Posted in Personal Stories

Exploring our Personal Spaces


It has been almost three weeks now since offices shut down, schools closed and shelter in place directives were declared to urge all county members to stay at home. This was also a time when within the duration of a few diurnal spins – the economy came to a sputtering free fall in one swift blow.

Life is going on, but we have quickly unlearned what it means to be human in the context of modern living. If you care for your community and city – stay away. Human touch is hazardous. Withdrawing from the community and staying at home has become the communal pact for survival.

The compromise dawned on us like the five stages of grief. First it was denial, then bargaining with the status quo, until we were at an acceptance of what we’ve lost. In the past, our personal places had always been a part of our daily mad rush to do things, but not really at the center stage of our existence. Over the last few days, they have become the entire universe of where we exist.

And with this , dawns a new awareness of the personal space around us.

I now know that the sixth tile in the flooring of my kitchen creaks when you step on it while leaning on the counter. And discover a nest with shrill croaks of invisible birds just outside my balcony that intensifies in the afternoons. I am aware of the harsh golden glare that sunset would bring on my favorite work spot in the living room, and I would have to take my work ( and laptop ) elsewhere  as soon as the clock strikes 5. 

I can now calculate that the ascending tempo of the whistling wind outside our cathedral ceilings is a prelude to a draft picking up. The kitchen windows would start rattling , so it’s time to close the patio.

The common wall of our townhome exposes us to filtered sounds from other personal spaces. I now know that my nameless, invisible neighbor gets agitated in the afternoons and plays Nirvana’s “Never-mind” on a nonstop loop until nightfall settles his ( or her? ) nerves. We joke – this grunge fan doesn’t seem to be taking social distancing too well.

The bookshelves have become the new muse – luring me with unfinished books which were waiting for an opportune time to be completed. I now look forward to Friday evenings as a way to context switch into a weekend when my home would magically switch from being a workplace to a  place of leisure. Work and Life have congealed into one unified endless flatline.

The empty streets with weak signs of public life outside fill me with anxiety. Is it my imagination , or are the sirens of emergency vehicles becoming increasingly frequent over the last few days ?

On the very rare and essential scenarios when we step outside – I am now acutely wary of every cough , sneeze and sniffle around me.  Every surface is analyzed for the possibility of carrying a deadly virus that would apprehend and wreak havoc on our lives. We innovate maneuvers to avoid touching doorknobs, crosswalk signs, shopping carts .. any bug smeared common surface at all costs. And then we come home and wash hands like the Macbeths.  

Personal spaces have become inviolable bubbles – it is dangerous to step outside them. And yet, like a whiff of wind that suddenly blows in your face – they continue to surprise with new experiences.

This bubble is starting to grow on me. Ahem. well ..Who knew our personal spaces could be alive with such vibrant details now?

Photo by Naomi Hébert on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Our Connected Destiny


The second week of March was supposed to be just another ordinary week. The arrival of spring break , anticipation of a planned vacation to meet family and friends, booking classes for the upcoming summer vacations.

The world, as usual, was beset with action and drama – through the lens of sensational news that filters into our lives everyday. The theatrics of upcoming US Elections . A mysterious epidemic unraveling in an industrial hub of China.

In fact, it was exactly a month ago when we were spectators to a new virus unfolding in China.  News like this is not novel and has happened in the past. There have been disease outbreaks in other countries, and here in our protected confines – we have usually viewed them as empathetic and horrified spectators. In spite of all the empathy , the epidemics are still happening in another corner of the planet. You realize the impact it has had in the part of the world where it wreaked havoc, but life goes on. They are vignettes on a mobile or TV screen, but they do not come knocking on your doors.

That was about to change very fast.   

I woke up one fine March morning, getting on office calls and business as usual meetings – until I looked out and saw empty streets. A chopper hovering over in the sky. A surreal scene out of a war movie.

The headlines screamed in distress and my day punctuated with news that demonstrated increasing intensity of alarm. The Covid-19 virus ( it now had a brand new name ) that was circulating far away had broken through our collectively false sense of security and permeated our daily lives.

First, it was advisory to stay inside, and then slowly the tone hardened and became more urgent. A few days out, the county enforced a ‘shelter in place’, which instructs residents to stay at home unless it is an absolute emergency. The gradual eroding of the politeness of the message matched with the increasing shock and alarm. Friends and family were sharing unnerved messages, the anxiety laying bare in the words. 

