Starting Over

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


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Wish I had written that

I came across Phyllis Theroux’s memoir The Journal Keeper earlier this year.

Her words about her mother and her new life as a divorced mom of three children gave me inspiration and a desire to put down my thoughts in a time of personal transition.

Here I would like to share some of the gems and a video link to the interview with the author.

About mothers/mothering

When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children were conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.

About love

One of the strongest illusions in life is that another person’s love will liberate us. The illusion is hard to let go of, even when one lover after another has disappeared, because while they are present they do set us temporarily “free”. We do feel as if we are more talented and lovable and then they turn away and stop loving us, and we realize how much our balloon depended upon their hot air.

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Enjoy this moment

“Enjoy this moment.”

That’s what I said to the young woman glowing with impending motherhood. I was invited to a baby shower last week, a rare occurrence these days, for someone in my age group. Amidst the soon-to-be grandparents and women of varying ages, some pregnant, others still nursing, I felt like a relic. I had heard the same words at my baby shower 18 years ago. I can no longer remember who said it but I took the words to heart.

My favorite photo from the first year of DQ’s life is one in which I am holding her aloft, close to my face. I am wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt. My hair has not been combed all weekend. DQ is about eight weeks old. She is wailing. I have a beatific smile of what looks suspiciously like contentment. Grinning like Mona Lisa with a teary infant! Seems wrong? Actually it’s just right. A representative snapshot of a time in my life where I enjoyed each moment – the days of diaper changes, the nights of teething troubles, incessant breastfeeding, the episodes of colic. Yes, I wished for every milestone to be achieved and longed for one night of uninterrupted sleep. But I also lived each day (most days) fully aware of the impermanence of each stage, the ephemeral nature of things. Is that why my memories of her childhood are like newly printed color images from a digital camera, not faded sepia prints with blurred edges? I remember vividly both the trip to Disneyland and the run to the emergency room one Labor Day weekend with DQ’s face swollen and bruised from a fall in the park.

Enjoy this moment!!!

I hear the admonition. I turn around to look at HH. Did he say it? Or was that me? Did I say that aloud? It wasn’t really a thought, or was it?

There’s a lot on my mind as HH and I walk out of school after the parent teacher meeting. Clouds hang low and heavy, unsure whether to tip their contents now or later. The grass glistens with a sheen left by the previous rain shower. I peer through the foggy bus window, going over the feedback from the teachers, wondering when Princess will start taking her schoolwork seriously. I still have to respond to DQ’s plans to visit a Halloween haunted house late at night with friends. There are errands to be done for Diwali. My to-do list repeats like an old song on tape.

Enjoy this moment?

I want to. Desperately. But how?

The uncertainty of living in an unfamiliar country, finding my place in a different circle of friends, starting afresh with a family, the days morph into a continuum of settling, adjusting, putting down roots. DQ is hitting her stride as a teenager. We are negotiating unfamiliar territory in our parent-child relationship. I am still forming a bond with my new daughter. I haven’t yet figured out how to establish a career in this tiny city-state that I live in. Enjoyable moments seem like stars on a distant horizon. I want to park the enjoyable moment at a time in the future when my children make the right choices, once I achieve my professional goals, embark on the perfect holiday, reach Utopia.

Life, however, lies in the details. In the living of it, we can only handle the present moment bestowed on us. I may want the mundane minutes to simply be done with, like brushing my teeth each morning. Or wish the painful times would just end, like a bad movie. Even if I choose to linger over momentous occasions, I cannot. Every event, every second, every day, we get to live for the exact same period of time. The moments themselves are untainted. Our mental archives may later file them under “good”, “bad”, “pleasant”, or “unpleasant”.

Although John Lennon said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, life IS lived as we make plans, hope for the best and make new plans when the old ones don’t work.

Life is waiting for the bus; life is arguing with your teen; life is going for the job interview not knowing if your search will end here. Life is living through the uncertainties without guarantee, because there are none.

