THRIVING IS POSSIBLE

 

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January hadn’t exactly gone to plan; which is fine, because it never does. Then February disappeared into March and the hours had begun to blend into each other without distinction. Creativity had flat-lined and effervescence bubbled down. Before I knew it, Lent season was upon us. On Ash Wednesday, I made it to the early morning service. The sunlight bounced off the church steeple and enveloped everyone in its warmth. I am not a deeply religious person, but in moments like these a sudden surge of spirituality grips me. While I deliberated on the thrashings of my bewildered soul, the priest spoke about changing our perspective on abstinence. Ambling home through the back streets, I absently toyed around with the idea. I wanted this season to be about a deeper kind of emancipation, about trepidation being relegated to forgotten cartons in dingy lofts, about songs escaping from uninhibited lips. And so I decided to abstain from ‘fear’. With that one decision, hope came streaming back into my soul. On days that I waver, I remind myself that life is a mirror. It will only reflect who I choose to be.

Growing up, my friends and I on most nights, would play hide-and-go-seek after dinner. In the semi-darkness of the street lamps, it was easy to lurk in the shadows. I was known to trip even on level ground, but one night I took an epic fall. Scurrying around for a place to hide, I ran towards the dumpster and very promptly descended on some broken glass. Blood gushed out while I kicked up a storm and felt faint all at once. The neighbors rushed around looking for clean rags and jars of turmeric. Someone cleaned me up and someone else dabbed on the yellow paste, while all the time I kept writhing like a person possessed. The scars from that fall adorn my knees to this day. Two nights later, having gotten over the throbbing in my knee, I was back crouching behind the same dumpster. It makes me believe that resilience is innate. That fear is not something we are born with. Much before this, at age three, I was diagnosed with a condition that compelled me to take 90 injections, one each day. So when did the valiance ebb? I’ve often thought about why and how fear creeps into our minds. It’s a beast we fight all our lives. Slay it and it morphs and returns in another form.

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Once we mend though, our brokenness takes on a beauty of its own. The scars lend character. There’s a reason why we revere sunrises and sunsets. There’s nothing more mesmerizing than the blending of darkness and light. And so it is with our own selves. Like the acne blemishes on my skin that bear testimony to the struggle and trauma of adolescence. I see that kind of brokenness as redemptive, because deep down it made me humble and compassionate. It made me shift my focus from what’s on the outside and look within myself and others. So as I surface from the comorbidity that sucks me down, the need to share seems almost obligatory. My creativity compels me to bare my soul and I like to think that such disclosures breed empathy.

My muse is my own mind. From being perturbed to finding some sort of clarity, these exertions leave me with a beautiful wabi-sabi kind of feeling in the end. As always my daughter brought in some eloquence to the already assembling awareness. Depression originates from thinking about the past and anxiety from living in the future, she affirmed. The answer was to live in the moment. My unpretentious husband has a simple antidote for every fatality: break out into a song. As I follow his example, the days seem to be progressing with a sanguinity that surpasses all understanding. This is growth in its purest form. This is how the light-heartedness creeps back in.

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I love this quote by Marianne Williamson: “Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor…” We all struggle and we all fail. But there is a grace, strength and divinity in the depths of our souls which surfaces the moment we surrender to a higher power. As we celebrate Easter a month from now, I hope to commemorate my own little resurrection from the disquiet that ails my spirit. Thriving, as I increasingly realize, is possible.

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NO RESOLUTION YEAR

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A dear friend gifted me a set of six tea cups about a year ago. The beautiful array, cradled in soft white silk had taken my breath away. So much so, that I never used those cups lest I stain or break them. It’s a different kind of procrastination, one that I’m done with now. December with its brazen mix of fairy lights, bustling kitchens, incessant merriment and warm hugs encourages indulgence. So amidst all the blatant festivity, I found a quiet afternoon to sunbathe on my couch and pour myself some ginger infused tea. Life felt as exquisite as the dainty cup I held in my hands. It was the perfect moment to transition from one year into the next.

