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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SIMPLE SUSTENANCE

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Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I had my first experience of community cooking. In those days, weddings in Mangalore were a long-drawn out affair that lasted days and brought the whole neighborhood together. Food was organic, authentic and cooked in huge cauldrons on open wood fires. For a young city girl like me, it was a fascinating experience to participate in and a rich memory to retain for life. It was a twin wedding in the family, so I was doubly excited. The evening before the wedding, insane amounts of batter was ground by hand on huge grinding stones and left to ferment for the idlis to be made the next morning. I insisted on being included in the idli-makers team and woke up at the crack of dawn to assist. The aromas, the exuberance, the solidarity of it all, are lodged as a surreal kind of remembrance in my otherwise mostly defunct brain.

In retrospect, my whole life seems like a roaring compilation of food memories. In the tiny home I grew up in, there was no separate kitchen to speak of. From the single bed, which was my self-proclaimed throne, I could just reach out to the cooking counter. Mum used to wake up early and start working on the chappatis and omlettes. That’s the aroma I would wake up to. As I grew up, I started helping Mum with the cooking. We would work side by side in the miniscule space, humming along with the radio. To this day, mum and I bond best when we are cooking together. Like two comrades, we embark upon adventures with our new recipes, get delirious with the difficult ones and find quietude in the tried and tested. When we’re done feasting, we go on walks, she talking incessantly about this and that and making me laugh until suddenly we’re back to discussing our next meal.

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The neighborhood I grew up in was a different world altogether. Walking unannounced into each other’s homes for a meal was very normal. The Koltes next door was a family of six. Mrs. Kolte was a great cook. Though they didn’t have much, she managed to put together meals that could compete with a professional chef’s.  I just have to close my eyes, think of her spicy chicken gravy served with mixed lentil vadas and I’m transported back to her home. On special occasions, she would always send us food before she fed her own children. It was neighborly love on a level that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Then there was Aunt Gertie. She was a kitchen elf who chose to spend all her free time stirring, baking and cooking. The day she made crabs, I would pointedly and shamelessly hover around until she asked me to stay for dinner. Then I would sit cross-legged in her kitchen and savor the meal in a rapturous state, unaware of the crab juice running down my arms. She would point me out to her daughter, Sheryll, who was my best friend and say, “This is how you eat. Stop picking at your food and learn something from the girl!” The generosity and honesty of a mother wasn’t limited to just her own children.

I love food, but more than that, I love the eating experience. One day I surprised our house-help, Barki with a strange request. She lived in a tiny hut just across the lane from our house. Every evening as the sun went down the horizon; she would squat in front of an open fire and make piles of jowar bhakris to feed her large family. That day I asked if I could join them for dinner.  She was aghast and didn’t know how to respond. It mortified her to think that all she had to offer was jowar bhakris, bland dal and a chilli-garlic chutney. But to me, it was enough. The smell of burning wood, the bite of the chutney, the fresh-off-the-fire bread, the cool winter breeze and the happy tears in my host’s eyes made it one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

From the kulfi wala who fed us free kulfis after school, to the grocer who packed a few extra dates as a treat, the love far exceeded everything else. Later when I entered the cold corporate world, the only solace amidst the chaos of pounding typewriter keys and mounds of paperwork was the lunch break. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who make it their business to feed me. My first job was in this huge organization where to my utter surprise, the cooks took an instant liking to me and singled me out for attention. The food they cooked was only for the top management, but they sneaked me into the pantry and fed me meals that smelled and tasted like manna from heaven.

When I moved to Dubai, the pantry experience moved with me. Only the cuisine differed. I was working with Iranians there and found a new kind of food paradise. Regardless of whether I had carried a tiffin from home or not, the cook would send steaming trays of Cheelo Kebabs, Feta Cheese, Iranian bread and salads every afternoon. One day, I ordered Tandoori Chicken as a return gesture. My Iranian bosses ate it with gusto but the spice was too much for them. The fair Iranians had sweat dripping and tears streaming down their reddened faces!

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Dubai was all about food and friends. Every weekend was a big pot-luck party. In the winter months, we carried huge amounts of marinated meat to the parks and beaches to barbecue. We sat around the glowing embers and devoured juicy chunks of chicken and sausages with Arabic bread, hummus and pickles. The camaraderie of those cool winter evenings in a foreign land was an experience beyond words. It was like huddling together under a warm blanket.