Today’s concerns evaporate in tomorrow’s daylight. I know that.

I see the rain and the rainbow. I believe.

There is only way to embrace my life, in all its fickle glory.

Enjoy the moment.


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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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What faith looks like

“She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

DQ turns 17 today. Each year on her birthday I think back to our first day together.

Twelve hours after her arrival, baby DQ slept beside me, tired from the journey across the birth canal. I admired her cone-shaped head, puffy face and the mass of black hair that peeked from under the yellow cap. Stiffly swaddled in blankets, she was the little angel I had waited for. In the labor room, there had been tears at the first sight of a fully formed healthy baby, shaky hands cutting the umbilical cord and unbridled jubilation. Now it was night and I was alone with my baby, the one who had always been with me, first as a gleam in my eye, then as an intense yearning and later as the bump with octopus-like arms and legs that kicked me at regular intervals just under my ribs. Here she was, visible and tangible, not just the black and white ultrasound picture but a breathing, moving live baby. I dozed off with her warmth in the crook of my arm, smiling. I woke up to a gentle wiggling at my side. It was DQ trying to snuggle further into my body. Sensing my movement she looked up. Our eyes met. And she looked straight at me and through me, a wide-eyed stare made all the more vivid by her unblinking focus.

Do I know you? You sure seem familiar. Have we met before? Why are you looking at me like that? Stop it.

We both echoed each other’s thoughts. A little tentative, a little scared, unsure of each other’s abilities and potential. In that instant, we made a silent commitment to each other.

lotusHow will I bring up this child? I wondered aloud. There is no training or preparation for being a good parent. Have faith, said my mother. You will know what needs to be done. With guidance from a deeply embedded genetic memory of having been a loved baby once, my mother’s physical presence and an instinctive understanding, the years went by.

Today DQ and I communicate through phone messages, slammed doors, raised eyebrows and rolling eyes. We bicker, I nag, she clams up. Sometimes she speaks. Standing on the threshold of adulthood is not easy. Changing families, making friends, finding her way in a new country and planning ahead for life is a lot to deal with.

How do I help my child? I wonder silently. Have faith whispers my mother. Scattered memories of her loving presence and patience jump up from hidden recesses of the conscious mind. What is faith?

How do you explain faith to a teenager? It is easier to convince a child. Children are naturally trusting, eternally optimistic. The teenage years are the ones where the hard kernel of cynicism that adults try to cover up, is exposed unashamedly. Being contrary counts, falling in line is lame and debating each point is a right that is fully exercised.

How do you describe that faith is the color of falling rain on barren land? The droplets measured in tears of frustration and grief.

How do you communicate that faith is the sound of sweet nothings that you wish your sweetheart will fill your ears with? The syllables jumbled but clear in their intent.

How do you transmit the fragrance of hope that forms the wellspring of faith and teases you with promises of wishes soon to be fulfilled? The delicate scent heady and insistent.

How do you reveal the flavor of faith that each one must discover, combining individual insights and experiences to workout a philosophy of the self?

And finally, faith that covers you up like a warm embrace when all other pretensions are shed, when people give up, when the odds are stacked against you?

Have faith, I want to tell DQ.

Faith, is what made me visit the reproductive endocrinologist my infertile friend recommended after she became a mother.

Faith, is that little bundle placed in my arms by the hospital staff, believing that I will do right by this child.

Faith, is the words of a friend who replied “don’t worry, they grow up on their own” when I expressed concern over handling this tiny life.

Faith is staying with your dream, assured that you will be guided.

Faith is knowing you will pass an exam without knowing all the answers.

Faith is in embarking on a path different from the well-trodden one knowing that your journey will be different but worthwhile.

What does faith look like?

To me, dear daughter, faith looks – like you.

I hope you will see it too.

Happy Birthday!!

