Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)

 

Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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499. Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

In Childhood, Family, parenting, people, reflections, Stories on June 20, 2021 at 5:33 am

As the hour clicks over into Father’s Day I can’t help but think of the fathers in my life, especially my dad and Andrew, my husband and our son’s dad. I can’t gush about them Hallmark-style, though; I love them both too much for that.

It is hard to be responsible for another person’s life. Fathers have long had to bear the responsibility for supporting their families financially, for literally keeping a roof over their heads; but in addition, many fathers provide so much more security for their children by their loving presence, the quality of their attention, and the model provided by their active parenting. Both my dad and Andrew provided that kind of security, each in their own distinct ways.

My father did everything wholeheartedly, with tremendous energy and conviction. He sang me to sleep, patting me rhythmically on the back as he did so. He read to my sister and me, throwing himself into each of the characters—voices, accents and all. He always believed us when we told him of a wrong done to us at school. When the nuns told me that left-handedness was a sign of an untidy mind and tried to make me use my right hand instead, he marched right over to set them straight. If we wanted something he would make it for us in secret—stilts for me, a doll’s house for sister Sally, Christmas cards for our mother to send to her family. Although Mum disapproved of my reading at the dinner table, Dad set an example for me by doing so, and I gladly followed his lead. He taught me how to swim by making me jump off the end of a jetty into the sea. He raised his voice when he got animated, agitated, or argumentative and inadvertently taught me to do the same.

Dad wasn’t afraid of trying new things, traveling to places where no one in his family had gone before, where he didn’t know a soul. He shared his adventures with us by taking us with him wherever he went. How can I ever forget the trip to Bhutan that we all took together in 1964, when I was ten? He emigrated to the United States from India when I was fifteen and Sally ten. Unsettling as that move was, we made it together, and Dad plunged into our new life as he did everything else—unafraid of meeting new people, doing things he had never done before from cross-country skiing (actually, Mum made him do that) to barbecuing, and teaching Americans things he knew and they didn’t.

My father was a teacher and an urban planner by profession but also an artist—a talented painter. His work involved interactions with all sorts of people, and he was a good communicator and a social animal. But his art was a personal passion and he followed it alone and single-mindedly, never forcing it on us unless we expressed interest in it, in which case he was delighted to share it. Same with all his pursuits, from tennis to swimming to leatherwork to orchid-collecting to weight-lifting to yoga. He practiced them avidly but didn’t impose any of them on us—except when he took up Maharashtrian cookery; then we were glad to be his guinea pigs as he worked his way through the cookbook.   

Thinking back to Andrew as a young father, he plunged into the new and unfamiliar role even before our son was born, attending birthing classes with me and driving me to the hospital in the snow with a midwifery manual in the back of the car. He gave Baby Nikhil his first bath—I was too afraid that I might scald or drop him—and pampered me so much after the birth that I didn’t have to change a single diaper for at least two weeks.

When we lived on the farm Andrew always played actively with little Nikhil and Eric, making building blocks for them and building teeteringly tall towers with a string tied to the bottom block for the boys to yank gleefully and cry out, “Accident!” Guess who picked up all the blocks every time only to build them up all over again? (It certainly wasn’t me.) In the winter he helped the children make snowmen and a built a Zamboni to smooth the ice on the pond so that we could pull them around and around on sleds. In the early spring he took them with him to tap and collect the sap from the maple trees; and in the summer he trundled Nikhil to the garden to pick tomatoes in the little red wagon. He built an easel that was permanently set up in Nikhil’s room with a fresh sheet of paper and watercolors at the ready, where Nikhil drew his first stick figures and, after watching 101 Dalmations, a terrifying painting of Cruela de Vil with fingernails almost as long as her hair.

Later, when Nikhil was a schoolboy, Andrew carved and decorated wooden swords and shields for him and, at one memorable birthday party, made a sword for each and every one of his friends. When he had map-making or model-building homework for school or Cub Scouts (which were notorious for assigning complicated projects like go-carts that only the parents could make), Andrew was right in there with him, problem-solving and thinking it through systematically. He assistant-coached when Nikhil was in Little League baseball and again, in high school, for Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think he missed a single one of his games.

