The Backwaters of Kerala

fullsizeoutput_a24Winding our way down from Munnar to sea level the sky gradually shifts from blue to milk white. Not white like creamy full fat milk – more like the water-downed milk I remember from childhood. The milk I drank at Mrs. Dietrich’s kitchen table when I was a kid was so fresh and warm from the cow that she served it to her daughter and me on ice. As the ice melted the milk became thin and pale. That’s the color of the sky as we descend from Munnar.

Birdsong has disappeared. In its place are the blaring horns that sound like a million trumpets searching for the right key. Bass notes rumble from trucks and busses while the staccato sputter of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws adds rhythm. It’s a discordant lullaby for Ben, who easily falls asleep in the back seat. I can’t sleep. There’s too much color and life and I want to see it all.

+AVbGiiOQmW564wlhaw8PgWomen wrapped in colorful sarees ride side-saddle on scooters while on the road’s shoulder ancient men wrapped in lungis tucked in above their knees push carts balanced on bicycle wheels and piled high with wares.

In India, driving is a skill left to the fearless. An art form only for the brave. There are no discernible lanes on the roads and when by chance there is a stretch painted with a thin white line that line is largely ignored.  Traffic flows only with the overtaking of slower vehicles. Drivers pass one another on curves, hills and in defiance of any vehicle, no matter how large, racing toward them from the opposite direction. Negotiating small villages requires dodging pedestrians and the gentle street dogs that roam in small packs. Vehicles braid their way through intersections without stopping. 

And somehow, for the most part, it all kind of works. 

It would be easy to believe drivers who overtake on curves or don’t stop at intersections have a careless and cavalier attitude toward life. But I don’t believe that. I believe the one single rule of the road that informs Indian traffic is a healthy attitude toward death. The acceptance of what we don’t know – the time or place of our demise – is a freeing thing. 

We’re on our way to the backwaters of Kerala, to a place called Alleppey. From there we’ll spend a day and one night aboard a houseboat on Lake Vembanad.

IszyrQtvTTG7%%7VjZ+TGAThe four hour drive from Munnar to Alleppey is long and hot and bumpy but when we arrive at the houseboat all of that is forgotten. For the rest of the afternoon and into the first part of the next morning we’ll be on the longest lake in Kerala. We’re in a traditional houseboat. It moves almost without sound. I can hear the lapping of water and once again the sound of birds calling to one another. There’s an immense variety of bird life here – brahminy kites that look like bald eagles, kingfishers, parrots, flycatchers, darters, cormorants, egrets and herons all greet us as we move through the waters. 

IMG_3209The lake is life and livelihood for the people who live along its edge. Children are ferried home from school in wooden boats. Women wash clothes while their kids play in its waters. At sunrise lone fishermen, silhouetted in their small canoes by the red dawn, make their way to where they hope will be the day’s best catch.

I feel like an intruder. My Western sensibilities can not imagine what life is like for the people who live on the lake. Life means something different here, something I can’t define or experience. I’m a visitor – welcome or unwelcome – who will soon return to central heating, paved roads and hot water on demand. 4X+kzKIoSgGHjv7CeQx7zw

But I am swallowed up in the beauty of it all. I envy their connection to the water and the land. As I continue to watch and steal photos of people’s lives I consider how we all love and hate, live and die, work and rest, smile and mourn. Maybe the woman pounding wet clothes on cement and I have something the same inside. Different hopes but still hope. Different fears but still fear.


Kerala

From the air, if you’re high enough, the green carpet of trees could be anywhere. It could even be home. But as the plane descends the coconut trees begin to distinguish themselves. The river cuts into the earth in a way that is different to what you’ve known. Banana plantations define themselves in stiff squares of land. The roofs of homes are not the familiar red clay tiles you remember but are instead the bright blue color of tarps stretched across cinder blocks and corrugated tin. Yet, in the distance, an ornate and sparkling church calls the eye.

This is not home. This is unlike any place I’ve ever been. This is Kerala.

Kochi

The sunlight in Kochi is diffused by heavy, moist air. The December heat keeps my skin sticky and my ankles puffed. But it’s a beautiful light – intense and muted at the same time. It brightens colors and softens the edges of the Chinese fishermen nets that, since the 14th century, have pulled fish from Kochi’s harbour. The nets are fascinating structures built from teak and bamboo. They’re cantilevered and require nothing more than the weight of a man to lower themselves into the water.

