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Tikkun Olam

What a wonderful feeling it is when your passion and your work come together. Lately, I have been becoming more and more aware of a feeling of deep fulfillment that seems to cloak me when I spend a few minutes each evening, just playing the day back in my mind. The mute rewind makes me sigh and smile and wonder. So much can happen in just 12 – 14 hours! Each day I wake up and do what I love and this sense of fulfilment pervades every day. Every single day.

The thing I love most is the fact that I get to be part of people’s lives, part of their joys and triumphs, partners in their sorrows and despair. Maybe I’m a tad too sensitive. I think I was absent the day they taught how to do that whole “close your heart off” thing because I don’t seem to be able to do it.

As a child, I hated being in crowded places; being near so many people dealing with difficult emotions overwhelmed me. I was much happier curled up with a book or at home alone. As I got older, I found ways to deal with other’s complicated experiences, to deal with all of the emotions bouncing around from people, to deal with anger, sadness, joy and pain in the world around me.  The drive to fix things or  help people stayed with me like the scent from wet earth that you can’t shake off in a hurry. I traveled across India working with my youth group. Volunteering in old age homes, clinics, aids camps, jails, NGO’s and orphanages.

Strange how fleeting our time on earth is, each of us here for the other. To fulfil a cosmic purpose; a divine plan that connects us all. Tikkun olam. However, it look me a long time and several late night conversations with friends to realize this one true thing:

We are not here to fix each other. There is no magical Utopia where you can intervene and then like magic, everyone is happy and whole again. Life is just not like that. But that isn’t the end of the story and while this is the place where some people throw in the towel and decide that all is futile, it is where I come into my own. I believe I am wired and fashioned to be there for others. THIS is my calling and is probably why dealing in lives each day gives me such a deep sense of fulfillment.

People aren’t problems that need solving. Life happens to us all and sometimes, there’s beauty to be found in its struggles. What matters is who you have with you on that journey. Sadly the lives we invest in so heavily are sometimes just foreigners passing through.

Very often I am reminded of how much my outer and inner life is shaped by the labors of people who have been my helpers, my co-pilgrims, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My journey is about living purposefully. Being to others the kind of co-travelers I was fortunate to have had and to leave people a little richer than before our paths crossed.

I work so I can live (in every sense of the term) and I love that each day my work improves my life.

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Breathe in. Breathe out.

Just as the rays of the sun were breaking through the early morning sky, three little pairs of feet touched down on the well-used wooden floors of the village homestay.

bwNestled among the leafy foliage of the surrounding hills, the house that had been cut into the cleft was a peaceful respite from the frenzied town center a few miles away. Wrapped in thick woolen coats the children made their way out of their beds. The routine was automatic. Rise. Bathe. Pray. Eat. And within thirty minutes they were on their way to the local train station in the valley.

The trio delighted in their daily morning jaunt and looked forward to meeting their father briefly at his railway office cabin. As the village station master, their father was the finest man they knew and each morning his face was the last one they saw as the train left the tracks to transport them to school.

This morning however was unusually silent and as they made their way along the path the white peaks of the majestic Himalayas appeared as if a splendid painting in pristine hues of white and azure was carefully being unveiled. Around them, the green terraces and trekking trails grew brighter as the children skipped along oblivious to the captivating beauty of nature’s early morning exposition.

Finally they reached the station. As they made their way up the muddy path to where the little cabin stood, a sense of bewilderment washed over the oldest boy. Where was their father’s cabin? Where was their father? Had they taken a wrong turn along the way? Impossible.

Thirty minutes later they were still the only ones at the station. No trains arrived. No people rushing by. No signs of their father.

Time passed by.

As the trio tiptoed along the tracks like tightrope walkers without a harness, they noticed that large chunks of the hillside had rolled away. The valley below looked broken and exposed. Around them, the jagged edges of bent metal from the shattered train tracks rose up like giant blades glistening in the morning sunlight. Something strange seemed to have happened whiles they slept last night. The valley was now a ghost town.

Twelve hours later, the oldest boy lit the kerosene lamps and hung them up to illuminate the dirt path that led to their cottage. There had been no sign of their father that day.

He clutched his little siblings tight. They were asleep now and as he watched them inhale and exhale he found himself matching his breath to their beat. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Perhaps father wasn’t coming home after all. Perhaps when the world was convulsing violently last night his dad had been brave enough to go out and see what was happening? Perhaps when the soil rolled away from the cliff it took father with it.

