TABLE FOR ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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UNPLUGGED DAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A BOUNDLESS LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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THE PERPETUAL PROCESS OF BECOMING

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I realized the importance of landscaping very early on in life. A transformation of the ramshackle house I grew up in corroborated that belief. Mum decided the house should get a fresh coat of paint every year and maintained a pretty patch of green to highlight the radiant white exterior. She eventually added a few hanging pots of flowering shrubs to the wide picture window and lovingly guided the Bougainvillea to embrace the roof on one side. Whenever I walked towards my home after a long day, it was to this warm, welcoming sight. Not one to settle on the obvious, I let that metaphorically permeate every area of life. However, not everyone is born with a green thumb. And so, just like the plants I touched died so also did I make numerous mistakes to complicate an otherwise decently uncomplicated life. I called it my anti-Midas touch.

A few years later, when my daughter was about two, she developed a fear of road bumps. Every time, the car hit one, she would bawl. While detangling her issues (and many road bumps later), I inched towards finding answers to mine. It was a massive landscaping job. In the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The common phrase, ‘building a personality’ is a misnomer. Personality is not so much like a structure as like a river – it continuously flows, and to be a person is to be engaged in a perpetual process of becoming.” It was around that time that Patrick had entered my life and become my editor/implied mentor. The contouring took on a new meaning. What I wanted from my writing, was not to build up a body of work that represented me, but a personality that reflected who I essentially was.

On my recent trip to Dubai, as the airplane hovered over the city waiting for a signal to land, my thoughts drifted back to my mother’s garden. From a stark, barren desert, the city had been transformed into a beautiful, vast oasis. I love the city for more reasons than one. Each time I seem to find another lost part of my soul there. When I leave home, I’m not really stepping out of a dismayed chaos, but rather stepping into barefaced clarity. I love my Mumbai home but the routine can get jaded and I welcome the unfolding of horizons as I step away from familiarity. There’s a certain charm to unstructured days abroad.  Curated travel has never appealed to me; what does is to wake up and go where the day leads you. Out of such fluid days emerges a dazzling lucidity that to me is the essence of travel and of life.

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While I savoured freshly made Tabouleh and salty feta cheese, what really nourished me, as always, were the people. Despite our insistence not to, our long time friend, Vishwas and his daughter, Shreya welcomed us with huge smiles at the airport and took us home for a spicy, Arabic feast. In the glow of dimmed lamps, the meal speckled with constant banter felt like a warm homecoming.

The next day, my college buddy, Sushma took me to brunch with her girl gang. Ina and Sumi, were a delightful onslaught on my unsuspecting senses. Gregarious, unrestrained bundles of fun; they were like a ‘whirlwind meditation’ to my jet-lagged mind. Sai greeted me with an easy familiarity and I realized that even first hugs can have the warmth of old friendships. Deepika’s wry sense of humor and calm beauty were a beautiful contradiction that bowled me over. Shilpi was soothingly radiant and Aastha emanated a serene strength. And above all, my kindred spirit, Sushma. She, unbeknownst to her, is my astute guru. Her unadorned, easy approach to life is a constant reminder of what I aspire to be.

Later, as Sushma and I lounged in her living room over bowls of homemade dessert, she reminded me of what I’m adept at forgetting all too often – to remain calm and centered. It was reminiscent of how Patrick had lovingly spoken to the young, unpublished writer in me many years ago. “Write from your heart and let your words reflect who you are’, he had said, “and if I sense a heartbeat there, I’ll publish it.” It was a subtle pruning, but deeply significant.

My fourth night in Dubai dripped exuberance. School friends are always special – Felix’s quiet warmth, Sheryll’s joviality, Rupa’s sweetness, Anil’s amiability and Sham’s candor were a potent mix that set the evening on fire. We danced without restraint, teased and talked endlessly and just like that, in the middle of a pursed life, we were fourteen again. We crammed our almost 365 minutes together with a year’s worth of fun. It was 3 AM when we finally huddled together outside my hotel for a reluctant goodbye.

The last afternoon was spent with family. The voices were as familiar as the food was exotic. Over generous helpings of Yemini rice and easy bonding, I relaxed into a feeling of absolute contentment.

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Making a home in people, breaking bread and leaving imprints in souls means nourishing body and spirit in the true sense.  The beauty and magnanimity that people bring into our lives teaches us what we need to know about becoming real. Because all said and done, the ‘process of becoming’ is not some spiritual gibberish but the very core of the human experience. We are all given a piece of earth, what we do with it and how we shape and reflect our spirit is totally up to us. Because, and again I quote Fosdick, “Whatever you may  fail  at,  you  need  not  fail  at  being  a  real person.”

 

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LOSING FINGERPRINTS

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I was probably a third grader, when my first letter arrived in the mail. It was a point in time when I was learning the enchantment of words and the stringing of them together into sentences. The fact that an envelope bore my name was a big deal to me and the idea of someone writing to me was beyond magical. That was the first of a series of letters that soon became my prime hope of knowing a father who was physically absent from my young life. Dad had left for foreign shores when I was barely three. The only connection that we could now have, apart from his annual visits, was through the monthly letters that he wrote mum and me. The letters were always beautifully scripted in Dad’s bold, cursive hand and ran into multiple pages. He had been a published writer and at one point, had written some very imaginative and funny stories in his native language. His creativity was now unleashed in the letters he wrote. There was a charm to those sultry afternoons, the dreariness of which could only be made luminescent by the simple arrival of a letter.

A couple of years later, leafing through a magazine in the library, I came across the concept of ‘pen friends’. It was a fascinating thought and I lost no time signing up to the ‘Pen Friend’s Club.’ We passionately wrote to each other across countries and continents, sharing our humdrum life which the other found suitably exotic. To our innocent minds, it was a delightful experience, as thrilling as physically discovering a new city.