Whether it’s the luscious fruits I’ve enjoyed in the heat of Bangkok, chilled coconut water in quiet streets of Phuket, warm shawarmas on the way to Hatta or sizzling falafels in the mountains of Oman, a very key ingredient of a good meal is the simplicity with which it is cooked, served and eaten. The best parantha I have ever eaten was at a rickety dhaba on the Delhi-Agra highway. It was served on a sultry afternoon with a dollop of white butter and a kind smile. The most sumptuous Maharashtrian meal I remember is at a small resort in Sogaon, served by a sincere, loving hand.

Modern life has altered the eating experience for most of us. But every now and then, I like to make the food and memories count. Since we choose friends that resonate with who we are, my flock was, is and always will be a bunch of foodies. We discuss food as if our life depends on it. We eat like there’s no tomorrow. It isn’t gluttony; it’s an expression of who we are. Our meetings are always, always planned around lunch or dinner. The way we see it, the sharing of a meal is as emotionally and spiritually nurturing as the food on our plates. It is what rejuvenates and bonds us. It is pure sustenance. My food experiences intertwined with my relationships, have defined the way I view life. There are lots of parallels to draw. But one that I uphold above everything else whether it is food, friendship or life is this: That simplicity trumps everything.

MICHELANGELIC

When I was in school, someone gifted me a kaleidoscope. I remember being quite enamored by the uniqueness of the toy.  The science behind it escaped me at the time, but the fascination lasted for quite a while. If you think about it, all a kaleidoscope contains is angled mirrors and little bits of colored objects. But the patterns alter depending on movement, and light that infiltrates through the other end. That’s how life is too – little things coming together to form patterns. But what’s important is to ‘let the light in.’

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Of late, my words are slow to come. I go from staring uncomprehendingly into voids to thinking too much, thoughts either stagnant or interlacing and threatening to gush out in torrents. I’ve been aching for serenity, for unflustered reflections and deliberate actions. For a culmination of the bipolarity of my two selves – one that finds the exotic in the ordinary and the other that looks for familiarity in the unknown. I long to step out of the dark and find my own radiance.

As November moved forward, I started yearning more and more for a throwback to calm days. Days when I could sit still and luxuriate in nothing but my own skin. My yoga days which were history now, beckoned to me. So I pulled out my blue tattered mat and tried to meditate. Meditation is unbeatable in its simplicity, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s easy. Thoughts cascade and hurtle across like an avalanche over you. A few days into it and things start getting better; until you reach a point where everything stands absolutely still.

Life is always a work-in-progress. You build some and crumble some. And sometimes, you have to assemble yourself from scratch.  There’s much to learn from every experience and every person you encounter, even toddlers. Recently, I teamed up with my three year old nephew, Ethan in a bid to encourage his new passion – coloring. It was surreal, the way we bonded over rhythmically moving crayons, not just with each other, but with our own selves. And just like that I discovered a new way to meditate.

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I don’t believe in coincidences, so a couple of days later, when my daughter introduced me to Mandala coloring pages for adults, I knew there was a connection. This was a new bridge to cross. An opportunity to deconstruct and interpret pre-determined notions. As I poured color into the intricate designs, it was like creating a self-portriat, understated and pure. Mandala which means ‘circle’ in Sanskrit is a spiritual symbol representing the universe. A simple geometric shape that has no beginning or end, much like space or our own abiding souls. I loved the purity of the experience. Whatever the endeavor, our triumphs depend on our openness to receive and grow from it.

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Life is fickle; proof of it was the November rain that poured out of unrelenting skies onto bewildered heads two nights ago. It’s amazing if you’re prepared for such impulsiveness, like some people who actually walked under umbrellas. If not, it does well to go with the flow and enjoy the pandemonium. That’s how the kaleidoscope of life works. That is how the light gets in. So we, my daughter and I, got home drenched and made quite an evening of it with hot baths, a couple of drinks, steaming food, an animated exchange of stories and an old classic on the television. Evenings like that are ephemeral and not to be wasted. They’re like visiting old childhood haunts that leave one replete.

So at the end of all the meditation, whether it was by sitting still or decanting color into monochromatic patterns, valuable realizations emerged. That there is a season for everything. For rushing around and for slowing down. That self-discovery can come from the most inconspicuous of experiences. That once we let the light in, life can be beautiful from every angle. All we need to do is relentlessly work at discovering our real selves.  When Michelangelo was applauded for the magnificence of David’s statue, all he said was this: “David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.” This is what Shifrah Combiths describes as ‘Michelangelic’ – the beauty that’s left when everything that doesn’t belong is chipped away.

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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LAGOM

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Choosing work that makes you show up even if it’s unpaid is what defines your true path.

Life is defined not by apocalyptic moments, but from seemingly diminutive ones that come forth like a whisper and honor who you are. One of my most defining moments came in the September of 2000 – the day I decided to quit my paying job. The choice I made then has gradually gathered significance over the years.

