Starting Over

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


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About books

What-Now-3dI have always been amazed by commencement speeches made by famous people at colleges all across America. Amazed because they are personal and inspirational, but also because they are crafted so well. Many cover similar themes. Most sound unique. The best ones are by writers I admire.

How wonderful to live the life of a writer, utterly convinced from a young age that the purpose of your life is to write. When words arise from a deep sense of commitment to a goal, they have depth and provide insight. Writers use words to give shape to their thoughts and the writing life gives meaning to their words. Words then, are not just what they use to make a living, but make a life.

In “What now” the speech by Ann Patchett at Sarah Lawrence college, there are several themes that resonate with me.

About life:

Just because things hadn’t gone the way I had planned didn’t necessarily mean they had gone wrong.”

About the past and present:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours–long hallways and unforeseen stairwells–eventually puts you in the place you are now.”

About the future and how we can always dream of doing more, doing better:

“What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow.”

One statement that Ann has made about writing that reassures me as an amateur writer is

“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

Such is the life of a true writer.

http://annpatchett.com

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I prefer vision

woman-531212_640I am at an age where I have to admit that sometimes reading fine print becomes difficult. Let me be honest, reading regular print is a challenge these days. When presented with a large print edition of a book, I happily take that one. After all, for a voracious book worm like me, the ultimate punishment is to stay away from my beloved books

Call it vanity, arrogance or plain stupidity but I am reluctant to get reading glasses. I still read a lot more than most people I know but I am reading less than what I used to. Some days are better than others and so I carry on, refusing to bite the bullet and buy those dreaded glasses that would alleviate my discomfort.  It is possible that there will be a day when I have to capitulate but I would like to delay it as long as I can. I have managed for the last three years thanks to daily eye exercises that are supposed to strengthen the eye muscles and reverse the aging process. Doing this makes me feel a little bit in control, fully aware that nature marches in only one direction – forward.

Growing older has its rewards. Perhaps with failing eyesight, there is compensation in the form of vision. We often use the words interchangeably, equating the action of a sense organ to the ability to look deeper, further into an unknown future, seeing it happen before others can. Is it age that makes this possible? Or experience? Or self-knowledge which then translates into wisdom? Vision is not the power to predict the future but sensing of what is ahead in the maze of life without having a map. It is an internal compass that guides but does not give a recipe. Vision is what builds value in the long term regardless of losses that may happen in the interim. Vision does not necessarily come with age, some are blessed at a young age. As I lament the decline of my eyesight, I yearn for vision. If the natural consequence of growing older is acquisition of vision, I happily accept the terms of aging.

In the words of Helen Keller “It is a terrible thing to see but have no vision.”


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Who’s counting

coffee cansI exercise regularly but don’t calculate the calories burnt. I walk everyday but do not own a pedometer to tell me exactly how many steps. I monitor my body weight but do not have a weighing scale at home. I look healthy and feel good. I just don’t have the numbers to back it up.

I am not on Facebook. I don’t know if people would care about my trip to Prague or my Prada bag (fictitious examples of course). Their “likes” do not determine my next holiday or shoe purchase.

I do not have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn. It doesn’t affect me professionally because people who are looking for me, find me, even without a LinkedIn invite.

I don’t count as friends people who remember my birthday from social media prompts or database reminders. And I don’t think poorly of those who always seem to get the date wrong, but show up whenever I need their support.

Such was my simple un-quantified life until I started writing this blog.

Now I spend time on my writing but also on checking my stats. I am concerned about the lack of response to some posts and am surprised at the number of likes for another. As a reader, I wonder about hundreds of comments to mediocre posts and worry about the gems I might be missing. I am anxious because I am not using my blog to “build my platform” on social media. I receive advice about leveraging other tools to publicize my presence. My pathetic number of followers and likes can mean only thing – I am a flop.

I feel like Alice in Wonderland. How did I get to be a numbers-obsessed blogger when all I wanted to do was write in a public space? Express myself in a milieu where other writers share their work in a virtual community.

As a scientist, I should love measurement and the unambiguous conclusions that numbers can provide. I do. What I do not appreciate is the quantitative oversimplification of life by using numbers.

Do you see yourself as more popular today because your social media post got more likes? Do you consider yourself more successful the day after your video (or photo or essay) goes viral? Are your thoughts of value only when endorsed by many others? Do you really believe that “if you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist”? Is your life worthy of living even if it goes unnoticed by the masses?

Life, your life, is not a game of numbers. A longer life is not always a better one. A thicker book holds no more wisdom that a sheet of paper. Better to pen a blog post that marks a personal breakthrough even if it is viewed by only a few than pander to popular demand and feel hollow inside.