Perhaps he would never see his father again.

There was nothing more he could do tonight. Nowhere he could take them. So he leaned against the patio railing, clutched his siblings tighter and swallowed back the tears.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

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Simple Pleasures

Wrote this last Friday but forgot to post it.

Picture Credit: @Pinktaxiblogger

*

It’s almost midday and the muezzin’s full throated voice has filled the air. The faithful are heading towards the mosque along the creek to gather together in communal worship. Dhuhr.

Sipping on karak chai at the Iranian cafe by the banks my friends and I slip into a casual chatter about the merits and pitfalls of Dubai’s distinct two halves: on the one hand the untouched beauty of the old city and on the other, the sparkling skyline that looks like it developed out of a dose steroids, in just a handful of years.

My phone vibrates, taxi has just sent me a picture she took this morning and it couldn’t be better timed. She’s captured the essence of our thoughts with one quick click of her phone camera. Dubai juxtaposed.taxi 1.jpg-larg

The conversation resumes and we chatter mindlessly over tiny cups of karak as the abras pass lazily by.

It’s amazing how quickly you can fall into the same old routines in a city like Dubai. After eight years of living here, I’ve largely succumbed to the familiar cycle of work, dinner and occasional outings with friends – but for quite a long time I spent all my evenings exploring the city, getting a feel of its insides.

This may sound a little crazy but I think Dubai serves as a perfect metaphor for something deeper. While glamorous hotels and luxurious stretches of beach front entertainment arenas have won Dubai fame as a kind of mini-Miami, this view is romantic at best. Yes, you’ll find glitz here but the city with its rich elite in their ivory mansions to match also has so much more to offer. So much more heart.

Earlier this morning I visited the farmers’ market. Among the palm trees and white cabanas the weekly market was taking place. If it wasn’t for the palm trees, it could have been the kind of market you might see in a small town in Europe. Stalls full of fresh produce. A row of tables decked in checked table-cloths where you could buy breakfast –omelets, Arabic bread and milky tea. The produce was mainly fruit and vegetables but it was fresh and varied. Everything from peppers, beets and carrots to herbs and fat, shiny mushrooms and melons all set up to resemble a colourful vegetal parade.

In that early hour we were surrounded by what seemed like a scores of early morning people speaking myriad languages. French, Arabic, Pashtun, English, Hindi. I smile at the mash-ups. I consider my own speech, with its spattering of Arabic. Passersby smile and the old Iranian man with his kettle promptly pours three cups of tea as we approach his stall. He smiles as he welcomes us again.

Personally I don’t enjoy the night life that Dubai has to offer. I’ve tried it, dipped my toes into the evening culture but grew out of it more quickly than I thought I would. There are so many little things that bring so much joy, like sitting here by the creek with my friends. Chatting. Thinking. Writing.  Dubai offers plenty of opportunities for simpler pleasures too, so many avenues for enjoyment that you won’t see on glamourous hoardings or TV commercials.

But that’s progress, I guess. Dubai has grown into the Shang-ri-la of the Middle East and while I don’t begrudge anyone their extravagant lifestyles I am cognizant of the fact that with those lifestyles has come the price of agonizing complexities. And in the current climate of our world, how precious are the simple pleasures of creek side karak or early morning jaunts to the farmers market. #JustSaying

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Mandala’s

“Like vanishing dew,

a passing apparition

or the sudden flash

of lightning — already gone —

thus should one regard one’s self.”
Ikkyu

All you Buddhist-art enthusiasts make a note of this: the new season of House of Cards (which by the way I think, is slightly underwhelming in comparison to the previous two) includes a beautiful segment on Tibetan monks painstakingly creating and then purposefully destroying an intricate sand mandala in the White House. Upon contemplation and a google search to boot, I realized that the mandala serves as a metaphor for transience, change and the impermanence of everything which is the dominant theme of many of the season’s episodes.

Featuring Tibetan monks in an episode of House of Cards after the actual Dalai Lama was present in Washington arguably demonstrates Hollywood’s continued desire to merge fact and fiction in their aim to keep movies and TV shows relevant and with the times but, that’s not why the episode captivated my attention.