We were expatriates in a foreign land, but it was a good life. Quite honestly, I never felt alien there. Nor did I feel exploited at my work place, as most expatriates do. It’s just that my heart wasn’t in it. I was working for an Iranian family business. They were nice people and treated me well. No late sitting, never a harsh word and authentic Iranian food served for lunch. My love for Chelo Kebabs and Bademjan have stood the test of time. Despite all that, I felt stuck.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. For starters, I was throwing away my financial independence. It meant cutting down on a lot of things. But I was adamant. Too much money was never my goal in life. The Swedish have a word for it – Lagom. It means something like, not too much, not too little, but just right. So I went ahead and did what felt right. In the fifteen years since, I have never regretted my decision. What I gained was way more than what I lost. Among other important things, spending precious time with my daughter was and remains a rewarding revelation in itself.

By then, I was already on my way to discovering my passion – writing. I took up little projects and opportunities that came my way. It didn’t pay me much, but being true to myself and doing that which pleased me was compensation enough. Each day, I was building myself to be who I was meant to be. As opposed to a salary that earlier defined my worth, I was now discovering that my true worth came from the peace and joy that I radiated. Choosing work that makes you show up even if it’s unpaid is what defines your true path. Besides, when you do what you love abundance follows.

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This thought was amplified recently when I visited the slums of Govandi, the dumping ground of Mumbai. It’s a poverty-stricken, crime-riddled place. There is garbage piled sky high, the homes are little more than tin roofs and bare floors, there is never enough food and worst of all, the water supply comes from tankers ‘once a week’. Domestic violence, addictions, rapes and incest are rampant.

In the midst of this ramshackled world, a friend of mine runs a school for the slum kids. These kids come from the lowest strata of society, from below the so-called poverty line. Their stark stories were sordid enough to outdo the dump that bordered their world. But despite all that, there is one thing that went straight through to my heart – the sparkle in their eyes! Their eagerness to study, to move forward, to earn their rightful place in society shone in those beautiful faces. At home, they might be just another pair of hands that rummage through garbage to earn some money. But in that dilapidated building that housed their classroom, they were transformed. Life sprang forth from them like rainbows from a sun-drenched monsoon sky.

Later, as we walked around the ‘basti’, a little girl started following us around like a lamb. Along the way, Nazia slipped her hand into mine. It was a casual gesture but somehow it meant the world to me. It was more than just a holding of hands; it was trust, love and a message. A message that reverberated through my head and has settled into my soul. A message that might unravel in time.

Sometimes the Universe sends us paychecks. And sometimes a huge bonus. I recognized the day as a blessing. As if before I left this world, I was given a glimpse of the pre-requisites of heaven. In a society, where everyone is constantly trying to prove something to the world and is hankering after more and more, I was introduced to selflessness, compassion, empathy and pure love. The teachers and staff who work there come from poor families too. But they look like the richest people in the world. They do not need facials to make their skin glow. They are intrinsically beautiful. Their life is a daily struggle to educate those kids, yet they seem serene. All they seem to want is a little help and support. Not too much, not too little, but just right. Like the Swedish say, ‘Lagom’.

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YOLO LEGACY

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We carry within us the wonders we seek without us – Thomas Browne

Once grandpa brought home a tiger cub; it was sometime in the late 1930s. He was walking home through the forest, spotted a lone cub, thought it was abandoned and decided to adopt it. Needless to say, he got a good spanking at home and was forced to return the cub where he got it from. That was how grandpa was until the day he died – impulsive, adorable and full of childlike curiosity.

Every summer, when it got too hot in the city, we packed our bags and went to live with grandpa and grandma. They lived in a modest home deep in the valleys of rural Mangalore in South India. That was our ‘vacation.’ It might not have been exotic but it was certainly enriching and well-spent. I adored grandpa and his idiosyncrasies that for me had hidden lessons like little wrapped gifts in a treasure hunt. He would wake up at dawn and lovingly sweep the front yard. That was the first thing he did and it was a metaphor for starting the day on a clean slate. As soon as I woke up, he would hand me a small brass pot and drag me to the well. We would draw water together, my small hands covered with his large, calloused ones over the rough rope. He would spend entire mornings watering the plants, admiring the flowers, tending to his vegetable and fruit patch, pointing out the ripe ones and urging me to pick them. This is how he taught me to care and work for what I loved; to appreciate the beauty around me, to have patience and enjoy the rewards when they appeared. Once he hacked open a huge jackfruit with his bare hands and we chomped through the entire thing in one sitting. In today’s lingo it’s called a YOLO day. A day when you indulge yourself because ‘You Only Live Once’. Grandpa lived and breathed the YOLO philosophy, though in a different way. It wasn’t about pigging out on a certain day; it was living life to the full every single day. He exemplified how to nurture the inner child and never let it die.

