Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

518. Bhutan, 1965

In culture, Family, Nature, Stories, travel on October 15, 2022 at 1:19 am

                   Bhutanese schoolboys © Tarnya Hall, 2005

The other night Andrew and I watched Pawo Choyning Dorji’s 2019 movie, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (currently streaming on Netflix), and were enchanted by it, despite—or perhaps because of—the predictability of its plot. The main character, disaffected young teacher Ugyen Dorji, is rusticated from the capital city of Thimphu (population c. 100,000) to the remote village of Lunana (population c. 800). To get there, he must make an arduous uphill journey for several days, first by bus, then on foot. This city boy, addicted to his electronic devices, is horrified when he learns that there is hardly any electricity let alone any wifi in Lunana, where it is considered more auspicious to have been a yak in a previous life than to have been a yak herder like most of its residents. Dramatically different priorities from his own, as Ugyen soon learns.

For me, Lunana vividly recalled my own family’s trip in early 1965 from the plains of West Bengal in India to the mountains of Bhutan, a country that was then extremely remote. Dad had been working on a planning team for the then-new capital city of Thimphu and in lieu of payment he asked if his family might accompany him on one of his working visits. I don’t remember every detail of the trip, but hold certain moments in my inward eye, still-luminous memories after all these years. 



                                (photo: M.A. Rege)

At the time when we traveled to Bhutan, the country was only just opening up to foreigners after centuries. The king or Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, had begun to take the first steps toward modernizing the isolated Buddhist kingdom and moving it toward constitutional monarchy by establishing a National Assembly. Soon after India’s independence in 1949, India and Bhutan had signed a Treaty of Friendship, in which the large neighbor to the south affirmed its non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs but also its “close consultation” in matters of foreign policy and defense. In 1951, after the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, Bhutan closed its norther border with Tibet. After the Tibetan uprising of 1959 and its violent suppression by China, followed by India’s short border war with China in 1962 and border disputes between Bhutan and China, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk authorized the country’s First Development Plan (1961-1966). This was a program of road construction largely funded by India as well as a number of development projects. It included the design, construction, and re-construction of official buildings in the new year-round capital of Thimphu, formerly not much more than a cluster of hamlets and the Tashiccho Dzong (or fortress-monastery), newly rebuilt in 1962 as the seat of the Royal Government of Bhutan. This was where my father came in.

At age ten I didn’t know the details of what my father was working on, but he was part of a team consulting with the government, such as it was in the early 1960s, to plan a modern capital that was yet in keeping with traditional Bhutanese architecture and culture. This was the kind of work that Dad had been doing with Doxiadis Associates in Athens from 1960-63 and in India since his return. I was unaware of the scale of the changes that were underway, but certainly experienced them. It was a moment when both independent India and the landlocked mountain Kingdom of Bhutan were on the cusp of rapid modernization, but with the old order still very much in evidence all around.

After a flight from Calcutta and a jeep ride from Siliguri we arrived at the border—Dad, Mum, my five-year-old sister Sally and me. There we were told that as an Indian citizen Dad could enter Bhutan and as his children so could Sally and I, but that my English mother could not. We would have to apply for an entry permit from Calcutta and that could take several days. In the meantime, what were we to do? Thankfully a guardian angel appeared in the person of a tea planter, who offered his home to Mum and us girls for as long as it took. And so our first port of call was on the Indian side of the border—it must have been in the vicinity of Jaigaon, though I don’t remember the name of either the tea estate or our generous host, who, post-Independence, was the estate’s first Indian manager, a bachelor and an arrant Anglophile. 



What a spread! The planter’s bungalow was palatial, but a bit of a museum-piece, perhaps a bit dusty too, though the dust is probably the haze of my memory. I remember that he had 14 house servants and 9 (count ‘em!) under-gardeners, but don’t remember much else, except, perhaps, that on the mantelpiece he had a photograph of himself and a group of friends in front of their gentleman’s club in London. He was delighted to find out that Dad and he knew one of them in common and I fancy that he brought out a bottle of the best Scotch whiskey as they reminisced.


On the first night after Mum’s entry permit arrived, we crossed into Phuntsholing, just over the Bhutanese border. Only one memory remains of the guest house we stayed in. As we were sitting at the dining table of the lodge, one of our hosts told us that just nine months earlier, at the very spot where my mother was sitting, the then-Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji, the king’s brother-in-law, had been assassinated by a gunman shooting through the window behind him as he was playing cards. Even at my tender age, I noted that the remark cast a distinct pall over our meal.

                         (photo: M.A. Rege)

From Phuntsholing we journeyed on to the small town of Paro, some 160 kilometers away. What I remember most is the rough road blasted out of the mountainous terrain, with streams flowing down and over it as it wound up and around the mountains. Before 1961 there were no paved roads in Bhutan and all travel was either on foot or on mule/horseback. In early 1965 the road that was to become the Phuntsholing-Thimphu highway was a mere jeep track, and the branch road into the Paro valley must have still been under construction. From time to time we had to stop while blasting was underway ahead of us, either because they road had not been completed or because there had been a landslide. I don’t recall any other traffic.