My news feed became a source of increased unease . Gun sales had skyrocketed. Price gouging and black marketers had created a shortage of sanitizers. Social liberties would be curtailed. Schools and libraries would be closed. Life as we know it would come to a pause.

As a modern society, we are not used to existential and mortal threats. We cannot imagine a scenario when we would not be able to get the best in class medical treatment when needed, or that our lives would be subject to war like protocols and choices . Especially in the West, with our deeply individualistic lives where we are so used to being in control of what we do.

When the epidemic broke, it was one country which was at the epicenter and struggling to control the outbreak. Very soon, the mayhem spread across the world , emphasizing how closely are all in this together. When the number of cases were doubling in a matter of days, this new phenomena was like a war but with no visible enemy.

This is a turning moment for us.   But it also affords us to learn from what we have seen so far. As humans, we have a Connected Destiny.

There are slow existential threats like climate change which are hard to fathom and would have a visible impact on a timeline that counts in decades. Nevertheless, as the current events have shown us – we are not invincible. Rare, extreme impact events like these can indeed happen, and shut down our normal lives within days.

We are all in this together, so the sooner we get onboard and accept our Connected Destiny – the better it would be for our collective future.

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Good Morning


The view from my window is an ordinary one. Right outside, there are wiry branches of this tree which has lost all its leaves. I do not remember if the leaves were lost in fall or this tree has been stricken like this most of its life. 

I look beyond these dry branches and at first sight , there is darkness and the sky is silhouetted with varying shades of black and dark blue.  You can see an outline of the Cupertino hills far away, dotted with tiny specks of lights – like fireflies. 

Except that they are houses with real people .  Million dollar houses nestled in the slopes and carpeted by dense woods and popular trails. And as I observe closely, I can see thousands of them – or perhaps those are streetlights. It is hard to tell. 

The Silicon Valley is a valley in the true sense. Take any major freeway or expressway, and you would be able to view hills hugging the horizon. Like this one from my window, where the summits  manifest themselves even in complete nightfall.

But in a few minutes, everything would change.

The sun would rise, and then darkness would be transformed with light. Shades of black and dusk blue would suddenly morph into a multitude of colors.  The light would reveal endless details in the landscape before me – like nuggets of surprises to color an ordinary day.  I have been looking at this view for many months, but every time there is a new detail which emerges, 

Like somewhere between me and mountains ranges before me where there is a house which has two very tall palm trees in it. They stand out and  next to each other like an Eleven. Is it a sign ? Or like the moments when the sun strikes the houses nestled on the hills, and they sparkle back!. Figment of my imagination ? Or solar panels striking the sun’s rays at an angle ?

Every night, the world outside dies and awakens in the morning with these brilliant details. 

My spot on the couch by the window connects me to two different lenses of the world.

As the light fills in and wakes up the world outside me, I can hear stirring sounds from the rooms inside. A trickle of water in the sink.. the faint hum of the microwave singing with morning coffee..the pitter patter of little feet ..  tiny fingers that tug at your hair with sleepy good mornings .. The warmth of love enveloping as my dear ones wake up , and embrace a new day

This is the moment my reverie is broken. There is work to be done, to do lists to be completed. Moments of reflection transform into “military moments” – as I began planning my day ahead , identifying and attacking hurdles, problem solving, 

Like I said –  yet another ordinary day ahead.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

The Lone Cypress


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It was a cloudy Saturday morning, with the overcast skies threatening to rain any moment. Rain and cold is not a very reassuring combination, hence we decided that a drive through the California waterfront in the protected confines of our car would be a good way to spend the 2nd day on our trip to Monterey.

So after a hearty breakfast , we packed into our six seater and started on the 17 mile drive from Carmel-at-Sea. The 17 mile drive snakes through a picture postcard vignette of the West Coast.  You can drive through the Del Monte forest, glassy green golf courses, and breathtaking views of the Pacific ocean kissing precariously perched rocks on the coastline.

Along the drive we stopped to observe landmarks of tourist interest.  Bird rock was a boulder with a mysterious attraction to birds – you could see a swathe of them swooning in and enveloping it on the foaming ocean. Ghost trees were a collection of dried out trees which have been smitten by some kind of affliction and stand out as stark reminders of their glorious past.

And among all these sights we came across this legendary landmark on Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress tree.

