SAVED BY A SONG

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It was one of those rare occasions when I had wandered into a church. As my knees hit the floor, the strains of ‘Old Rugged Cross’ filled the air; hundreds of voices rose in crescendo and the tears came rolling down. After two years of Marie’s passing, the floodgates had finally opened and cleansed me. That celestial moment became my testament to the undeniable healing power of music.

Being a loner all through my teen years, the only true connection I had was with music and words. On long afternoons, I was almost always found huddled in a corner with a book and in the evenings with my tiny cassette player in a darkened room. Although I never stopped listening to music, the bedtime tradition that had waned over time, is now revived and made sacred. Once the telly is off and I’m alone in my room, the windows are thrown open and the music comes on. Embellished by moonlight and kissed by the gentle breeze, the sounds seem ethereal. It is, without a doubt, the most magical part of my day.

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Years ago, when I had signed up for piano classes, my music teacher had encouraged me to look for life lessons in music. If you let it all the way in, music can bring about a real catharsis, she had said. It’s true. Music can foster unity with another mind, another culture, and life itself, like nothing else can. And all of that comes right back as an insight into your own mind. That’s how the purgation takes place. Some days it’s jazz that moves me, on other days it could be rock or forgotten Bollywood oldies. The music we choose is never random, it reflects our emotional/mental state at the time. That’s exactly why we get obsessed with certain songs; it’s because they speak to our deeper selves.

I have an inherent need to understand a song (and everything else) in all its entirety. So recently when a friend sent me a Bangla song, it upset me that I couldn’t find a proper translation of the lyrics. “You would have enjoyed it more”, he said wryly, “if you just listened to it.” That, right there, was another analogy for life.

The struggle to find our worth can be an ongoing battle. A broken relationship, an unfulfilling career or a lost dream can leave us feeling shoddy. Until one day someone holds a mirror to our soul and we remember love. Just like the beauty of a person is revealed by how they make you feel, so it is with music. A song that you find mediocre could be someone’s favourite just because it spoke to them when they needed it the most. It’s an idea that made me accepting of other people’s choices, in music and in life.

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Whether it’s just a car ride I want to enjoy or a dark patch I’m trying to work through, what has, and always will help me, is a piece of music. Above all else, it teaches us that love is more than just a word. It’s our connection with the world around us. It’s what helps us make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. It shows us that no matter where we live on this planet, we are essentially the same. Sometimes when I find myself withering, I sit back and let a song wash over me, other times I write my own. Either way, it can be safely said, that I’m always saved by a song. A single lyric or melody at the right time can change everything. It can give your life direction, beauty, meaning. And the courage to live with a little more heart.

There’s a quote from One Tree Hill that I love. “Every song has a coda, a final movement. Whether it fades out or crashes away, every song ends. Is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” We’re all perpetually trying to figure out things, working our way through the rough terrain of life, wondering where it leads us. Well, with the right soundtrack, our journey can be a transcendent one.

 

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INTO THE FOREST

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Last week, we drove down to Atvan for a much needed getaway. The morning was beautifully cleansed by a steady drizzle and soulful music filled the air. As we drew near, the slow upward climb was made surreal by the dense fog that hung over the valley like a thick, fluffy blanket. Atvan means ‘into the forest’ and it was exactly where I craved to be. After a small, rickety ride off the main road, we came upon the iron gates of the property where we were to spend the next couple of days. It was like stepping into another world, where all one could do was just ‘be’. The foliage was thick and glowing, the skies weeping in bursts every now and then. A subtle peace hung in the air and clung to us as we walked down the suspended wooden bridge that led to our tree house. It felt like ambling through a paradise that promised to hold me in its arms and heal me.

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The tree house itself was splendid, beckoning to me as if it was a home I’d never known I had. The lines between the indoors and outdoors were so artfully blurred that I could reach out over the railing and touch the branches from where I stood. For a nature junkie like me, there was nothing more to desire, nothing more to ask for. The best gift, however, was the birdsong. For the first time, I discovered the salacious warbling of the ‘Malabar Whistling Thrush’, aptly nicknamed ‘Whistling Schoolboy’. I’m known to fall in love more heavily with sounds than sights and I was properly charmed by this one.  The whistling of this bird has an uncannily human quality about it and the constant trill kept me amused throughout my stay there.

While there was still light, we explored the forest, walking along winding pathways and climbing slippery slopes. There were very few people around and it was just as well. The quietude was welcome and calmed my troubled heart like nothing else could. It was very reminiscent of my summers in pre-electric Mangalore, when the only illumination after dusk came from small lamps scattered around the house. Oftentimes, I long for those inky nights that were spent gazing at radiantly starry skies.