In Paro we stayed at another guesthouse on a hillside above the river. The staff there told us about an incident the previous winter when bears had broken into their storerooms in search of food and had found kegs of beer instead, soon giving way to drunken revelry. Our short stay, though, was entirely peaceful, free of both bears and beer.

Dad’s work was in Thimphu, and I think we spent the most time there. As yet there were very few roads in the new capital and the mountain tracks were tough going, so Dad hired two mules for Sally and me to ride, with the help of the two men who were their keepers. There was an Englishman—a doctor, I think—staying at the guest house there, with his son Peter, so Sally and I had a playmate for a few short days. We never exchanged addresses or heard from them again.

       At the Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu (photo: M.A. Rege)

Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

Dad had traveled to Bhutan for work the year before and had brought back the warm men’s tunics or ghos that we wore for years as dressing gowns. (For some reason we called them bukus.) He had also taken a number of beautiful photos of Bhutanese people he had met along the way—mischievous schoolboys, women gathering firewood, a young girl and her proud, fierce grandmother, the Je Khenpo or spiritual leader at the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. I note now that, with the exception of the high-ranking lama, everyone was barefoot, as only those in the most remote reaches of the country seemed to be in the movie Lunana. We also noted that many of the people we encountered had goiter, the swelling of the thyroid that indicates a deficiency of iodine. Apparently iodine deficiency had only just been identified as a serious problem in Bhutan, with two English doctors who had conducted a study in the country reporting in 1964 that goiter was ‘so prevalent as to be taken for granted.’ Thankfully, the problem has now been largely solved through a public health program of iodizing the salt.

I was entirely unaware of it at the time, but when we traveled to Bhutan, it had been only seven years since slavery and serfdom had been abolished. However, it was clear that, despite the rapid modernization taking place all about us, most of the people were desperately poor. The country, which didn’t join the UN until 1971, had no source of foreign exchange except for its spectacular stamps, which were clearly designed with collectors in mind. (Somewhere, packed away in a box, I have some Bhutanese First-Day Covers that my father bought for me.) But even today, despite a half-century of serious efforts to reduce it, poverty persists.

Today Bhutan’s greatest revenue comes from tourism, as the country attempts to balance economic development with maintaining the country’s traditions and natural beauty. The term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who succeeded the modernizing Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1972. Critics of the term see it as no more than a cover for poverty and human rights abuses, in particular the expulsion of the Lhotshampa, 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, from the country—fully 1/6 of the population—for failing to assimilate to the (Buddhist) Bhutanese culture. At the same time, the ideal of setting Gross National Happiness above the Gross Domestic Product is one that the UN has held up for other nations to follow. In any case, since the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the country’s borders were closed for more than two years, the daily tax for international tourists has been raised to $400 per day, putting travel to Bhutan out of reach for all but the most high-end visitors. Meanwhile, more young Bhutanese who have the means to leave the country are doing so and the government is concerned that they may not return.

Hence the salience of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. At the outset, the educated young protagonist craves nothing more than to emigrate to Australia (the destination for the largest percentage of Bhutanese traveling abroad). But by the end, his priorities have changed, in favor of Bhutanese culture and traditions that call him home. The film also serves to heighten the mystery and mystique of this remote kingdom for the foreign tourist. It is a beautiful land whose greatest asset is its long isolation from the rest of the world. Yes, the government is right in not wanting to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, in wishing to maintain the sovereignty of their strategically positioned country while also preserving the best of what makes their land unique. It is a delicate balancing act.

My most enduring memory from my family’s 1965 visit: one morning in Paro, I slipped away alone, and headed down to the river. Among the rushes by the riverbank I fell into a kind of reverie, picking and weaving them, plaiting “Mats o’ Rushes” like Keats’ Meg Merrilies. The peace and beauty of that timeless moment remains with me after all these years.

             Paro Chhu, Paro Valley (Heavenly Bhutan Travels)

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517. To Test or Not to Test?

In Books, Britain, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, women & gender on September 29, 2022 at 9:03 pm


I’m not referring to nuclear tests here, or to tests for COVID-19. Just having finished Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, I’m speaking of DNA testing. (and don’t worry, no spoilers, so I’ll say no more on this score, except that I loved it and am looking forward to reading more of her works.) While the test in question might have been a bit of a plot contrivance, I was delighted by the results, which spurred me to reconsider doing one of my own, despite the real privacy concerns.

As I say every time someone asks where I’m from—and would be rich by now if I made them pay me for an answer—I’m half and half, my father having been Indian and my mother English. (I always add, “but I’ve lived here in the United States since I was a teenager”, not that that is of interest to most of my interlocutors.) “Half and half” sounds straightforward to me, but for some reason people seem to find it fascinating. They wonder how on earth it came about, and I explain that after having completed his B.A. my father traveled to England for further studies, where he met my mother through an office-mate who knew her elder brother. But that doesn’t explain much beyond the bare facts for, after all, back in the early 1950s people rarely married outside their nationality, ethnicity, or class/caste, and my parents married outside all three. How did that come about?

