Friday, December 28, 2012


“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; 
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; 
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” 
― Louis Nizer

I think I have WAS, you know...Work Aversion Syndrome. Either that or I am in the wrong line of work...and have been, for a long time. Actually, forever. There are two schools of thought regarding work - you find your passion, something you have the aptitude for, pursue it and find a way to monetize it. The other view is that finding a passion is a pipe dream for most of us, so we have to just suck it up and do our best in whatever work we end up doing. My opinion on this issue depends on which blog I am reading at the moment. I aspire for the former but I am struggling with the latter. Hence the dilemma. A moral one. One that defines your character and your attitude towards life. Or is it your character and your attitude that defines your work?

I have googled both phrases ‘How to love your job’ and ‘How to find the job you love’. I have attended a webinar or two and read countless blog posts on this contentious subject. All this in my quest to understand why it is that I am inept at my job. For lack of trying is the obvious answer. But what keeps me from trying? What is the reason for the mental block? I am not buying the ADD/ADHD argument either. When a blogger swears by finding your passion and making it your livelihood, despite my lingering doubts about whether or not I have any, I am inspired. And then I come across another blog post, with an opposite stance.That we should choose a career not based on what we love doing but on who we are. So then, of course, I do an about face and feel guilty for encouraging reckless, irresponsible thoughts. Most of us do what we have to do. We step up to our circumstances and learn to be mature, responsible and practical. In other words, we learn to get on with it and somehow get better at it. Unless of course when we don’t...get better at it.

Where I come from, your career choice is decided for you sometime around middle school by your parents. More often than not, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the aptitude for the chosen field. It doesn’t matter that you are not even remotely interested in it, let alone have the IQ for it. A misplaced and prevalent philosophy is that as long as you work hard and put in the right effort, anyone can be successful in their job or career (there is a difference as I have learnt, will come to that shortly). It reminds me of the herd mentality. If it is good for so-and-so’s child, it will be good for my child too.

Success is a very subjective term. What defines success for me might be laughable lazy logic for someone else. But if it fits the individual’s definition and motivates them, then that’s all that matters. Right? Wrong. It doesn’t work that way. The majority of us survive on validation, from people we love and respect. We would shrivel without it. So we have umpteen reasons to not follow our dreams and our aspirations. Instead we are slowly inched on by the sea of expectations and eventually lapse into mediocrity. Our hopes are waylaid by our duties, responsibilities, fear and complacency.

So, where was I? Right....there has been an enormous amount of time and money invested in this career choice even before the kid knows his or her own mind. But coming from a culture where one-upmanship and competitiveness is pervasive (maybe it is not the culture, rather a human condition), there is no time to dilly-dally, to figure out what inspires you. It is considered a luxury by some and frivolous by the rest. We are bound to conform to society’s expectations and most of us are hard pressed for time and affordability to be able to delve into whatever our mind takes a fancy for. Our curiosity is stifled and the learning process becomes mechanical. Why go reinventing the wheel when there is already a functional method in place and a successful one at that? We have neither the inclination nor the means. Everything is decided early on so we can be prepared and available when opportunity knocks. Even if it doesn’t, then at least we are equipped with enough credentials to go knocking ourselves.

But if some of you refute my claims of lack of choice, then the argument is that even if given the choice, most of us pick a career out of fear. Fear of being left behind. Fear of underachieving. Fear of coming up short in the eyes of peers, friends and family. Very few of us realize and nurture our dreams and follow through. There are a few who wake up and realize that it is now or never. That would explain why we see people switching from one line of work to a totally different, unrelated line of work and excel at it. They decide to give in to their restlessness and either hesitantly dip their feet to test the unknown waters or enthusiastically and uninhibitedly dive in. They take risks, they make mistakes, they learn, they thrive. They are in their element. They emanate such confidence and happiness that it inspires people around them. That is what being in the right field does to you. It puts a sparkle in your eyes.

As you may have guessed by now, I don’t have a sparkle in my eyes. My very first yoga teacher actually told me so during my first class. I wondered why, maybe it was my glasses, I should have gotten rid of it sooner :-). Seriously though, for some of us, it takes longer to realize that we are in the wrong place. But by then we are mired in it deep enough that extricating ourselves from the situation seems like a herculean task and it is easy to give up after a few token tries or .... easier still to ramble on about it like I am doing now :-)

Why do we work? 

To provide for ourselves and our family.
To survive, to thrive.
To be responsible.
To justify our education.
To find fulfillment, either through work or what we gain from work
To earn money, benefits and perks that come with it
To feel pride in our abilities
To stay in the job pool in case we run out of choices in the future
To not feel guilty about throwing away opportunities
To realize our potential, our purpose.

These are all the intentions I myself or people I know have towards work. But to take it one step further and ask the bigger question - what transforms a job into a career or vice versa? I think the answer to that would be passion for what you do. It makes all the difference. There are those who love what they do and have the drive for it. And then there are those, in spite of doing work they are not passionate about, still find it in themselves to do their best. They are a mystery to me. I see many of them at my work and often wondered how to tap into their motivation. Then there is the third kind, people who cannot come to terms with doing work that is incongruous with their natural ability, aptitude and values. I belong to the third kind.