When DQ was little, I looked up infant growth charts to track her progress. With each passing month it seemed like her height was stagnant, her weight was dropping and her head circumference was below the minimum number! As per the charts, my child’s growth was sub-optimal. Therefore I reached the logical conclusion that I was a complete failure as a mother. Fortunately, the wise pediatrician first pointed out that the chart was not strictly applicable to a child of Indian origin since the underlying data came from a different racial demographic. More importantly, at each visit, she showed me how DQ was holding up her head, rolling over, responding to verbal cues and doing what she should be doing. In short, DQ was thriving.

I learnt then that my assessment of my child (my product, in some ways) and my responsibility to her (my mothering ability) was a very subjective and extremely personal matter that could not be distilled into simple numbers and plotted on a graph. All the statistics in the world could not describe my joy when DQ took her first step. The day she called me “Mama” didn’t matter to others but made me feel like a million bucks (in the days before a million views).

“What we know matters but who we are matters more.” Brene Brown

Yes, data is useful. It provides information. Not necessarily insight.

The quality of our life is expressed by our feelings, not described numerically. Pursuit of larger numbers and better stats may provide a context for your life but not it’s meaning. That is embedded in one-off moments, which are intensely private, celebrated in intimate settings and valued at an individual level.

A close, loving family; a few concerned friends; some interested readers – I will take these any day over a thousand distant strangers.

But who’s counting?


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Growing in a spiral

diffuse coloured linesWasn’t it just last week that I waited for the phone call that would get me a job interview?
And last night when I thought DQ would never sleep through the night?
Wasn’t it recently that I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in this new country?

Yes and no.

Yes, because more than two decades ago, I was a young adult in a country almost half the world away from my homeland. Some years after that first jolt of having migrated to the US subsided, I waited eagerly for my first job interview, eager to start my career. Somewhere along the way DQ grew from a colicky baby to a grumpy teen.

No, because while I still grapple with the same questions, the context has changed. In Singapore, my new place of residence, I feel like a visitor. Trying to settle here, I am still waiting for the dream job to materialize. I continue to worry about DQ sleeping through the night these days thanks to wifi, iPad, phone and other gadgets.

Isn’t life supposed to be linear? Aren’t the milestones that we once passed, not supposed to show up again? When will I reach my destination? Is there one?

I remember a short inspirational essay titled “The Station” by Robert Hastings on the wall above my desk in my lab. It was a small piece of paper, old and yellow, typed in the common but insipid “Courier” font, stuck with tape. I had inherited this legacy along with the desk and its contents – pens, cans of Coke and candy wrappers. Days in graduate school were long; coursework, exams, inconclusive experiments, unending research. Like my fellow students, I focused on getting out of school, landing a high paying job, a salary, a car, the American dream. Getting our degree was our ticket to the wonderful life that awaited us, if only we could hurry up and finish! The words above my desk helped sometimes by offering a perspective; at other times it was just a trite piece of philosophy neatly packed into a few words. “Relish the moment” was the key message. The true joy of life is the trip, the final destination is a mirage that takes away from the present moment.

The train metaphor was an apt one at that stage of my life. In many ways, my train had just departed from the station and I could see all kinds of wonderful things. It would take me to unknown places, provide excitement and pleasure in so many unimaginable ways. I graduated, started working at a big company, became a mother, I traveled, I started my own business. I tried to “relish the moments.” The significant ones, the good ones, are frozen in memory, like insects in amber, to be admired in the future. The important ones, not necessarily pleasant ones, I try to gloss over.

A journey by definition is movement, a decisive moving away from the starting point. The purpose is to travel beyond the known limited perimeters of your life as you know it. Today I feel that my life is either going in circles or I am passing the same mile markers again. Am I lost or stationary? I am no longer on a train. I am standing still in the middle of a carousel as the same horses pass by in rapid succession.

Just when I think I have crossed certain milestones in my life, I find the road ahead looks more or less similar – paved with obstacles, dilemmas, triumphs and losses. If the journey so far has taught any lessons, it is that life is not linear; it is cyclical. A phase that seems to never end, does end. A new one begins almost unnoticed; sometimes an old pattern repeats itself. Stations come and go, some new and exotic, others familiar and fulfilling.

We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

By climbing many steps of this spirally unfolding life, I have discovered the ephemeral nature of achievement, satisfaction and pride. The purpose of the journey extends beyond the uncovering of external riches to unearthing the treasures within – peace, grace, wisdom.

The lessons I thought I had mastered are still incomplete. The journey continues.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
– T. S. Eliot


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Travelessence – San Francisco

sfo bus tour 039
Seven years after I left the San Francisco bay area, I went back for a holiday. DQ had been curious about the place where she had spent the first few years of her life, most of which she could not recollect. I was ambivalent about returning to a place which held great significance to me. I had become a mother and embarked on my first job there. But going back meant revisiting the place where I had been a part of a family unit with DQ and her dad – a unit that didn’t exist anymore. I wasn’t sure if I was ready or willing to face any residual demons that might reside in the streets of San Francisco. I wrote this some years ago. The lessons are worth remembering.