On Mum’s side, her elder sister Bette married a Scot and her best friend Lily married a Welshman, but she was the only one of her eight siblings, and indeed, of all the friends of her youth, to marry a non-Brit. Although come to think of it, in 1948, the year Dad sailed to England, the new British Nationality Act “created a single, non-national citizenship around the territories of the British Isles and the crown colonies”, whereby anyone born or naturalized in Britain or one of the British colonies could now declare “civis Britannicus sum”—I am a British citizen—with free entry to Britain (to work, primarily in order to create a pool of cheap labor to rebuild the country after the Second World War, but also to stay, as many chose to do). But although, for immigration purposes, Dad was technically British, despite India’s 1947 independence from British colonial rule, of course he was not English, or Christian, or white. None of that mattered to Mum, even though she came from a working-class family and had barely set foot outside Britain, or outside London, for that matter. She was a leftist, an aspiring intellectual, loved people, and wanted to broaden her horizons. Dad was well-educated, well read, open to new ideas, and strikingly handsome. He intended to return to India after his studies were completed, and she was ready to embark with him on the great adventure of life.

I believe that in his generation Dad was also the only member of his immediate family to marry out—out of his religion, nationality, class, and caste. He was certainly the first one who had traveled outside India and the only one who was to live outside it for any length of time. Mum was different from him in almost every way. But like him, she was energetic, gregarious, and interested in everything and everyone. He came to England as an Anglophile, already steeped in British literature and culture (he often began a sentence with “as (G.B.) Shaw would say…), and he was eager to get to know it directly, although ultimately he did not want to stay there himself or to have his children grow up there.

One might wonder why, as the happy product of this mixed marriage already, I would be interested in exploring my heritage further, by means of a DNA test. Doesn’t “half-Indian and half-English” say it all? Don’t I already have “too many roots”, as Salman Rushdie once described the migrant condition? What would I hope to find? Well, it’s like this.

As we often note in postcolonial studies, the binary of colonizer/colonized is an oversimplified one. There is as much tension and complexity within each category as there is between them. It is the same with “Indian” and “English”: the diversity within these categories is tremendous and goes back centuries. As is well known, through the centuries Britain has been raided and invaded by a succession of would-be conquerors, from Romans to Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to Vikings, Normans, and Danes. For its part, India had seen a series of invasions and migrations, from the Aryan-speaking peoples, Iranians, Arabs, Africans, Greeks, Mughals, French, Portuguese, and most recently, the British. In addition to centuries of mixing and mingling with outsiders, both India and Britain have tremendous internal ethnic diversity. While many DNA tests lump the whole Indian subcontinent together, other databases can break down the results by region and ethnicity. Most tests already break down British results in this way. Furthermore, in addition to having been invaded, people in both countries have been active traders for millennia, establishing or being important nodes on trading routes that stretched in all directions.

Much has been written about Britain’s naval might, great sea voyages, and Crown-supported trading entities such as the East India Company. Less, perhaps, about the intercontinental trade routes across Asia and Africa and the Indian Ocean that long predated the European colonial era. According to James Hancock “when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean in 1493, he found a vibrant international trade network already in place, whose expanse and wealth was well beyond European imagination.” Surely Indians, who were centrally active in this trading network, would have mixed with their trading partners over the centuries, despite their much-vaunted pride in caste purity and their horror of both inter-caste and inter-religious marriages?

Someone once suggested to me, perhaps it was my father, that people who have grown up in coastal areas tend to be more open-minded than those from the hinterlands, because they are more likely to have been exposed to outsiders with different customs, cultures, and worldviews. If that were the case, then it follows they would also be more likely to mix with and marry those outsiders. And might not the products of those unions be still more predisposed to that cultural and racial cross-fertilization? I had answers to none of these questions, since I was completely ignorant about my family genealogy on either side beyond the generation of my grandparents.

      The Government has access to your genes (Messier)

Three or four years ago, with all these thoughts floating around in my mind, I started watching YouTube videos made by people who had undergone DNA tests and who had made discoveries about their heritage. While many, perhaps most, confirmed what they already knew, some of them revealed fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) information that forced them to question fixed notions about their identities and about identity in general. That year the two biggest DNA testing companies in the US were offering their services at sale prices and I had all but decided to get two sets, one for me and one for a close girlfriend, and do them together over the winter holidays. But I happened to mention the idea to my son, who threw a fit. He reminded me that in most cases, neither the results nor the DNA samples were private, and that the companies could make them available to commercial entities and law enforcement, and already had. Did I want to give away my genetic data to some corporation that might use it to clone me? It was the stuff of sci-fi horror movies. What had I been thinking of? Chastened and a little shaken, I shelved the idea. But now, thanks to Girl, Woman, Other, it has resurfaced.

