Feb 20, 2013

"He’s a strange bird, but I know him."

This morning my friend Shreya was befuddled by a reluctant toaster. Or perhaps her 4 year old insisted on wearing shorts to school in winter (as 4 year olds often do). Whatever it was that unfolded in the house of the harried mom in the early hours, it made her take to FB and declare
Nothing that's meant to happen is happening! So I'm asking The World, can it explain itself??."

From the warm recesses of my comforter, where I’d only opened one eye to meet 6:45 am, my arm snaked out to snag the iPhone charging on my nightstand. Ostensibly to check if I had time for another 40 winks but really to check in on FB (yes, I’m a junkie). Shreya’s angst was from 5 hours ago, the time difference between us. But I still felt the motivation to tap this out (mainly to yank her chain  even on a dated event but also to speak up for our already beleaguered planet):

The world was spinning gently when it looked closer at it's people
chanting on their prayer mats, chanting under steeple.
Then judging mats and steeples while intoning a sombre 'om',
Unspeakable acts of hatred that I won't put in this pome.
Killing and greed supposedly for the furthering of our Race,
That seems better gone when you see this side of its cruel and brutal face.
Eons of growth and changes in the original primordial mass
Just has to mean a little more than human chaos en-masse.
The world kept spinning on as to it's people it then asked,
"nothings working the way it's meant to: Explain YOURSELF…and fast."

In a separate but not entirely unconnected incident (bear with me!), last night my husband saw this on the public library bulletin board:

Amidst the ‘WTF?!’ vein of responses it elicited from his FB friends, were his own 2 cents:
the point is not to pick up new friends, but to not remain strangers. In fact, it does not prohibit you from not staying strange ! People can look at me, say "he's a strange bird, but I know him".

The mystery of our (16 year long) union was a wee bit lessened when I realized that this ad was part of the same ‘Hi’ campaign I blogged so giddily about recently. Hubby’s take is a lot more restrained but none the less potent for it. To me at least.

In between the incomparable yet nonetheless valid tragedies of soft toast and senseless slaughter lies the essential truth: shit happens and in oh-so many ways.

- The world neither explains nor rights itself, no matter how politely you ask.
- You never know which way your bread will land: buttered side down feels like your default until you meet someone without any bread (so to speak).

But imagine that you’re plodding along trying to taking stock of all that is right so you can get through all the 'wrong'. With sanity more-or-less intact.

You look up and a strange but friendly face is looking into yours.
A ‘Hi’ comes your way.
Someone opens the door for you.
Another offers you their spare plastic spoons.
Yet another chases you down the platform to return the one glove you dropped.

Doesn’t that just take the cake?

To be able to say ‘he’s a strange bird but I know him’.
Hey Shreya: I think maybe the world is explaining itself after all.

PS: please check out
The excellent folks at the REACH campaign with the poster above at http://www.reachma.org/
My freind Shreya's hilarious blog at http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/author/3503/shreyasen-handley.html

As i'm putting Oyon's latest Lego 'creation' into his 'museum':
Oyon: That's delicate Mummum. Be careful please. It's also fragile you know.
Me: Isn't that the same thing?
Oyon: No! (with a condescending snigger) Fragile means it's shiny.
Me: (laughing quietly to myself)
Oyon (with dawning self-doubt): Or maybe not. Anyway, I KNOW it's delicate. I know THAT. 

Feb 15, 2013

Ash to go

That most of my human-nature related insights and epiphanies should occur at the commuter rail station is not surprising. Other than the 5 minute walk from North Station to my office , on the Boston end of my train ride, this is after all the only time I get a daily glimpse of other slices of humanity. Or at least the slice that goes to work in Boston. Once there, we're all usually hunched up against the wind tunnel effect, scurrying with heads down to our separate workplaces, suspended within those little bubbles that large(ish) cities so easily and instantly conjure.