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Mostly, I am a happy person, but I suffer from intermittent existential malaise. There is a melancholy that runs through my veins, and most times that very darkness inspires me to be creative. Of late though, there had been constant spells of anxiety that rattled and numbed me in cycles. It wasn’t a good feeling. But right then, in the lap of nature, it seemed possible to wipe away the grime, lay down for a bit and stand up again. I felt ready to refocus and recalibrate. That said, the learning curve was yet to present itself.

As the day folded into night, a swarm of moths came out. The night was punctuated with their calls, but other than that it was a world that demanded nothing but the slow unwinding of a ragged soul. As I snuggled under the covers, peering out into the night through the wide glass wall, a stellar spectacle built up before me. My eyes lit up and widened to the effervescent dance of hundreds of glowing fireflies. It was like a secret rendezvous that was planned just for me. I was so dazzled by the wonder of it, that sleep just vanished and I stayed awake for hours watching as they twinkled and dimmed until I could no longer tell them apart from the stars above.

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It brought to mind a song by Owl City called ‘Fireflies’. A whimsical song that on the surface seems to speak about insomnia and childhood dreams, but is said to be more deeply about lucid dreaming or even astral projection.

The bioluminescence of a firefly is an enchanting process that involves conversion of chemical energy into light. Could these little beacons of hope then be passing on a message to us? That no matter how much darkness we’re drenched in, we could possibly make our own light? Lost in the embrace of that soft, mesmeric night, I surrendered to the dazzling flashes of life that these little critters brought me. For as they say, every blink of a firefly’s light says ‘Believe’.

FLUORESCENCE

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Thanksgiving need not be one day in a year; it’s an emotion that must be felt and expressed as a frequent, if not daily, ritual. So, as I celebrate another year of my earnest and quiet life, this constitutes a toast to all that I’m grateful for. A life, by no means perfect or even remotely recommended, but profound all the same. To me, what enables an impassioned, bona fide life is the people who grace it. People who have taught me to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. If it wasn’t for these little superintended tutorials, I would have strayed and how.

Recently, my friend, Gazala, wrote about how they nurtured their bashful little orchid plant that refused to flower. It took a year and a half of coaxing and whispering sweet-nothings for a beautiful white orchid to finally bloom. That’s how people are too; you dust them with rhythmic sprinklings of love and encouragement and they’ll flourish.

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Sometimes, love can feel smothering though; but it does well to understand where it comes from. This reminds me of one of the two times I’ve talked back to my mother. Dad being away all the time made mum over-protective about me. I wasn’t allowed to stay out late and it rattled me to think of all the parties, camps and adolescent fun I was missing out on. One day I got flustered enough to blurt, “What do you suppose I might do in the dark, that isn’t possible in daylight?” She was hurt and I bitterly regretted my outburst.

Around that time, an aunt was giving me stitching lessons. One day, she taught me how to use the basting thread. A basting thread is essentially used to temporarily hold the fabric together and removed once the work is complete. Parents are quite like those basting threads, holding us together until we’re ready to face the world on our own. Like a butterfly that flies in and softly rests on an outstretched hand, the realization settled in on me. Through the years, I became mum’s confidante and she, my anchor.

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There is a beauty in leading by example and I have a list of people to thank. Doting family and vintage friends, no doubt; but the unacquainted too. The ones who came tiptoeing into my life and gifted me fresh perspectives. The ones who inspired me by being who they are, sharing their ideas and fortuitously guiding me to execute my own. The strangeness and magnificence of life is authenticated by such associations. And before you know it, these kindred souls become the flourish to your ordinary life.

A couple of years ago, when I signed up for a songwriting course, I had no idea that I was setting out on a journey to find a part of me that I didn’t know existed. It was a fun experiment that not only reinforced my belief in myself but showed me how a person you never ever meet can influence you. My mentor, Mr. Pattinson opened up a world that intrigued my passionate heart. I became a diligent student who never defaulted on assignments, even while on an overseas holiday. To the procrastinator in me, that was a growth beyond any other.

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As the days get longer and hotter, I draw strength from the Gulmohar tree outside my window which flowers abundantly in this season. Like a Japanese baby’s first hanami (cherry blossom viewing), I’ve always taken this season seriously. The Gulmohar brings back memories of a long forgotten childhood when we used to play under its fiery red canopy and wait for its long seed cases to turn brown and hard, so we could rattle them all day. But what really makes the Gulmohar precious to me is an allegory that I have dearly held on to for years: that the flowering of this bountiful tree coincides with my birthday for a reason. I see it as Nature’s gift to me; a reminder that when the summers of life get unbearable, there is always a burst of hope to cling on to. That even as life hurts me, it hands me the idea that I inherently possess the grace to find my own fluorescence.

