Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

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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498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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484. Home Truths

In 1980s, Food, health, parenting, Stories, Words & phrases on August 24, 2020 at 2:27 am

Over the years, friends and family members have said things that I needed to hear; home truths that I might not have wanted to hear at the time, but that have stayed with me and stood me in good stead.

In the early 1980s, when we lived with roommates on Washington Terrace in Somerville, Stan and Joan, old friends of Maureen’s, moved in for a short while with their new baby, Katya Rain. While we were still living the student life, renting rooms in apartments, sharing cooking and housework, doing pretty much what we wanted when we wanted, they were the first of our friends to have a baby. Stan, Joan, and Baby Katya were a family unit on a schedule, one parent on baby duty while the other was working. Because of the baby they had to cook, eat, and sleep at certain times, and because of her there was baby gear strewn all around the shared living areas of the house.

Every parent knows that it is impossible to travel light with a baby. However well-organized one is—and Stan and Joan were very well organized—one has to have lots of things on hand day and night for every eventuality–feeding, washing, wiping, diaper-changing, entertaining, sleeping, waking. You can’t tidy a baby away; it takes over the household, and of course that’s how it should be. But not being parents, we were entirely unused to Babydom.

The only way a group household can maintain some semblance of order is if everyone takes responsibility for keeping the shared living spaces clear of their personal belongings. If one of us neglected to clear away half-read books, half-eaten slices of toast, half-empty tea or coffee mugs, another of us would soon let the delinquent housemate know. So when the dining tables, living- and dining-room floors, kitchen counters began to be covered with Katya paraphernalia, we couldn’t help letting her parents know that they were making a bit of a mess; and although we thought we were being tolerant, we were in fact behaving badly, making two wonderful, conscientious, hard-working new parents feel as if they and their perfect baby were in the way.

Not only were Stan and Joan good parents, they were also good people. They didn’t complain or call us out for our behavior. To be fair, when I say “us”, I probably ought to say “me”, since I don’t remember the other roommates making a fuss. But one day, when she was home and the rest of us were out, Joan quietly did something that taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Back then, as now, there was almost always a pot of tea on the go. Very little time elapsed between finishing one pot and starting another. I enjoyed the ritual of cleaning out the old tea leaves, warming the pot, refilling it from the caddy with our favorite Lopchu Darjeeling. But there was one thing I frequently neglected to do; and it was Joan who drew it to my attention, in the nicest possible way of course.

Coming home that day, I put the kettle on as I usually did, and looked around for my trusty teapot. Joan handed it to me, with the remark, “sometimes it’s more important to clean things on the inside.” I had no idea what she was talking about until I took the lid off. Instead of its customary brown coating from the daily build-up of tannin, it was gleaming, stain-free for the first time in I couldn’t remember how long. Joan was a nurse, studying to be a midwife, so she certainly knew that proper hygiene was important, while a little messiness was only to be expected. I took the teapot from her, duly chastened; though, to be honest, I can’t say that I thanked her.

But even now, nearly forty years later, when I look into my teapot and it scowls back at me, I remember that home truth, by no means limited to tea or baby paraphernalia: it’s more important to be clean on the inside than to look good on the outside. Thank you, Joan!

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth 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.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-age spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.

 Madhubala

Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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461. John Prine

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, India, Music, parenting, postcolonial, singing, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm

This is the tenth 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.

John Prine.

John Prine’s music is so much a part of me that upon hearing he was in intensive care I felt a blow strike my very core. It was the first time that the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic hit me personally. When he died last Tuesday after 13 days on a ventilator I was gutted, as they say in England. I haven’t been able to write the tribute that he deserves because nothing I can say could possibly measure up; but I must, because in my fifty years living in this country, John Prine’s songs have probably done more than anything else to make me feel that I belong here. I could write a book about what they mean to me, but for now I’ll focus on what they mean to me as an immigrant.

At age three, in 1987 or 1988, my son Nikhil’s first joke was sparked by John Prine’s Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone, a song with that distinctive blend of pathos and quirky humor. Of course Nikhil was too young to know anything about the 13-year-old Indian boy’s induction into a string of stereotyped Orientalist roles in the British and American film industries until they didn’t need him anymore;* but something in the song made an impression on him. Here are the lyrics:

 The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
Said the new producer to the old big shot
It’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Chorus
Hey look Ma here comes the elephant boy
Bundled all up in his corduroy
Headed down south towards Illinois
From the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone
Staring at the numbers on the telephone
Wondering how a man could send a child actor
To visit in the land of the wind chill factor.