The reason I was so moved by the episode was because the idea of transience and change has always both fascinated and irked me. Long, long ago I received a notice from the department of the painfully obvious – ‘nothing is permanent’ it said, and this message stayed with me and continues to nibble at my insides.

From my reading about the Mandala art I also unearthed information on a Buddhist concept called ‘Anitya’ – the idea that the world is in a state of flux and that only what we do with our allotted time really matters. In an uncanny way, it reminded me of Shelley’s Ozymandiasthe truth is, there is no tomorrow, at least no guarantee of it being available to us. All we have is now.

Sometimes this apparent truth about transience can feel confronting. Unfair, even. Because these “things which must pass” inevitably include the people we love and the things we celebrate. The things we might want to hold on to. But this week I’ve chosen to change my vantage point and meditated on a new thought instead. Living proof – with infinite reminders – that all things move on somehow. (Not just the “good” ones). That everything evolves in some way or other. That they can only stay stuck for so long.

Even pain.
Even sorrow.
Even waves and torrential rain

And who knew that a TV show about an obnoxious, power-hungry American president could induce this many hours of rumination?

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The Right Words

Of late, I have been writing what I am calling my ‘throw away’ work. Wasted words that are cold and flat…lacking in imagination or technique. I hack away at my keyboard for minutes on end and then with one impulsive touch of the backspace button, every word is discarded…I’m back to a white screen…back to contemplating…stuck again.

How ironic that at this moment I am writing about not being able to write!

The feeling of helplessness is almost physical…I am seldom happy with the words on my screen…mediocre phrasing annoys me. I long for finesse. I need…something…I’m not sure what exactly….but I know my writing lacks it.

I wonder…I deliberate on my choice of expressions…scratch this…change that…rephrase…punctuate…find another way to say that…write something different…and then in a moment of exasperation, “I can’t come up with a good idea” becomes “I’ll never come up with a good idea ever again.”

The vexations creep up on me like a shadow on a sundial…like a vine on a wall…like a cat on a mouse. Sigh! I overdid that, didn’t I? I’m almost incurably verbose…that’s my other struggle.

If I sound annoyed it’s because I am and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This dissatisfaction with my writing drives me…ideas simmer in my mind…they hang there…I’m aware of them but I’m still searching for the right words to give them shape. The foggy feeling lingers…like when you’re in that half-asleep, half-awake state just before your alarm breaks the silence of the early morning. You know?

(Takes a ten minute break…comes back to laptop with a mug of coffee, a leftover idli and a little more clarity…)

I guess like any skill, writing takes practice and for me that practice comes from my throw away words. If I was happy with everything I wrote I wouldn’t be allowing myself to grow…to learn or to just write a whole lot of nonsense once in a while. I keep telling my students that unless they’re practicing, they’re not improving. The same applies to me. To us. To everyone.

Despite my usual misgivings about New Year’s Resolutions, I am determined to keep writing this year…to keep toying with words even though there are times when I just want to click the little red box on the top-right of my screen and undo all the phrases. I think I should start keeping my ‘throw away’ words…start saving them instead, so that I can read them over…without judgment…without posting them on a blog…without asking people for feedback. I think we all need a space to express ourselves naively…a canvas where the strokes don’t mater…where the technique doesn’t count…but a place that exudes the kind of vibrancy that comes from spontaneous expression.

I wonder if there really are right words for every thought. For now, these will just have to do.

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Everything is Just a Phase

January 12, 2015

I have just assigned my class a challenge and have presented them with a writing prompt. I’ve told them that I am going to take this challenge with them and so here I am scribbling away on a sheet of ruled paper, toying with my words.

FullSizeRenderFinal chapters, closing doors, clocks ticking away towards a deadline, it seems like so much of our lives is dictated by an overwhelming sense of finality. Everything ends…people leave…friendships fade…and your closest companion could eventually just end up as a coffee cup memory for a day of lazy afternoon reveries.

My biggest grouse against life is that there is no seal of permanence on the things we hold dearest or the relationships that matter most. We invest so much in making memories with people, in the places we go and while doing the things that lead us to a better understanding of who we are. But the thing is, most often they end up as just memories. Sure, they affect us, they change us but then they fade and disappear. Eventually.