 It might seem strange that in an age of speedy digital communication, I’m longing for an era gone by. The virtual world is great; it’s like a manifestation of Neverland and there’s no end to how far one can go here. But like everything else, we need to rein ourselves in and know where to draw the line. We’ve initiated new and rekindled old relationships by the dozen. But how many of them have any depth? And where is the honesty in our altered, pseudo lives? While getting in touch with a lot of people, we seem to be drifting away from our own selves. By endlessly typing out thoughts and feelings, we are gradually losing our fingerprints. The deluge of information is so much, we have no time to sift through it.

Emily Dickinson wrote: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church, I keep it staying at Home.” It’s worth contemplating on how we can expand the meaning of Sabbath beyond just the religious connotations. As they say in Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Pico Iyer writes in his book ‘The Art of Stillness’: “The very people (..), who have worked to speed up the world are the same ones most sensitive to the virtue of slowing down.” He goes on to describe his visit to the Google headquarters where he found “the workers at the time enjoying a fifth of their working hours free, letting their minds wander off leash to where inspiration might be hiding.”

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So while I stay attuned to the times, I’d like to sporadically veer off towards old-fashioned ways. The white noise of thoughtless forwards, countless jokes and pointless chats is jarring to the soul and I long for hushed voices and meaningful conversations over steaming cups of coffee in real cafes. It would be nice to look into people’s eyes and hear their laugh instead of deciphering emoticons. It would be refreshing to hear people say words that they really, truly mean. Why can’t we give and receive real flowers instead of virtual ones and occasionally go through the trouble of mailing a handwritten letter? At the risk of sounding passé, I crave the allure of things gone by.

Three days ago, it was M’s birthday. The last time I saw her face was four a half years ago. It’s strange how a person fills up your life and then suddenly vanishes without warning. What do you do with a love that can never be replaced? I remember our last meal together in the Indian restaurant right below her building. When I told her that we were moving back to India, she had recoiled as if something had hit her. Saying a tearful goodbye, we had promised to write to each other, but sadly never did. Five years later, she was flown home and I was feeding her little morsels of bland rice in a dismal hospital room. The next day, she was gone. The memory of her doesn’t leave me. If only I had those letters we never wrote to each other.

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As I lay half-awake in the shadows of dawn this morning, memories came to me like snippets of a strange dream. Later I found myself on a park bench, pen poised over a notepad, starting a letter that I had promised a friend two months ago. I refuse to live with another broken promise. As if on cue, the pigeons settled around me like a clique. Sunshine filtered through the leaves. I recalled that the Japanese have a term for it: ‘Komorebi’, this interplay of light and leaves on the ground. It is the light curtain which is more visible after the rain. There’s a science behind it, but I couldn’t be bothered right then. Just that it seemed beautifully premeditated and made for an aesthetically perfect setting.

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THE YEAR I MET ‘ME’

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 “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” – Rumi

I’ve been so busy emoting out loud and unraveling my stories that I might have missed the in-between silences. I spent so many hours dressing up my words that I’ve ended up in a state of undress. It isn’t easy to bare your soul to the world; it’s in fact, the ultimate kind of nakedness. But I’ve grown to love the novelty of it. I love the shedding of inhibitions and the unshackling of self. You put one foot in front of the other and at some point a whole journey is made. It’s a cartload of crazy, but this is my emancipation. This is how I like it.

As I take a moment to untie the knots that were formed, little lessons fall out. But there’s one message that trumps every other. That if you believe in yourself, there will come a day when others will have no choice but to believe in you. After a whole year of discovering, questioning, learning and sharing, today my baby, ‘THE MIND DECLUTTER PROJECT’ turns one. It’s a milestone worth celebrating. This space was born out of holding onto splinters when the waters were raging; when I felt like the storm would leave me ravaged. Slowly and surely, I seem to have found my way to the golden shore.

When I made my first post, I did not anticipate the cloudburst – of encouragement, of gratitude and most importantly, of love that was to come my way. The love that I have received because of this space is sacred. Nothing compares to it. A lot of people have, silently or vociferously, shared this ride with me. As much as they have learnt about me, I have discovered them too. It’s such a blessing to be invited into people’s lives, to be allowed to roam their world. I love the familiar as well as the foreign. So thank you to all of you who read my words, acknowledge my work and support this space. I wholeheartedly appreciate it.

When I meet people, a lot of them tell me that they read each one of my blog posts and like my work. But they hesitate to comment because they don’t know what to say. I want you to know that even one word is enough to make my day and to encourage me. So please comment/acknowledge. And should you enjoy what you read, I’d love it if you share it on your social media networks. But whether you do or not, I’m still grateful.

Although I started off on a quest of clarity, my work eventually gave me back a lot more. I became more than what I do. I became a reflection of the people who love me and whom I love back. I became my wavering thoughts and altered feelings. I became a mirror to other people’s feelings. And if I keep sharing all of it and think it matters, it’s because I truly believe that our unadorned lives and our modest legacies matter in the greater scheme of things.

I have no clue of where I’m headed; there’s no checklist whatsoever. I’m not a planner. I just trust that things will work as I go. As of now, the journey and the destination seem to have merged. But I know that wherever I go, will be where I’m meant to be. Meantime, the biggest gift this blog has given me is the ability to live a full life. To appreciate everything and everyone around me. To live in awe of every mystery, big and small. It has given me strength, resilience and freedom. And blissfully abundant days. There’s much to celebrate and miles to go.

Once again, I’m thankful to all who fly with me. May we be the wind beneath each other’s wings.

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