Josna Rege

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445. A November Gift: Rosemary for Remembrance

In Nature, seasons, Stories on November 13, 2019 at 11:12 am

It is a frigid weekday morning in mid-November, and my second cup of tea has failed to satisfy. Last night, temperatures were forecast to fall to 16°F, less than -9°C, and it certainly looks like it this morning. Outside, the bird feeder is empty and the bird bath is frozen solid; inside, I’m still huddled in bed. But a long day of grading, meetings, and committee work looms, and I need to be able to bundle up, step out, and face it with resolve and good cheer.

I’ve just gone into the laundry room to put a wash in, and found to my dismay that large strips and flakes of plaster from the ceiling have curled away and dropped down onto the floor. A clogged dryer vent? A leak in the heating system up in the attic? I don’t have time to check before leaving for work.

There’s is time, though, to tell a little story.

Last weekend was the first time this season that overnight temperatures were to drop well below freezing. We hadn’t done much yet to formally put the garden to bed for the winter, but I did remember the lone rosemary plant on the terraces out back, facing its first winter with only hardier perennials like sage and lavender for company. For a temporary fix I found a five-gallon plastic tub and upturned it over the rosemary, robbing it of light but also, I hoped, insulating it until I could decide on a longer-term solution. (That was a few days ago now and I haven’t yet ventured to tip up the tub and see how it is faring under there.) As I lowered the tub over the rosemary I had to tuck in the branches all round the edges, as gently as I could so as not to damage them. As I did so, they gave off that rich, concentrated, distinctive scent that we recognize as the essential oil of rosemary, a scent that lingered on my fingers all evening. Was it the plant’s defense system, concentrating itself along all its leaves and branches as it dug deep inside itself to face the coming cold? All that evening just raising my fingertips to my nose lifted my spirits.

Searching the U.S. National Library of Medicine on the National Institute of Health website, I found recent studies on the effects of inhaled rosemary oil on subjects’ feelings and central nervous systems. The results were overwhelmingly positive and confirmed what has long been believed about the medicinal powers of rosemary: “significant increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate after rosemary oil inhalation. After the inhalation treatments, subjects were found to have become more active and stated that they felt ‘fresher’” (Sayorwan et al). The researchers elaborated on “the alterations of mood states after being exposed to the aromas,” supporting the findings of earlier studies:

Our results indicate that rosemary oil inhalation increases the level of arousal as assessed through our test subjects’ self-evaluation. All the data has collectively shown a medicinal benefit of rosemary oil when inhaled, by the removal of feelings of boredom and by providing fresh mental energy. . . Moss and colleagues assessed the olfactory impact of rosemary and lavender essential oils on cognitive performance and mood in healthy volunteers. They found that rosemary produces a significant enhancement in memory performance. In regard to mood, subjects felt significantly fresher and were more alert than in the control group. Moreover, massage with the use of rosemary oil also resulted in more vigor and produced a more cheerful feeling. Thus, our results confirm that rosemary oil contains mood-elevating bioactive components that prove to be beneficial to its users.

Now, before I leave for work, I will go out back and lift the tub off so that the little rosemary bush can get some light today. I hope I will be greeted by a still-healthy plant.

Done! All’s well, and that heartening aroma has once again transferred itself to my fingertips. Thank you, rosemary plant; I’m ready for my day now. This evening I will return to cover you back up for the night.


“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
                                Hamlet: Act 4, Scene 5

Are you going to Scarborough Fair/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme/
Remember me to one who lives there/For once she was a true love of mine
                        Scarborough Fair, Traditional (sung here by Martin McCarthy)

A well-established rosemary bush in full flower, Golders Hill Park, London


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444. Mind Cleanup

In Aging, blogs and blogging, Family, Food, Music, people, reflections, seasons on October 30, 2019 at 9:34 pm

By this time of year I’m pretty ragged around the edges and this year those edges feel raggedier than usual. It’s late October, with a full month to go until Thanksgiving and six weeks until classes end. Student essays are getting the better of me and sleep deprivation has become my default mode. Thank goodness Daylight Savings Time is ending this weekend and we’ll gain another precious hour. There’s such a fog churning around in the world at large and in my own head that I can’t see my way forward, not even to make a To Do list. Even our usually peaceful neighbourhood has turned against me: there’s a machine outside the bedroom window that has been grinding down the stump of our neighbor’s tree since the crack of dawn, and with it, my head. So I thought I’d try something that Epi, a fellow-blogger I met during the A-Z blog-a-day challenge last April, does from time to time: a mind cleanup.

The World
Authoritarian rulers are sprouting up and clampdowns coming down everywhere you look: India: Modi and Kashmir; Britain: Boris and Brexit; the U.S.: Trump and just about everything; Turkey (and the U.S.): Erdogan and the Kurds; Brazil: Bolsonaro and the Amazon burning; Russia and Putin, Poland and Duda, the Philippines and Duterte, the list goes on. But so are the mass protests: in Lebanon, Sudan, Hong Kong, Haiti, Ecuador Chile, Iraq, London and, close to home, Puerto Rico; the people cannot be kept down and neither should we. Here’s the Clash, with (Working for the) Clampdown, an anthemic song that inspired us in the 1980s. (I just learnt that word, anthemic, from Patti Smith, talking about her 1978 Because the Night (belongs to Lovers).