I have survived in the job market by sheer kindness of people. The people who hired me and the people who worked with me. What pains me is that I feel helpless to reciprocate. I am not naive enough to think that they are being charitable (actually an ex-boss in India would often remind us that they are not running a charity:-)), it is just that I could do more and be happy and creative doing my job instead of daydreaming and distracting myself to pieces. If only I could find a way to make this my career instead of a job and in turn transform myself from mediocrity into an inspired IT professional.

So what made me continually try for a job that I know I am not good at? Why is it nearly impossible for some of us to take the road less traveled? I don’t see an easy answer to this dilemma (hence the long drawn-out post). The individual’s priorities and beliefs might help define the answer. I can expound on this ‘job-career’ dichotomy till I am blue in the face. But unless I am willing to believe, to try, to fail, I will be going around in circles with a question mark written all over my face.

What follows in the next sentence is not advice (I am a fine one to give advice, anyway), it is a plea. Go find your sparkle, if you haven’t already. If you have, please tell me about it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

License to jest

“In India even the most mundane inquiries have a habit of ending this way. There may be two answers, there may be five, a dozen or a hundred; the only thing that is certain is that all will be different.” - Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges

Whenever a group of Indian friends gather for a party, there is always plenty of food and much laughter. We laugh about the many things that are oh so wrong in the country we were born and raised in. Our conversations are loud, lively and range from politics to phone-plans. Nothing escapes our critical eye. And the 'criticalness' increases exponentially when they join forces with twenty more pairs.

We criticize with abandon and pounce on all that is bad. And because we don’t see ourselves as perpetrators of the hopeless problems there anymore, we relinquish all responsibility. It is so much easier to cry foul and pass judgement from the comfort of our homes thousands of miles away when none of the problems affect our day-to-day living.

For most of us immigrants, the place where we raise our kids is now home. All that ties us to the land of our birth is our immediate and extended family. We dread the expense and the long tiresome journey that we embark on every couple of years or so. We do it nevertheless. We do it so that our kids will know where we come from. So that they can experience and learn from a country that is worlds apart. And of course, to quench our nostalgia.

There is just one little implicit prerequisite to be able to join in on the bashing - you have to be at least part Indian. Many of us are not as accommodating when the criticism comes from someone who wasn’t born or raised there. We never fail to find humor in our faults and eccentricities as a group. But we tend to be sensitive to derogatory humor and judgmental comments from someone who hasn’t lived there. I wonder why. Is it because it is part of our heritage and so an innate reverence to the land of our birth is assumed, regardless of which country’s citizenship we now hold?

Some of us get defensive when we have to explain why we are the way we are. It irks us that we are perceived as an unsophisticated culture. There are a billion different reasons why we are so different and by the same breath, same as the rest of the world. The way we bobble our heads to show consent; the way we relish using our fingers to dig into the food; the way we talk out of turn; the umpteen different languages and dialects; the spicy food; the smell; miserable roads; impassable traffic; bovine and pedestrian ridden highways; power outages; exquisite clothes; opulent weddings; multitude of musical traditions; rules and regulations that one would never know even existed; the gaps - more like gorges actually - between the poor and the wealthy; the mysticism; the scandals; the yogis, yoginis and god-men; secularism amid communal discord; the martyrs; the history; the ancient temples; grand palaces; dazzling movies and even more dazzling movie stars; noisy, smelly bazaars; mosquitoes; idyllic landscapes; the heat and dust; dirty public transport; brainiacs; artists; intellectual elites; ambitious over-achievers; chronically lazy under-performers; pollution; corruption; cheap labor; abject poverty; compassionate activists; committed nonprofits; for profit clinics; philanthropic celebrities; innovative entrepreneurs... We have them all. And so do most countries, well maybe not the yogis.

We expect the outsider to take the quirks and faults of the country and its people as part of the fabric of the culture. Just like a seasoned traveler would take everything he or she encounters in a foreign land as part of the rhythm of the place. Run it through a sieve and only praise the best of experiences and ignore the bad, and maybe acknowledge it, if they have to, to be fair.

I don’t take it personally when I have questions posed to me that would surely ruffle a more sensitive immigrant. I believe that objectivity helps people understand a different culture. I don't consider it a personal affront when someone jokes about our ways. After all, I too have assumptions, curiosities, prejudices and criticisms of cultures that I don’t know much about. If I don’t ask questions and am not curious, I am bound to stay ignorant.

When my non-Indian friends come across anything even remotely Indian in the media or elsewhere, they ask me about it. It could be a movie, a dance show, a calamity or a bunch of pictures depicting the craziness and chaos of the place. There is one popular picture that does the rounds. It is a picture of an utility pole with a huge tangled mess of wires and cables at the top which then miraculously find their way out to provide service to the neighborhood. To me, it is a perfect example of function amid the chaos. I enjoy these questions. I feel that the more open we are in our conversations about our differences the less chances there are of misunderstandings.

Travelling is the best way to learn about different cultures. But there are a million other ways as well. Like watching movies from all over the world. Especially independent movies. My husband and I started watching them a little over a year ago and we seem to have only skimmed the surface of this beautiful world of art. So far we have watched movies from Iran, Korea, Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Spain, England, Israel, China and one most recently, from Iraq. While watching these movies, we find that many times, we can relate to the sentimentalities, humor, hardships, class struggles and the immigrant experience in any culture.

I find that the more we are exposed to different cultures the more tolerant we become of our differences and more adept at recognizing commonalities. We loosen up and learn to laugh at our strange ways. It is when we see ourselves as a misunderstood community that we are susceptible to be hurt from seemingly insensitive remarks. That’s when we find the humor directed towards us crude, arrogant and disrespectful.