Along the embankment men dressed in lungis, their heads wrapped in wet and frayed cloth as protection against the sun, prepare to sell the fish whose gills still move, desperate to find water. Interspersed between the fishmongers are stalls filled with wares available to purchase for the tourists fresh off cruise ships in port from Mumbai and Singapore. Follow the cobbled path from the nets to the jetty and you’ll find fish for your supper, leather belts, straw hats, toy tuk-tuks for the kids at home, plastic pasta makers and hand-held sewing machines the size of a stapler.

Nearby is a respite. The Church of Saint Francis is a short walk from the jetty. Built in 1503 and the original burial place of Vasco de Gama, it is a beautiful but unassuming building.

Its stone interior, lined with dark wooden pews, is cooled with a mechanism built of rope, pulleys and embroidered fabric attached to poles that run the length of the nave. The poles are lowered and when they swing the congregation is fanned by the movement of the fabric.

 

 

Munnar

The first two close calls were flukes. It was only after I saw my life pass before my eyes for the third time that I began to question our sanity. By the time we were in our fifth hour of winding switchbacks on a road so narrow we frequently stopped to accomodate traffic barreling down the steep grade toward us I knew we were doomed. We were headed toward a former hill station in Munnar now named Windermere Estate.

Just before we arrive at our destination we cross a one-lane bridge. The river is a good thirty feet below and calm. It’s difficult to believe that four months previous the same river turned violent and rose high enough to cover the span. Munnar was devastated in the floods that killed over one hundred and fifty people last August. Windermere Estate was cut off by landslides for fourteen days. There is still evidence of the landslides but with the exception of road damage evidenced on the long climb life has returned to normal.

It’s beautiful here. The air is warm but fresh and we awoke this morning to the song of the red whiskered bulbul and not the noise of car horns. From a vantage point reached by climbing a set of stairs cut into stone we have a view of mist covered tea plantations, deep valleys and a rugged mountain ridge on which, we’re told, wild elephants sometimes roam into view.

Our one day at Windermere is a day of rest. The grounds of the estate are too beautiful to contemplate leaving. With the exception of one short walk to a small village just below the estate grounds, we are content to watch the world go by from the little porch attached to our room.

Tomorrow we’ll make our way back down the mountain to Alleppey.


Singing Dragons and a Better Me

Putting together a ‘little something’ for a blog and wanting to be a published author are different mental activities. I arrived at this obvious conclusion two different ways. 

On August 8, 2018 at 5:00 PvTOk5zX4QYi1IByBEiHxVAM I submitted my first book proposal to the wonderful Claire Wilson at Singing Dragon Publishers. I met Claire at SYTAR, the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research I attended in Virginia last June and from where I  wrote my last post for Practically Twisted. The process of creating a non-fiction book proposal is intense, time consuming and, at times, thrilling. It is also a process that forces you to question your goals and motivations. The process asks you to look at what is real and what might be possible.

I pressed ‘send’ that afternoon and am now waiting. I feel a little empty – as if the act of creating the proposal drainedany desire to write anything ever again (as I, of course, sit here writing).

After I submitted the proposal I began to ask myself questions. How would my life change if Singing Dragon picked up my proposal? Where would I find the time to write? How long would it take me? Would I have to quit teaching? Abandon private clients?

This long list of irrelevant questions, instead of rooting me in the present, dragged me into a unpredictable future. They interrupted the flow of oxygen and almost extinguished the little flame that keeps me searching for a way to tell my story.

Today I found myself, at 6AM, still in bed, sipping coffee and scrolling through the news headlines. Remember when I vowed to break this habit? I intended to build a better me. The truth is, I’m not comfortable with the idea of a better me. It implies that the me I am isn’t good enough. But another truth is that I miss those dark winter mornings when I wrapped myself in words to stave off the cold. 

And so, here I am again. 


Morning Light and Failing Better

fullsizeoutput_746Since it’s Memorial Day, Ben is off from work and is enjoying a lie-in. I, on the other hand, am set to teach my Monday morning class at Samyama. So when the alarm rang at 6AM Ben, blessed soul that he is, continued snoring while I stumbled first to the bathroom and then to the kitchen where I fed Bruce the Cat, boiled the water and ground the beans for the morning brew.