For most people, taking a vacation means leaving home turf and the associated work/chores/monotony and visiting an exotic location with a hectic daily timetable of things to do. I have always felt that the act of being on holiday, which implies a state of leisure is totally contradictory to the goal-oriented touristy approach that we take when we are in a new place, armed with cameras and water bottles. An easy solution would be to take a break and visit a known place, a location where the sights are not exactly new but familiar and welcoming, with no rush to be everywhere at the same time. Our San Francisco trip fell into this category. We had lived here before, the major tourist attractions still needed to be seen but there was no long to-do list. In theory, it was the perfect holiday getaway. In practice, it was another story altogether.
sfo bus tour 078
We checked off the essential tourist activities including
• Golden Gate Bridge
• Lombard Street
• Fisherman’s Wharf
• Cable Car Ride
• Museum (California Academy of Sciences)
• Aquarium (Monterey Bay)

What I had on the list in addition, were multiple business meetings including dinner with former colleagues and visits to the homes of friends who still lived in the area. I also wanted DQ to try some new activities and she attempted bowling and rock climbing with different degrees of success.

While it feels like a lot was accomplished, if you look at it from the perspective of a tourist who had seven days to spend in the Bay area, there was so much more we could have done – Half Moon Bay, Point Reyes lighthouse, Sausalito, Angel Island, Alcatraz, Berkeley and Carmel… the list is endless. The San Francisco bay area is truly one of most scenic places to visit and like a gourmet meal which is delicious; it always leaves you wishing for more. There will always be more meals in the future.

The way to hold on to an experience is by savoring each tasty morsel as it rests on your tongue, not focusing on the previous such meal or anticipating the next one. At many times during this week, I had that feeling. Moments which were complete, discrete pieces of happiness, not yet falling like jigsaw pieces into the complete canvas of my life, but each holding the promise of more, if I would learn to find them.

I remember the moment we reached the top of Crooked Street after climbing up 3 steep blocks from Van Ness; and the instant before taking a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory, framed by generous clear skies untouched by the notorious fog. Perhaps it was in the few minutes we waited for the Hyde-Powell cable car as it was manually reversed, taking bites from the decadent Ghirardelli brownie ice cream sundae when I felt light as a dandelion blown free from its stem. I was suspended in mid-air, free from the burdens of past unhappiness that had lurked in the corners of my memories of this beautiful place where I had been fortunate to live. My fortune lay in my experience of both the natural beauty on display round the year and in the contrast provided by the dark days I had seen, illuminated occasionally by the bright spots that had been my life here for over 6 years.

In the final analysis, it was a great vacation. I had ventured out into the known. I came back; not quite whole, but a little more complete. Sometimes we fear what we know, more than what we don’t.


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Immigrant angst

I waited in the immigration office for my number to be displayed on one of the many screens. The air buzzed with the muted hum of a hundred conversations in multiple languages as couples and families, newborns and the elderly hung around the crowded room. Around me were women in hijabs and saris, old men in wheelchairs, infants in strollers and uniformed staff member behind the tall counters. I sat stiffly beside HH, feeling the pinch of a promise I had made to myself more than a decade ago.

I had sworn I would never deal with immigration officials again. It was a pledge I made to myself one Halloween as I spent the afternoon at the INS office in San Francisco. The visit had been spurred by a previous interaction at Toronto airport where I was grilled by immigration officials about my green card. The matter was eventually resolved but not before I made the aforementioned pledge.

The immigrant experience is always an adventure. Ask anyone who has chosen to move to another country for any length of time. There are language and cultural barriers, food and festival differences, disparities in work ethic and social ethos. Having chosen to once again make my home in another country, I am exposed to the immigrant angst that I experienced in another continent almost half a lifetime ago. I grappled with waves of homesickness and issues of identity in a country where I looked different, spoke with an “accent” and chose to wear a bindi on my forehead to graduate school. Today I live in multicultural and multilingual Singapore; a country that is geographically closer to India and has a much larger Indian population. I do not feel isolated or suffer from bouts of nostalgia.

My angst this time around stems from the paperwork. Before you can adapt to your adopted country, you must first navigate the immigration system, its rules, nuances, and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it was my youth and naiveté that helped me previously but now I have no patience to navigate bureaucratic maze. I am upset about having to wait for administrative procedures that allow me to live here, for the bureaucracy that requires me to produce certificates of my credentials to prove my “desirable” qualities, from the constant reiteration of my relationship to my husband, who has the required permit to live here.