Despite my polychromatic weaknesses, I have come a long way. I am beholden to all who walk with me and lend a hand to help me execute this sometimes dark, sometimes sparkling life with a poise that can only come from genuine love. Here’s hoping that a decade from now when I revisit this page, I’d be just as grateful.

 

A DELIBERATE LIFE

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February has mostly been about silence, quietude, classified thoughts and reclaiming personal time. I went back and forth into my shell, spoke less, read more and let life wash over me. It felt good to not push the trite moments away while embracing the pristine. And in between the two, I picked the empty ones to refine the roadmaps to a life I never want to stop being in love with. Personal goals, however, seem fragmented if they don’t cause at least a tiddly positive ripple that extends beyond self. As I went about setting intentions for the coming year, questions kept inadvertently popping up: “Do the benefits of a minimalistic life extend to society?” “How can I make a significant change?” “What kind of trail am I leaving behind?” Because regardless of who we are, each one of us has a wisdom that the world needs.

When I bid adieu to the corporate world, the first lesson to put into practice was to draw a line between needs and wants. When you make a decision to go from clutching at bits of life in between the frenzy, to enjoying a deliberate life, little changes become mandatory. In retrospect, that’s when the shift had subtly begun. My daughter was five at the time, and her first lesson in ‘Enoughism’ was to be mindful of what she picked up at the supermarket. We called it the ‘one dirham’ rule. If it’s one dirham or less, she could have it. When Barbie became a rage, she was encouraged to play with simpler, chubbier dolls. Without even realising it, the micro decisions were adding up. Now as a 22-year old, when I see her spend wisely or choose character over status while picking friends, it seems like we did something right. Raising a wholesome, thinking person does add value to society.

IMG-20180222-WA0022Minimalism is not about deprivation, you just need to know when to rein it in. And it’s only human to slip sometimes. But we have to understand the consequences of our actions. The undercurrents of consumerism run deep. Like termites that stay hidden from sight until the rafters come crashing down, it has eaten away at the very fabric that is supposed to hold us together. How did we morph into a perpetually stressed lot, always running around, always distracted and always in the quest to accumulate more? A bunch of robots so busy holding on to devices that we don’t even realise what we have let go of? The litter we are leaving behind is grim and worrisome. It’s overwhelming when you think about making amends, but we can start small and still make a difference.

The other day I asked my daughter what her dream home looked like. “A well-kept studio apartment”, she said matter-of-factly. It might sound strange but it’s mighty sensible. When we live in small uncluttered spaces, conserve energy and buy less, what happens is this: “We bring down the CO2 levels, caused due to the burning of all the fuel needed, to power the making of crap that we don’t really need”. So the simplest way to add value is to change the way we live. This is the easiest way to reduce our carbon footprints and the most precious gift we can leave behind for posterity. It’s how we can pay it forward.

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Recently, I dined at a new restaurant in my neighbourhood. It turned out to be a beautiful experience. The music was lilting, the staff friendly, the menu handpicked and the food fresh. The server explained every dish to me right down to the sourcing of the ingredients. Their USP was ‘fresh, organic and simple’. That meal was poetry in motion and seemed like a perfect synecdoche for the life I was aiming at.

One of life’s simpler pleasures has always been dessert. When the tiramisu came, the proprietor, a young man in his 20s, threw me a challenge. “Identify the five spices in this dessert and you earn a parting drink for free”, he chimed. As I rolled a spoonful of the dessert on my tongue, the spices stood out enough for me to name them correctly. I got the free drink as promised. But the most valuable takeaway was this: Whether it’s food, possessions or life, when you eliminate the superfluity, what remains is the essence.

 

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TABLE FOR ONE

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If I remember right, it was in class 8, that we were asked to analyze William Wordsworth’s lyrical poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more popularly known as ‘Daffodils’). Being a loner at heart, and often indulging in such wanderings myself, I found it easy to relate to this simple yet profound piece of work. My English teacher had applauded it as ‘a sincere and well comprehended analysis’. Having recently lost his brother, Wordsworth was actually melancholic at the time he wrote the poem, but I understood that my own wanderings were not really dismal. ‘Being alone’ did not have to mean ‘being lonely’.

Years later, life nudged me to revisit the cognizance of the 12-year old me. Every decade of life brings new learning, but the forties have been really profound so far. After over two decades of constantly hovering around each other, my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly posted to Bangalore. It brought back solitude in heaps, the minutes piling up like an untidy collection of objects placed haphazardly on top of each other. At first, it was overwhelming, but in due course, the aesthete in me started coherently stacking up the hours in neat, codified piles. It was an opportunity to feed the ‘slow life’ fanatic in me and before I knew it, I was addicted to the unceremoniously strewn moments.