Like the yellowing pages of your prized paperback from your teenage years… like mementos buried in tin boxes…like that currency bill you accidently find in the pockets of your old and faded jeans, these memories are sometimes rediscovered. Your joy is palpable…you either squeal in delight at the discovery or smile discreetly as the memory warms up your insides like a hot beverage on a December day. You bask in the afterglow…it envelops you…your mind wanders…and then wonders…where did those years go? I wish I could go back there someday…I wonder where he is…I wonder if she still thinks of me…

I know there is a school of thought that says we’ve got to suck it up and deal with it… deal with life…make the most of the time we’ve got and the people we meet…and then move on. But I wish it was that easy. I guess that’s the reason I love watching TV series and so seldom choose the latest blockbuster instead…there’s continuity there and the story doesn’t just come to a halt after two amd a half hours…it goes on.

I gaze up, the students are still engrossed in their writing, and are stringing words together to make complex sentences…their concentration is visible on their brows. I hear the pleasant swoosh of pen on paper…fingers hacking at keyboards…the music from my laptop plays softly…it’s meant to create mood and induce creativity. It’s such a lovely moment really….will make for a lovely memory too. Then suddenly the school bell rings…the vibrating notes bring us all back to the ragged edges of reality. Time is up…the class is over.

I hear shuffling feet…the thump of laptops being shut…the rustling of papers being hurriedly handed in. The beauty of the preceding moments has vanished like a toffee wrapper in an updraft. The moment has passed.

Everything is just a phase.

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EDI Diaries #1

There was a strange feeling in the air this morning that reminded me of my days as a student. To my right was a man with a nervous twitch who kept tapping his knuckles incessantly on the metallic frame of his waiting room chair. On my left, a young lady of African ethnicity was flipping through the pages of all the literature we had been handed and in front of me was a young boy no older than 18, exuding a quiet confidence the adults around him lacked. His bright red T-shirt read ‘Bazinga’.

Twenty minutes of waiting and staring passed before we were finally herded into another waiting room and told to await further instructions. Fifteen minutes passed and I was bored. So, I opened my blue Adidas bag repeatedly. File, check. Stationery, check. ID, check. Mentos, check. Five minutes later I opened my bag again. Everything was still there. I was still waiting and it felt like the clock was stuck in a devilish limbo. I’m not good with whiling away my time without something constructive to do.

Suddenly a booming voice with a distinct Arabic accent filled the room. ‘All English people…’ (I guessed that included me) ‘…lecture room 4. No talking…no phones…no photographs.’ he instructed us robotically. He was clearly not enthusiastic about his job and gave us each a menacing stare-down as we made our way towards the room. We rushed towards the door…herd mentality…everyone rushed to get a good seat. I headed to the last row…my comfort zone. The room was big, poorly lit and a musty scent hung in the air. I took my place, silenced my phone and sank into my seat. It was going to be a long day.

After eight years in Dubai, here I was…finally  learning how to drive. Unlearning all the wrong ideas and learning by the rule book. Forgetting that where I come from, the bigger your car, ensures you the right of way. Where honking incessantly is the magic solution to thinning traffic jams. Where keeping a safe distance between cars is giving invitation to the newest sports bike or arrogant autowallah to cut through without a care in the world.  A place where you can turn right from the extreme left. I could go on and on.

Cut to eight hours of lectures later, the instructor announced a surprise revision quiz. I could feel myself moaning the words ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’…people turn…and stare….did I say those words out loud? Damn! Way to begin the course Sydney! The instructor allows his stare to linger a second longer than necessary and then continues…points to the screen… ‘now that is a closed u-turn and the other one was an open u-turn. So which lane will you take when you turn at an open u-turn?’ In India, you would laugh at anyone asking this, but here you listen and answer with military etiquette.

I hear the word ‘You’ being spat out at someone…there’s a finger pointing in my direction. Wait, am I supposed to answer? Think Sydney, think. No phone-a-friend. No cheating. He’s testing *you*… ‘Right-hand lane’ I hear myself say hesitantly. Without a word the bespectacled legionnaire moves onto his next target, a Philipino lady who he has caught dozing off. She answers too. This is not going how he had planned it.

Sahi jawab the imaginary narrator in my head declares…there’s clapping in the stands. Triumphant.

I feel like I am one step closer to the elusive driving license in Dubai. I am charged about the road tests. The 5th time is the charm, they say. For now I’m celebrating with a Shwarma and a milkshake as I wait for the cabbie to come get me. I know the next few weeks are going to be a bumpy ride. Sorry for that pun…I couldn’t help myself!

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