 

A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on her own wings. Always believe in yourself.” ― Unknown


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A mom who sings

You cannot teach a child any more than you can grow a plant. All you can do is on the negative side—you can only help. It is a manifestation from within; it develops its own nature—you can only take away obstructions – Swami Vivekananda

A little bird flew into my balcony last week. It seemed content to rest for a few minutes until it started flapping its wings to take off. It would look around, muster the energy needed to lift itself and fly out, only to hit the transparent 3 foot glass barrier. I wondered if it was injured, or too weak to make a higher vertical flight upwards and outwards. I watched as it made multiple attempts, titled its head sideways, puzzled about the invisible wall that prevented it from flying free. I couldn’t help, only watch and send encouragement wordlessly as it continued its struggle.

I think about that bird as I sit cross-legged on a carpet on the floor. The iphone app which plays the notes to define our scale drones in an infinite loop in the background. Our teacher sits facing us. She is younger than her students, three adults, who have signed up for a beginners class in Indian classical music. She is patient, encouraging and supportive. She sings a phrase and asks each of us to repeat. My classmates do it, shakily but correctly. I hesitate, stop midway, look around embarrassed. “Don’t think” she admonishes, “just sing”. But how can I?

I can’t “just sing”. What if I make a mistake? I will make a fool of myself. People will snigger. I am not generally shy. Put me in front of a large audience, I can speak coherently without missing a beat. But singing. Ah, that’s something else altogether.

Is it my age that limits me? Not in a physical way. I didn’t learn singing at a young age. But years of conditioning, failed expectations, public humiliation and negative feedback have all conspired to create a mountain of obstacles too high to scale. How wonderful it is to learn something new in childhood, a time when every activity is taken as a game, with no grades, no targets, no comparison? Learning that happens subconsciously, proficiency that is developed with innumerable repetitions without any hint of self-consciousness, is the best kind. Have I missed the opportunity altogether?

There is no pressure in this classroom. The lady with the business suit who comes to class straight from work, the man who has no exposure to music but approaches it wholeheartedly, we are all fellow seekers, expanding our world by stepping out of our comfort zones. I know that. But I can feel the tension at the bottom of my stomach, a catch in my throat as I try to sing. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and focus on the notes I hear. I try to obliterate the stimuli around me. I make a minor error. The teacher moves on to the next student. I relax.

How much of one’s learning is acquisition of new knowledge and how much of it is letting go of everything extraneous – fears, biases, beliefs?

I remember watching DQ take her first tentative steps a few days after her first birthday. I had been watching her prepare for the big day for months. Pulling herself upright from a sitting position, holding on to a surface as she moved one foot in front of the other, slowly letting go of one hand. Each step towards independence was marked by many falls, some painful, others funny as she mastered various surfaces and textures. The first day she walked across the room without support was an important one for me but just another day for a child of that age. DQ started walking everywhere the very next day, giving no thought to the crawling expertise that she had left behind. Children learn quickly because they focus on the task. They gain expertise as they apply hours of practice to hone their skills. They forgive themselves when they trip or miss a beat. They don’t doubt that they will eventually master the activity no matter how long it takes. I spend more time explaining how busy I am and why I cannot spare more time to practice. I hesitate to display my half-baked talent to others, harsher on myself than the world will ever be. I wonder if I will ever develop proficiency in this. Why am I wasting my time? Instead of building my confidence I am losing what little faith I had in my musical ability.

If Swami Vivekananda’s quote “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man” is true, I have a long way to go. For a child, the core of perfection can come to fruition more easily as it is not buried under layers of doubt and criticism. At my age, the seed of musical aptitude that resides in me, is striving to flower, to push its way out through the resistance that marks adulthood. Being a parent has shown me how easy it is to adapt to a new way of living.
I am that bird, limited by my own perceptions. I can sing, just as that tiny bird can fly. There is a period of learning, a long road to perfecting the art. Yes, there are barriers, but there is an easier way than crashing repeatedly into a glass pane. I must first acknowledge the effort involved but instead of accepting defeat, I can step aside and find a gap in the barrier and allow myself to soar, just like that bird.


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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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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?