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Being raised in patriarchal societies, we women are conditioned to calibrate from a young age and that kind of cumberance eventually becomes a roadblock that we  subconciously set up for ourselves. We grow up believing that it is somehow wrong to enjoy a movie on our own or go out with friends if the husband and kids are at home. So one fine day, when solitude comes knocking, we don’t know what to do.

Many years ago, while I was still in junior college, I had to appear for an exam. Having reached the examination centre too early, I decided to grab a sandwich at a nearby restaurant to kill time. It did not occur to me that sitting by myself in a restaurant was such a big deal, but clearly it was. I was catcalled at and stared down with derision. It was mortifying and the incident made me guarded and even more diffident than I already was.

Things are thankfully different now. I recently read that ‘Good at being alone’ is seen as a skill important enough to be put on a resume in countries like Japan. The late Japanese journalist Iwashita Kumiko in 1999 coined an interesting term called O-hitori Sama Kojo Iinkai (the Committee for Advancing the Interests of People Who Do Things Alone). ‘O-hitori sama’, more than anything else, has become a newly coined expression to describe women soloing out, and I am heartened to see that the trend is catching up in Indian cities too. After solo shopping sprees when I now enter a restaurant, it seems unremarkable to say, “Table for one”. As far as ‘3 little words’ go, these are sweeter than any other, putting a spring in my step and a smile on my face on lackluster days. On a deeper level, it is quantum leaps such as these that transform society from the ground up. As individuals, it sets us free.

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I’ve never considered myself a ‘spa person’, but after a particularly disorienting day walking the bylanes of Pratunam district in Thailand, I once allowed myself to be coaxed into a foot massage. As the masseuse worked deftly to unknot my muscles, I eased into a trance and an hour later, emerged out of there thoroughly rejuvenated. Solitude is much like that massage, it helps in the unfettering of the fortifications that we entangle ourselves in. There’s something profound about being alone and I am beginning to relish the beauty of it.

Humans are social animals and company is always welcome. So, in essence, I am by no means promoting soloism (if there is such a term), but just upholding the merits of such a state if you ever find yourself in it. These are the fringe benefits of a situation that most people consider somber. The “bliss of solitude” as Wordsworth puts it is worth exploring. Life is so interesting and vast, that time falls short. So it’s prudent to not waste time waiting for company when there is none, but rather go after what ignites us and sets our hearts aflutter. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that there are lessons to be learned and thoughts to be shared. If while ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ we can unleash our creativity, share and inspire someone with our experiences, then we can leave knowing we honored the magnanimous gift of life.

 

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UNPLUGGED DAYS

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A few years ago, we drove deep into the desert of Hatta. The sand dunes there are luminuous and beautifully astral. We had decided to spend the night, so after a  sumptuous Arabic meal, we found ourselves languidly sprawled under the starry sky. A friend was strumming his guitar and time shimmered like a mirage – palpable and truant at the same time. Moments like these call out to me more often now than ever before.

Of late, I’ve begun to get extremely claustrophobic. There’s a constant need to be out in the open, more precisely, in the lap of nature. The rapidity and uproar of the city is almost pandemonic. It could be some sort of seasonal affective disorder and I refrain from mentioning my restlessness to people around me. Instead I try to manipulate excursions on the pretext of this and that. Even then, my neurosis reveals itself by it’s absence as I sizeably open up the minute we approach the countryside. It’s a transformation that’s hard to miss.

A few days ago, my husband and I drove down to a fishing village about 15 kms outside city limits. The lanes were winding and suitably narrow. Brightly painted houses nestled closely in a disorderly manner, women seemed friendly and men bustled around in carelessly wrapped loin cloths. There was a lack of curiosity in their glances that put me at ease, like the warm but understated embrace of family welcoming you home. That evening, as I sat gazing out at the endlessly inspiring sea, I wondered if it was at all possible to feel displaced from a place one has never known.

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When we headed back home two days later, we were met with some disturbing news. Over 3,000 trees were about to face the axe soon to make way for the Metro car shed in my favourite Aarey Milk Colony. The city planners might have their reasons but I was devastated, to say the least. The Aarey area is one of the few green spots left in the otherwise concrete city of Mumbai and a place that’s always balm to my ravaged mind.

