A soaring voice, a soaring song.


On some days when the speed of all that can spin past you and around you in the span of a mere 12 hours can scram you out, you can be lifted by the memory of a song. Today Billy Joel’s old classic ‘Just the Way You Are’ came back and occupied center stage for no discernible reason. It took me back to being an extremely privileged high school student at a rather special boarding school when some of us would gather in the evening around an old vinyl record player and put on Billy Joel’s 1977 The Stranger album.

His raspy voice, crystal clear delivery and faultless, undoubted immersion in the mood the words evoke gets under my skin even now after all these years. And the promise he makes to a real or imaginary lover/friend/partner reminds me of the ideal that so many of us are taken up by. To have amidst those we know someone who will abide. No matter what. No matter where. No matter how.

Ridiculously irrational and hopeless romantic ideals but deliciously life affirming and spirit lifting all the same.

Someday I hope to try my hand at singing this at a karaoke bar! There. I said it.

Below is the man and his song.

 

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Fury and peace


Outside that exploding moment of undiminished fury you can feel when accosted by a blatantly unfair proposition, whether by those who you count on knowing better or by those you have no expectations anymore of, is an incredible and unbelievable settling. An acceptance that one had to measure up to the occasion of injustice and feel with every single cell in one’s body the indignant anger that one feels and yet also soon after let it pass.

It doesn’t come quickly. Or easily. But it comes. And then you can be awash in the knowledge that both were necessary. If provoked or called to battle there is no turning away or turning back. And yet once done, one can rearrange the rough edges, sit down in the creaking vintage rocking chair, put on some music to tap your feet to, smile indulgently at the little girl who is coloring, and the uncomplaining mum who is bringing back order to a stack of clothes in disarray and think everything is alright after all. You can wake up the next morning and greet the day without bitterness, fear or anger. And go to sleep thinking I am thankful for all there is to love.

Gratitude


Lucky to have the leisure to rest. Lucky to have a bed to do it on. Lucky that the heat gives way to a thunderstorm, rain and cool gales. Lucky to have work I love (most of the time). Lucky weekends are truly off. Lucky the body is mostly well. Lucky there is a roof over our heads. Lucky there is food to eat, water to drink, air to breathe, people to love. Lucky to have a laugh often enough. Lucky to have friends who check on me in just the way I want. Lucky that all the grueling long hours spent on work are slowly transforming into greater trust. Lucky to be able to notice the small things. The blade of grass, the sharp-edged hedge, the squirrel darting across, the little myna bird singing a rhythmic, high-pitched song. Lucky to see the day unfold in all its glory. The quiet of the early morning, the steady, unforgiving roar of desert heat at noon, the relative mildness of late evenings, the luxury of conditioned cool air in the night. Lucky to be here. Lucky to be alive.

Resilience


A

Her father fell off his bed in the middle of the night while trying to walk a few steps to drink some water. Her mother, who is as old as he, helped him up, despite being frail and ridiculously smaller-made and lighter than him. Thankfully he got away with just a scrape on his knee, or so we think so far. The couple who have been together for more than 40 years, reassured each other, said sorry they weren’t able to be of more help to one another, returned to bed and tried to sleep.

Their daughter works a full-time, highly coveted, back-breaking job as a news correspondent for a well-regarded national daily nearly 3000 km from them. She is an example of courage, simplicity, integrity and hard-work. She worries constantly about her parents but doesn’t speak much about it knowing she can’t possibly do what a lot of people would ask her to — throw up her job and shift closer to them.

We are close, but we tend to not talk about difficult things as we know we come at them from different ends of the spectrum. And I certainly want to spare her the humiliation of having to listen to gratuitous advice that wouldn’t resonate with who she is and how she deals with difficulties. And yet whenever I think of them, my elderly uncle and beloved aunt, on their own, in a beautiful, spacious villa they have built themselves as a retirement home, I wonder what we could do to make their daily life less difficult.

SM
Twenty-five years after agreeing to an arranged match with a woman who he found out later had intellectual disabilities, SM is a picture of patience, grace, tolerance, and acceptance. I remember seeing him seething with rage early on in his marriage, feeling let down by a matrimonial arrangement not of his doing. Now, with a son in his early 20s, who has grown into a moody, silent, self-conscious young man, SM has left all the anger and bitterness far behind. He focuses instead on providing for his family uncomplainingly, supports his son with all his professional and educational ambitions and does nearly all the work inside and outside the house without batting an eyelid. Having been self-conscious much of his early life for being in his own eyes less charismatic than his two older brothers, he is a new man now: on the ‘wrong side’ of his 50s but with a sparkle in his eyes, a big mop of graying hair, an easy laugh, a welcoming presence, a big heart.