It wasn’t until I was at my computer checking the record low number of emails that fell into my inbox during the night that I remembered. When I wrote, so many months ago, about re-awakening my writer-self; about reviving discipline and being present – this is not what I meant. What I imagined was my waking early, sitting down and arriving for the work I do for me – the work that feeds me.

Which makes me want to pause and ask – what work feeds you?

I managed to honor those good intentions for a few months and then, as happens to so many of us so often, just when the habit was beginning to set it slipped away. It’s easy to understand how that happened. Maybe, one morning, instead of answering the first call of the alarm I hit the snooze button once then twice. Maybe, one morning, I became distracted by something that had happened in the news while I was sleeping. Maybe, one morning, I was pressed by a deadline for work and had no choice but to set aside the ‘other’.

It doesn’t matter. The sweet rhythm of hope that tickled the heart of me stopped beating. So here I am again, charging the metaphorical defibrillator and starting again.

What’s that wonderful Samuel Beckett quote? 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so I shall.


Turn Into the Spin: Build a Better Me, Part III

IMG_0097Driver’s Education was compulsory in Pennsylvania when I was in high school. Our teacher, Mr. D, was a suave and handsome man with a reputation. The halls that echoed with the sound of slamming lockers were also filled with whispers about Mr. D and a certain senior who seemed to always linger around his office. Then again, Mr. D was popular and there were plenty of us who made excuses to see him. But she was always there shuffling files or helping prepare transparencies for the overhead projector. She was always perfectly put together. Always pretty and always self-assured and apparently unfazed by rumors about the alleged tryst. I was in awe.

And then one day Mr. D questioned my decision to wear a pale blue bra underneath the cheap, white polyester pullover I bought from Two Guys with my allowance money. It felt weird, the attention, and I fumbled for an answer because the truth was I had no idea the color of my bra was at all obvious through the loose knit of the sweater.

After that I stopped thinking of excuses to stop by his office.

But in order to qualify for my learner’s permit, I still listened attentively to Mr. D’s afternoon lectures on safety and shared driving time on the narrow roads of New Tripoli with classmates I barely knew in a car that smelled vaguely of fear sweat, gasoline and pencil shavings.

There are three things I took away from Mr. D’s driver’s ed class. The first, of course, is to consider more carefully my choice in underwear.

The second is to remain aware of the world around me. When I first slipped into the driver’s seat, I was like a horse wearing blinders. I gripped the wheel and kept my eyes fixed on the hood of the car thinking that was how to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction. Mr. D taught me to see beyond what was in front of me.

The third is to turn into the spin. Pennsylvania has real winter, and a good deal of time was spent learning how to drive through inclement weather. Mr. D taught me that in icy conditions the car might begin to lose traction. When it does I won’t save myself by turning away. I have to fight to regain control.

California doesn’t have real winter. At least not in the Bay Area. But that doesn’t mean things can’t get slippery. I hit a patch of ice life in February and lost control of my ongoing quest to Build a Better Me. The clarity that was coming into focus through January went sideways as I began to spin. My 500 words-a-day trickled to 500 words-a-week if I was lucky. I lost sight of what was beyond and focused on the immediate. Good intentions began to slide.

And to be honest, it would have been easier to let go of the wheel. Except I know how that feels, and I no longer want to feel the restlessness and lack of conviction that a life with no traction offers.

So instead I’m going to practice what Mr. D taught. I’m going to look at the big picture, and I’m going to turn into the spin.


If You Want to Write, Read

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A list from a 2011-2012…I’m exhausted looking at it.

It may have been at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference about eight years ago where I was told that if you want to attract readers then you have to be a reader. Not only that, but you have to be a reader that leaves comments. That seems fair enough. But it’s a huge cyberverse with ‘billions and billions’ of blogs. Navigating our way to the stories that mean the most to us – the words that either inspire, educate or entertain – is like trying to find glitter glue at Walmart. You have to walk past plenty of dreck before you find the craft aisle.