It is hard to belong when you look and speak different from almost everyone in the community. But if we are not comfortable with where we come from, the color of our skin and our idiosyncrasies, then we lose sight of the fact that we are only a small part of the multitude of colors, languages and cultures that make up this world. So dear reader, here is a question for you... when someone pokes fun of your culture, language, food, mannerisms, whatever, do you feel the smoke shooting out of your ears or do you good naturedly join in and debunk the weirdness?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Critical Mass

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

Most of us have issues we would like to work on when we are not all caught up in getting through the day and convenience is king. We put them in a back burner to address it some day in the future. Some day when we find the time and energy to craft good solutions for it. Unfortunately, the number of burners in my back row is growing and none of them ever really move up to the front. But sometimes, as it happens with such things, once in a while, one of those issues reaches critical mass and then ...your focus shifts. You are pounded with a barrage of information that serves as reminders wherever you turn - a news segment, a sound byte, an essay, a conversation over dinner....

What surfaced up from the deep dark recesses of my mind is not something I am proud of. It is to do with how wasteful I am with produce in the kitchen. Perfectly good produce. I load up on vegetables, fruits and dairy for the week. And some weeks, it is all good when most of these get used up right away. But as I am writing this post, there are two bags of grapes, six plums, a couple of apples, oranges, a pear, two packets of herbs, slabs of cheese, a packet of baby carrots and a carton of milk that have been festering as fodder for a petri dish.

I buy these with the best of intentions. I stock up on fruits so I don’t ever run out of them. But for some reason or another, they never make it to the table. This despite all of us being fruit lovers in the family. So I must be buying more than we need or maybe we are not eating enough of them. Whatever it is, it ends up in the compost bin.

There are so many ways that food is wasted in this country and elsewhere. It happens every day and in huge amounts. Not to shift the blame onto someone else, but it seems that supermarkets and restaurants are two of the biggest transgressors. There was a story in the news about how one of the restaurants had hired a consulting company to evaluate how much waste they produce. But the whole exercise was viewed as an encumbrance. It was interrupting the kitchen’s workflow and the already overworked employees could not find the time for it. As it affected only about 2% of the cost, reducing food waste is not really a priority for restaurants.

So how about supermarkets and grocery stores? I assumed that they would have gotten better at planning and stocking to reduce the produce that ends up in the dumpster everyday. After all it is a percentage of their cost that they can do away with. But it doesn't appear to be so. It was an eyeopener for me to find out that there are people who have, for years, salvaged perfectly good produce that supermarkets throw in the dumpster. There are even freegan (I know, I had never heard of it either) websites that tell you where to go dumpster diving to get the best stuff.

Then there is wastefulness buried in regulation and bureaucracy. It is mind boggling to read how complicated it is to store and distribute food in this global market. And the most sacrilegious of all is to use food as a means of protest, and I am not talking about hunger strikes here. The European farmers protest in Brussels might be a valid fight for the farmers, but the way they went about it is, in my opinion, irresponsible. All this wastefulness is even more horrifying when considering the number of people who go hungry.

Of course there are people and organizations that try to tackle the problem. We are all reminded to be mindful consumers. Businesses are encouraged to donate leftover food to charity. There are tonnes of resources to educate ourselves on the imbalance of abundance and scarcity in the world.

To me, all of this information brings into focus the glaring ways I am wasteful at home. I don’t have any grand ideas for solving world hunger. Neither do I have any intelligent arguments on how to weave through the complexities of the global food crisis. But I do know that I should be grateful for the abundance around me. And to be conscious of the fact that what I throw away could have nourished someone starving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

All or Nothing

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.
-Jerome K Jerome

Whoever came up with the idea of a 24 hour day did not count on a scatterbrain like me. Okay, so it was the Babylonians. But their day started with the sun rise and ended with the sun set. During the day, most of them were busy finding food and shelter. In short, staying alive. When their day was done and when darkness set in, they talked, told stories and rested. I don’t think they complained of not finding enough time for their hobbies. And until my grandparents time, it seemed to be pretty much so. But the ways of our lives have changed manifold since. We don’t exactly wind down with the sun. We tend to pack a bit more in those 24 hours than the Babylonians did. And yet, for many of us, the number of hours in a day seems grossly inadequate.

Like everybody else, I have multiple interests. Interests that I want to devote some time every single day for. I am passionate about all of them. I believe it will make me a better human being. Quite some time ago, I took Aristotle’s words to heart. Hence my dilemma. ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’  is hard to follow when taken literally. I don’t think I am too far off when I take ‘repeatedly’ to mean every day. I always see an improvement when I am committed and consistent in any practice.

Here is what I want to work on every single day...I need an hour or so each to read, write, run, practice yoga, meditate, volunteer, cook, commit a poem to memory, learn to play the piano, swim, dance, learn a language and to hang around in cyberspace to learn about the goings on in the world and to be inspired by brilliant people who I would otherwise not know of. I also need to bring in my share of the dough to the family table, so I....ahem...cough...sputter... ‘work’ for about 8 hours. As I am not ambitious in my career, 8 hours is all I am willing to allot for now.