Mass protests against army rule in Sudan (AFP/Getty Image)

My Life
I’m chronically behind with everything, my best efforts making only small nibbles round the edges of things. (Speaking of nibbling around the edges, here’s a crab nibbling at a cherry; a distracting youtube video that is making the rounds.) There’s little to show for all the late nights and all-nighters but small inroads into the backlog. I feel like the woman in the Grimms’ fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, charged to spin an impossible heap of straw into gold overnight or lose her firstborn child. (By the way, one of my earliest stories on Tell Me Another was called Rumpelstiltskin, about a recurring nightmare from my childhood.)

Thank goodness for my new (gently used) hybrid car, which transports me to work and back on my long commute with a minimum of effort on my part; so easy to drive that it almost feels like a self-driving car.

Students keep one honest. They are young and hardworking and they have expectations. One strives to meet them. My first-year students are currently writing about environmental citizenship and climate justice. Apparently, they tell me, they weren’t taught about climate change in school, so now they’re shocked to find that we’re facing a climate emergency. As I get older, I wonder if I seem to them like someone from another planet. Well aware of my oddness, I notice myself performing it, and fear becoming a caricature of myself. But then I retort to myself, “Well, and why not? Why should not old women be mad?”

Visits: This has been a season of traveling and of visits. In September, I took a flying trip to University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for a conference marking my favorite writer Doris Lessing’s birth centenary. The conference, which must rightfully claim a post of its own, was held in the Julian Study Centre, named after Julian of Norwich, that 14th-century anchorite who was the first woman to publish a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. I taught excerpts from this collection of mystical devotions a couple of years ago in a Women and Literature course. But what is the most associated in my mind with Julian of Norwich is this song, The Bells of Norwich, her words set to music by Sydney Carter. Its refrain: “All shall be well again, I know.” And indeed, all was well when, before the conference, I squeezed in a short visit with my cousin Lesley, and afterwards, took the bus to the my cousin Sue and spent a precious weekend with her before the long journey home.

Later in September, our friend Sabine, who lovingly hosted me five years ago, graced us with a visit from Bremen, Germany; so did Hayat and Joseph, whom we met in 1977, protesting the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. We attended their wedding, way back in the mists of time, and Hayat has been a voice of wisdom and encouragement at major turning points in my life. In early October, we had a reunion of our cohort from a Co-op House in college, 17 of us in a beautiful house on the Kennebec estuary in Maine, a place where rivers meet the sea, a place to reflect on beginnings and ends. We cooked together as we used to, caught up with each other after nearly 45 years, and reflected on shared values and experiences with old friends and agemates. Most recently, just last weekend, a visit from Tamara, who lives in North London walking distance from where my mother was born, and who has known me and Mum since before I was two years old and before she was thirty. A series of jam-packed weekends followed by all-nighters to catch up with grading.

Losses: In the world, there has been the death of beloved Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has been mourned deeply by his family, former Presidents, and the entire nation. At home in India, earlier this month, our family lost my atya/aunt, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege. At times like this one feels so far away. Just the other day Rohna Shoul, our old friend Mark’s amazing mother, breathed her last, and we have yet to take it in. And this weekend we gather to remember my friend Ann, who died too young just a few months ago. That line from John Prine’s Angel from Mongomery comes yet again to mind: the years just flow by/like a broken-down dam. But so does that place where the river meets the sea.

I’m not much of a cook in the term-time; it is Andrew who has been experimenting this fall with delicious new recipes. But it has been a good year for apples, and thanks to all the apples Andrew rescued from old trees on the UMass campus, I have made German apple pancake, an old favorite from The Vegetarian Epicure, four times in the past month. (Here’s a TMA story about the importance of cookbooks in the first decade after our immigration to the United States.) Other seasonal foods we have enjoyed this month, thanks to the Simple Gifts Farm: delicata squash, peppers, and basil pesto.

Stormy, with an “event” a couple of weeks ago called a bomb cyclone which cut off the power for awhile and downed trees and tree limbs everywhere. Our garden wasn’t spared, and one massive treetop knocked down the bird feeder but stopped just short of the house when it got caught up in another tree. Now the logs from the fallen tree trunk are stacked neatly in a pile, the house plants are in for the winter, and the garden is awash with coppery-yellow maple leaves.

Fall Festivals
Last weekend was Diwali, festival of Light and celebration of a new year. We had a quiet day, lighting candles for our parents and absent family members. But in a week our local Indian organization will celebrate Diwali and I must face the ordeal of dancing with the women, who have been practicing a choreographed number for weeks. So have I, but with my two left feet (and as a leftie I can say that) I’m still light years away from knowing the moves. The rehearsals remind me of all the times I messed up in dance performances in my childhood and youth. Can I master it in time or will I embarrass myself yet again on the stage?