There is comfort in living in your own country – a place where everyone looks like you, the language is familiar and life seems simpler somehow. In reality, life in your home country may require adjustment to unpredictable power cuts, unmanageable traffic woes, lack of personal space and excessive heat. But you don’t need to justify your presence and don’t have to produce documents to show that you deserve to stay there. There is a feeling of ease and sense of belonging that is conferred by your citizenship, your birthright if you will. Like a family name that you can claim by the mere fact of your birth, your passport allows you certain privileges in your home country “jus soli”.

When your whole adult life stretches ahead of you, there is an openness to new experiences, even one as time-consuming and energy sapping as waiting in immigration offices. Your past is a tiny dot when you confront the large canvas of life that is available to you to paint as you will. At midlife, faced with the probability that you have fewer years ahead compared to the ones you have behind, there is an urgency to settle, to put roots, to leave a mark. Even a sheet of government paperwork takes on the dimensions of a mountain.

I empathize whole-heartedly with Meryl Streep who said “I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me.”

The memory of the pledge I made to myself that October afternoon in San Francisco and the fact that I have had to renege on that promise hurts and displeases me. In my youthful eyes, I saw my life as a linear series of events, assuming that certain milestones like marriage and immigration were once in a lifetime events. Today I know better.

I look around and see HH seated patiently besides me, having taken time away from work to ensure I stay legally in our adopted country. I remember why I chose to move here. To be with him; to build a new family; to create a new life together. I am doing all that. And if I need to wait here a little longer to enable the dreams we share, I decide to do it with a smile.


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My husband is (not) my best friend

“Who is your best friend?” I ask.

“My husband” answers a good friend whom I have known since we were 10. It’s easy for her say this confidently; she is the one who has a 25th anniversary party lined up this weekend.

Another friend who completed one year of marriage a few months ago has a different response. “My husband is not a friend,” she says. “He is my husband, he doesn’t have to be my friend.” This is a woman whose first husband was a friend, a colleague who then became a spouse and later, an ex.

“Is it necessary for your spouse to be your best friend?” she counters.

I don’t know. It would be nice if he was, is what I am thinking, although I don’t say it aloud.

I have no BFF. I have many friends.

I have friends, who once sat next to me on the school bus, wearing the same blue uniform and shared their candy.

I have helpful friends, who were once my neighbors, who collected my mail and watered my plants when I traveled.

I have good friends who used to be coworkers and suffered similarly with deadlines and bosses.

I know there is friendship in families, the kind related by blood.

My mother brought me into this world and has been my biggest influence on how I see it today. We started with a typical parent-child relationship; she said, I did; I rebelled, she nagged. Once I grew out of my teens, she moved from authority figure to adult, I graduated from child to friend.

My older brother drove me around in his tricycle when I was two. My younger brother taught me to ride a bicycle. I developed social skills and practiced basic survival techniques, trying to hold my own between two boys under the benign supervision of our parents. Today I connect with my brothers because we are friends.

I have gained family from friends too, bonds forged by tears and tribulations.

A friend welcomed me into her home when I left my (ex) husband’s home. Another drove me to doctor’s appointments when I couldn’t do it on my own. Other moms picked up my child from daycare on days I had to work late.

What about the relationship between a husband and wife? We are family. But are we friends? Is friendship essential in a marriage? Is it even necessary?

A part of me thinks it is. Of all the people who came into my life, either as family or through other means, I have chosen to cherish the connections that endured beyond our initial reason for meeting. Erstwhile classmates, colleagues and neighbors continue to merit attention because we are now friends. For an association to endure, friendship seems key. Shouldn’t the same hold true of marriage as well?

Beyond the initial attraction and euphoria, sleepless nights and long discussions, a spirit of openness and vulnerability that underscores a deep friendship is important. A friend need not know all your secrets; he needs to accept you knowing that you have them. A friend may not share your enthusiasm to run the marathon but will show up to cheer you along the way. A friend doesn’t need you to stay the same as when you first met, he holds your hand as waves of change cascade on you.

My husband takes off from work one afternoon to watch a movie with me. I gamely attend his office parties. He puts up with my whiny self. I let him have his space when he is in one of his moods. We discuss our shared goals and debate the best way to reach them. I hope he will continue to accompany me on our nightly walks, even if I slow down with age. I would like us to take selfies as we do now, regardless of the wrinkles and lines we accumulate. Looks like friendship to me.

twin-spiresWe have been married for a year now. My husband is my friend. Does he consider me one? Maybe. Does his ambiguity bother me? Yes. But I try not to mind. Like other lasting friendships, this one will take time.

For a marriage to endure, friendship is key. Until our friendship matures, I have to endure.

To answer my own question, my husband is (not yet) my best friend.