THAT THING YOU DO

 

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Mr. George, my English teacher in junior college, once caught me reading a novel discreetly placed under the desk during one of his lectures. Instead of reprimanding me, he casually asked to see what I was hiding. “That’s a great book you’re reading,” came the soft remark, “but I’d appreciate if you continue with it after class.” I was thrown by his tact and kindness; needless to say I never read during class again. He proved that faults are best corrected by love. Once a week, Mr. George would conduct ‘rapid reading’ sessions in class and he invariably picked me as the female lead each time. That was his way of acknowledging and encouraging my love of books. At the time, I did not really understand how deeply words affected me and had no clue I could write. I just reveled in them because they made me happy.

I first fell in love with words at age five when Dad got me a copy of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. It was a beautifully illustrated book and took me to places I had never dreamed of before. I realized that there was a whole wide world beyond the one room house I lived in. It opened up infinite and offbeat possibilities. Sometime during middle school, I discovered a small library. It was a 15 minute walk from my home. Getting a membership card there was a big deal and I treasured it like it was a ticket to paradise. Sure enough, the tiny store did turn out to be my wonderland where I lingered among the piles of vanilla scented books every once a week.

Years later, when I discovered my flair for writing, it all went back to those sun-drenched words on interminable summer afternoons. It’s weirdly aberrant that one should take that long to discover what is innate to their soul, but better late than never. “People are strange. They are constantly angered by trivial things, but on a major matter like totally wasting their lives, they hardly seem to notice,” wrote Charles Bukowski, a very influential German-born American writer. A jarring thought, isn’t it?  Now when people ask me what I do, and I say ‘I’m a writer’, they seem suitably impressed. They want to know how I found my passion. “I didn’t really find it, it found me,” I say. It’s true. I never planned on being a writer. It’s just an extension of my love for words.

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Discovering what you like isn’t all that hard. Like kids being led by nothing but curiosity, you just go about doing whatever interests you.  If you like it you pander to it, if not you stop.  In my late 20s and all through my 30s, I dabbled in a lot of things. I signed up for drawing classes, took music lessons, enrolled for dance class, took precisely six swimming sessions, learnt yoga, reiki, tarot, finished a creative writing course and later a songwriting course. Believe me, your heart sings when you do something you like. So no one can say they don’t know what their passion is. All you have to do is pay attention. And then prioritize.

“So, do you earn from your writing?” comes the next question. But really, when it comes to passion, it doesn’t have to be your source of income. You can still continue with whatever you are doing and use your free time to do what you love. If you’re lucky you might hit gold and start earning from it; if not, you still have the satisfaction of not having given up on the one thing that you adore.

I first signed up for a creative writing course when I was working a 9 to 5 job. My daughter was about five years old. On my way back from work, I would pick her up from day care, stop at the grocery, go home, tackle the housework and end up exhausted at the end of it all. The only time I found in my chaotic day was my lunch break. So I would shut myself in one of the conference rooms for an hour and work on my assignments. Or I would read. The point is, when you truly enjoy something, you find time no matter how crazy your schedule.

During a conversation with a talented painter friend recently, I asked why he doesn’t paint anymore. He said he has no time. What I heard was this: That he is denying himself the one thing that defines him. The one thing that can restore him from anarchic days.

Jes Allen summed it up beautifully when she said, “That thing that you do, after your day job, in your free time, too early in the morning, too late at night. That thing you read about, write about, think about, in fact, fantasize about. That thing you do when you’re all alone and there’s no one to impress, nothing to prove, no money to be made, simply a passion to pursue. That’s it. That’s your thing. That’s your heart, your guide. That’s the thing you must, must do.

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As for me, I love a lot of things. But the one activity I plan my day around is reading. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do. As I write this, I’m eyeing the pile of books that have arrived in the mail this week. I can’t wait to pull up a chair by the window, bask in the muted warmth of the winter sun and let my next read inordinately color my world.

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

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.

AND SUDDENLY, YOU ARE HOME

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I grew up in a small East-Indian village. It was the perfect place to grow up in – simple, clean and warm; all the things that define home for me. Our house was small, but beautiful. There was a tiny patch right outside the window where mum used to grow roses, petunias, bougainvillea and some herbs. Every week, she would squat down there and get her hands dirty. I did not understand all the effort she put into the activity at the time, but what mum was doing was pulling out the pesky weeds so her precious plants would have a healthy place to grow. When I was older, she explained to me that it isn’t enough to just sow and water; frequent weeding is priority if you want to see your garden thrive.

As autumn rolls into winter, a new wave of optimism surges forth from deep inside me. From the disorienting listlessness of summer to the shedding of fall, it’s an echo of how I alter and amend my own self. The seasons affect me more than I’m willing to admit. The other day, as I walked down the street through a tornado of dead leaves, it occurred to me that this is a time to discard what’s redundant. More than the physical clutter, it’s the mental mess that destroys us. Thoughts, feelings and relationships need the most cleansing. People can either drain you until your veins feel dry or nourish you enough to make your soul sing. This is where mum’s weeding theory came into play. As always, I started drawing parallels. It was time to pull out the weeds and grow.