My doctor friend
A medical crisis last year has acquainted us with a group of people we never knew before — including my kind, generous and attentive doctor friend, A. Because she knows us well I am able to mine her for more information and analysis than I am allowed with professional doctors and because we know her, she is careful in what she tells us when she looks at the same file of reports that may have alarmed us in other doctors’ hands. Something she said recently struck me as remarkable: that no matter how bad an investigative report may be and no matter how critical it says the health of a particular organ is, what actually matters more is how the living, moving, talking, feeling human being is– which is why all reports come with a rider – ‘please correlate the findings clinically’.

The strength of the mind
Twenty five years ago, my father’s cardiologist gave him an ultimatum, ‘quit smoking now or else…’ It had an electrifying impact. He stopped cigarettes overnight, moved to cigars and then pipes and one fine day just gave it all up. Several cups of coffee became a replacement and a crutch but it was incredible how he made up his mind to give up a habit that was part of his entire adult life. Ten years before his passing, cardiologists who examined him would deliberately not tell him how wasted his heart and lungs were. He used to try to ask one of them, one of the sternest, and most competent of his time, how many years he had left, and the doctor would just wave him and the question away and say ‘Mr. R please focus on living. The rest is up to the Heavens above.’

After his passing a decade ago, doctors we have known for years and some in the family told us slowly that they were incredulous how he managed as long as he did. One said that ‘for all we think we know as practitioners of medicine, we still don’t know enough about the mind or the will and its effect on health’.

The other day I nearly passed out when a kind, alternative medicine practitioner took a look at my mother’s reports and said two of her vital organs were on the cusp of an emergency. She asked my mother for symptoms typically associated with her condition and instructed her firmly to not keep the slightest sign of unease to herself because that would just further complicate intervention and treatment.

On our way back home, I kept mulling over the wide divergence between what the doctor suspected my mum should feel, and what she says she does and the only explanation I can think of is the very same force that explained my father’s life – the strength of her mind or will or consciousness. My mother is able to look and be and do what she does because she is not self-pitying, not afraid and not self-indulgent. And yet it was useful to have a person of authority tell her gently and persuasively that she owed it to herself to take things more slowly, allow herself more and more frequent periods of rest and to keep herself away as far as possible from undue stress, worry and anxiety.

Grace
I wish of course that we were all younger. And I wish my mum had nothing at all to worry about. But contrary to the ideas that one has had as a teenager and as a young adult about the undesirability of difficulty, it seems to me that it is exactly when life becomes crushingly difficult and nearly hopeless that we are compelled to whip out of her deepest being our latent resources of strength, adaptability and resilience.

Being driven to the point of despair seems to suddenly bring into focus all the precious love and care that is here – now – and one is overcome with wonder for how much a human being does and is willing to do for another and left with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness for being elected to be in their gracious, giving presence.

Getting Away


If you have been struggling with a debilitating condition (“isn’t growing older debilitating enough??!!”), if the best doctors around have attended to you and put you thoughtfully on a course of medicines, diet and exercise to help counter the damage that a set of inter-linked ailments are doing to your body (mind and spirit) then the single most therapeutic thing you can do for yourself is get away.

It takes time, effort, planning, money and some amount of understandable anxiety but if you stick to your guns and follow through, you will find that just the act of getting away for a short period from the tedium of the everyday in all its exhausting minutiae will rejuvenate you like nothing else can.

Being in other spaces, in the company of people – strangers even – one doesn’t get to meet usually, seeing different sights and living in weather other than the one you have come from, all help in ‘unsettling’ you in all the right ways.

And as a bonus, when you return to home ground, you will have new found appreciation for all the little things that make your home, your home — the familiar colors, smells and shapes you navigate around nearly unconsciously everyday, the various nick-knacks you have chosen to adorn your walls with, the steady hum of your refrigerator, the comfort of falling asleep on your bedclothes in your own bed.

Hurrah to rejuvenating breaks!

Becoming a parent: Nothing goes to plan


If there’s one thing you can be certain of, ahead of becoming a parent, it is that nearly nothing will go to plan. The perfect, compassionate, smart, supportive, baby and mamma loving mid-wife will have a personal crisis the very night you go into labour. She will call and half feign an apology and say you’re going to be fine, that its going to be an awesome delivery, and you’re going to do swell without her by your side.

You would have certainly not slept as much and as well as you would have hoped as all the well-meaning nursing staff and mamma and papa friends had advised you to do before the marathon that labour usually is — and I’m not even going into the birthing itself. (Who ever told you the pain is natural needs to go take a walk.)