This particular February Wednesday I met these folks on the platform in Waltham:

The Catholic observance of 'Ash Wednesday' is as intrinsic to the socio-cultural fabric of the Greater Boston area as the Pilgrim hat icons (on everything from Highway signage to tourist kitsch) that boast of the Mayflower's historic arrival. Irish immigrants followed the Mayflower Puritans a few hundred years later and brought with them Catholicism. Driven by Ireland's devastating Potato famine of 1847, the Diaspora arrived and grew not only in size but in a unique sort of eminence. Boston Irish Catholics came to own a spirit of industry, inquiry and even government here. Three guesses as to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's ethnic heritage. That's not to say that all Catholics here have Irish ancestry (the so called 'Boston Brahmins' are apparently descended from the Puritan founders) but many, many do. And I think of them whenever I think of Catholicism.

Ancestry (and quick trip to wiki grade Irish history!) aside, a forehead anointed with a smear of ash on any given Lent Wednesday here speaks not just of early morning Mass and Faith but generations of tradition in a long thriving community. It's easy to smile when these suddenly-identifiable Christians (I've come to think of them, not unkindly, as 'Wednesday Catholics') board the train preceded/followed by a dark haired Indian wearing a similar vibhuti teeka from their morning puja. I find it heartening somehow that outward symbols of two disparate religions should find not just such similar expression but full acceptance. I haven’t seen anyone spare a second glance at any ash-dotted forehead, regardless of it's underlying skin-tone.
Quick aside (again!): Not having ever faced racism in this country, I wonder at (and am mildly ashamed of) my surprise. Notch it upto skepticism. I often wonder if I haven't faced the racism that many of my peers have caught glimpses of, due to my low exposure to ALL of American society. I figure that attending Graduate school and pursuing a career in a field requiring a certain degree of education ensures I only come across people of a cosmopolitan bent, people used to the sight and sound of non-Americans because of the way we have saturated institutes of higher education and highly-skilled jobs in addition to the 7-eleven 'appu's widely caricatured in American pop-culture. Regardless of my confusion, what I've seen of the American spirit (if I can even summarize the plurality here into 'one' spirit), I like.

Which brings me full circle to the Episcopalians in the cold and slush, clutching their packs of ash to share with anyone who hasn't found time for it yet. For fear of gawking and/or intruding on what seemed a somewhat private act (though arguably, wearing an ash mark all day was probably not geared toward keeping the faith 'private'), I didn't stick around to stare down the actual 'to-go' ritual they performed. But their effort at bringing some peace and comfort to harried Catholics who might have struggled and lost their bid at religious observance, possibly from the due pressures of Life, was touching. They did not seem to be proselytizing and were open-minded enough to let me take this picture.

As a long professed Agnostic (and recently converted Atheist) I make no claim to understanding the joy people find in Faith. I come from a country ripped apart by religion and am aghast at the atrocities carried out in the name of 'tradition', leave alone Faith. I'll never agree that unthinking adherence to unchallenged rituals is a virtue. Especially when said rituals divide people and spread pain and intolerance. I find though that I've remained human enough to recognize the power of positive traditions in transforming lives in small, but significant ways. My intolerance of dogma doesn't prevent me right now either, from seeing the substantive example of brotherhood and compassion in a couple of church-goers offering up comfort and convenience instead of doling out guilt and defaulting to indifference.
They didn’t try to proselytize.
They didn't even call out to passers-by.
They just stood there - cassock edges (vestments? robes? my Christian lexicon is woefully under furnished!) wicking up melted grey slush from the asphalt. They smiled and nodded at anyone who made eye-contact and let their board advertise their purpose.
I wish I had thanked them for what they brought to their fellow Catholics.
And me.
My forehead is bare of any signs of Faith. But theirs did something for me anyway.

One evening a few months ago we were on our way to a birthday party. At the first chant of "I'm bored!" on the long, dark drive, his Dimmum (my mom) challenges him to count to 100.
Then to 200.
At 131 (or so), Oyon pauses and wonders out loud what comes after 1000.
I ask him to guess.
"Thousandty-one. Thousandty- two...."

Anyone who's shocked that an almost 6 yr old can't count past 1000: he can't do buttons either. But boy, does he have a great grin. :-)

Feb 12, 2013

'Say Hi to your neighbors week' in Waltham, MA.