Chorus

Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
The airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
The roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
They was low on morale but they was high on …

Chorus

That day we were recording Nikhil and Eric on cassette tape. I remember our friend Bill Beardslee commenting that Nikhil must be the only three-year-old who knew all the words of John Prine’s Paradise (that devastatingly beautiful anti-stripmining anthem), and it was true of the Elephant Boy as well. He started out, performing in his inimitable toddler’s accent, with all the ‘l’s replaced by ‘y’s.

By the time he came to the second verse, he knew he had a captive audience, so he decided to play us a little. He sang the first line:

The manager sat in the office ayone

paused as if to make sure he had everyone’s attention, and continued:

Staring at the numbers on the teye. . .

Then he went silent. We were unable to say a word since the tape was running, as Nikhil waited; so did we. We were eating out of his hand. Had he forgotten what came next, I wondered? But no, here it came:

. . .tree!

And he went off into peals of three-year-old laugher. One of the principal elements of comedy is the unexpected, and of course we had expected him to finish the line with, “…phone.” He had got us grown-ups, all right!

All this is just to say that John Prine was practically a member of our family. Andrew and I saw him in concert several times over the years, starting with Passim’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge in 1972, on tour for his very first album; later, in 1973, outdoors at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass, still later at the Calvin Theater in Northampton sometime in the early 2000s. I’m so glad that Nikhil was able to join us once to see John Prine in concert, in 2007 while he was still in college.

It had never occurred to me how sad most of John Prine’s songs were until my cousin Jacky remarked on hearing a JP cassette that I had made for her; I just knew how often they got it exactly right: about how I felt in a whole gamut of moods (mostly sad, I’ll grant) about small-town small-mindedness (The Accident), about self-destructive bloody-mindedness (My Own Best Friend, Sweet Revenge), about the glorification of war (Take the Star Out of the Window), about love, longing, and loss ( “Wait a while, Eternity” from Christmas in Prison), respect for marginalized people (Forbidden Jimmy) and yes, about being an immigrant, even though this was not part of his own direct experience.

In my view, a few lines of John Prine’s Common Sense explode the myth of the American Dream like nothing else:

They came here by boats, they came here by plane
They blistered their hands and they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream that’ll never come true
Hey don’t give me no trouble or I’ll call out my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you
. . .
It don’t make much sense that common sense
Don’t make no sense no more.

My all-time John Prine favorite, if it is possible to say that I have one, is the song about the longing and dread of a lonely migrant in Mexican Home, whose chorus goes,

Mama dear, your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican Home.

How did he get it so right, I often wondered. Several years ago I came upon a one-and-a-half-hour “literary evening”with John Prine that Ted Kooser, then-U.S. Poet Laureate, had conducted in 2005 for the Library of Congress. At 47:05 minutes, Ted Hooser asks a question from the audience: “What is the song ‘Mexican Home’ about?” and then asks John Prine to play it. Here’s what he replied, as he introduced it:

It was just a feeling I was trying to capture in “Mexican Home.” Actually, the song began with one of those spells I used to have. And I hadn’t had one in years and years and I had one when I was about 23 or so. I pulled the car over and tried to write down what I was feeling, because it was such a strange way to look at the world.

After he put his guitar down, he continued,

A lot of times after I write a song it’s not until I put it on a record that anybody ever asks me, How come you wrote that song?, ‘cos I never figure out an answer until somebody asks me. . . . I was just trying to capture an emotion that was very strong to me.

The answer to the question remains a mystery, but he sure did capture that emotion; he nailed it. And that feeling expressed by a migrant in this song is quintessentially American, quintessentially human, so that hearing it and singing along, too many times to count, this immigrant felt less alone, because John Prine got it.

Thank you for the huge body of music you have given us, and for the soundtrack to my fifty years in America.** As you asked us to in Please Don’t Bury Me, we’ll pass you all around, and not just in this country, but the world. And I’m so glad that you found love, and happiness. I want to close with Spanish Pipedream, the favorite of Andrew’s cousin Mischa, who first introduced us to you, way back at the beginning.

* Sabu was the son of a mahout working for a maharaja in a princely state in Mysore, India, who was literally scooped up from a stable at age 13 to star in a series of Orientalist roles (a mahout in Robert J. Flaherty’s Elephant Boy (based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants,” Mowgli in the Korda brothers’ Jungle Book, Abu in The Thief of Baghdad, Ali Ben Ali in The Arabian Nights–you get the idea) in 1930s and 1940s films by British and American filmmakers, until they didn’t want him anymore. John Prine captures with perfect economy the incongruity and desolation of this Indian child star at the mercy of heartless minders, a beautiful young man cast in the stereotypes of their tawdry colonialist imagination and forced to traverse the frozen wastelands of the American Midwest to market a failing movie.