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Grandpa using headphones for the first time.

On days that he chose to stay home, grandpa would sit on the patio listening to the news on his small portable radio. His sharp brain would absorb every bit of information and it was incredible how much he knew about world affairs. But most days, he would disappear, only to appear in time for our evening prayers. He would waddle down unconcerned down the dark, twisted path that led to our house in the valley. Grandma would keep expressing her disapproval about him roaming around in the dark, but he only just laughed all the time. Sometimes, he came home really late when we were already in bed. Then he would squat on the mattress beside me, turn up the oil lamp a little, recount real life stories in his booming voice and sneak me sweets under the blankets while I hung on to his every word.

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The way life has been pausing and crawling recently has given me new perspectives. Sometimes the rain falls around like it will never stop and quite suddenly the sun comes out and everything is so different. It’s like living in two parallel universes. There are days when all I want to do is wear my escapist garb and crawl into my own skin. On days like that a memory of grandpa and his toothless grin is enough to haul me back. And quite suddenly things become symphonic and perfect. Life breaks free from shackles and appears untethered and free. There’s a beauty in how relationships, past or present, are stitched together into our lives with invisible threads. How what seems so simple can gain so much importance. Grandparents are always taken for granted but someday when they are gone, you realize that they live in parts of you that you didn’t know existed. When you realize that, you quite suddenly fall in love with reminiscences of them, as well as parts of you that they still live in.

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Grandpa didn’t accumulate wealth and heirlooms. But he loved life, indulged his curiosity and laughed nonchalantly. Those are the qualities and lessons he seems to have passed on; a kind of legacy – the YOLO legacy, as I like to call it. What could be more precious than that? When I get excited about picking sea-shells from the shore, write my name on frosty window panes, lose myself in music or laugh out loud at inane jokes, I think of grandpa. On dark days when life seems to be pulling me down and I smile back at it, I hope he’s proud of me. He never preached but set us an example of how to feel wonder at the tiniest thing, how not to live a numb life and how to open ourselves up to the wonder of ‘us’.

LOST TREASURES

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Finding an old friend is like finding a lost treasure

– Anthony D. Williams

Despite the smoldering heat, this summer seems the most vibrant and animated to me. After eleven years of staying abroad, when we had moved back home in 2007, a strange thing had happened. My world had descended into abject melancholy. Funny how it works, you uproot yourself from home and nestle in a foreign land. You work at building a life, make friends, foster ties. But it isn’t really home. So, eventually you decide to move back and then realize that home doesn’t feel like it used to either. It’s abysmal. The days came and went, punctuated by little flurries of some good moments and some mundane ones. Family was supportive and life wasn’t bad, but somehow the laughter didn’t ring true and the heart didn’t flip like it used to.

At some point, my daughter pointed out that like her, I was the ‘dog’ type. We connected home not with a place or structure, but with people. That’s when I realized what I was missing. It was faces I could call friends, voices that would throw swear words at me, laughter that would tire my lungs out. The thought pulled me deeper into the darkness. It wasn’t easy to find people you could connect with. Real, deep friendships can take years to develop.

Life can surprise you though. Our existence is nothing but layer upon layer of histories. And when the tectonic plates shift with built up pressure, relics from the past emerge and new realities are brought forth. Like treasure from the annals of my childhood, old friends reappeared. Amities were restored, magic happened and stardust filled my life.

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I have no interest in keeping up saccharine appearances. No inclination for polished small talk. All I care for is candid conversations and comfortable silences. Those are the kind of relationships that matter to me. So I got the kind of friends I wanted – the frayed, tough, appropriately dorky, cheerful, generous, honest and drama-free ones. They tolerate my crass laughter, endure my dark moods and understand my childlike delight for gifts and glowing birthday cakes. I recognize their idiosyncrasies. We are like derivatives of each other.

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The effervescent presence of my chronically barmy friends has infused my days with a sparkle that keeps me glowing on the darkest of days. They are like the smell of freshly baked bread on sunlit streets – soulful, uplifting and basic. This month I complete eight years of being back home and it finally feels like home. It was also my birth month. So I got my crazy parties, candlelit cakes and mad laughter. It was a grand time. There were stories clinking in sync with the frosty glasses of beer, the wandering in and out of forgotten memories; faces rapt like pilgrims on a pilgrimage. I looked around, my heart swelled up with pride. These were epic, no-gravity moments. I could see that we had put the roots into each other. If ever there was a resplendent time, this was it.