My first job after completing my graduate studies was too far away for a daily commute, so for several years I had to spend two nights a week away from home. During those years Andrew was responsible for getting Nikhil up and off to school on time. The task became progressively harder, since teenagers are notoriously sleep-deprived. Because Andrew couldn’t bear to jolt Nikhil out of bed he would invariably let him sleep a little longer, missing the school bus. In senior year of high school I don’t think there was a single day that Andrew didn’t drive him to school in the morning, even though the bus came to the door.

how to cut a pomegranate (az cookbook.com)

Looking back, I see that Andrew was the laid-back parent where I was the anxious one. When I fussed and fretted too much over homework, a messy room, troublesome teachers, or college applications, Andrew would find a way to defuse the tension. During the seven months we lived in India while I was doing my dissertation research, Andrew played cricket with Nikhil and his cousins, bought and filled brass pichkaris (super-soakers) for playing Holi, learned and showed Nikhil how to break open a pomegranate into a perfect star-shape. I, on the other hand, was making sure that he addressed all his aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles correctly or that he ate using his right hand (hard, that, since he was left-handed).

While I graded student papers or sat for hours at the computer, father and son would play boisterous games of darts and watch movies together (some of which I might not have approved of had I been there). Later, when Nikhil was a budding filmmaker his dad was his biggest fan and supporter, always on hand to make or repair anything that needed his carpentry or design skills, taking on every project as if it was his own; later still, reading his screenplays and giving him feedback; or dreaming up his own movie plots and sending them to Nikhil; or making bound notebooks for every member of the cast and crew.

As a father, Andrew was very like my own dad in one respect: he would never force his child to do the things he himself did, especially chores that involved hard physical work. While many fathers would make their sons mow the lawn, shovel snow, chop firewood, or work on the car, Andrew would quietly go out and do all those jobs himself, giving Nikhil the time and space to develop his own interests and skills.

This Father’s Day, I honor my own father and the father of our son. Even at times when they themselves may have been struggling, they remained loving, active, and supportive presences in their children’s lives; they both gave of themselves unsparingly without pressuring their offspring to follow in their footsteps; and they both took tremendous pride in their children’s accomplishments. It’s going on five years since my father passed away, but hardly a day passes when I don’t remember something he taught me or smile at one of his exploits, sayings, or quirks. It’s going on fifteen years since our son grew up and left home, but I feel sure that he could say the same of his dad.

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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489. For Unto Us a Child is Born

In Books, Childhood, singing, Stories, storytelling on December 27, 2020 at 4:09 am

                      Paper on wood Nativity scene from 1750, Milan

It is the third day of Christmas and I have been learning to play my favorite carols on the piano, all welcoming the birth of a precious child. After 50 years in this country I still sing all the English carols (Once in Royal David’s City; The Holly and the Ivy; See Amid the Winter’s Snow) and both versions of those with different American tunes (Away in a Manger: English, American); O Little Town of Bethlehem; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear—English, American), but this year I must admit that I actually prefer a couple of the American ones. Inevitably I remember this season 36 years ago, when my husband and I brought our own dear infant child home from the hospital, just six hours old, enveloped in a large red corduroy Christmas stocking with white fur trim and just his little head with his bright eyes and shock of black hair sticking out of it. And as the carols repeat that oft-told story of the star and the angels, the shepherds, the wise men bearing gifts, and the parents, all looking with tenderness and awe upon the babe lying in a manger, I consider how Doris Lessing re-tells it in one of my very favorite novels.  

In Shikasta, Doris Lessing’s tour-de-force, Johor, benign emissary from the planet Canopus to the now-broken planet of Shikasta, notes as part of his report on “the Shikastan Situation” that the lowly inhabitants of a small, backward village celebrate an annual Ceremony of the Child, whom the monks call the Christ-Child. The story behind this long-institutionalized rite has been so often repeated that it has become garbled, and much of what it once meant has been lost. All that is left is the celebration of the birth of a special Child, welcomed with joy and accompanied by feasting and renewed promise for the  future.

 

However, having returned to Shikasta repeatedly over the millennia, Johor has a different perspective on the festival, now embraced by the villagers and the many tourists who flock there in season. In Johor’s account of its origins, strangers from far away had come to the village many centuries before and imparted new skills and ideals and ways of thinking to the villagers through their wondrous stories, broadening their horizons and making them dare to think that more was possible for them than they had ever dreamed of. Evening after evening, one of the visitors would lift up a child of the village and remind them that for this child—nay, for all children—the sky was the limit. All children were miracles, with boundless potential.

“And this is the point, you see, this is always the point which they must remember: that every child has the capacity to be everything. A child was a miracle, a wonder! A child held all the history of the human race, that stretched back, further than they could imagine . . .  

“Remember, remember, that after a long time, not in your time, or your children’s, or even your grandchildren’s—but it will come, this time—your labours, and your hardships, and the burden of your lives, all will be redeemed, will bear fruit, and the children of this village and of the world will become what they have it in them to be . . . remember this, remember it . . . it will be just as if men came down from that little star there, twinkling away above those dark trees, yes, that one! and suddenly filled this poor village which is so full of hardship and of trouble with good things and with hope. Remember this child here is not what he seems, is more, is everything, and holds within her, or within him, all the past and all the future—remember it.