2016 was like an errant child. Most days I quailed and stumbled. I also broke my rule of learning one new thing, but somewhere along the way it struck me that learning is arbitrary. When I was invited to judge an inter-school elocution competition at the beginning of December, and was expected to speak to the participants and the audience at large, my stage-shy self ended up crossing an impediment that had held me captive for years. That opportunity gave me a fresh perspective. It also sent me into a kind of flashback to cold days when as a child, I used to cycle on the playground of that very school. When riding with wind in my hair did nothing to liberate me from the chains that bound my soul. When the starry expanse of sky only reminded me of how confined my world was. It felt like scenes from a movie that I’d watched long ago. Walking those tree-lined streets made me think of all the people I’d known and never saw again. But most importantly, it made me realize of how I’d found myself. Of how free I felt now. You fight and you fight and someday the shackles break loose. The sweetest liberation comes from the hardest struggle.

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This is a time of new resolutions, but I’m not making any. After the endless overwhelm I’ve whipped up for myself the past few years, it’s time to take life with an ease that can only come with awareness and repletion. The first time I made bread, I asked my mother how to determine the consistency of the dough. All she said was, “You will know.” That’s how I feel about life now. There is a sizeable project brewing in my head, but there is no stress. I have ideas but there is no unrelenting hurry. Beau Taplin puts it succinctly, “Don’t stress so much about settling on a path for 2017. The division of time into years is a human invention, and fact is every moment of every day is another opportunity for resolution and growth. So when the fireworks fly, relax and enjoy the moment. The rest will come to you.”  That’s the recipe I’m settling with.

One little pointer in the bread making process is this. The pliability of the dough is directly proportionate to the passion you put into kneading it. You know, the Greeks didn’t write obituaries. They only asked one question after a man died. “Did he have passion?” That, to me, is the only resolution worth making.

Here’s wishing all of you a genuine and passionate life. Cheers to the days ahead!

 

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MISTY MEADOWS

 

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As we drove higher and higher into the mountains, the mist got thicker. Visibility was limited to about three meters ahead. Quite suddenly, rain started pelting down heavily, blinding us even more. The pounding of raindrops fused with Jamie Lawson crooning, “I wasn’t expecting that…” Music within and without, with a similar cadence. It was the most surreal drive of my life and I certainly wasn’t expecting that. The road was narrow and steep; and opened up to the valley on either side. All we had to lead us further was the faint blink of lights from the car ahead of us. That’s exactly how the past few months had been; hazy and blatantly exigent.

At some point though, the fog always clears. And so finally, after an interminable wait, things had started falling into place. Life makes you wait, testing your patience, your faith, your strength. It makes you doubt everything that you might have trained yourself to believe in. And then suddenly, like a burst of unexpected rain, the abundance showers right down on your startled head.

We had left the city behind and headed to the hills on an impulse. It was an impromptu plan and one that made me want to live the rest of my life in that manner – purely spontaneous and unpremeditated. We arrived at Misty Meadows just as dusk was settling in. A warm, welcoming glow radiated from idyllic houses that lined the streets. Life seemed tranquil and quiet on those moorlands. We spent that evening devoid of distractions. There was no WiFi and no telly, just words and smiles floating around. After a simple meal, we retired to the bedrooms upstairs. The river in the distance was beautiful in the twilight. We could spot cars parked on the bridge over the river and made up stories about clandestine affairs and romantic conversations, giggling our way into the silly night.

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The next morning, I woke up at dawn. It was still dark outside when I wandered onto the terrace, shivering slightly but soothingly warmed by the silence. The moon was hanging in the sky like a neatly clipped fingernail, obscured now and then by the pregnant clouds. As I lingered, the sun came up unseen and the silhouette of the meadows appeared through the brooding mist. It was the most beautiful morning I’d had in a long time.