I remember that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared that the only reason that the virus seemed to be so widespread was that there was so much testing being done.“Think of this”, he said, “if we didn’t do testing, instead of testing over 40 million people, if we did half the testing we would have half the cases” (Higgins-Dunn). His argument was, of course, that with less testing, COVID would be less of a problem. While the logic was specious, there was something in it that is relevant here. If we did more DNA tests, we would find out that more people were more mixed than they had grown up believing. To some, that would be a dangerous idea, leading to the blurring of hard-line identities and perhaps of exclusive nationalisms as well.

Perhaps I should go ahead with that DNA test after all. I must say, though, that it does feel wrong to pay a private company to take a sample of your genetic material and do with it what they will. To return to Girl, Woman, Other, the DNA test only provides biological confirmation to the novel’s informing principles: that black women in Britain are a delightfully diverse but interconnected community that will never conform to any simplistic stereotype; that the same can be said of Britain’s national make-up as a whole; and that neither race nor gender can be understood as simple binaries. Do I need a DNA test to confirm what I already know about all that goes into making me who I am? You tell me.

 

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515. Old Papers

In Aging, Books, Britain, Family, reading, Stories, Teaching, writing on July 28, 2022 at 3:50 am

I spent most of the day going through old papers in my office, filling two massive recycling bins. It wasn’t physically taxing, but I’m emotionally exhausted tonight. I didn’t rack up many steps on my phone’s Health app, but covered a tremendous amount of ground nonetheless. The contents of folder after folder from courses all the way back to the 1990s went into the bins, half of them notes and handouts, the other half student essays and reading responses. I could have simply tossed them in lock, stock, and barrel, but knew it was necessary to look at everything, just in case; so glad that I did.

There were final papers that I had graded but never returned, and that the authors never stopped by to pick up the following semester, or that they had asked me for but for some reason or another I had failed to deliver. Every one of them gave me a little pang as I binned it (as they say in the U.K. nowadays), but I set my teeth and pressed on. I did save a handful of them, though, by outstanding students I will never forget and with whom I might possibly re-connect in the future. Or so I told myself.

I have always been bewildered by students’ lack of interest in getting their papers back as long as they are satisfied with their final grades. Of course, unlike in my day, they have the papers on their computers, but I was ever-eager to read my professors’ comments. Although it’s embarrassing to admit this, I have actually kept most of my own essays, going all the way back to my undergraduate days in the early 1970s. (There, I’ve said it; and no, I don’t think it means that I have a hoarding disorder, although it may mean that I care inordinately about what people think of my writing.) Today I hit the jackpot. In amongst the teaching notes for a course on British literature from World War II to the present, I found the original, the only copy, of my personal favorite among all my undergraduate essays.

The essay was on Pincher Martin (1956), a novel by the late William Golding, Nobel laureate and most remembered for his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954). I’ve always loved the former as much as I’ve disliked the latter. Golding’s pretty pessimistic opinion of most human beings, especially nasty little boys, is evident in both of them. But even as it demonstrates in excruciating detail how determined we seem to be to make ourselves and each other miserable, Pincher Martin‘s deep compassion overrides the nastiness.

I was bowled over by Pincher Martin back in 1974 when I read it for the first time, so much so that in writing about it I did something I had never done before: actually revised my first draft. Until then I had written all my essays at the eleventh hour and then run to class, proofreading as I went. Most of my professors’ comments went something to the effect of, “Quite interesting overall, albeit seemingly written in some haste. A fascinating idea was emerging toward the end; if only you had developed it further.” But I wanted desperately to communicate what I understood about this book. So I worked, re-worked, and finally typed it up painstakingly—on corrasable paper, of course, given the amount of erasing that always had to be done—on the trusty Smith-Corona electric typewriter that my parents had presented me as I went off to university.

My junior year tutor—a hard-working graduate student who conscientiously slogged through everything I wanted to read, even when he didn’t care much for it himself—rewarded me with more than a page and a half of dense hand-written feedback (addressed, I now notice, to “Miss Rege”). My favorite sentence from his comments: “Your style is in large part lucid and ingratiating, avoiding skillfully the twin snares of pomposity and colloquialism.” I was proud of it, and still am, 48 years later.

Also among all those papers I found a number of email messages that I had printed out from students, friends, and family members. I saved a little pile of them as well. One was from my Uncle Ted, written back in February, 2001. He was replying to a letter in which I had listed the novels I was teaching in my contemporary British literature class, among them Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Of Lucky Jim, he commented on the early post-war atmosphere in which young men like him, recently demobilized, read it. “We all wanted to be Jim,” he wrote, “and put our fingers up to petty authority all over the shop while still being the life and soul.” That was how dear Uncle Ted wrote: I miss him so much.

He remembered Doris Lessing in connection with the campaign against the colour bar in Southern Africa and recalled wryly, “All of our crowd felt that we were more upset about apartheid than anyone else. . .Think she wrote regularly when she first got here for the left-wing Statesman journal. Had a terrific back half for literary and drama critics. First half all self-opinionated political writing, Used to say best writers worst opinions.”