For Halloween tomorrow, Andrew has been carving a Cheshire Cat pumpkin. We have our trick-or-treat candy ready for the children of the neighborhood and I’m looking forward to them; though I’m hoping that they don’t eat us out of the mini-dark chocolate Kit-Kats, since I’ve hidden away the all-natural Halloween fruit gummies for myself. But if they go, we’ll still have the roasted pumpkin seeds.

Good news at work today: my sabbatical proposal has been approved, and I should know next week whether or not it has been funded. So, inshallah, this time next year I should be preparing to celebrate Diwali in India.

After a delicious dinner (salad, basil pesto, green beans, and butternut squash pasta in the shape of little pumpkins), I’m preparing to take the plunge back into the pile of student essays, fortified with a cup of tea (Sainsbury’s, Fair Trade) thanks to Tamara. I’m still tired, and ragged, and know it’s going to be a very long evening, but I feel thankful. And calmer. Let the winter come and go/All shall be well again, I know.

O Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, help me clear and strengthen my wayward mind.  


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443. An Ill Wind (or, A portent and two strange things)

In Food, health, Nature, seasons, Stories on October 19, 2019 at 12:18 am

Two straight days of rain and powerful northeasterly wind gusts have followed hard upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionally the time of year when the fall colors are at their peak in this part of the world. The winds subsided somewhat today and gave way to watery sunlight, but not before large tree limbs, branches, and thick masses of sodden leaves had been flung across our garden and throughout our neighborhood. Hoisting the shades after returning from work yesterday, I was horrified by the carnage outside. One or more large tree limbs seemed to have been felled in our neighbor’s garden and then driven through the bordering trees into ours, knocking down the bird feeder but thankfully, missing the house. On the other side, a massive pine-tree limb with many side branches and needles had snapped off from somewhere so high that I couldn’t locate the source, and lodged itself spike down into our back lawn. It took me quite a long time to drag all the branches down into the little copse at the bottom of the garden, retrieve the bird feeder from underneath the pile, and break off and wheelbarrow away the smaller branches from the massive pine-tree carcass, which I eventually managed to heave off the lawn to the edge of our lot.

The night before had been a harrowing one, with a brief power outage followed by rapidly fibrillating lights, howling winds so strong that I was afraid to open the door, and one crash that was so ear-splitting that I withdrew from the living area and into the inmost recesses of the house with a failing flashlight in one hand and candles in the other. On the way to work there were signs of the storm everywhere, with a downed powerline threatening death by electrocution to all who ventured near it  and fallen trees on the main road forcing a slow, circuitous detour through scenic country roads. I was nearly late for Climate Emergency, a teach-in my students were attending as part of our annual Sustainability Fair. Fittingly, one of the faculty scheduled to give the presentation was unable to make it to the teach-in because his route to work was impassable. Later, I read that what had hit us had been a bomb cyclone or ‘explosive cyclogenesis.’ and that it had wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast United States.

Today was a new day, dawning sunny and dry, as I have already mentioned, with only a light breeze punctuated from time to time with residual gusts. I washed and filled the birdfeeder, cleaned out the mass of leaves from the bird bath, went for a little walk around the neighborhood, and set up my laptop at the kitchen table with a nice cup of Darjeeling tea. On a short outing to mail a letter I had stopped in at my favorite thrift shop and found an L.L. Bean jacket for Andrew and a set of six oval dinner plates, ideal for tortillas and chiles rellenos, dosas and crepes, and the German apple pancake (so delicious that we have made it three times in the past 10 days). Before it got dark I popped over to our elderly next-door neighbor’s, whose pawpaw trees had lost almost all their fruit in the storm. It turned out that he had already picked a large bagful of them yesterday, so he sent most of my two trays back with me.

Home again with plates and pawpaws I gloated over my prizes. The pawpaws went in the fridge until we could work out what to do with them, but a little internet search promised a pawpaw meringue pie in our near future. Then I turned the dishes upside down and looked them up: “HLC fiesta USA,” soon translated as the Homer Laughlin Corporation’s fiesta line of dishes manufactured between 1936 and 1969, then between 1969 and 1973 with new colors, and, after 1986, a line of reproductions. What fun! I was about to look up whether ours were the vintage line, but thankfully an early dinner intervened, looking a treat on the new plates. This mellow fall Friday was just what the doctor ordered after a hectic, sleep-deprived workweek, and slowly (slowly is the operative word) preparing me to get back down to work with my batteries recharged.

But the mood was about to change.