If there is anything I am religious about, it is my sleep. So I need the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. You might have noticed that I have not included time for my family. That is because it somehow does not sound right when I try to quantify the time I want to spend with my family. Even if I do, then I need at least an hour each to help my kids with their school work, to read to them, to play or take a stroll with them. And it is plain unfair to not have time for my husband, however forgiving and tolerant he may be. Now all this excludes other activities that are planned during the weekends or at least that are on my wishlist - a trip to the library, a museum, a park, a concert, a movie, a book club... and I am not counting the time it takes to get to a place of activity. Looming over all this is a string of daily chores around the house. And then there is travel. But I am willing to overlook it as it does not require time on an everyday basis.

I cannot multitask. And I don’t think multitasking is even possible. Maybe you can juggle tasks. But I don’t think my interests are very conducive to juggling. And then of course, there is me. I am my own spoke in the wheel. Most of my day is spent wishing that I had the time to write, except when I actually do find the time to write. Then I wish I could take a good long stroll to kick start my creativity. This goes to show that when the clock hits the schedule, more often than not, I want to do something else. And then there is this problem of not wanting to do what you do end up having the time for just because you are tired, or you ate too much, or you are not in the mood for it or it is too cold or it is too hot or just because.

Finding just 5 or 15 minutes for an interest is not motivating enough or it is just plain unfeasible. First of all, if I have made a gargantuan attempt to get off the couch then I need to make it worthwhile. For that, 15 minutes won’t cut it. I have tried practicing yoga for just 15 minutes but I end up feeling rushed and wishing that I could continue on much longer. I do understand the reasoning behind it though. Second of all, I feel that my clock is ticking. I worry that if I do show ruthless focus one interest at a time, then I might just run out of time. It is not an issue of forming habits because I will still have the same problem of not finding enough time to do all that I want to.

Whenever the problem of time shortage is brought up, I hear the word ‘prioritize’. The problem with that is I don’t know how to. How can I choose one over the other when every activity in my daily-plan is imperative to my well-being? It might all seem very self-centered, but it is not. My sense of well-being is my family’s well-being and of the human chain that I am part of. When I do prioritize, I end up feeling like I am doing a disservice to myself for ignoring my other interests. To me, memorizing Rumi is as important as cooking. So what do I do? Other than working on some of my interests in fits and bursts, nothing much actually. Instead, I do write a blog post about it. In the hopes that all this prattling will shine some light on the problem.

Whining about the lack of time and my ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude does not keep me from drawing up plans for the tomorrows to come. For tomorrow is the day I will stick to my schedule - every minute of it. Okay, so I might not have a rational solution yet, but I cannot give up either. I have to push, fall, gather and start over again. And while I am at it, I will also learn to enjoy the unexpected leisure time that I have stumbled upon. Because dear reader, leisure happens to be one of my many interests as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

From splurging to purging

You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.    -
Henry David Thoreau

I don’t like white walls. Though minimalism is endearing to me in all ways, when it comes to my living space, I need color. I have lived within white walls for a long time. I did not have a choice then. But when I did have the freedom to do whatever I wanted within my space, I went all out. Whenever anyone steps into my home for the first time, the first thing they exclaim is ‘Your place is very cheerful!’. Sometimes I wonder if it is a polite way of saying ‘What were you thinking?!’ But it doesn’t matter, because I love it. I love that whatever happens to be the weather outside, you can’t complain that it is dull and gloomy inside. Amid all the yellows, oranges and greens, there is no place for languor. Bedrooms are different though. The colors are much darker. So there is no jolt to the visual senses there. Though sometimes I do wish I had the same vibrant colors there too ..waking early would not be such a struggle (but that is a problem to be tackled in another post).

Now that I have indulged in all the colors of the rainbow in my home, I am ready to tone it down a bit, that is... if I have to. But I am not willing to go back to white. So that makes me our decisions reflect our choices, both past and present? If I had been given free reign on my living space earlier in my life, would I have had my fill of colors and would my tastes have evolved into something entirely different than what it is now? Maybe. And so it is with many things in my life.

A decade ago, I never imagined that I would ever be on a vegan diet. I took pride in the fact that I am game to eat anything that moved. But then, over the years, my thoughts changed and my awareness shifted. I had to work through the effects of an unhealthy diet on my body and mind. I had to make my choice, one meal at a time. But what would have been my choice if I had been forced to shun meat in my diet during my childhood and through adulthood. What would my current choice be if I was not given the freedom to indulge in my liking for meat? I am sure I would have complied as I am no rebel, but would I have relished my food as much as I do now? I wonder.

Minimalism is subjective. What I think is minimalistic might seem wasteful to someone with a more stringent approach. Most of the concepts of minimalism that I embrace now would not have appealed to me a couple of decades ago. I was already minimalistic in some ways then, but certainly not out of choice. It was mostly out of necessity. If I like to have just 7 outfits in my closet now, it is because I like it that way and not because that is all I can afford to own. So the cushion of affordability makes my minimalistic aspirations that much more easier.  

That makes me wonder again....(yes, I wonder all the time).... Is it easier to give up luxury when we have experienced it and known what it is all about? Or is it easier to not take that path having never known how it felt to splurge? Is it easier to know contentment when we have experienced plenty or is it easier to give in to resentment when our dreams have never been indulged? Is it easier to pare down when we think of a minimalistic lifestyle as a lofty ideal? I don’t know if there are any definite answers. But pondering on these questions has made me realize that I am glad to have known and experienced cluttered spaces, materialistic dreams and consumerist tendencies before consciously choosing the opposite way.