One morning soldiers came to the village, sent by the king, who had been alerted by the monks to the strangers in the village with their dangerous talk, and the visitors quietly took their leave. But the villagers remembered the stories, and had kept their new knowledge secret until the monks incorporated the festival of the one divine Child into the officially sanctioned religion. Still,

“. . .  the ceremony never lost its roots in that visit so long ago, for there was still force enough to make the people hold stubbornly to the knowledge that they, not the monks, had been blessed, that they, not the monks, had been shown the Child.”

***

As I sing the beloved carols of my childhood during the Christmas season, songs of adoration for a divine being who chose to be born, to live, and to suffer in a human body, I try to think beyond the nostalgia for my own and my son’s childhood and to remember:

Every human child is a wonder. Every child is born with limitless potential. Every child is a Prince of Peace who bears the seeds of our redemption.    

What a difference this knowledge makes to the meaning of Christmas.

Image by Matt Cardy/Getty Images, in the Guardian

Quotes from Re: Colonised Planet 5: Shikasta. (Canopus in Argos: Archives, Volume 1 of 5). Alfred A. Knopf, 1979, pages 163-170.

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457. Farming

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Childhood, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States, Work on April 7, 2020 at 11:01 pm

This is the sixth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Farming.

From 1984 to 1990 Andrew and I lived with friends from the Boston area on a 60-acre farm in Winchendon, a small town in North-Central Massachusetts. In truth it was mostly woods, with less than 20 acres of cleared land, an old red farmhouse and barn, and a run-down chicken coop. We had been having conversations since 1977 about forming some kind of collective and moving to a farm, sustained economically by some of us having paying jobs in the community; but when push came to shove most of the others bailed out, all of them economically more solvent than we were, and in the end there were just five of us. Since 1980 Andrew and I had been running a small press in the Boston area with his sister Eve, moving to the farm meant shuttling back and forth to Boston every week, which we had to do until we could move the operation to the repurposed chicken coop. Letterpress printers don’t make much money, still less when half the customers, mostly environmental groups and community organizations, get a political discount; but we had to keep working at the press and couldn’t afford to get involved in another marginal start-up. In the end our housemates started a small business growing perennials and eventually added a CSA, delivering vegetables in season to local families and our friends in the city, while all five of us maintained a big kitchen garden for our own use, including putting by large quantities of food to carry us through the winters.

It was hard farming in Winchendon, which turned out to be just about the coldest town in the state, so the growing season was very short, from after Memorial Day in late May to the week before Labor Day in late August, so one couldn’t grow crops that needed an extended period of heat, like okra or peanuts. But we were still able to grow a few crops that normally thrived in the heat because we ordered from Johnny’s up in Maine who developed seeds especially for northern climes, including a terrific variety of hot chili pepper.  Maureen and Rudy had the forethought to put in strawberries and asparagus for rare times of pure extravagance, and we produced a wealth of potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, beans and leafy greens of all kinds, and lots of culinary herbs. I say “we” loosely: I was never really a farmer, though I benefited from the hard work and expertise of the others. I helped a little with the weeding, killed potato beetles and tomato hornworms when they threatened our precious crops, collected eggs from the hens, picked when it was time to harvest, cooked, and ate my share—and then some.

But however isolated the community, inhospitable the climate, and rocky the soil, living on a farm was idyllic in the dark decade of the Reagan Years, when all our social activism of the previous decade seemed to have come to nought, when the very concept of society and community was under challenge by the defunding of the public sector and an ethos of individualism. We were actively engaged with raising our children–Andrew and I had one child and Maureen and Rudy another, three months apart, so Nikhil and Eric were brothers. They played at farming with Playmobil (Eric’s first word was “tractor”) and grew their first crop of scarlet runner beans at age four out of a seed packet they’d brought home as a party favor from the birthday party of a little friend of theirs, whose parents were also farmers.

In the mid-1980s, at the very time when we moved to our little farm, American farming was in crisis. Many farms, particularly in the Midwest, were up for sale. Farm debt had recently skyrocketed and now prices had collapsed and incomes were plummeting. It all added up to a consolidation of land in big farms, and small and medium-size farmers going out of business.  According to Iowa PBS, the “trend toward very large farms was initiated during the 1980s and it continues unabated up to the present day.” In September 1985 dozens of artists, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, organized Farm Aid, that started as a benefit concert that raised $9 million to save family farms, and still continues as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep them on the land.

Interestingly, a parallel movement to the consolidation of land in mega-farms has been a “concurrent, ongoing trend. . .for the development of small family farming enterprises, mostly organic, that is producing many new farm people” (Iowa PBS). The little farm we lived on, at least the business side of it–I can’t claim any credit for the work–was part of that movement as a member of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, catering to the growing desire for high-quality organically grown produce (hence our hand-culling of potato beetles and tomato hornworms).