As Andrew and I were sitting peacefully at the dinner table savoring the tortillas, black beans, and guacamole arrayed fetchingly on our new dinner plates and watching the late afternoon shafts of sunlight sloping through the trees and the last few birds swooping down on the feeder, the neighborhood tomcat loped along the slate walkway past the birdbath, carrying something shadowy in his mouth. Now this cat is a nuisance—massively marmalade, perpetually and extravagantly bedraggled, with a reputation for aggression continually reinforced by the stories that circulate about his exploits. When we first moved into this house a year or so ago it had lain empty for three months, and this fellow had moved onto the back terrace and claimed it as his own, stretching his body luxuriously against the sun-warmed wall like a feline Jabba the Hutt, eyes glinting menacingly at all who dared enter his peripheral vision. I kept well away, and it was a long time before the terrace was ours—or at least, ours when it wasn’t his.

This afternoon we did a double-take as this fellow crossed our field of vision, intent on his bloody business, which turned out to be the disposal of a limp, freshly-killed gray squirrel so large that his tail swept the ground as the tomcat carried him away. Now squirrels are a bit of a nuisance, and we go to considerable lengths to keep them away from the bird-feeder, but they don’t do anybody any harm. Used to seeing the squirrel as the largest creatures in our garden’s microhabitat, it was shocking to see its lifeless body being carried off by a much larger predator. I stared, frozen in place, then jumped up to try to get a photograph, but it had slunk out of sight and I spotted it just in time to see its tail and motheaten hindquarters disappearing through a gap between the overgrown holly bushes.

That put a bit of a damper on the day. We finished our meal in silence, and repaired to the living room, where Andrew stretched out on the couch in his new jacket and I tried to cheer myself up by slicing and eating the ripest of the pawpaws (a bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but it reminded me of the custard-apples in our garden in India) and returning to my internet search of Fiestaware. But everything seemed to have taken a strange turn.

radioactive Fiestaware

The first thing I found out was that my Fiestaware might be worth thousands of dollars, especially the vintage line. Apparently Andy Warhol had collected the red and blue Fiestaware, and though ours were plain-Jane ivory, I hoped that they might be a find. I scrolled down the search results, looking for the Old Ivory plates and more information on how to date them, but instead I came upon a deeply disturbing webpage from Oak Ridge Associated University entitled Radioctive Consumer Products. The connection to Fiestaware? Clicking on an icon depicting brightly colored dishes I was taken to an article of the same name which revealed that  between 1936 and 1943 the glaze on the original five colors of Chinese red (aka Fiesta red) and blue, green, ivory, and yellow dishes contained uranium oxide made from natural uranium. Uranium? It has been estimated that a single plate contains 4.5 grams of uranium (Buckley et al, cited in “Fiestaware ca. 1930s”). Apparently, the article said, in 1943 Homer Laughlin’s natural uranium was commandeered for the war effort and the company suspended the use of Fiesta red (now going by Mango red) until 1959, when they found that they could substitute depleted uranium; which was used until 1973, when it was discontinued.

What***?!?! At first I hoped that the Fiesta red dishes were the only dangerous ones; but no, it seems, easily detectable amounts of radiation emanate from all of the dishes in that era, my only consolation being that the levels from the Fiesta red are “head and shoulders above the ivory.” Small comfort, given that there is no safe level of radiation and the article took pains to explain that the radiation exposure associated with this dinnerware targeted consumers via “three principal pathways”: gamma rays to the body emitted by the dishes, beta particles from the glaze striking the hands, and “ingestion of uranium that has leached into food that has been in contact with the ceramic glaze.” Gulp.

Now my only hope was that the dishes gleaming malevolently on my kitchen counter were part of the post-1986 line, with no resale value but also no radioactivity.

Feeling suddenly rather bilious, whether from thoughts of the uranium or the pawpaw I had just ingested, I returned to my web browser to close the window; but not before my eye fell upon a set of results from my earlier search for information on pawpaws; in particular a Wikipedia article on Annonaceae,  commonly known as the custard apple or soursop family, which includes the American pawpaw. At the very bottom of the article was a section entitled Toxicology, consisting of three sentences:

The compound annonacin in the seeds and leaves of many Annonaceae including soursop (Annona muricata), is a neurotoxin and it seems to be the cause of a neurodegenerative disease. The disorder is a so-called tauopathy associated with a pathologic accumulation of tau protein in the brain. Experimental results demonstrate that the plant neurotoxin annonacin is responsible for this accumulation.

What***?!?! I couldn’t stop at Wikipedia so I looked further, hoping for reassurance. It was not forthcoming. I found a 2012 article on PubMed from the journal Neurotoxicology, entitled Annonacin in Asimina triloba fruit: implication for neurotoxicity. You can read it for yourself; I’m no scientist, but it doesn’t look good. I finished up with a series of posts on a fruit-growing site in which horrified horticulturalists were responding to this news. One of them vowed, perhaps a bit histrionically, “no pawpaw shall henceforth pass my lips.”