But Uncle Ted’s comment on White Teeth made me laugh out loud. “White Teeth you’ll enjoy. Found it hard to credit that a girl so young could have grasped so much. Hope you don’t mind the swearing.”

Next week I will order two more outsize bins and dive into the old papers again. Wonder what I will find this time?  

 

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514. Moominsummer Madness

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, reading, Stories on July 20, 2022 at 2:49 am

Moominmamma: Where are we? 

I have just re-read a book that was one of my favorites as a girl, Moominsummer Madness, first published in English in 1955 by Ernest Benn. It was every bit as quirky, delightful, and gently disturbing as it was to me then. Moominsummer Madness has everything in it that one could possibly want: portents, climate catastrophe, high drama, a righteous crime, and joyful homecomings. Tove Jansson (1914-2001), creator of the Moomins, wrote and illustrated the book. I have introduced her and her world in Finn Family Moomintroll, but this novel demands dedicated attention, starting as it does in the summer with a flood that crashes into Moomin Valley and forces the whole family to leave their home. Fortunately they are able to board a strange-looking house that has been swept away by the flood wave, a house that appears at first to be empty; but nothing is what it seems.

   First encounter of the refugees with the reclusive inhabitant

The whole cast of characters is here, and more: Moominmamma and Moominpappa, their son Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and Little My, Misabel and Whomper, and Moomintroll’s beloved friend Snufkin, who can never be tied down. Along the way we also encounter Hemulens and Fillyjonks, Hattifatteners and woodies. The dreaded Groke is invoked, but fortunately does not actually show up.

      Moonmintroll before the flood, feeling a vague disquiet

I will not spoil the story by recounting it here, but instead will show you just a little of what it has to offer through Jansson’s illustrations. My old hardcover copy is the original 1955 edition, bought in the student bookstore on the Hijli campus of I.I.T. Kharagpur in perhaps 1964 or 1965, when I was nine or ten. It is a darker story than Finn Family Moomintroll, but perhaps more suited to our times, since it shows us a family that can weather a crisis and still maintain loving bonds and a spirit of adventure.

             The flood wave crashes through Moomin Valley

                    Moonmintroll rescues some essentials

Hemulen and Hattifatteners

There are characters who know not why they are so sad, characters who are bitter and distrustful. Some are more thoughtful than others, some gleefully wicked, others bumbling and hidebound, still others timid and fearful. All of them have a place in the Moomin family even when the world is turned upside down. Their example is all the more important today, when disaster and displacement seem to be making people close ranks against those they perceive as outsiders.

The Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk

Snufkin and the woodies

 

 

 

 

 

 

                      Heading home at last, with no regrets

                                                 Reunion

Adults who like this book will also want to read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, set on an island in the Gulf of Finland where she herself lived for many years, and centering on a relationship between a very old woman and her six-year-old granddaughter. I read it for the first time while sheltering at home during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to inhabit the island myself for days afterwards.

I am certain that the world of the Moomins helped to shape my own worldview. Tove Jansson’s depictions are never sentimental. She presents us with idiosyncratic characters who are not always endearing and sometimes pokes gentle fun at them, but is always kind. Returning to Moominsummer Madness after nearly 60 years, I do not find it at all dated and think that readers young and old will still be enchanted by it.

                                 Little My, always in the moment

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512. My Champion

In clothing, culture, Family, Immigration, Music, parenting, places, Stories, United States, women & gender on June 5, 2022 at 12:44 pm

I.

During our sojourn in England in the late 1960s, many of the girls in my school would hike up their mini-skirts still further by folding over the waistbands as soon as they left home in the mornings. Of course, once they got to school they would have to fold them back down again because there were rules governing how many inches above the knee your skirt could be (see Exposing Whose Perversity?). But when we immigrated to the United States in 1970, we found that what was acceptable in Boston was very different from the prevailing London fashions. Mum had to take down the hems of several of my skirts and dresses before I could wear them to Brookline High, despite the fact that in every other respect it was more permissive than any school I had ever attended. We were struck by American prudishness, not only in fashions but also in the media, where nudity and swearing were routinely censored, even as violence seemed to be entirely permissible, even early in the evening, when children were still awake. In Britain it was just the opposite: sex on television was perfectly acceptable, while violence was a no-no. But over time I have come to appreciate more and more my mother’s open-mindedness.

As a teenager, I thought of Mum as prudish. I suppose it was a necessary stage I had to go through, of defining myself in opposition to her. As I grew older, I realized more and more how forward-thinking she was. That’s probably why most of her female friends in the States were so much younger than she was; the women her age were stuffy by comparison. In the early 1970s, as I was discovering youth culture in the U.S., I must have felt the need to shock the older generation, and my parents were the closest old fogeys at hand. But although Mum played the role that she had been socially assigned, and set ethical standards for me, I think she disapproved of American morality, which she considered backward and hypocritical. She generally presented herself as stereotypically British, prim and proper, and a stickler for good manners and “correct” diction and pronunciation. But in fact she was a rebel who had broken with tradition time and again and who stood up courageously for what she considered to be right action even when she was standing alone. There was one time in particular that I remember Mum springing into action publicly in my defense, just a few months after we had arrived in the States.