Although compared to the average American farm, our production was small potatoes (our ascerbic housemate Charlie Gamble got a kick out of near-obsolete agricultural idioms); although it never made anyone a living; and although complaints about the weather and arguments among the adults were a-plenty, we certainly put in our share of honest effort, and our son spent his formative years unplugged, in small-town America, living on a farm.

Here’s The Who singing Now I’m a Farmer: and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging.
And here are more stories of life on the farm:

127. Going Up the Country

69. Wonders in the Woods

10. Ghosts of New Boston

86. Bottled Sunshine

177. The Sugar Snow

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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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448. Returning to Little Women

In Books, Childhood, history, reading, writing on January 1, 2020 at 5:01 pm

I’ve returned from watching the new film version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig (2019). I haven’t got my critical glasses on because I’ve wept buckets of tears. Was I crying for my lost childhood, the love the sisters had for each other despite the inevitable sibling tensions, the fulfillment of a writer in seeing her first book published, the beautiful scenes of Massachusetts, where I’ve lived nigh-on fifty years (including in Concord, home of author Louisa May Alcott and where the novel and film are set), the evocative letterpress printing and book-binding scenes, taking me back to the days of running our own press, and before that, working together at David R. Godine Publishing? All I know is that I thought I was sniffing surreptitiously until Danielle, who was sitting next to me, offered me a tissue to wipe my eyes. There was little left of it by the time the film was over, just a damp wad of something resembling papier-mâché. We all—three adults and two children—sat in the dark, emptying cinema until all the credits had stopped rolling, and then emerged, blinking and still sniffing a little (me), into the local mall on New Year’s Day, 2020.

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There is a lot to be said about the various film and television adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel. The only one I’d seen before this one was the 1994 Gillian Anderson film starring Winona Ryder as Jo. I remember reading a newspaper article back then that I used in a first-year composition class which noted that a new Little Women was made just about every decade, and each adaptation reflected the preoccupations of its day. That was the fashionable way to think about history at the time—that it serves the needs of the present—and I still think that it’s patently true. Still, there is more to the experience of reading the novel (or watching the film) than how it speaks to us at any particular moment, something—dare I say—universal. I had gone to the theater this morning expecting, somehow, to feel cynical about it, but the sodden tissue is all the evidence you need of what actually happened. I don’t remember weeping when I read Little Women as a child, but a whole lot more of life has unfolded since then.

From left, Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes in the 1994 movie. (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Mary, my old writing-group friend, invited us to the New Year’s morning screening, and her two children came too, her teenage son as well as her nearly-ten daughter. I gave her daughter, who is only a year older than I was when I was presented with my first copy of Little Women, an old but completely untouched Puffin edition, but brought along with me for show-and-tell my original hardcover copy, its spine fallen off, its frontispiece loose. Our family friend Pranab Chakrabarty had presented it to me in Athens, Greece, in June 1962, for my eighth birthday. (Pranab: we met and re-met on three continents, starting in Greece, then  back in India sometime later in the sixties, and then in the 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area, where I introduced him to Andrew—my future husband, though I didn’t know it then. Then we lost touch; my father mentioned that he had moved to a new continent, South America—Venezuela, I think. We never visited him there and somewhere along the way the Christmas cards and letters stopped coming.)

(photo: Sony Pictures)

Mary told me that her daughter still hadn’t read the novel in its entirety. Unlike most girls who favor Jo, Beth was her daughter’s favorite, so (spoiler alert!) Mary warned her of Beth’s fate ahead of time. But her daughter came back to her and reported that Beth hadn’t died, which is when they realized that the edition they own was only Part One. Then I told the story of my own reading experience as a girl, in which I somehow skipped right over Beth’s death; in one chapter she was burning up with fever, in the next, she was gone, with no explanation. I deduced that she must have died, but when I went back to find the missing scene, combing carefully through the pages, it was nowhere to be found; only, at the end of a chapter, this: Jo “thanked God that Beth was well at last.” I assumed it was a euphemism to cushion young readers from the shock. But now I’m not so sure.

Opening my old edition just now to photograph Pranab’s inscription, I turned to the title page and came upon something I had never noticed before: my childhood Little Women, the one I had thought of as the Urtext, was in fact abridged. Horror of horrors! All this time I have never actually read the original novel. So Mary’s nine-year-old daughter and I will both be reading, for the first time, how Beth’s death was actually written. In the latest film adaptation it was handled with delicacy and power. I won’t spoil it for you with any further details. But I do know that I’ll probably cry my eyes out all over again.

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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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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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