But what about those two trays of pawpaws chilling in our refrigerator? Andrew suggested hopefully that perhaps we could put them in the deep freeze until we could definitively confirm their safety or toxicity. But we had done that for years with a large biscuit tin full of Jelly Babies during the mad cow disease crisis in Britain around the turn of the millennium in the hopes that cow-based British gelatin would be pronounced safe. (Sadly, they eventually had to be thrown away, not because we had a definitive answer, but because they were well and truly old. And nothing is more disappointing than stale Jelly Babies. Well, almost nothing.)

My finds had left a decidedly bad taste in the mouth. No doubt I ought to have stayed indoors all day and buckled down to my unfinished work. Hope springs eternal, though. The British say, It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. When you work your way out of those double negatives, it could suggest that something positive might yet emerge from my wasted afternoon. Perhaps the winds will have changed direction by tomorrow. But they are more likely to be portents of still stronger winds to come. Returning from distractions to the very real climate emergency, there’s no time to lose.

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442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm

My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the interview with our aunt.


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441. Mere Customers

In Britain, Politics, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on September 21, 2019 at 6:49 pm

My first-year students have been reading and writing about citizenship, considering definitions that broaden the notion beyond a strictly legal one. I’ve been pleased that even when students have not previously encountered the idea of being a citizen of communities both smaller and larger than the nation, they have welcomed it. Recognizing that many residents of a given community are not voting members, most of them feel that they should nonetheless be considered citizens if they are active participants in it. They particularly like definitions that include working for the common good or for equal access to amenities for all the residents of a community, whether it is a college campus, a city, or a nation. And they love the definition of citizenship as a sense of belonging. But one thing almost all of them have reacted against is the narrowing of the definition of citizenship to the bottom line, reducing citizens with hard-won, inalienable rights to mere consumers or cash cows, where shopping (famously advocated by President Bush Jr. as national service after the September 11th attacks) and paying taxes mark the extent to which they can exercise those precious rights.

Toronto Transit Commission

Of all the articles and videoclips I posted on the course website, the students have cited two in particular. They were both Tedx talks, the first, Redefining Citizenship (2011) by David Miller, former mayor of Toronto, and the second, Modern Citizenship (2012), delivered in Sydney by Tim Soutphommasane, who was to serve as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013-2018. I haven’t looked closely at their record of service when they held their respective offices and neither had my students, but they were taken with what Mayor Miller said about why he chose to emigrate from the United States to live and work in Canada: “because of our shared values. . . we judge our society by how well we treat those with the least, not by how many millionnaires we create.” Torontonians, he said, “wanted to live in a city that was marked by social justice…where no one was left behind.” To illustrate this he talked about the rapid-transit network collectively fought for and built by the citizens that served all the city’s neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

Commissioner Soutphommasane, who immigrated to Australia as a toddler with his Laotian parents, sought to define citizenship by including all Australia’s ethnicities in its cultural identity, and not just superficially. Having grown up in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney that is home to its Southeast Asian community, Soutphommasane asserts that promoting it as a food and holiday destination, as amply illustrated in this Destination NSW site, is not meaningful inclusion. The site presents Cabramatta as a “delicious day trip” with a market “revered for Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines,” but this is Soutphommasane’s case in point. The community remains an “enticing,” “exotic” destination where the (white) Australian visitor might want to do something daring like signing up for a food tour, but it is not described as an integral part of the country, whose citizens bring to the table cultural, moral, and philosophical perspectives that could transform Australian society for the better.

Forgive me, I have digressed; aging academics often forget that they are not in the classroom and get locked tediously into lecture mode. Where was I? Oh yes; what I really wanted to say was something that I noticed for the first time (albeit belatedly) when I was traveling to a conference in England last week: whether I was on British Airways, which was in the midst of a pilots’ strike (or “industrial action” as BA quaintly called it) or British Rail, which I used to travel up north from London and back, there were no longer any passengers, only “customers.”

I know why, of course: over the past 20 years these modes of transportation in the U.K. have become thoroughly privatized, and their services are no longer to be seen as a public good, but rather as products that the user “chooses” to purchase. No longer did I have that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging, that of a returning citizen whose well-being is the country’s raison d’être, but rather, as one of my students put it in her critical reading response, a mere product of commodification.

I see that the British Airways pilots have called off their next projected strike day, citing a period of reflection before the dispute “escalates further and irreparable damage is done to the brand.” On the day I traveled to England, British Airways apologized profusely for any inconvenience to their customers. Because I tend to support striking workers on principle and in any case, think it’s generally unwise to have disgruntled pilots bearing your life aloft, I tried hard not to be a disgruntled customer. But I’m sorry, for me, “customer” just doesn’t have a ring to it. As a customer, you get what you pay for, if you’re lucky; and you only have the right to demand decent service if you’ve paid top dollar—or pound.

I stubbornly persist in demanding more of citizenship, more than being a mere customer demanding services in return for payment. At its core, citizenship is membership in a community, as I see it, one that is collectively created and maintained by all its members. Like my students, I want to have a real sense of belonging, not just a responsibility to shop.

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440. Why this Fussing and Fighting?