It was our first summer in America and I had just turned sixteen. Perhaps for my birthday, Mum had made me an outfit of her own design: a tiny gathered skirt, so short that it was more like a tutu, with a matching short-sleeved crop-top like a sari-blouse. The cloth was a cotton print from a little fabric shop in Coolidge Corner that carried a line of beautiful African batik prints. The day I wore my new outfit in public for the first time, Mum and I were riding a trolley on the Green Line, that runs from downtown Boston out to the Western suburbs. Out of the corner of my eyes and ears I became aware of two old ladies commenting disapprovingly on my appearance, quite loudly enough for me and the entire trolley car to hear, casting aspersions on “girls these days” but also on my own morality. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard them, but Mum certainly knew how she felt, and she made it abundantly clear to them.

Raising her voice and speaking clearly and directly to the two old gossips in her Queen’s English, she told them that there was nothing wrong with a young woman wearing pretty clothes. It was not my morality that was in question, but theirs. Her exact words escape me, but she made it abundantly clear that it was their own minds that were smutty; her daughter was entirely innocent.

Wow. That silenced them. Without a word to each other about what had just transpired, Mum and I continued on our morning’s errands. But thinking back on this episode more than half a century later, I marvel at her courage to speak out as fiercely as she had done in public and how unquestioningly she had stood up for me. My champion!   

II.

Lest you think that mini-skirts were the only things in fashion in 1970, long, flowing skirts were equally in vogue. There is another story about Mum and me and the African cotton prints at that fabric store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. It must have been our first Christmas in the U.S., when I was wracking my brains for a present for Mum that I hit upon the idea of making her a skirt out of the material she liked so much. The only problem was that I was useless at sewing; the only time I had ever been the recipient of corporal punishment in school was in needlework class. Still, I got down to work and eventually produced something approximating what I had had in mind, wrapped it up, and waited impatiently for Christmas Day.

Now Mum was Father Christmas in our household. She loved Christmas more than any other holiday and started preparing for it months in advance, tiptoeing into the house with mysterious-looking parcels that she would bundle into her and Dad’s bedroom and hide away in a secret stash. On Christmas Day there were always more presents for my sister Sally and me than for anyone else, and certainly many more for us than there ever were for her, so Sally and I had to start opening first, otherwise Mum and Dad would have nothing to open later in the day. I had already opened a couple of presents—can’t remember what, though I’m pretty sure that my presents that year included George Harrison’s single, My Sweet Lord, and The Who’s album, Tommy—when I spotted an interesting-looking package from “Santa”; certainly not a record, but almost certainly an article of clothing, what we called a “softie” in our family. Until quite recently softies had been boring presents for us, but now they were getting more and desirable, even for Sally, who had hated them when she was younger. Anyway, I opened mine with great anticipation, and did a double-take, thinking at first that I had somehow mislabeled one of my own presents.

It was a full-length, African-cotton skirt, of identical design to the one I had made for Mum.

My champion, my role model, my twin!

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506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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503. Five Years Out

In Aging, Family, Immigration, India, parenting, Stories on September 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It has been five years since my father died. There is so much that I have yet to understand and to process about this remarkable and complex man, and I have to accept that there is so much that I will never and can never know about him. In the immediate aftermath I wasn’t able to sit with my thoughts and feelings, mostly because my mother was still with us and with Dad gone she needed my attention all the more. We had the memorial only 10 days later, and that time is a blur. The teaching year had just begun and for some reason I took no bereavement leave, simply carried on. In fact, I conducted my evening class on modern Indian literature the very next day, and only told the students at the end of the session, dedicating the rest of the seminar to him. Six months later my father-in-law passed away and eighteen months later my mother breathed her last. A year after that my sister and I sold our parents’ house. After Mum’s death, Andrew and I moved to a new house, his siblings sold their parents’ house and, just last week, we finally sold our old one. All that time is another blur. Now, five years on, there are still a few loose ends to tie up with our parents’ estate taxes, which I dearly hope will be finally done with this year. But as the late Agha Shahid Ali put it, Rooms are Never Finished. Somewhere, somewhere, from in amongst the detritus of life, from under the endless burden of paperwork, one has to make a start.

Dad would start working on his taxes in January, dedicating a chunk of time to the task every day that Mum was out at her day program. He didn’t enjoy the process and wasn’t particularly good with numbers and figures, but knew it had to be done and had a horror of lateness. He would painstakingly copy out long columns of figures in his distinctive architect’s hand, adding them up and checking them twice on a pocket calculator before passing everything on to the tax accountant. The accountant told me after his death that even in his 90s Dad was by far the best prepared of any of her clients, that the material he sent her was complete and meticulously documented.