It was after breakfast that we had embarked upon that haunting drive. Later, as we stumbled upon rocks and puddles, walked on lush meadows and gazed upon verdant hills, I realized how close we had come to God in those few hours. All my five senses seemed numbed, but there was a sixth sense that seemed sharper than the five put together. A divine presence was everywhere, in every detail.  Half-encumbered in this realization and sloshed by the weight I’d been carrying around, I plonked down on a rock. Fatigue mingled with raindrops and rolled down my back, leaving me cleansed and a little narcotized.

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This whole experience was much like what the Japanese call ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or ‘Forest Bathing’. It was first proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan to promote a good lifestyle and is now a recognized stress management activity in Japan. My fascination for Japanese culture is now bordering on reverence, almost threatening to override my absolute fascination for the Tuscan way of life. It’s comically strange because they seem absolutely converse. Tuscans are voluble while the Japanese are more muted; but if you make a reduction, the essence that it boils down to is very similar:  Simplicity.

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Growing up, I had the good fortune to experience ‘Shinrin-yoku’ often. Hardened by city life though, we become impertinent and that’s why it is absolutely important to make an effort to get dwarfed by nature and humble ourselves from time to time. It is in such moments that we find moments of clarity and direction. It is then that we are filled with hope. And from nature, we learn the one great lesson: to trust the timing of our life.

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THE GIFT OF A SUNRISE

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The first thing I do when I wake up each day is open my heart to the most extravagant show on earth – the sunrise. The progression of darkness into light is the most hopeful thing we can ever witness. It’s like a whole new chance to let go of yesterday and start afresh. “I love that this morning’s sunrise does not define itself by last night’s sunset,” said Steve Maraboli. How amazing if we could just wake up and be a brand new person each day, completely untainted by the past.

March is a season of reflection, of slowing down and pondering over faults and alterations. Every year during this time, I have a tendency to rehash my life; sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. During one of my early morning ponderings recently, I remembered a little episode from school. We were being trained for our high school board exams. During a mock paper, my teacher caught me using the correction pen a little too often. I always had partial OCD, so my paper had to be neat, minus scribbling and errors. It would upset me if it wasn’t so. However, the teacher pointed out that it was okay to just strike out the mistakes and move on. That way I would save time. A complete paper was more important than a neat, but unfinished one. Almost 28 years later, when I thought about that bit of advice, it resounded with a different connotation altogether.

I am not much of a church enthusiast, but sometimes I go and abstractedly sit; just feeling the vibrations and wondering how so much pain, guilt, confusion, gratitude and peace coalesces and fuses into a whole in that place. Decades and decades of emotions forming a tangible web that clings to the walls and ceilings of that one structure. I always wonder what people take away from such an experience. Do they step out, forget everything and stumble all over again? Do they learn from their mistakes and evolve? Do they make amends? My curiosity makes me question everything. But these questions are not so much about others as they are about me. They sprout from my own journey, my personal evolution. The questions keep popping and the answers probably lie in the attempt of uncovering them. We all want to build beautiful, legendary lives. And it serves well to remember that life doesn’t come with a correction pen.

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Quite coincidently, as I was toying around with these thoughts lately, I came across an article on the Native America Navajo tribe and their much celebrated rugs. The unadorned, hand-woven minimalism of the Navajo rugs is art in itself. But the legend that surrounds them is deep. If you look closely, you will find an imperfection in many of the rugs. There are two theories to this. One, that these mistakes are deliberately woven into the rug as a reminder that man isn’t perfect. Then there’s the other theory, the one that resonated with me. It says that although the mistakes might not be intentional, what does seem intentional is the desire not to go back and fix them. Once the mistake is already woven into the fabric, they prefer to leave them there as reminders. When I came across this, the idea set me up for days of thinking and rethinking. Like joining the dots, I connected it to my questions and the episode of the correction pen.