    At the train station this morning, 3 ft high snow banks narrowed the parking lot drive-through lane to barely a car's width. Thank you, blizzard Nemo. Traffic flow had slowed to molasses. I made it in eventually and was working my car back and forth in the few inches available for maneuvering to squeeze into the last, tight parking spot as my train pulled in and then out (without me). Already irate from a rebellious 6 yr old's early morning tantrum, I let fly a few of the choiciest in the modest confines of my vehicle.
     Prepped to cool my heels and temper inside my frigid car (what, me idle?) for 20 mins until the next train to Boston. Lady to my left, who had no such compunctions, comfortably belched exhaust while putting on her face in the rear-view mirror. Man on the right blasted music with the engine running and a window half open to let out his cigarette smoke. One of those 'Why do I even bother?' moments flashed briefly through my mind.
     Then a dimly heard voice from behind the car caught my attention, saying 'Hi! Would you like some coffee?' . In my rear-view mirror, the bundled up commuter being addressed shook a wordless 'no' and scurried off as fast as the ice and slush would let her. She hadn't even made eye contact with the coffee-bearer. I watched to see what would follow and saw this gentleman (whom I later stalked for a pic):

He moved amongst commuters until his coffee stockpile was exhausted. Then he headed back to this temporary coffee station that I hadn't even noticed before. It was positioned strategically at the bus stop adjoining the Waltham commuter train stop:

He reloaded and set off again, as did a few other young women. Armed with coffee, grins and a cheerful, easy 'Hi!' they doled out these pamphlets with minimal fuss:

I would have been emotionally levelled by the sobering joy of witnessing this kind of pure kindness had it not been that they had an agenda. But just check out their agenda was (excerpted from the back of the pamphlet from above):

 Mayor McCarthy has proclaimed February 9-16, 2013 as
Say Hi to Your Neighbors Week!
Our goal is 2,013 "Hi"s
Will you Say 'Hi' to your neighbors and help realize our goals?
              We believe that saying 'Hi' to our nieghbors:
        * Helps create a safer community
        * Breaks the isloation that people experiencing violence often feel
        * Helps us be more likely to look out for each other
Don't pass someone by
SAY Hi and ask them to pass it on!

It's a message from REACH Beyond Domestic Violence.
They were'nt even preachy about it. When a coffee recipient responded to the pamphlet with 'Thanks for the coffee! I will try not to be domestically violenced!' in an errant attempt at wit, the coffee-bearer continued to hand over creamer and sugar packs with a grin and nary a word about the seriousness of the issue.

Sobering joy: check.
Emotionally levelled: check

In this age where various forms of social media are so easily and successfully brought to bear on spreading messages, this kind of physical glad-handing probably bears less of a 'wow' factor and  more of a taint of being backward and inefficient. The most casual user of social networks knows that you can spread a message farther, wider and faster with a few jabs of your thumbs on a smart phone than with hours of canvassing. But what the iGadgets and cyber social networks miss is the value of personal contact. Victims of abuse fly under the radar for as long as they do because they lack the connections that might enable them to call out for help. I understand people suffering from depression face a similar debilitating sense of isolation that makes them feel that they are suffering alone, that no-one can 'get' it, that their pain in unimportant or shameful or a sign of weakness.

In these situations no number of smiley pictures in chain e-mails or 'like' tallys on FB can match the value of a smile exchanged in person. Because being there, means BEING THERE. It means that each of us are not suspended in a bubble facing joys and sorrows alike, alone. That there may just be help and comfort a simple word away. That even when you don't receive acknowledgement of a smile/nod/hello, you might have changed that person's day. Or life.

If you suspect that this might be even partially true, why not try saying 'Hi! Pass it on, will you?', walk away and see how it makes you feel?

Or contact these folks: www.reachma.org, allison@reachme.org

Oyon-isms (6):
Trying to say 'Grace' just like his little freind who came to dinner last night (whose family follows the practise, one we join out of respect when we visit them for dinner). She thanks the Lord for 'food, house and freinds. Amen.'
Oyon clasps his hands, squeezes his eyes shut and says
"I hope there is more good news in the news because the bad news is just bad. Um, what's that word you say at the end again, Mummum?"
Amen, kid.

Feb 7, 2013

'Iron' tokens and dated ring-tones

A few reminders today of my age and stage in life.
Age = 41.
Stage = harried mom who is recovering her footing and self.

The Twilight Zone theme song
               Squished together with a fellow commuter on my 8 am train to Boston, the haunting theme from the '70s show 'The Twilight Zone' snaked gently into the air.