I  find that when we have a scarcity mindset, then greed becomes our natural inclination. It is after all survivalism. Hoarding is a choice we make out of fear. Be it time, food, money, lifestyle...whatever it is, it is never enough. So when I wonder (there I go again..) about why I am drawn to minimalism, I think it is to learn contentment. In every aspect of my life.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Left, Right and Centre

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you. ”  ― Pericles

I do not know much about politics. My interest in it is recent. I don’t have any in depth knowledge on policies, issues and such. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t watch news on TV. I don’t listen to political discourses. The only news I get is on the radio a few minutes each day, on my way to and from work. I spend a few cursory minutes on political articles on a website. I tend to tune out when I hear political mumbo-jumbo, as with most things that need some active grey cells. But my curiosity about the topic has grown ever so slightly in the recent years.

When I was younger, I ignored politics and disliked politicians. I had one opinion of them (mostly through osmosis) - they were all crooks. Some educated, some not, some sophisticated, some not. But crooks all the same. To show interest in them is to stoop to their level. It was a lowly profession that people resorted to when they did not find any other vocation. They were all corrupt.

Growing up, we rarely discussed politics at home. My dad had strong political opinions and his amiability would instantly dissolve whenever he decried a politician he abhorred. He would barrel down my mom’s opposing views with arguments that sounded knowledgeable. I presumed that his opinions about the political landscape were a bit more vetted, for two strong reasons. First - he spent hours buried in the newspaper every day. Second - he was a political science major in college. My mom, on the other hand, though holding a couple of more college degrees (one of them a doctoral degree in history, no less) against her name than my dad, relied much more on the charisma of the political candidate and less on the criticism and analysis she came across in popular magazines. It infuriated my dad no end when his premises in logic for support of a particular party were lost on her.

During election time in India, it seemed that my parents had to pick between the lesser of two evils. The incumbent’s evilness was often a bit more pronounced by the sheer fact that they were in the spotlight in recent years. And so the challenger somehow seemed a better choice (even if by a hair breadth) despite proving to be no better when they had ruled the roost. One of the prevalent views I heard many times over from the voting population was this - ‘the ruling party did nothing in power except to line their own pockets. All things being equal, why not give the opposing party an opportunity? Who knows, they might do a little bit of good even if they do indulge in their greed to fill their coffers’. However dismal their choices seemed, my parents never failed to exercise their right to vote.

Politics is a touchy subject. A taboo topic even among friends. Political affiliations are based on an individual’s values, principles and priorities. So it is personal. When one relates to certain ideologies, it is hard not to get all stirred up when questioned or challenged. To argue and debate over them takes skill and open mindedness. Forget debating, I think it takes a considerable amount of tolerance even to listen to a debate.

The first time I came across this idea of political deliberation among friends was in Golda Meir's autobiography. It’s been well over a decade since I read it, but one of the things I remember most about it is how, when she was young, her friends would often gather around to passionately argue over politics, among other things, for hours on end. It was a revelation! So it is possible to have a healthy conversation about politics without resorting to throwing things at each other or calling each other names. And you don’t have to wait until you are all old and wizened but do so when you are young and opinionated. Of course, it is not for the faint of heart. I have been in a couple of impassioned political arguments myself and I so wished for it to end. To be judged for your political standings takes a little bit of steel and a thicker hide. But it is necessary for those of us who are willing to understand a little more about ourselves and the world around us.

I realize that politics is important. I am convinced that it is even more important to discuss and talk about it. After all, it is what drives our lives in this country. It defines the laws that make up the land. And it marks the privileges we enjoy in this democracy. Including the right to gripe about it. Then why are we more likely to talk about the weather than the government? Maybe because we worry that our relationships cannot weather the storm that political disagreement stirs up in us.

These days, leading up to the election, I find myself bombarded by political canvassing. Contrary to popular view, I don’t find it an annoyance. In fact, this whole process is very exciting.
I do admit that I am somewhat skeptical about political campaigns and the opinion polls. The candidate who finds the most number of malleable truths (not to mention money), has a knack for distorting facts favorably and still seem worthy of the office, gets to win. I am very well aware that it is not one individual contesting against another individual (I was surprised that there are four other candidates in the presidential ballot..what can I say..I am still learning). Rather, it is one institution contesting against another. Though the rhetoric and fencing never ends, periodically, the political process reaches a crescendo with an election.

I know that I lack an ideological stance. I know that my emotional intelligence is hopelessly deficient when it comes to political debate (anyway that is all I am going to fess up for now). But I also know that there is no moral high ground in not voting. In not participating in the process. There are policies and platforms I might not like or even understand completely. I might not even vote for the party and instead vote for the man (and definitely a woman) and for what I believe he or she stands for. Four years ago, for the first time in my life, I cast my vote. I was thrilled to participate then and I am thrilled to do so again. Especially when I know that this right did not come about easily and was
hard fought.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where are you now?

“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

I have always set goals for myself. And they have always been largely unrealized. Nevertheless, I have kept at it. I have made elaborate plans drawn to minutiae to attain these so called goals. Plans that are great in theory and set with the best of intentions invariably fall apart when life happens. But I never relent. Because goals to me, are a form of hope. That whatever it is that I have envisioned for myself, is indeed possible.

Goals are expectations we set for ourselves. To progress intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually from where we are to where we want to be. Many a time goals motivate us to act. But for many of us, it is a constant reminder of our inadequacies. They stem from an inherent belief that we are not happy with who we are. That we somehow fall short of who we want to be.