Then a few days later, I happened to be watching the movie, ‘Before Sunrise’. It’s about two young people meeting on a journey and spending the night just walking around town and talking about life and love. The whole movie is a playful but intense conversation between Jesse and Celine. At one point, Jesse says, “…just once, I’d love to see some little old lady save up all her money to go to the fortune teller, and she’d get there all excited about hearing her future, and the woman would say, ‘Um-hmm. Tomorrow, and all your remaining days will be exactly like today. A tedious collection of hours. And you will have no new passions, and no new thoughts and no new travels, and when you die, you’ll be completely forgotten.’ It rattled me a little to think that while we are fretting over what’s passed and toiling over what’s unimportant, our whole life could just turn into a tedious collection of hours. Mistakes be damned! What I needed to do was make the hours count.

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Like every year, this March seems to be a time of transition too. Everything appears to be unpredictable. Each day demands another quantum leap – of faith, of strength, of integrity. What good was a sunrise if I couldn’t pick the one lesson it taught me? Now as the first rays light up the dark sky, I feel more and more inspired to source treasures hidden in unpretentious moments. Bereft of bias, the day seems expansive and uncluttered. In all probability, this must be how we are supposed to show our acknowledgement of the gift. This is most likely how we can honor the ‘Giver’.

LIKE A LOTUS LEAF

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Back in middle school, I was once summoned to Fr. Dennis’ office. He was my teacher, confidant and guide, all rolled into one. I was a painfully shy kid, but Fr. Dennis knew how to draw me out. That morning he handed me the Bible, asked me to pick a passage and read it aloud. I meekly obeyed not knowing what was in store for me. When I finished, he smiled and said, “You read well and have a beautiful voice. This Sunday you will do the First Reading during the children’s service”. I stood rooted to the spot. I couldn’t do it! I had stage fright! But all my protests fell on deaf ears. That particular Sunday came all too soon and I found myself standing on the dais, Bible in hand, my voice clear and strong enough to reach the farthermost member of the congregation. It was one of those small yet defining moments; the kind where you realize that you’re capable of more than what you give yourself credit for. My life, up until then, had been covered with a veil of ambiguity. But little revelations like this gradually piqued my curiosity and spurred a slow inward journey.

During our formative years, we are taught a lot of things, but no one teaches us how to love and espouse ourselves. In addition to the random syllabus at school, we are conditioned by society to worry about what others think, to downplay our talents, to belittle our accomplishments and compromise on our dreams. It is no wonder then that along the way, we lose our light and purpose. We lead a life set on autopilot, designed by choices that most often than not, are directly or discreetly made for us by someone else.

In the late 1990s, as part of my ‘Creative Writing Course’, my mentor assigned me a project. I had to pick a topic, interview a few people and present a paper worthy of his perusal. The title on my assignment read: ARE YOU LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE? It was disconcerting to find that most people I interviewed weren’t happy. They regretted giving up on their dreams. They longed for a more purpose driven life. When they spoke about their passion, about what they would have actually loved to do, their eyes lit up and their faces took on a glow. In that moment, they seemed to radiate their true selves. It’s never too late though, no matter how old we are. The naysayers will try to bring us down, but it’s up to us to remain unaffected, hold our heads high and carry on. This is the kind of New Year’s intent we should be making: TO LIVE OUR BEST LIVES. It might sound grand but it is actually pretty basic.

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There is a majestic looking ‘Global Vipassana Pagoda’, a Buddhist meditation hall near Gorai, Mumbai, not too far from where I live. I love going there as often as possible. The pagoda itself, built on a peninsula between Gorai creek and the Arabian Sea, is beautiful and there is a serenity that covers the place like a precious blanket. But I’m always drawn to the fringes, to what is around the central theme, be it a picture, a place or even a person. That’s where the real lessons lie. That’s where you most often find treasures. The first time I went there, my exploration of the grounds led me to a lovely lotus pond. It’s a ‘ruminations’ kind of place, where you lose track of time. On the ferry ride back, my thoughts kept drifting back to the lotus pond and more specifically, the lotus leaves. These leaves have a unique feature. They are ‘Superhydrophobic’, meaning that their surface is extremely difficult to wet. Because of this, the lotus flower can thrive in the muddiest of lakes or the dirtiest of ponds without getting affected. All because the water rolls right off the leaves that surround and protect the flower. Shouldn’t this be exactly how we mould ourselves? By remaining connected to our ‘selves’ and letting all that negates our progress ‘roll off’, we might be able to stay true to our path, no matter where we are at right now.