In culture, Family, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work on September 2, 2019 at 3:07 pm

Have you noticed that the antics we are observing on the national and global scenes are playing out at work, in our hometowns, and in our personal lives as well? Instructive, isn’t it, the fussing and fighting—chaos and confusion, corruption and contention, dissonance and division—Orwellian Newspeak, through-the-looking-glass opposite language that everyone in power is employing in this post-truth era, and incivility to friends and foes alike? It’s hard to withstand it and to maintain one’s own internal harmony and balance.

As I begin what promises to be a busy teaching year, I think of the tension, insecurity, and barely suppressed anger I am carrying, even in my privileged life, and call to mind the desperation of the millions upon millions of uprooted people around the world, refugees from war, repression, environmental destruction and climate change who have been forced to leave their native places on foot and find a new place they can call home, at least provisionally. I think of the families who have lost beloved pieces of themselves through drug addiction and gun violence, refugees and asylum-seekers who have been separated from each other and herded into camps, people who have been deported and their family members who have been left behind, disenfranchised prisoners and their families, homeless people and outcastes who are demonized. The stress I feel—and this is not to deny or minimize it—is but a microcosm of what so many of my fellow-human beings are enduring every moment of every day.

Still, we human beings are resilient; we are. We can suffer what should be mortal blows and still get back up and trudge another mile. We can retain our humanity no matter how much we have been brutalized. And we can remember to slow down, breathe, and be present and civil in our interactions with each other, even to those who do not, perhaps cannot reciprocate. We owe it to ourselves and to the future.

When I get caught up in the paranoia fueled by the current climate, I remind myself that I am not alone. Face it, there is no security anywhere at this time, and all that we can be certain of is change. Working together to create inclusive, mutually supportive communities is our best chance of surviving and maintaining our sanity, both individual and collective. My favorite writer Doris Lessing speaks urgently of the Substance-Of-We-Feeling (SOWF) that is spread thin at this time, that we must cultivate if we are to escape the every-man-for-himself mentality that is destroying this planet and driving us all to extinction. Here’s the band Canned Heat, singing Let’s Work Together. We can do it; we must.

Back to school tomorrow. Keep calm and carry on, Everyone. One Love!

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439. Of Damp Squibs and Other Watery Slurs

In Aging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 20, 2019 at 10:40 pm

A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib:
something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”
—Oxford English Dictionary

In a recent text-message exchange with my friend Anna I found myself using the term “damp squib” to describe an anticipated event that hadn’t come to pass. Quite understandably, she was nonplussed; what was a squib when it was at home, and why was I calling it damp? Also understandably, Anna thought I had meant “squid,” but that didn’t shed any more light on the subject for her. I explained, and followed up with a link to a dictionary definition of the British idiom. Literally, a damp squib is a firework that fails to go off because it has gotten wet; and figuratively, something that fails to come up to expectations.  But this isn’t interesting in itself, except to superannuated language nerds like me; more interesting is how and why we use the language that we do.

Did I even consider, when I used “damp squib” in my message to Anna, that she wouldn’t be familiar with it? Surely I must have known, but in the end, I suppose, just using the term was more enjoyable to me than whether or not it was understood. Perhaps, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I wanted the opportunity to explain something that I thought was important but that many people were letting fall by the wayside, all unawares.

As I get older, I find that my English gets older too. Funnily enough, as I age, it seems to reach farther and farther back before my time, perhaps anticipating my obsolescence by attempting to revive terms that are already obsolete, or at least archaic. Why do I rant impotently at the screen when a film or television series uses anachronisms—especially a British or Indian film using Americanisms (they would never have said that!). Is it the educator in me getting so exercised about this or, as retirement looms, is it my own dread of becoming irrelevant?

Enough of the navel-gazing and back to these terms, and the joy they bring to me when they roll upon the tongue. When I used one of them in conversation with my mother, even when her Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to speak, she would break into a grin. When I am with someone of my generation, whether they are from England, India, or the United States, I find myself reveling in shared idioms, in knowing that I will be understood, no questions asked. Rather than running through an interminable list of them, let’s just look at a couple more in the same watery vein as “damp squib.”

There’s the wet blanket. Don’t be such a wet blanket, you might say to someone who, in American parlance, is being a party pooper. Their lack of enthusiasm puts a damper on the fun. Then there’s someone who’s so inexperienced that they’re still wet behind the ears, quite the opposite of the cynic who wasn’t born yesterday.

Water is a good thing, isn’t it? We can’t live without it. Furthermore, it prevents explosions (that damp squib again), puts out fires (the wet blanket) and productively controls burning (the damper). Then why is there such a negative connotation to these watery idioms? If fire is associated with manhood (think fiery loins), water can be used as a gender-policing slur. In American English someone deemed weak or wimpy is called a wet noodle; in British English, simply wet. It becomes an abhorrent ethnic slur in the term wetback (referring to a person who has swum across the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. illegally),used to refer to Mexicans. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, in that year alone more than a million Mexicans who had immigrated to the U.S. legally, many of them recruited for cheap labor under the Bracero program, some of them U.S. citizens, were subjected to forcible mass deportation. Sound familiar?