** Doing a search, I find at least 14 stories in Tell Me Another that quote or refer to John Prine, at least as often as my closest friends.

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459. Householder

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, parenting, places, singing, Stories, Teaching, United States on April 10, 2020 at 2:59 am

This is the eighth 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.

Householder.

I can’t remember anymore what my parents gave us for our wedding present back in 1983, on the farm in Winchendon; perhaps they helped pay for our honeymoon trip to India, my first return trip since we had left in 1968 and Andrew’s first time ever. What I do remember is my mother’s personal present to me: a box of at least two dozen beautiful high-quality tea towels, every single one of them different. (In the States they are called dish towels, and nobody knows what they are because nobody uses them. And don’t ask me what a tea towel is because if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you. Look it up!) It was at that moment that I knew I was really a householder, and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, as if my mother was passing part of herself to me to carry forward.

I used those tea towels sparingly over the years, not bringing them all out at once, but keeping some back so as not to spoil them. More than 36 years later, there are still a couple left. They represent many bountiful meals cooked for our immediate and extended family and circle of friends, countless dishes washed and dried companionably, table settings laid out and cleared away. They call to mind recipes passed down from our families and made our own; feasts for special holidays; and, after Eric and Nikhil were born, children’s birthday parties with lots of wiping-up of spills and sticky hands and faces. And of course, they remind me of Mum, and her hard work and cleanliness and caring.

My family in India also welcomed us into the life of the householder, that stage of life most central to the functioning of society. This was before the era of economic liberalization, when, at their wedding, couples were given one set of stainless-steel thalis to last their whole married lives. We still have ours, with our names engraved on the underside and on some the name of the person who had bestowed them upon us. After preparing an Indian meal and laying out the gleaming thalis with the little stainless steel katoris arrayed around the edges, I feel loved and nourished.

Being a householder wasn’t just cooking and cleaning but carrying out traditions, old and new. It was hanging a garland of mango leaves over the door to the house; painting eggs at Russian Easter; hosting and attending family gatherings, in the years when our parents were still active and the undisputed heads of the extended family; visits back and forth to Newton to visit my parents and to California to visit Andrew’s parents and grandparents; going out mushrooming with Andrew’s mother Anna and his Grandma Pauline; helping Anna put up her wild cherry brandy (“it cures what ails you”).

Being a householder meant repairing frozen pipes with numb and chilblained fingers, trying in vain to save a bird that flew down the chimney into the wood stove and getting a raccoon out of the chicken coop; it was paying bills, doing taxes, getting our two rooms in the shared farmhouse ready for the birth of the baby; making sure that every piece of furniture was child-safe; and finding a place near his cradle to hang the mobile of a thousand paper cranes that Andrew’s sister Vera made to welcome him into the world.

Most of all, being a householder was becoming parents. The first five-and-a-half years of Nikhil’s life on the farm in Winchendon passed by in a blur, as parenting for those years before kindergarten was all-absorbing. It was venturing out in sub-freezing temperatures to cut a Christmas tree or help build a snowman when every fibre of one’s being cried out for a nice hot cup of tea and a good book by the fire; cross-country skiing through the woods to our friends’ house, pulling the babies behind us on wooden sleds; play-acting King Arthur and Good Sir Lancelot; mediating fights. It was dancing to old vinyl records in the evening before bed to tire the boys out; allaying childish fears with words of comfort and reassurance; reading aloud to Nikhil for hours (“just one more chapter!”); singing him to sleep with his favorites and mine: The Skye Boat Song, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean (with the saddest lyrics changed); Morningtown Ride; Doc Watson’s Freight Train Boogie; Donovan’s Epistle to Derroll, everything by John Prine.

Somewhere in there we found time for more-or-less gainful employment, that too an integral part of being a householder: Andrew holding the fort at Whetstone Press in both Boston and Winchendon; my job as a stringer for The Winchendon Courier, the local weekly; and, when Nikhil was nearly three, teaching at UMass a couple of days a week.

Forgive me if my tone is little elegiac. I’m sitting at the dining table writing this in the biggest and most modern home I’ve ever lived in as an adult, yet ironically, at a time when the household is at its smallest ever. Of the four stages of life in the Indian tradition, the householder or grihastha (“occupied with home”) is the most active, passionate, socially engaged. Now I hover at the brink of the next stage, that of vanaprastha, or retiring to the forest, alternating between longing to withdraw and needing to keep the home fires burning. After all, if people like Bernie Sanders, at age 78, can run a punishing presidential campaign and, without missing a beat, go on to advocate tirelessly for the most vulnerable, then who am I to withdraw from the fray? Retiring to the forest may not be an option, although in this time of stress and uncertainty it is becoming a necessity to take time out just to breathe.