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Last week I visited Dubai. I was excited to go. Not because of all the glitz and glamour of the place. Even when I lived there for eleven years, those things didn’t dazzle me. Plus, I was always a non-citizen who couldn’t speak more than a couple of Arabic words. What was it that bound me to this desert city then? Why was I always eager to revisit? So when I walked those pavements all over again, the warm breeze seemed to bring the answers to me. It wasn’t about being rooted in any place. It was more about the people and the affiliations. It was about who I became while I was there.

There is a well-known and powerful Maori concept called Turangawaewae. Literally, turanga means ‘standing place’ and waewae means ‘feet’. So it translates as ‘a place to stand’. Turangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our place in the world, our home. And home is always, always where your favourite people are.

My six days and seven nights in Dubai were more beautiful than I can put into words. Every meal I had was shared with people that mattered. Every moment nourished emotions that were precious. Every sunrise brought a new freshness into relationships and every sunset sealed it. Dubai is a shopping destination and although I didn’t shop much, I came back heavily loaded. The experiences and memories were certainly 24 carat solid gold.

On my flight back to Mumbai, I came across this beautiful summation of ‘home’ by K.R.R. that summed it all up: It’s fascinating how we’re taught that ‘home’ is this tangible place, the most simply defined to terms – it’s a house, a postcode, a country. And yet, sometimes home cannot be explained by a street number; sometimes it’s a face, a voice, a laugh more honest and familiar than any truth you have ever known. We’re taught that in its most literal sense, home is where we live and grow. But one day, in the silence that follows nostalgic stories and subsequent laughter, you may realize that you never did more living or growing than when you had certain people by your side. And suddenly, you are home.

So while I’m diligently weeding and picking, I realize that the pure stuff outweighs grime. There’s a sense of euphoric calm in knowing this. I feel grateful for a loving family and a few intimate friends. Maybe I’m a gypsy at heart, but the truth is, home can never be a place to me.  Home is the arms of my beloved, the tender kisses of my daughter, the deep concern in my mother’s eyes, the jibes and laughter of my crazy friends. Now I can say with certainty that I have found my tribe, my ‘standing place’. This is home. This is my Turangawaewae. I hope you find yours.

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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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DRENCHED IN INSIPIDITY

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Back in 1998, I wrote a letter to the editor of a reputed magazine in the U.A.E. It was an emotional response to an article in the previous issue. My letter got picked as the ‘best letter of the week’ and I won a gift voucher of AED 200. That was a lesser victory compared to the call that came through two days later. It was the editor himself offering me an apprenticeship at the magazine. Instead of grabbing the offer with both hands, I hesitated and turned it down. I made excuses saying the current job was more secure; besides I did not have any writing background or qualification. Looking back, it baffles me to think that a stranger had more faith in me than I did myself. He did plant a seed in me though, and true to his word, watered it too by publishing everything I wrote in my free time. But think about the opportunity I kicked just because I lacked faith in my ability as a writer.

We all have stories like this one – of missed chances, things unproven, time wasted, talents buried alive. And it all stems from one thing – lack of faith in our selves. Being a Reiki healer, I now know that our realities stem from all the emotional baggage we heave onto our fragile shoulders as children. What we believe about ourselves, how we perceive the world, our fears and insecurities go back right into the bleak alleys of our childhood.

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Tender minds are easily affected and every word, every gesture is important. As a parent myself, I can see the errors I have made. We can’t really blame ourselves though, because at any given time, we act on our knowledge and experience; we aren’t perfect and mistakes happen. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “When you know better, you do better.” What’s important is that we grow; there’s always room to grow. Evolution is the best example we can set for our children. If I harp about faith and resilience to my daughter and waste my own talents, I am not doing the right thing.

After years of living a corporate life, my friend Roshin recently dared to swerve off into a totally new direction. She quit her job and started living her dream. It takes courage and self-love to do that. New beginnings come at a cost, but as you go forward and the journey becomes the destination, you realize that it’s totally worth the effort. Our past doesn’t have to define us. We can choose to change. We can let our story show how resilient and adaptable the human spirit can be.

Every morning, I sit at my desk by the window and urge myself to come alive. Some days I stare at blank screens and nothing comes forth. Then there are the inspired, dazzling days when words just come pouring out and jostle for space; when every alphabet dances and my soul is reflected in them. Those are the days when my faith is restored, when the fire is stoked and strengthened, when life feels intense and earnest.

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Today is one of those adequate days. It’s drizzling outside and the breeze is pleasantly cool. The outside world has become a metaphor for the inside world. Monsoon is my absolute favorite season. Everything comes alive and looks so spectacular. I love winter too, but the poetry and romance of raindrops on quivering leaves pulls at my heart like nothing else can. The dust of summertime failures is washed away and new hope glistens. This is the season that makes me want to sparkle. We live drenched in insipidity just because we are afraid to step out of it. It’s only when we relegate fear and pull up our cob-webbed bits of courage and polish them to a shine that things will ever change. Time relentlessly marches forward and seasons change. So why can’t we?

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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.

Grandpa's using headphones for the first time.

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’.