While we need water to survive, we condemn others by pronouncing them wet. It’s downright perverse. Still, water gets its own revenge. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one can be surrounded by precious water and still be ravaged by thirst.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink/ Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Let that be a warning to all those who misuse words, water, and their fellow beings, whether on the tongue, on the ground, or on the rolling deep.




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438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.





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437. Wide Awake

In Childhood, parenting, Play, Stories on August 8, 2019 at 8:56 am

My friend Anna brought her grandson Dylan to visit yesterday evening on the way back from the movies, the new remake of The Lion King. He was with us for an hour, hour and a half at the most, but boy, was he switched on, and so were we, the whole time.

From the moment he came in the front door he noticed everything, all the time, responded to it, remarked on it: the inordinate number of slippers in the straw basket in the entrance hall, the length of the galley kitchen, the image on one of the trivets (a gloomy old gargoyle from the Bodleian Library)—there was nothing that escaped his keen eye. I was slower on the uptake. He had a sharp new haircut, which I eventually commented on admiringly once I noticed it; he took the praise lightly but with appreciation.

I got out the carrom board, which had been relegated to a corner of the living room since the last children had visited, back at Christmas. As soon as I compared it to pool he understood all the rules—you got a second turn if you pocketed a piece, you had to cover the queen in order to win (this was just like pocketing the eight ball in pool, he pointed out), you forfeited a point if you accidentally sunk the striker. Here he had more questions that I was unable to answer, such as what happens if you sink a piece along with the striker. He was soon improving his technique and controlling the force he put into his shots. He didn’t throw a tantrum when he found himself repeatedly sinking his his striker, but was a good sport; and when he won his first full game he announced it with quiet pride.

Although Anna had forewarned me that Dylan wasn’t a big eater, he knew what he liked. He had told his grandma after the movie that he wanted a hot dog, and sure enough, he ate two, on whole-wheat buns with ketchup. Although he did note that it was the reddest hot dog he had ever seen, I was relieved that this difference from what he was used to didn’t put him off. While he was at it he ate with gusto, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to get on to the next thing; after all, eating was a bit of a waste of time. About halfway through the meal he got up and stood behind his chair, testing something—himself, us, I’m not sure which. Perhaps anticipating an adult admonition like, “Finish eating before you leave the table”, he commented on it when we didn’t: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I think I tried to acknowledge what he had said without drawing undue attention to him: “Perhaps you’re just experimenting”, or something like that.

During the meal he made conversation and, unlike many children, responded to questions from adults quite readily. What was The Lion King about? He had to think that one through a little, but his reply was spot-on. He identified the main character, the cub, explained that hyenas had teamed up with the cub’s uncle but—I was impressed here—didn’t simplify the plot to bad guys vs. good guys, and understood the concept of sacrifice, that the old King had saved the cub’s life at the cost of his own. He showed us how. Using his table napkin folded into a sharp point and the steep side of the napkin-holder, he demonstrated how the uncle had knocked the King down into the pit as he was trying to climb up. (By the way, I haven’t seen the film, so have only Dylan’s account to go on.)

Asked how his basketball camp was going, he was quite forthcoming, although I don’t think he would have volunteered any information without the prompting. He told us how many children there were, how many coaches, how many teams, how many games they played per day. He was both the youngest and the smallest, he told us, but it was his grandma who added that he was more than holding his own. He also told us that he had played basketball for a time at school, but hadn’t gotten one basket the whole season. Again Grandma was quick to point out that he was still very short for basketball, and that he got plenty of baskets while practicing.

Then it was time for dessert but he wasn’t much interested. He nibbled on an ice pop but soon got up to finish getting all the carrom pieces in and do push-ups on the carpet. Asked whether he intended to finish the ice pop he said that he was letting it melt and was going to scoop it up with a stick, but neither Anna nor I thought that that would work very well, and he didn’t push his luck. He came back to the table readily enough and ate a bit more of it, then was happy to let me finish it off. By now there was a new game starting, and we all needed to play a part in it: he sprinted from one end of the dining room to the far wall of the living room and back, while we spotted and timed him. First he ran the course, then sprinted, demonstrating the difference between the two. Then we estimated the total distance, and finally Grandma started the timer on her phone while Andrew counted off the seconds. Dylan completed the course in excellent time and then beat his own record twice. Once in-between, when the adults got distracted in conversation (how often and easily that happens!), he clapped his hands together to get us back on track, and even then it took a while for us to catch on.

He asked to use the toilet and insisted on crawling down the hall on his stomach, though I was able to dissuade him from doing the same through the kitchen. He noted the presence of the bidet in the bathroom, something new to him, and asked what it was for. Before I left the room he asked me to confirm that the left faucet was indeed the hot water and the right the cold, telling me that he had once encountered a sink where they were reversed.