I follow a healthy scoop of blogs written on topics that are of interest to me: art, yoga, writing and wellness. New posts fill my inbox every Monday morning. I read with reasonable regularity just two, on a good day maybe three of over a dozen blogs. The rest – and I’m cringing as I admit this – I delete. And the comments I leave on those blogs I read are few and far between.

What can I say? Life is short. And I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. One too many adverbs and I’m outta there. If this is self-sabatoge I’m willing to take the risk.

I don’t believe there’s any way of knowing if my ignoring the advice handed to me at SFWC changed the trajectory of my non-existent writing *ahem* career. I’d like to think good writing is good writing whether or not there’s a thread of replies (I’m not just a curmudgeon – I’m a naive curmudgeon!). If I practice and polish my craft it shouldn’t matter how many blogs I read or how many comments I leave behind.

Should it?

On the other hand, writing is lonely. It doesn’t hurt to make a few friends. With that in mind, here are the three blogs I read regularly. Two I’ve been following for some time. One is a new addition.

Caitlin Kelly writes Broadside. She’s a journalist and author whose writing is crisp and clear. I wish I wrote half as well as Caitlin. She posts on a variety of topics with humor, passion and conviction. Her latest post was an exploration of gratitude – a simple list of moments that make her happy. Prior to this she wrote about a recent health scare – a post all women should read.

Sawson Abu Farha is the culinary master behind Chef in Disguise. I’ve tried several of her middle eastern recipes. Her latest post teaches the reader how to make Sahlab, a sweet and milky elixir featuring orchid powder and orange blossom water. Warming and delicious, Sahlab is a magical moment of awe for the tastebuds.

Anonymous Sadhaka is the student of yoga I will never be. I don’t know the author’s gender or full story but I love reading the deep explorations into their personal practice. Struggling with a knee injury the posts seem to be written not with the reader in mind. In that way, they feel as though we’re given permission to break the lock on a friend’s diary.

I hope you’ll dip into these writer’s diverse body of work. I hope you’ll also dip into my not so diverse body of work.

Happy reading (and commenting).

 

 

 


In a World of Karoshi, Can We Find our Bliss?

IMG_0172On Friday I wasn’t feeling quite right. At the same time I wasn’t ill. I know you’ve been there, too. I wanted to call a sick day, make a pot of tea and crawl back into to bed. But I couldn’t. With the exception of the occasional, errant sneeze and despite having a sore throat and headache the day before, I wasn’t exhibiting one single symptom that would lead anyone to suspect I was at death’s door. There was no fever, no pox, no projectile vomiting nor was there a consumptive cough. And so I did not call in sick because to do so would require my telling one big fat whopper of a story. Plus, I had work to do.

In the past I’ve named the day I was craving a ‘mental health day’. It turns out Mental Health Day is a real thing. It has been marked annually every October 10th since 1992. Who knew? And each year the founders of Mental Health Day, the World Federation for Mental Health, select a theme. In 2017 the theme was mental health in the workplace.

In the decades that I’ve been in the workforce it has gradually become a point of pride to overwork. We use our level of stress to measure self-worth, and then wear that stress like a badge of honor. In our quest to define who we are we spend more time with our co-workers looking at screens than we do with the people we love.

Our culture of over-work contributes to poor health and wellness, societal isolation, the break down of relationships and the loss of self.

To be honest, though, we have it easy in the United States compared to Japan. In Japan, the word karoshi means death-by-overwork. While Japan’s government is working to reverse the trend, according to this article from 2014 each year thousands of workers die from either stress-related illnesses or they commit suicide. While the Japanese government has tried to reverse the trend, a more recent article shows their attempts showing meagre results. Sadly, Japan isn’t the only country where extreme devotion to the job and self-sacrifice risks death from heart failure in people as young as twenty-seven. South Korea, China and even the United Kingdom trend toward compulsive and obligatory overwork compared to the United States. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. Compared to these countries, we’re slackers.

I wrote the last sentence with a tinge of guilt as the thought ran through my mind, “I have to work harder.” And I bet I’m not alone.

So how do we separate the job we do from the work we love? Where is the fuzzy line between paying the mortgage and the bliss Joseph Campbell promises if we follow our heart? When we are dragged below the surface of a world moving too fast to fathom, where do we find the strength to break through the surface and breathe?