Dad was stoic about pain and loss. He didn’t make a habit of talking about his health problems, even when he was struggling to draw every next breath. Only Mum knew when he had a toothache or something heavy on his mind, because flashes of bad temper betrayed it. To me he only remarked, just once, “growing old is not for sissies.” He didn’t dwell on the loved ones he had lost or left behind, either, but that didn’t mean he loved them any less. Every year he sat down to write Christmas and New Year’s greetings cards to every single member of his family in India and the United States, checking with me to make sure of the addresses for those who had moved and for the names of all the grandchildren whom he had never met. Only the occasional comments betrayed his true feelings, as when he would ask from time to time, in some exasperation, why he never heard back from them, why only his elder sister Kumud faithfully kept him abreast of family news.

One November, the arrival of a large package via courier from Mumbai, sent from his niece Meena and grand-niece Sucheta, was nothing short of miraculous for him. We opened it to find it full of traditional Diwali sweetmeats and savory snacks, all perfectly fresh and utterly delicious. For days Dad fully savored every single one, between sips of tea and reminiscences. That one delivery brought him so much joy that it revealed the depth of his unexpressed feelings.

                                   Diwali treats

He hated phone calls. This was understandable for someone coming from an era in which long-distance phone calls were rare, wildly expensive, hard to hear through the static, and likely to bring bad news (See TMA #181, The Silver Hairpin). But once most of our relatives had excellent phone service in their homes and could direct-dial their international calls, once I had a calling code that allowed me to make calls to India for pennies a minute, I felt that Dad had no excuse not to phone his family from time to time. One day, while trying to talk him into calling his beloved younger sister, I asked him in some frustration whether he missed them all. That was hurtful and unnecessary, I realize now. But he stopped everything and tried to find the words to explain. “Of course I miss them,” he said. “But I have made my life outside India. If I allowed myself to miss them too much I would be miserable all the time.”

Dad was not by nature a man to wallow in misery. He believed in getting on with life and in the joy of living, taking great pleasure in the natural beauty around him, in his art, in reading, and in the visits of friends and family. He was an optimist by nature, and this habit of optimism persisted, even when he was very ill. In his last decade, visits to the emergency room by ambulance were almost an annual affair, until the very last year, when he had four hospitalizations. But each time, upon admittance, when the ER doctor came in and asked him how he was, the answer was, “Fine.” It fell to me to contradict him and explain the seriousness of his condition and the nature of the emergency. During the last visit, though, when he was breathing with great difficulty, one of the myriad healthcare workers asked him, in that infuriatingly cheerful way, how he was feeling. In the exasperated tone that those who love him know so well he snapped back at her, “How do you think I’m feeling?”

I miss you, Dad. I pray that I continue to learn from you. I promise to screw up my courage to call your dear sister, my dear Mandatya—for I, too, fear phone calls. I promise to send New Year’s greeting cards to our family in India this year, all the more important while it is still not possible to simply hop on a plane. And I promise to do my best not only to take care of the business of life (to finish those damned taxes) but also to engage more fully in the joy of living.

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502. Farewell, Old House!

In Aging, Family, places, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 31, 2021 at 11:10 pm

It was on a night like this, in late August thirty-one years ago, with the cicadas and katydids in full-throated chorus and grasshoppers and crickets abounding, that Andrew, Nikhil, and I slept in our new house for the first time, bedding down together on the floor in the same bedroom while the other rooms were being painted. (I say ‘new’ because it was new to us, but the house was already 75 years old when we first moved in.) The following week Nikhil was to start kindergarten in a new school and a new town. Tonight, on the verge of selling our old house and of starting a new academic year that might well be my last, it feels like a time of endings—or at least, of tying up loose ends.  

On the morning of his first day of kindergarten Nikhil insisted that Andrew light a small fire in the fireplace so that he could toast a marshmallow. We couldn’t have done that in our old house because we only had a woodstove. Over the next few years Andrew collected the sap of the maple trees in the back yard and boiled it down to make maple syrup; he also set up a cider press and he and Nikhil made apple-and-pear cider. The following year Andrew’s parents bought the house next door and moved back from California, and two years later my parents moved  to a house less than two miles down the road. A huge expanse of woods across the street, the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area, made up for the loss of our old country life in Winchendon, and over the years we hiked and biked and built dams and played Poohsticks there.

Out back, Andrew built a large raised-bed garden with a blueberry patch. Over the years he grew everything, strawberries, potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, butternut squash, and even corn, before he lost the long war with the woodchucks. A vine of Concord grapes sprawled over the old foundation to the south of the house and he made grape juice, grape jelly, and stuffed grape leaves. Now wild blackberries and black raspberries have overgrown his extensive earthworks, along with the pervasive poison ivy that has dug in and taken over.

The house became a gathering place for friends and extended family on both sides. Every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ukrainian Christmas (two weeks later), Ukrainian Easter, and not to forget those dissertation defense parties, we put both flaps in the trusty old dining table and brought out all the folding chairs while everyone contributed a dish to the feast. In the summers we had outdoor parties, with music, badminton, basketball, and massive quantities of food. In the winters, fast and furious games of darts, tiddlywinks, and Running Demons, endless movie nights, and those very welcome snow days when I curled up in bed with a book and a bottomless cup of tea while Andrew shoveled us all out.