Some time ago, I came across this interesting concept of not setting goals. Initially, it seemed a bit  far fetched. I considered it as something only a perfectly confident (and smug) person could possibly embrace. Never one to dismiss an idea from someone I admire, I stored it away to revisit it some other time. But it kept resurfacing and the more I mulled over it, the more it made sense - to not have goals. To realize that 'This is it'. To be content with where we are right now.

It was radical to think of not setting goals. A wonderful refreshing thought that you can be functional and happy without goals. That is not to say that it is an excuse for inaction. I think my initial reluctance to this shift in thinking was because I was confusing goals with focus. I do understand that it takes patience and practice to focus in the moment without aspiring to a better state in the future, 
but it is a very inviting possibility. Now, where I have I heard this before - ‘act without expecting fruits of your labor’ (Gita anybody?).

How wonderful would it be to completely immerse myself in whatever I am doing, with utmost focus, without being mired in expectations of tomorrows. Say, to enjoy the act of running, not to shed a few pounds, but purely to enjoy the feeling of movement. To practice yoga, not to gain physical prowess, but to be fully aware of the physical movement with breath. To read, not to show off the newly gained knowledge but to gain a better understanding of life, of people, of places and experiences. To write, not to expect praise or fear criticism, but to express creativity and to find clarity. To work, not to reach the pinnacle of a career in the shortest possible time (rhetorically speaking... because due to some inscrutable mental block I have never ever aspired to this) but for it to be something that propels me with meaning and purpose.

It is challenging to 
live life in an unconditional way and to engage without expectations. It takes courage and honesty to take a given moment as it comes and realize one's potential. It takes mindfulness to not compromise the present for some milestone birthday in the future hoping to cross-off items on a ‘to-achieve’ list. So yes, I might be able to hold a headstand now, but to what purpose? Have I learned anything from the accomplishment? Or did I meet the goal merely to gloat? I have to ask these questions because, I find that though I might have worked hard (albeit intermittently), to stand upside down, it is a herculean struggle to continue on. Now that I have arrived at my goal, what next? Handstand perhaps? I can sense a resistance in forming yet another goal. To keep scaling the mountain now seems pointless and excruciating. Inertia sets in and worse still, instead of a forward momentum, I seem to be slipping and sliding all the way to base camp. From this obscure point, it is easier to give into disillusionment. Because now, the summit, aka ‘the current goal’, seems all the more impossible to reach.

For now though, I have found middle ground. To not entirely do away with goals but not to get obsessed with them either. I am learning to use goals as a guide when I realize I have veered off from the path I want to be in. To gain perspective when I realize that the choices I have been making are not congruent with who I truly am. It is when I lose focus that my alarm bells go off.

So, here is to your moment...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Winging it

Don’t fight the trail. Take what it gives you … Think easy, light, smooth and fast. You start with easy because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad............
- Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run

I have been fascinated by runners for quite some time now. I have always envied the self-discipline of the people who run to keep fit. How do they endure such strenuous physical effort inspite of all the injuries that seem to come with the territory? What makes them motivated to keep at it? I imagined that there must be something about the act of running itself that is immensely enjoyable that makes them come back for more. It piqued my interest even more when my husband took up running a few years ago. When he was training for a marathon, I noticed that he didn’t follow any strict schedules and neither did he like running on the treadmill. He trained outdoors
in the wee hours of the morning, even through subzero temperatures. That was the only time he liked to run - early in the morning. I know he has loads of self-discipline but still, I was intrigued. So I asked him. What energizes him to get out of a warm cosy bed when it is still dark outside? What exactly are his thoughts when he wakes up that early to run? He said, “Nothing. I just get up and get out the door to run.” Hmm..yes, right, but I was on a quest for a more elaborate answer.

So I poked around online for some running advice and found out that the authors of most of the blogs I followed were avid runners. And then I came across a review of the book Born to Run. I read the book hoping that it would answer my questions and with a fainter hope that it would inspire me to take up running. It did both - answer and inspire. The philosophy struck a chord and the reasoning as to why we run seemed logical. It also introduced me to minimalist shoes - one of the keys to running strong and injury-free. It all seemed simple and doable. When the book described ultramarathon races and extreme runners, I couldn’t relate to them, but they were nevertheless inspiring. It supported my belief that physical strength and endurance comes from one’s mental makeup and attitude.

I started slowly. I was never able to run for more than a minute even on treadmills, but as I progressed, I found out that I too hated running on treadmills. I felt constricted and that affected my tread and pace. And worst of all, it was boring and no amount of my favorite music or audiobooks would motivate me to continue. But my husband kept nudging me, so I started over. I constantly reminded myself of everything I read in Born to Run. I started running outdoors. I changed my shoes - my new shoes were not exactly huaraches, but they were not moon-shoes either. I stopped carrying my music with me during the run. My intention was for it to be a mindful practice. As I am with all things that require mindfulness, I just let my mind wander and so did not bother distracting myself with music. I also got over my self-consciousness about puffing and panting in the neighbourhood for everyone to see - yes, as you may have guessed, I wasn’t running during unearthly hours ( I was not that inspired). It also helped when I read somewhere that it might actually inspire someone to see me run. As I am the one always seeking inspiration and never the one to inspire, I thought it a novel idea.

