because I needed fresh air. Stuck in my office or lab all day, mothering a baby in the evenings and catching up on housework on weekends left few options. A lunchtime stroll around the periphery of my beautiful workplace in the San Francisco bay area was the perfect solution. I had 45 minutes of alone time in the mild sunshine as I walked a complete loop around the triangular site. I took comfortable steps in my Easy Spirit pumps, enjoying the light breeze blowing gently across my face. In an era before cell phones became appendages, getting out meant taking a break, from coworkers, computers and chores. I made a new friend one afternoon, a young woman who had moved to America for better opportunities, excited but bewildered by the world around her. Her lack of fluency in English was no barrier to our connection. We spoke about important things, matters that were hard to articulate to others but easier to say aloud to a relative stranger albeit one you met regularly. I didn’t notice how easily my body got back in shape after DQ’s birth or the month when I finally made peace with being a working mother without the debilitating weight of mommy guilt.

The terrace of the duplex house I moved into with DQ was my walking track for several years. The large L-shaped structure that overlooked the frangipani tree in the front and the children’s playground around the corner shielded me from inquisitive neighbors and well-intentioned strangers eager to know why I lived without a husband. The moon would hang low on some nights, yellow and heavy with promises of better days. Dark moonless nights reflected my somber mood when I wondered how my life had transitioned into that of a single parent. As I walked along the edges of the small terrace, I decided to leave my full-time job and create a more balanced work life. I couldn’t have known then that this physical moving out was also the spur for moving inwards to identify my core values and hidden desires.

Walking has always enjoyed “most favored sport” status in my life. But walking is so much more than mere exercise.

I would walk into my parents home, eager to talk about my day.

I have found walking across the room to greet a stranger and walking away from a dangerous situation to be equally terrifying.

We walk in and out of a relationship unaware that it may leave a permanent scar.

We may walk with friends or for a cause.

I walk towards new experiences but hate being walked over.

I find walking on air and walking on eggshells equally tenuous.

I love walking around a new city to get a feel for the place.

I walked beside my father as he learnt to walk again after hip surgery.

I have walked behind DQ’s first pet, a tiny but fierce dachshund who chased larger stray dogs fearlessly.

Walking can be the catalyst for creativity. Wallace Stevens said “I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking”.

Walking provides a means for a moving meditation. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works with my legs.”

I don’t know if our family nightly walk ritual will lead to greater unity and fond memories but I would like my girls to walk boldly, and without fear; to discover not just physical benefit but joy in simple things. 

Now shall I walk 
or shall I ride?

“Ride,” Pleasure said

“Walk,” Joy replied.

               
~W.H. Davies

beach stretchWhen alone, I rest my voice and activate my thoughts by walking. I put out silent questions and stay tuned for an invisible but palpable answer. I study what I have read and ponder over what I have heard. When I have company, I share what I have understood and open up about what puzzles me. When I turn around to see how far I have come, physically and metaphorically, there is more ahead to wonder about than what I have left behind. I echo the thoughts of John Burroughs – “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see.”

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How I miss my mother

What does little birdie say

In her nest at peep of day?

Let me fly, says little birdie

Mother, let me fly away

Birdie, rest a little longer

Till the little wings are stronger

So she rests a little longer

Then she flies away

 

What does little baby say

In her bed at peep of day?

Baby says, like little birdie

Let me rise and fly away

Baby, sleep a little longer

Till the little limbs are stronger

If she sleeps a little longer

Baby too shall fly away

I heard this poem first from my mother. I recently learnt that these words are part of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work “Sea Dreams.” I did not study English literature in college and I knew Amma had pursued a graduate degree in Mathematics. How did she remember these words so clearly then? As if she had memorized them in her childhood, like nursery rhymes that linger through the decades of ones life. I wish I could call her and ask. I miss my mother when I read beautiful poetry and prose.

A visiting relative once casually labeled be as “minus” while counting my two brothers as “plus”, a fairly common occurrence in a culture that favors sons. After he left, I asked with a small voice whether that was true, was I a liability? “No”, she emphatically replied, “you are my one and only special daughter. Let him think what he wants to, I think you are the best”. I miss my mother the tigress who protected me from unkind people and harsh words.

I had to be at Andheri station on time to catch the 6.03 a.m train in the thick humidity of Mumbai in May. The Churchgate local train ensured my early morning attendance at the extra classes during summer holidays the year I was 17. Each day I slept through the shrill ringing of the alarm but never missed the train. I miss my tender mother who stroked my hair and woke me up softly each morning.

When DQ was 4, each Saturday morning I would write for an hour, attend yoga class, start a load of laundry and put away the groceries I picked up on the way home so I could be fully present when my little girl woke up. I miss my practical mother who taught me how to be efficient in and out of the house.

We are in the midst of festival season. The house has to be cleaned, fruits and flowers have to be bought, sweets have to be made, friends have to be invited and religious rituals need to be completed. On special days I read the prayers from the books I took away from my parent’s home. I want DQ and Princess to be aware of traditions that will anchor them and build cohesion into our family. I miss my mother’s daily prayers, which showed me how faith is built in small steps.

My music teacher insists that we perform as a group at the annual celebrations at the institute. I am scared. Did I get the notes right? Does it sound good? How can I improve? I need honest feedback from someone who knows enough to give appropriate inputs, someone to encourage but not praise me falsely and breed complacence. I miss my mother when I need support.

Most of all I miss being loved for just being me, the way only a mother loves her child.

I fully agree with Maya Angelou who said “I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.”