The house also became a gathering place for Nikhil’s friends. Play dates, sleepovers, study sessions, parties, heart-to-hearts. In those years, young people continually flowed in and out, chattering, laughing, eating, eating some more. Parents came to pick them up and lingered to chat with us as the friends said their long goodbyes, unable to tear themselves away from each other.

I can’t count the number of times friends came over for tea (Lopchu Darjeeling), when I made scones (never as good as Mum’s) and salmon cakes. For parties my speciality was a large pot of chhole–chickpea curry–and an equally large batch of pullao rice with peas, topped with caramelized onions and roasted cashews.

In mid-August Andrew’s father Ted would remind us of the Perseid meteor showers. One memorable night we all rose in the wee hours and walked over to the field across the street where Ted sat on a folding chair and the rest of us lay on our backs on blankets, gazing up at the heavens.

Andrew’s dear mother Anna would invite us to dinner one night a week so that I didn’t have to cook. In later years her health didn’t allow her to be as active as she would have loved to be, but every Saturday she would go down to the farmer’s market on the Town Common and bring us back bean sprouts and Chinese vegetables from the Chang family farm. She soon made friends with the owners of the Greek pizza place round the corner where they would sell her trays of frozen spanakopitas at the wholesale price and send home a bag of Greek pita bread for her grandson. At the Asian grocery store two doors down she must have been the most faithful customer. She  provided Nikhil with a steady supply of nori, paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed, for his school lunchbox. When the store had to close Anna came close to buying up their entire stock. When Nikhil grew tired of me on some tirade or the other he would slip out and over to his Grandma Anna’s, where I would find him in her kitchen watching Emeril or re-runs of The Galloping Gourmet.

When I think of the old farmhouse I will forever remember my father’s words whenever he came over. After browsing the bookshelves he would settle in with a good book and a cup of tea, looking up to survey the contours of the place with his architect’s eye and to pronounce, “This is a good house.” Mum, accustomed to being the hard-working host, would ask what she could do to help and when I insisted that there was nothing to do, would give herself over to the rare pleasure of being fussed over and waited on.

Now that stage of our lives is long over and only the memories linger. Fireflies on a summer’s night will always remind me of the quiet of our old back yard. But on this last night of August, as I prepare for my first day of fall teaching and we prepare to pass the house on to a young family, I can hear the chorus of cicadas and katydids at our new house, and feel in my bones the effort it has taken us to sort and clear the accumulation of thirty-one years. It’s the longest I have ever lived in one place and surely, at this point, the longest I ever will. Along with the inevitable pangs will also come a strong sense of relief: that’s done at last. Farewell, old house!

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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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500. Late-Summer Morning

In Family, Nature, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 10, 2021 at 9:33 am

I’ve been waking and rising earlier this past week or so, as July has advanced inexorably into August and the start of the new academic year looms ever-larger. Now, as a three-day heatwave looms as well, I’m driven not just by dread but also by desire for the feel of the evanescent cool on my skin as I sip my morning tea. I go out to the terrace to check the progress of the chillies, jalapeño and cayenne, grown noticeably larger overnight, and to water or weed for a few short minutes while the tea is steeping. My To Do list is here, longer by the day, but there’s not much to be done until offices open at 8:30 am, so it can be set aside for now as I savor these moments of quiet.

Most mornings I open the doors to the terrace and courtyard so as to run a breeze through the house. This morning, though, it was already warmer and stickier outside than in, and the living-room carpeting was swelling and billowing underfoot, so the doors are closed and the dehumidifier running.

In the world outside, cases of COVID-19 are surging again, driven by the so-called Delta variant and throwing the fall outlook into uncertainty. I was to return to conducting most of my classes face to face, but now, especially with my hearing loss, doubts assail me and I quail at the prospect of trying to teach fully masked in a classroom that will no longer be socially distanced. My once-enjoyable ritual of shopping for a back-to-school outfit has been replaced with online research into voice amplifiers and the best masks for teachers.

Billowing out from my personal concerns, the planet’s climate woes are worsening visibly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest report yesterday, and it was the direst yet; but anyone can read the signs of the catastrophe all around us. The other night, after Andrew and I had watched the evening news, I realized that every single news item— the surging global pandemic, devastating floods, raging wildfires, and the refugee crisis—had been related  to climate change.   

Back at home, I remain acutely aware of the distances between me and my far-flung family and friends, both in the United States and around the world. I wonder what they are all doing and  thinking, how they are feeling. My heart reaches out to them, telling them that I love them, that we will be together again, one day, soon. Simultaneously aware, as always, of multiple time zones, I think of dear ones in the Eastern U.S., just waking up; in California, still sleeping; in England, Germany, Spain, having lunch; in India, enjoying the cool of the evening, in Australia, asleep again; while my own day beckons, and then collars me: the alarm goes off. Time to be up and doing.

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