To bolster my efforts further, at the beginning of this summer, I decided to sign up for a 5K race. I reasoned that it was for a good cause and that a commitment like that might actually keep me motivated. I started out by running in the mornings during my 3-week vacation. Once my vacation was over, I ran out of steam, came up with excuses and my running came to a screeching halt. Almost two months passed and I realized that the date for the run was only a few weeks away. I resumed my running. And then unfortunately I sprained my foot (it wasn’t from running). By the time my foot felt better, I was in a time crunch. Only two weeks to go before the race and I still wasn’t prepared.

A friend who had signed up to run along with me had to drop out due to family reasons. I was tempted to throw in the towel but my determination to set a good example for my kids egged me on. I ran about three times every week. I timed myself and found out that it took me about 45 minutes to run the 5K. Not good. One can walk that distance in 45 minutes, myself included. So I ran a bit harder with a goal of slicing off one single minute every time I ran. The best I could do was 37 minutes. That was two days before the race. No more running until race day.

I fervently hoped that during the race, some of the energy of the runners would rub off on me and I would run faster and make it under 40 minutes. But then the night before the race, which was last friday, I decided that I will just aim to finish without keeling over at the finish line. On Saturday morning, I stretched at home before the run, instead of after, like I usually do. I had my all-time favorite breakfast of toasted sprouted-grain bread with heaps of almond butter, strawberry jam and flax meal and downed some black coffee. The weather was chilly that morning but the sun came up shining nice and bright. My family was with me to cheer me up for my first run ever.

By the time we got there, the place was swarming with people - over 10,000 had signed up. It was inspiring to see so many runners. When I walked up to the start line, I was glad to see my family waving to me from the sidelines. Some of my new favorite songs were pounding through the speakers and a short jazzercise session commenced to the music to warm up before our run. I just shuffled my feet a bit, as I was worried that I would tire myself out even before the run starts. I saw TV cameras and TV station personalities do their bit. The anticipation was building and I couldn’t wait for it to start. Then the countdown began and off we went. The first few minutes were the hardest because I was moving with the crowd and couldn’t find my pace. I made a conscious effort to slow down and didn’t allow myself to be fazed by the people zooming past me.

The path looped through the downtown area and I was surprised to find myself looking around at all the landmarks. Since I had a watch that would beep every mile, I waited to hear the first beep. I was running at my usual pace. When it was about time to hear the beep and it didn’t happen, I wondered if a mile could really feel this long. But I did not dare look at my watch. I very much doubted that the sound of the beep would be drowned out by all the cheering and the music from school bands playing along the way. That’s when I looked up and saw the 2 mile marker and the timer on it showing 20:35! I couldn’t believe it!!! I ran two miles already, that too in my best time ever. I saw my family cheering me on and was encouraged to keep at this pace for the last mile and finish strong.

The sun was beating down by then and I was getting thirsty. I took a sip of water from volunteers handing out water cups (volunteers rock!). I was getting a bit tired but I kept my focus on my next step and the next and the next. Finally, after a turn in the road, there it was! About a 100 yards down the road was the finish line! It was the most welcoming sight ever. When I crossed the clock at the finish line and it read 33:12, I couldn’t stop smiling. I did it! That too without ever slowing down to a walk, not even once. I was thrilled to see my family there shouting their congratulations. I was elated and energetic, as I usually am, after a run. Despite winging it, I did better than I expected. With a sense of 
gratitude to friends, family, books and runners for the inspiration, I basked in a feeling of accomplishment I hadn't felt in a long, long time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

To buy or not to buy

I am a big fan of minsumerism. I try to follow minimalism in all aspects of my life. And try is the keyword here. But one area that I find particularly challenging is my kitchen pantry. My pantry is a small space, a doored alcove in the kitchen. The shelves are stocked from floor to ceiling with dry goods that can feed an entire village, or so it seems.

Once in a blue moon, I organize the pantry. I get tired of not knowing what I have and don’t have. It gets on my nerves whenever I see overflowing shelves. The last straw is usually when I can’t find that one little thing that I rummage the entire place for and which I know is hiding in one of the baskets piled high with stuff.

In the process of decluttering the pantry, I purge most of what I have. Items that I haven’t used in a long while, items that are still in their original packaging, items that are part of a science experiment (not intentionally), items that I never knew I had...all of them go to the bin or the compost. It grieves me to realize that I am being wasteful, but I am relentless. I am on a mission. I have to pare it down to the bare essentials, at whatever cost. So that I can start with a clean slate and be mindful again of what goes in it. I solemnly vow not buy anything until the shelves are empty again.

While cleaning up, for a brief moment, I am tempted to throw everything in one big cauldron (not that I have one)  and make a concoction and freeze it, so it will nourish us for weeks to come. I say nourish because, everything in the pantry is healthy stuff, so the concoction has to be healthy, right? Anyway, I change my mind as I decide not to get minimalism and laziness mixed up.  

I don’t know what it is about shopping for produce that makes me a hoarder. Everytime I go grocery shopping, which is once a week, I shop like there is going to be an apocalypse..... tomorrow. As if I won’t have access to food in the foreseeable future. (Many times I eat like that too :-)) I go to the same store every week. It is my favorite grocery store. Just walking into it makes me feel like I have made a healthy choice. The sights, smells and sounds at the store are all terribly appealing to me. The whole ambience of the shop is conducive to creative culinary inspiration. It is a relatively small store. Browsing through the aisles is an education in itself. And they have live music performed by local artists that make the whole shopping experience feel like an excursion instead of a chore. Also, I love the free coffee and samples, especially the free coffee.