Dylan had a terrific sense of humor throughout, sharp without being unkind, yet wasn’t afraid to express his fears, even to someone he didn’t know very well. During the racing, at the far end of the living room where he touched the wall and turned around for the return trip, there was a tall narrow window with the Venetian blinds up to reveal the overgrown flagstone path along the side of the house. All the adults were near the starting line in the dining room, and in tagging the far wall he had to catch a glimpse of that shadowy passage in the gathering dusk. After a couple of runs he asked me to stand there by the window because he was afraid someone or something might jump out at him. My heart melted. Just in case I forgot (how could I possibly have forgotten?), he reminded me, but I was already standing guard, with the blinds lowered and a hand out to speed up his turnaround. Once again he bested his previous record.

When Grandma said it was nearly his bedtime, he didn’t make a fuss. Just one last game of carrom was all he asked. As he said goodnight after having come up from behind to a surprise victory, Dylan mock-ceremoniously shook hands and cheekily called Andrew “Madam” and me “Sir”; I returned the joke by addressing him as Your Majesty.

We were tired after he had left, but oh, so switched on. I marveled at the energy required of parents (good job, Ellen and Jason!) and the energy we must have had when we were young parents ourselves. But much more than that I marveled at the electric aliveness of children, noticing every little thing, immersed wholly into every activity, their imaginations constantly on the go. I fell asleep last night thinking of the visit, everything Dylan had said and done, and most of all, his alert state of being. After not having been inspired to write a new story for nearly two months, I woke at dawn today and decided not to go back to sleep. Instead I came into the living room and just started writing (dear Andrew following soon after and bringing me a mug of tea). With less than a month of my summer left, I resolve to be like a child and live every day of it, wide awake.

P.S. A few years ago the Bodleian Library held a competition for new gargoyles designed by children, unveiled in 2009 by author Philip Pullman. Full of life and mischief, how different they are from the miserable old men on my trivets!

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436. Feel-good, feeling good

In Aging, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

from Friday’s Tunnel, written and illustrated by John Verney

It is a grey weekday morning. Rain is forecast, with gusty winds and temperatures 20°F below what is usual for mid-June weather, but so far it is pleasantly cool, overcast, and expectantly still. The street, too, is still, now that most of the students have left for the summer, with only the occasional dog-walker dawdling in front of the house with his cell-phone, studiously indifferent to his companion marking my newly seeded strip of lawn, and a car going by maybe once an hour, if that, and at a snail’s pace.

Yesterday I pruned the bushes out back, inexpertly and overzealously. Now the clippings lie in heaps on the terrace steps, and before the rain I ought to pull on gumboots and tick-proof clothing to dump wheelbarrow-loads of them in the copse at the end of the garden. All such a joy and a luxury now that my grades are finally in and I am officially on summer break. But instead, a lady of leisure, I have donned an old dressing-gown of Andrew’s and gone back to bed (after a breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries) to read and write. Rain looms, brush clippings beckon, and a clipboard with its fresh notepad awaits my long To Do list, but it will all just have to wait; I’m feeling good.

In ten days I will turn 65—or complete 65, as we say more accurately in Indian English—officially a Senior Citizen. I wonder, will I command greater respect, inspire pity, or simply become irrelevant? Will I cease to strive or strive with all the more urgency? Will I slow down and count my blessings, or set myself demanding new goals to keep mind and body active? I’m noticing the aches and pains in my joints, especially my thumbs, the decisiveness with which exhaustion dictates my bedtime at the end of the day, the lag before the word I want comes to me. How much more time do I have to set my house in order, to write, even to think?

As a young smart-alec, I routinely mocked and dismissed “feel-good movies” as sentimental, without any critical edge, opiates synthesized simply to attract the largest possible audience (and, of course, box-office profits) and turn their minds to mush. Yet at the same time—and I didn’t seem to notice the contradiction here—I personally avoided horror films, thrillers and tragedies. Life was horrific enough, I argued, with more than enough misery to go around; why pay to subject oneself to even more? I preferred to lose myself in romantic comedies—why? Because they made me feel good.

In an email a few years ago, Barbara, an old friend, made an observation about me  which I continually find myself returning to and mulling over; she had noticed that I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. Although this may appear tautological, in fact it goes right to the heart of things. My attitude toward the feel-good movie—and perhaps to feeling good in general—is of a piece with Barbara’s penetrating insight. There are things I need to do that I must tackle with a will, whether or not I want to do so. Afterwards there will be time to relax and feel good in the knowledge that the work has been accomplished. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that make one feel good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of doing what has to be done. And it is downright counter-productive to make oneself, or others, feel bad about wanting to feel good.

I’ve looked up and it’s already raining, hard. That’s put paid to any hopes of garden clean-up today. Andrew’s just come in—he’s already tackling the To Do list I haven’t even made yet—and I’ve told him guiltily that I am about to get up and at ’em. So, signing off to face the day but feeling defiantly glad that I made the feel-good decision to go back to bed. Old and obstinate and feeling good about it!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


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