When labour starts, you will not be the picture of serenity, sitting criss cross apple sauce, breathing in and breathing out, calmly, rhythmically, shallowly, as your friendly neighbourhood pre-natal expert had so lovingly taught you to do the moment labour starts.

You will be by turn taken aback and too soon horrified at the intensity of the jabs, how they/it/whatever is in command, NOT, no not for a moment, you. You will have no shame in crawling the walls of your room, or whichever room you find yourself in when the jabs return, stifling a little cry, contorting your body in the most amazing ways to find some position of moderate comfort or escape from this incredible experience.

And no, you will almost not remember that all of this is about a little creature inside who is preparing to come out.

When you get on the phone to speak to the hospital you have selected for their emphasis on empathy, natural birth and mamma-baby centricity, you will not take too kindly to the trained, flat voice that you are met with which says the pain you are feeling is not yet good enough to come in with.

‘Jeez, lady, what do YOU know???!!!’ is what you will want to scream at the voice but instead, you will be caught mid-way in this primordial, involuntary convulsion that will make you feel infantile and make you do your breathing on the phone while the voice on the other end holds politely and encourages you to do your good work as though you were a young, anxious school-girl.

A couple of minutes or many minutes later when you are able to impress them with your raspy breath and they finally say what you’ve been dying to hear — ‘yes, you can come now’ — you will be suddenly aware that this is last time you are going to leave home as a woman with large tummy that has baby inside. And you will almost laugh and choke that your mind is able to think about this while being caught up in said primordial drama.

For all the tedious and loving preparations you and your partner may have made in reading up about, scouring for and investing in water birthing paraphernalia, you will not be flooded with images of how sublime the birthing is going to be. You will be consumed as you descend the stairs from your first floor flat (if that’s where you happen to live) or as you go down in a clunky lift while holding on tightly to your mum’s or partner’s hand/arm/wrist about how long anyone can possibly stay alive feeling the convulsions you are feeling and what if anything can make it stop.

When the cabbie comes, in the dead of the night (why is it always the dead of the night?) to fetch you and your attendants and the attending bags and said paraphernalia to the hospital, you will not be in the least interested in the small talk he will try his hand at. Although somewhere in your head you will wonder whether he understands the significance of his current undertaking, whether he has done it before and whether if the need should so arise, would he help with an emergency birth en route?

When you get through the gates of the tucked away entrance to the maternity ward, you will not be in a mood for wall-mounted phones with speakers attached. You will want someone to usher you in, show you your room, and leave you be.

If you’re lucky the room will not be chock a block with machines, artificial breathing equipment for an emergency, sterile trays, bright white light or anything at all that reminds you this is not home or a friend’s home or a hotel.

At which point I have to say, I managed in the middle of all this, to have a moment of epiphany. When all the ushering in rituals had died down, when a young, attractive, Greek mid wife had done her thing of poking me (why oh why is it necessary?) to make sure the baby was alright and at the same time inserted quickly a monitor on her head (while telling me the pain was worth it and gushing with pride on my behalf that the baby had a head full of hair, unheard of in the Nordic!), when I was happy to see my tired and spent attendants take a nap in their respective corners, I found myself marvelling at the quiet night outside, the geometic beauty of the street lights on the highway twinkling below, the reassuring and familiar sound of the rocking chair I was sitting on, rocking rhythmically to the dance of my body, and even if only for a few, brief moments, content and calm by myself with this creature inside me, on the cusp of being born, bewildered, moved and entirely accepting of whatever was going to come.

The gift of clarity


I wish I could tell some of the people I sometimes work for as a consultant that expecting a clear brief, delivered coherently and if possible in a courteous fashion is not only an old fashioned attribute.

It is the basic minimum one has a right to expect and a duty to give. Not only because we are at times bound together in a contract of work deliverables but also because we are simply fellow human beings.

And yet of course the exigencies of circumstance, professional compulsions and the force of discretion stops me from being so blunt.

What I think is not understood is that being in a rush, or worse, wanting to seem to be in a rush, having too much on one’s plate and a generally patronising approach to ‘everyone else’ undermines one’s own professional competence.

It sets off a chain of sorry consequences where a badly thought of brief, poorly and impatiently delivered has the recipient scurrying around trying to fathom and crack the codes in which you have spoken instead of spending time on the actual task at hand — whether it is writing up a report, cleaning poorly written copy or jazzing up dull, flat text.

But I have also found its far better to leave people to their ways so they discover at some point that taking time out to think something through, with clarity will help them articulate it more coherently and lead eventually to much better end results.