The shopping list I had judiciously prepared earlier in the day is at hand. I have to mention here that while making the list, my minimalist tendencies were still very much intact. But it all goes flying out the door when I am wandering the aisles all starry-eyed. My imagination runs rampant. My mind is flooded with wonderful creative ideas of recipes that never stand a chance outside the store doors.

The sight of fresh produce, a large part of it locally sourced and good, clean minimally processed food is mesmerising enough to trigger the chef in me. It inspires visions of healthy delectable dishes that I could make with a flourish that would appeal to everyone at home - kids and adults alike. So it is indeed a terrible misfortune and an injustice to the grocery bill that most of these ideas never transpire to the dinner table. Anyway, back at the store... I get ambitious and the shopping cart fills up, fast and so does the pantry.

A couple of weeks fly by. I am still mindful. I make one or two dishes out of the ordinary. Everyone at home is happily surprised, including me. And then....fantasy rears it ugly head again. It starts when I come across this uber healthy and sumptuous recipe that calls for an ingredient I don’t have. I plan to make it for the weekend. So I stock up. But things don’t quite pan out the way I had planned that weekend. I decide to postpone trying out the new recipe to the next weekend or the weekend after that. And thus the plan remains a plan indeterminately and the recipe slowly slides off into the deep dark recesses of my mind. What remains is the package in the pantry dolefully waiting to be used up.

I am not a good baker and neither am I a good cook. I don’t improvise or come up with new recipes. I don’t follow elaborate recipes. If there are 8 steps to make a dish, I lose interest at step 5. And until a couple of years ago, I followed recipes to the tee - if the ‘preparation method’  asked me to walk around in circles while the oven was heating up, I did it. Ok I am exaggerating a bit, but you get my drift. And then I relaxed my attitude and found out that I didn’t poison anyone if I deviated from the recipe. It gave me a tad bit of confidence in the kitchen when the end result was actually palatable. Even so, nothing in my cooking habits justify being wasteful.

To put it in perspective... I spend more time walking the aisles of the grocery store in a week than I spend shopping for everything else in a year combined. If I had saved half the amount I had spent on groceries these past six years, I would have been able to cross off at least 8 different places in my places-to-visit-before-I-die list that require crossing an ocean. Shopping for groceries is not like shopping for clothes or furniture, where it is easier to ignore the in-your-face advertising and avoid shopping altogether. I and my family have to eat and eat well. And it is one of my priorities that it should also be an enjoyable experience.

It is obvious that there is a big disconnect between my intention and execution. As with all things, it takes conscious effort to not be impulsive. To make my attempt sustainable, I need to start small and pause when I reach for something I don’t need. So... the next time I am at the grocery store, I will stick to my list and maybe get one, just one thing that I don’t know how to pronounce. What do you say?

Friday, September 7, 2012

A rose by any other name...

Why do we label ourselves? All the time. By what we eat, what we do, what we buy, where we were born, where we live, the way we look, whom we vote for, what we read, what we believe, how we think.... the list is endless. I think it satisfies an innate need in us to identify and understand ourselves and our place in the world. Labels define our choices (sadly, for some of us, it isn’t the other way around) and dictate our actions and therefore reflect who we are. We use it to project an image of who we want to be, to form friendships, to earn a livelihood and to belong. To be part of a community with values and ideals that appeal to our sensibilities. We connect to each other based on commonalities and for this, labels help. We are drawn to labels. To labels that define character, occupation and lifestyle. It is not easy to just be. Probably there is a label for that too :-)

Labels to define a profession do have its uses. If I am sick, I would like to know that I am going to a doctor. I trust in the fact that a doctor spends years training for the service he/she provides and from all that time, money and effort invested, gains valuable expertise in a chosen field. That valid argument aside, who is to say that a doctor can only be a doctor, not an artist, say. Any profession, in my opinion, can be interpreted both as a science and an art. What if a doctor decides that it isn’t working any more? What if he ends up feeling chained down because of the labels he has already earned and becomes uninspired doing what he does just because he thinks that it is too late to be anything else?

It takes courage and tenacity to break the shackles and stop conforming to labels. To march to your own drum. To do what really fires you up. I was amazed when someone I know, who has a masters degree in music, switched to computer programming just because that seemed possible and another acquaintance, an engineer, who in his late thirties decided to study to be a doctor after a decade in IT. It is inspiring and promising to come across spirited individuals who actually go exploring beyond labels of their past occupation and credentials.

So, the flip side to labeling is that it can also be very limiting. With respect to us being open to trying something totally different. It curbs our inquisitive nature and limits our potential. It affects and confines our experiences. It restricts our ability to adapt to change or to be open to different ideas. It makes us rigid in our ways and closed up to new possibilities. It makes us judgemental. We end up seeing others through a labeling glass and miss out on knowing the person as their own individual self.

Labeling serves a purpose when discovering a new species of fungi or maybe when you are buying a box of crackers...but transmuting it to label someone who thinks differently is not really necessary. So if you want to label someone, use their name. Isn't that the purpose of it? I know it is a hard habit to beat, it certainly is for me. So, while we are working at it.....what do you call someone who can’t do anything consistently enough to save her life? Fickle? Yes, call me that. Or what do you call someone who is so full of herself? Right, yeah, call me that too :-)