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As the old year folded into the new, I took a wander in the labyrinth that is my mind. There is always so much going on there that it’s hard to discern and sift the marginal from the crucial. It’s been a task long overdue. I sat watching the setting sun, the air smelling of burnt wood drifting from afar. And just when a perfectly quiet moment, bereft of clutter, came along, I made a simple and mindful intent: EMULATE A LOTUS LEAF. To a spirit like mine that gets easily jaded, it might be a Herculean enterprise, but I’m willing to try. As my Reiki Master always said, “Intention is everything.”

 

 

Photo credits: Joshua D. Rego

THE SILENT STRING

 

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In my early twenties, I was introduced to the stimulating music of the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar. If I remember right, the album was called ‘Tana Mana – The Ravi Shankar Project’. It was an experimental work using electronic music fused with the traditional. And yet the sitar stood out. The vibrations of that beautiful instrument were like a poignant ricochet from some forgotten crevice of my soul. So much so, that I went in search of sitar classes in my neighborhood. Much to my disappointment, things did not work out and my aspirations slowly got buried under more pressing concerns. The sitar, however, still lurks somewhere in my subconscious mind.

Even though I never learnt to play the sitar, I remember doing some research on the instrument at the time. One thing that stuck with me was the complexity of it all. A sitar has 6-7 played strings and 18-21 sympathetic strings. The most used is the first string ‘baaj ka taar’. It is imperative to keep all the strings fine tuned for perfect melodies to flow out. The first string though, is the anchor. It is on this string that the creative rendering of the ragas happen. But life is all about collaboration and balance. This is where the second string – the ‘jod ka taar’ gains importance. That’s the support string without which continuity is lost. Without which there can be no pure melody. The reason I’m eulogizing the sitar 20 years later is this.

Two weeks ago, while I was merrily cleaning out the kitchen shelves perched on a chair, I tripped and fractured my ankle. Life came to an excruciating standstill. In my last post, I wrote about meditation and being still; here was an opportunity to indulge in more of that. But there’s a difference between elective and non-elective choices. Soon annoyance and ennui crept in. Advent commenced and Christmas was just around the corner. It irked me that while all of humanity was running around decorating their houses, preparing sweets and shopping, I had morphed into a kind of Hobbit, moping and shuffling around without shoes. So as I counted the similarities – no-shoes, six meals a day and an unadventurous life, I realized that Hobbits are courageous under moral pressure and capable of great feats too. It was time to slingshot the pessimism.

Fed on this last thought, I started an advent gratitude countdown on Instagram and Facebook. I thought of every little thing that warranted thankfulness. Gratitude lists work so well for the simple reason that you can’t feel sorry for yourself and thankful at the same time.  Soon enough I drew myself back into a bubble of appreciation and things fell into place. The amount of people who wrote back to me saying they drew comfort from the words was sweet premium.

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Gratitude to me is the most intense feeling and the only prayer I know of. Soon the frowns eased and I settled into a restorative state. The surest sign of blessings came soon after. Mother and hubby both arrived home simultaneously bringing with them lots of cheer and noise. It was the best dang thing. My husband kept everyone entertained, my daughter clowned around to replace him when he was at work and mum pampered me like I was a baby. There is no better feeling than freshly brewed tea brought to you in bed.

My adorable sister-in-law, Shalini accompanied me on my doctor visits and checked on me from time to time. Then there were friends, the real and honorable kinds. Some came with food and smiles and hope. The one’s who couldn’t visit, kept me occupied and positive by talking to me and texting all day long.

We are fed images of angels in flowing white gowns and halos over their heads. But good-hearted people are the real angels. They are the ones who radiate light and make our lives luminous. They are the ones who walk the talk. The words, laughter, encouragement and love of these people became the crutch that I leaned on. They became my ‘jod ka taar’, the silent support string, without which no pure melody is possible. Appreciation exuded out of my every pore and made the days look like a perpetual sun drenched morning. All that was left to do was luxuriate in it.