Bernie Sanders [Rebecca Cook Reuters]

In closing, under the current Stay-at-Home Advisory to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all but those designated as essential workers are confined to their homes. My students are understandably claustrophobic, especially those who had just begun living away from home for the first time, now cooped up in the house with the college and the dorms closed, unable to go to the gym or to hang out with their friends. Some of them, along with their parents, are essential workers in the health-care professions or service workers, having to care for elderly people in nursing homes or running cash registers at supermarkets or delivering pizzas and packages door to door. They must return home, change their clothes and shower so as not to risk exposing their grandparents, parents, or children to the virus. Despite being under tremendous stress they are pulling together with their entire household, determined to make the best of a terrible situation as they care tenderly for frail grandparents, treasure the unexpected time they now have to play board games with their family, and even help younger siblings with their homework. They are in the student stage of their lives, too young to be bearing the burden of householders, but bearing it nonetheless, and cheerfully. If they must do it, so must I. In a situation that requires all hands on deck, vanaprastha will just have to wait.

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458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

This is the seventh 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.

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

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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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456. The Eighties

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Family, history, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States on April 6, 2020 at 11:53 pm

This is the fifth 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.

The Eighties. 

We human beings like to find ways to order and keep track of the passage of time, as if by packaging and labeling it we can convince ourselves that we are in control of it. So it is when we carve time into decades and then slap a label on each one, a label that is almost inariably a gross oversimplification. But in the United States the Eighties are an exception to this rule; they are known as the Reagan Years, referring to the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and Reagan’s policies really did not only span the decade but came to define it. Andrew and I lived a thrifty life throughout the Eighties, working very hard and making very little, but since we were largely removed from the mainstream economy, Reaganomics, as it was called then, or neoliberalism, as it came to be known, didn’t do the damage to our lives that it did to so many others.

Reaganomics, simply defined, was “the set of economic ideas followed by Ronald Reagan when he was US President in the 1980s, [which] included lower taxes and spending on public services, and less government control of the economy.” Here’s a short video that states in a fairly balanced way why Reaganomics was so controversial, and here’s a longer article, Reagan’s Real Legacy,  that doesn’t mince words about its devastating long-term damage. Back in 2011, the centenary of his birth, those of us who remembered the terrible Reagan years were outraged by the way politicians of all stripes were trying to outdo each other with praise for him; the man was practically being canonized. It’s important to set the record straight–and don’t worry, I’m not going to do so here except to highlight a couple of features of the Reagan era that bear remembering.

This was the era of the so-called War on Drugs, when heroin and crack cocaine trafficking and addiction ravaged the cities and destroyed the lives of millions of African Americans in particular. In this war, as War on Drugs–or War on Blacks? argues, black people were seen as the enemy, not the victims, and as Reaganomics cut social programs, including funding for public education, it ramped up policing and incarceration, targeting and prosecuting blacks disproportionately, and slamming them with heavier sentences.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is a preponderance of evidence showing that a drug trafficking cartel that was operating in Los Angeles in the 1980s was funneling its profits to the contras in Central America–the U.S. funded mercenaries whose mission it was to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan’s administration was heavily involved with funding, training, and arming the contras, just how heavily they were doing so came out in the Iran-Contra Affairs, leading to a long-running Congressional investigation in which National Security Council staff member Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver (Ollie) Norththe White House official most directly involved in secretly aiding the contras, selling arms to Iran, and diverting Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras, testified–and lied repeatedly under oath–to the joint congressional committee.

Funnily enough, during the 1980s, this era of privatization when public-sector entities were sold off to private companies, when unions were systematically smashed, when social security was slashed and welfare and other programs cut right back, privatization was happening on a personal level in my own life. This was the decade when Andrew and I started our own small job printing business, first as a partnership with his sister Eve, and then as a sole proprietorship. It was the decade in which we were married, after which I took Andrew back with me to India in my first return visit since I had left in 1968. Also during this time we moved out of the Boston area with three friends to a hardscrabble farm in the arctic corridor of North-Central Massachusetts, where our son Nikhil was born and where we lived until 1990, just before he was due to start kindergarten. During that time we cultivated a large home garden, canned our own food, made our own maple syrup, watched hundreds of VHS movies on those long winter nights, changed a whole lot of cloth diapers, and shoveled a whole lot of snow. I became a householder and a mother, in some of the happiest and most all-absorbing years of my life. Later in the decade, I began a course of graduate study and, almost accidentally, found myself on an entirely new trajectory. I will write about some of the highlights of these years–my Eighties–in the next few entries.

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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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