I have missed my mother and managed without her for six years. Six years in which my life turned around 180 degrees. In that year, I lost her and dissolved my marriage of almost 18 years. Amma had been keen that I marry young – “so you could have children at a young age and get on with your life”. She had worried whether they could find me a suitable groom had I continued with my plans of higher education. She suffered through my tears and disappointment when I underwent painful medical treatment for my infertility. She held my hand through the hours of labor that preceded DQ’s birth. She stayed up all night to help me care for a newborn. Amma was that constant presence in my life that I took for granted, like sunshine. I was never really alone, even when thousands of miles separated us in those pre-internet days, when I lived in America and she in India. I was always in tune with her, like a radiofrequency. She could sense my mood through a bad telephone connection. She knew what to say. Sometimes it was practical information (how to make soft idlis), sometimes it was philosophical advice (even this will pass!) and occasionally she would send me thoughtful gifts (the hard to find pressure cooker gasket of the right size).

Although it was Woody Allen who said “80 percent of success is showing up”, Amma was the one who practiced the showing up bit, by spending high quality “quantity time” with us. When Princess comes back from school and shares the highlights of her day, when DQ sits next to me with her laptop seeking my advice on school projects, when HH and I watch “House of Cards” before dinner on weeknights, I understand the value of her actions. I can feel her smiling at my new homemaker avatar.

On days when DQ and I find ourselves on opposite sides of an argument, I often wonder, what would she say? “Be gentle with her. When children become as tall as you, you need to be more of a friend and less of a parent”.

I miss her as a daughter and I miss her as a mother of daughters.

Will my daughters perceive the value of my presence? My words? My actions?

However tough the transition maybe, Tennyson’s poem celebrates the natural order of things, little birds leaving the nest when they grow. A quiet pride accompanies the twinge of loss, of continuous contact, of constant nurturing. Losing parents, on the other hand, is a seminal event and a logical one in a life that runs its course. How do I deal with this loss? How do I handle this intermittent but powerful undercurrent of grief that tugs every so often? How do I cope without the supporting roots that allowed me first to fly away?

Grief can be a catalyst. It can be a raging fire that can cleanse or a brilliant heat that can change.

As Sue Monk Kidd says “I should let myself grieve. To deny grief is to squander a transforming and radiant possibility.”

I wonder if Amma would agree. I wish I could call her and ask. And while I am at it, I could get the recipe for her lemon pickle.


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Second place

“The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” – Nora Ephron

takes twoI wonder if things would have been different if I had read these words at a younger age.

HH and I got married exactly a year ago. 365 days – that makes it 8,760 hours of “being married”. Maybe that’s what makes it still feel a little new, a little strange. 10,000 hours of practice forms the foundation for the phenomenal success of athletes, artists and businessmen claims Malcolm Gladwell. What about successful marriages then? Is there a minimum span of time beyond which you can be declared as “having made it”, like a quarantine period for diseases? Or is there a qualifying exam that requires a high score to graduate? What about a quality metric that aggregates behaviors, gestures, words and feelings to predict success?

The first year is a tough one for any transition, whether it follows the arrival of a new child, a wedding, a job change, a move or a loss. For us, it has been a year of all of the above. By choosing to get married, we embraced each other, one child each from our previous marriages, a job change for HH, and a new country for all of us. And yes, there was loss too. We left behind our old way of life, the cities we lived in, friends and comfort zones.

Getting married a second time is not hard. Being number 2 is. I was the second-born child and spent most of my childhood wondering why I was not the first. I hated using the same schoolbooks that my brother had used. He knew the alphabet, how to ride a bike and the route to school well before I did. It bothered me not because I couldn’t do those things, but because there already was a benchmark for what I could achieve. While others considered securing a second place in a competition or being placed in the top three in school as an achievement, I rated them as failures. Number 1 is what I thought I was and first place is where I wanted to be.

While this marriage is the second one for both HH and me, the prefix “second” bothers me more. I chose to walk out of first my marriage. HH did not. How can I match the ideal of a deceased spouse? It is an impossible situation that I have voluntarily walked into.

My drive to excel served me well for many years but now in the second half of my life, I can see that I learnt more when I missed the top slot. Failing my driving test the first time, made me a conscientious and cautious driver. Enduring a first trimester miscarriage the first time I conceived, made me genuinely appreciate not just the miracle of a baby but the road to motherhood as well. Not getting the first job that I interviewed for turned out to be a blessing in retrospect as the perfect work environment came my way a few months later.

I have learnt more from failed recipes, difficult coworkers, unreasonable clients and unexpected events than from the easy, predictable, controllable variables in my life. I like a smooth ride like everyone else but failure has been a better teacher than success, not because it saps my confidence but because it forces me to grow, to adapt, to mature.

Marriage is not a competition and having failed the first time does not preclude a successful second innings. A second marriage starts with a clean slate as a couple. But what happens to our individual pasts? The years where our memories do not overlap? It’s neither easy nor right to make the entire past irrelevant. Each of us brings our experiences and expectations to this union. At times, it seems to be of no consequence as we seek to build a new life with those parts of ourselves that we want to preserve. At other times, we consciously choose not to repeat past behaviors and attitudes that didn’t serve us before.

“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness – Chuck Palahniuk

Kintsukuroi-photo

Picture courtesy Google images

The template for happiness that we carry within us comes from a selective memory of things that brought us joy. It originates from the past and gets modified as we actively add to it, moving pieces, rearranging colors and shapes. We get to redo the map of our life. And therein lies the gift of getting to do it again, a second time. I am lucky to have this gift. The path stretches out ahead, silent and mysterious. I may be the second one to hold his hand, but I am the only one now. We walk confidently ahead with these words to guide us.

Life has taught us that love does not
 consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward 
together in the same direction – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 
Wind, Sand, and Stars

Happy anniversary my dear husband!