So here I am, sitting beneath my twinkling Christmas tree feeling loved and sanctified by life. I sense an encore coming on. The best, as I always say, is yet to come.

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All photos by: Rhea Rego

WABI SABI LIFE

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Mrs. Iyer and I met quite by chance. Her weathered face and kind eyes drew me to her right away. There was something about this woman that spoke to me; as if she was about to tide me over impending storms. It was the summer of 1999; a despondent phase which had taken me to a different kind of solitude.

People who know me are familiar with my largely erratic memory. It’s as if my cortical cells possess an innate, almost psychedelic sense of humor. So large chunks of data go missing without notice, and I can never recall things in tandem, but I do have visions from the past that can seem like they happened yesterday. That is how I recall my time with Mrs. Iyer, whom I eventually started calling ‘paati’ which means grandmother in Tamil.

A few months after our first meeting, I quit my job thus freeing up my evenings, many of which I chose to spend with paati. I had friends my age, but my time with her somehow seemed sacred. Paati had a lot to share about her animated life with her husband, their travels together and her recent loneliness after losing him. She was like a treasured book that I wished would never end. Our conversations spanned entire lifetimes, delved deep and colored our senses mirroring the purple-orange sunsets of the Middle-Eastern skies. Our silhouettes in the fading light must have looked weird and wonderful at the same time; a fusing together of the old and the new. Paati taught me about impermanence, imperfection and how to embrace bits of our life that remain unfinished. Above all, she taught me to embrace my flaws and appreciate myself.

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There’s a Japanese philosophy which preaches much the same thing. They call it Wabi-Sabi. It is the art of finding beauty in blemishes and depth in earthiness. It is about going for the natural and authentic. About celebrating the cracks and crevices that time leaves behind. Wabi Sabi makes us see beauty in the dilapidated and ugly.  Although on the surface, it seems to be about physical things, this philosophy runs way deeper than that. It is more about a state of mind, a way of being. As we move forward, the idea of abandoning ‘perfect’ and accepting the scars and the laugh lines seems increasingly prudent. Simplicity seems more appealing than forged exactness. This kind of shift can be truly liberating, and there’s more than just beauty in that. There is freedom.  If we can quieten our mind enough to appreciate the muted beauty in our lives and find the willingness to accept things as they are, we are well on our way to practicising Wabi-Sabi.

Three years ago, I blew my big Four-O candles. Right around then, I’d started noticing the deepening lines on my face and the puffiness under my eyes. A lot of grey strands were showing up in my hair. I playfully started calling them my ‘wisdom highlights’. So while women around me spent hours in salons hiding their greys and getting spa treatments, I chose that time to introspect and hone my skills. I figured that if I had something worthwhile to do as age crept up – a gratifying hobby or skill that I could share with the world, then that would hold me in better stead. As one year folds into the next, I am glad about that decision. If I fail at something, instead of berating myself, I relax and try something else. That to me is ‘looking life through the wabi-sabi lens.’

In nature, everything is transient. A week ago, when the last of the Ganesha idols were being immersed, a discussion about its significance ensued over our evening tea. There are multiple theories about it, but one that interested me was this. The idols initially were made out of the clay that formed on the river beds. After the celebrations were over, those idols were returned to the water and left to dissolve back into the river. I thought about how this relates to our lives. And it became even more apparent for me to celebrate the time I have here. To nurture relationships and build a life that I can be proud of. To embrace growing older gracefully and joyfully. As Eleanor Roosevelt put is so correctly, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

As for my dearest paati, I regrettably lost touch with her over the years. But her parting gift – a vintage bell, still hangs from a single nail on my bedroom wall. It is a reminder of the kind of person she was and the kind of person I wished I’d eventually be. Earthy, ordinary and unapologetically beautiful in my own way.

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