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On the supremely wide girth of these tree trunks are stories of storms weathered and solace gathered. I felt compelled to revisit the tales and hold them close one more time. So we made a trip and loitered around. It turned out to be a beautiful and adventurous day. We chatted up a local and milked out gossip, pretended to be film-makers and explored a film location, hugged tree trunks and discovered spots that we never knew existed. I saw the vast stretches of green wilderness and the expansive blue sky in the middle of a bustling city as analogous to the litter of monotonous moments in our usually busy lives. We fail to see that those are the very gaps that allow the sunlight to stream in and that it might do us good to stop trying too hard and just be. My jaunt through those verdant lanes that day made me nostalgic for the spartan picnics of my childhood. What happened to that rudimentary life?

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Our last expedition of the fortnight, turned out to be the Pagoda that I never get tired of. Just taking the ferry across the muddled waters makes me feel like I’m crossing over to another dimension. It was a stifflingly humid day, but nothing could take away the peace that enveloped me as I stretched out on the grass with the Buddha statue looming and chants resonating in the air. We’re always looking for upgrades in life, but sometimes it serves us well to feel the ground and appreciate the poetry in all of it.

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I relish unplugged days like these that vibrate with unadorned, acoustic sounds. They set the tone for a process of remembering and recovering our real selves. The arcadian charm of such idyllic paths and stolen moments prompt me to reevaluate how I spend my time, who and what I commit to and the why of everything.  The answers turn out to be pretty simple. Our life is whatever we make of it, the only thing mandatory is participation. But one thing is abundantly clear. It takes very little for life to be resplendent.

Here’s to nature that inspires us to grow simply and live a life less ostentatious.

 

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A BOUNDLESS LIFE

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As a child, I often spent whole afternoons watching ants. Their march, regal and purposeful, fascinated me. Grandpa once explained to me how they live and work in perfect harmony, almost like they were one single organism. He was a man in sync with nature and pointed out how not just ants, but all of life moves beautifully like a synchronized orchestra. All except humans, who seem to struggle endlessly. As I grew up, the ability to simply watch life without motive was lost somewhere. All activity and all intentions became motive-driven. It is only now, after years of getting nowhere, that I realise perception is more important. Knowing where the ants were going wasn’t necessary; the experience of watching them was. The oneness that I felt with them was. It might seem trite but bringing awareness back into our lives must take precedence over all else.

There was a children’s show called, ‘The Magic School Bus’ that I enjoyed watching with my daughter many years ago. Every aspect of the human body was explored so beautifully in animated form that I used to be hooked onto it more than her. The journey of a morsel of food, for example, was brought to life as it made it’s way through the entire alimentary canal. Sadly, we are not even aware of what goes into our mouths most times. Clearly, it’s a practice worth getting into, not just while eating, but in every aspect of our lives. Awareness brings clarity, clarity leads to freedom and freedom is the only way to higher intelligence. One cannot fly when bound up in chains.

The biggest roadblock in our growth is, of course, conditioning. It’s a tough job to unmould our thinking, but not impossible. This reminds me of a pet parrot we had for a brief time. I was probably a pre-teen then. My mother used to leave guavas and chillies for the bird and clean the cage religiously every day. I saw no point in the whole activity when neither the bird did anything for us nor did we do much except feed it daily. I was sure, the smart fellow could very well manage more than a guava and chilly if left on his own. So one quiet afternoon, during siesta, I left the cage open. To my utter dismay, the bird refused to fly. That’s how our conditioning works. We choose to stay in an open cage.

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It’s time to get back on ‘The Magic School Bus’. Bringing awareness back takes practice, patience and understanding. A few months ago, I was at the St. Mary’s Basilica in Bangalore. As I sat in that beautiful, empty church with eyes closed and palms open, the intense vibrations I felt reminded me of what I had been missing. Such experiences need not be rare if one is receptive. It is not an outside phenomenon. The vibrations were comimg from within me; I just had to be open to them. This is why we need to turn inwards. Because all joy, peace, bliss and intelligence can only be found there. This is how ‘being human’ works for me.

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When people ask me what my goal as a writer is, I don’t know what to say. The only goal I have set for myself is to live a conscious life; one that is boundless. I often think of our ancestral home in Mangalore that housed a large family. It had two rooms on either ends that served as kitchen and storage and a long open porch in the middle. The family slept in a neat row in that open area without any fear. I absolutely loved lying awake in the dark, gazing at the sky and the silhouette of the distant mountains. My entire summer break every year was spent there. Later, when the house was rebuilt, walls to divide the two sections were put up that left me sorely disappointed.

I have an inherent dislike for boundaries, especially the mental and emotional ones. Freedom, and the growth it encourages, is appealing and the only kind of pursuit I find myself interested in. What I do isn’t important. How I want to live and grow is.