So when you get down and stand at the farthest corner of land, you see this single Cypress tree standing out on a shelf separated from the mainland. Strong gusts of wind brush your face, reminding you of the harsh conditions here. A tour guide standing next to us in the crowd  observes that this tree is more than 250 years old.

We are transfixed in this powerful moment, and the symbolism of what we see.

You can see the silhouette of the Cypress leaves across the endless backdrop of brilliant blue beyond.  If you peer closer, you would be able to see a faint curvature of the earth as the ocean engulfs you on all three sides. It feels like you’ve reached a cliff – go beyond into the ocean and you’d fall off the edge of the earth.

And amongst all this is the Lone Cypress that stands out starkly,  almost with an invitation which says – “Look at me, I am still here!” . Like a Howard Roark laughing at the edge of a cliff.

What you do not see is that a few hundred years ago – a bird that plucked the cypress seed and innocently dropped it out on the rock. You do not see a tiny seedling emerging out, unaware of the  glory it would be destined to – just by refusing to give up.

What you do not observe is the furious storm that almost ripped this cypress tree away from its roots.  Lashed by a hurricane and stricken by lightning flashes, the tree has been downed once but was never out.

You also cannot see the thin transparent wires that hold it upright now.

In one picture  you observe individualism. heroism and empathy entwined together.

This is indeed a powerful moment for us!

Posted in Personal Stories

On Lists


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I have been making lists a long time now. 

Grocery lists, invitation lists , travel to-do lists, tasks-of-the-day lists. I summon lists when I have a problem to solve and am not sure where to start off at.  Any new assignment comes my way and I begin making lists. 

What started off as a harmless way of staying organized, has now become my chosen warfare for attacking problems. And thinking. And writing. Even when I am writing my journal and the words flow into long sentences and paragraphs, jumbled thoughts flowing out as they arrive. Then after a few paragraphs there is a surge of anxiety. I have to stop. 

  • Break it up into paragraphs
  • Make logical sections
  • Put the key points in bullets

Thinking in bullets, is what I call it .  Which is wonderful if you want to make a point, but can be a handicap when you want to share your thoughts and emotions, articulate a story. Is there a right brain part of you which decimates as the left brain becomes more powerful ? 

My worries exacerbated when I observed my writing style. As I braced myself to sit down to write, there was a ruthlessly drilled habit ingrained in my head.

  • List ideas 
  • Organize them in logical groups
  • Build connections and make a story
  • Sort according to the order in which you want to convey your message
  • Bullet them for clarity of reading

It was this management consulting routine that had been honed over hours spent painstakingly on presentations, many of which were mercilessly ripped apart in reviews with my managers – “You made this long list of recommendations – but what exactly is the story ?”.  I always wondered, what can they see that I am not able to see?! 

More practice, list-making and exacting reviews made me realize what I was missing. And also that my fears were unfounded. The  link between list making, consulting techniques and creative writing, is after-all – the Story!

Take this piece of writing for example:

A quiet room. Sheafs of magazines stacked at the corner of the sofa.. Pillow under the crook of my arm. Two broken pencils, crumbs of wooden shavings,  Off-white lighting throwing long shadows in the living room. The cat purring the corner.. This is a lifeless list, but what is the message here. Is it boredom ? is it loneliness ? As writers that’s the story we are trying hard to convey. 

A list is a medium to lay out all the facts and data points out there. 

A Story is the heart of message – what is it that you are REALLY trying to say? And oftentimes it is the hardest part of writing, because you aren’t really sure of what you are trying to say in the beginning. But if you are lucky, or think hard enough, or keep going at it –  you would stumble on the right answer. The Aha moment of your writing. 

You suddenly realize –  Yes, this is what I want to say!

 

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Observations on Fall


I look out into the vast stretch of green outside my patio. The colors are a dark pastel green, accentuated with tiny patches of yellow and orange creeping in . And with every gust of wind that whooshes through the trees, there is a swirl of leaves that sweep down.  Yes, Fall is here.

Slowly and steadily, these yellow patches would spread and the entire expanse would get transformed. The leaves would fall, winter would tumble in , and the woods would turn into ghosts of their past selves.  All the life that had burgeoned over this summer would be destroyed. 

I remember my snow-covered backyard from last year , with a background of bare naked spidery trees. The charm of a white winter eventually turned into a realization of the true meaning of the phrase “winter in coming”.

On especially cold days, I would watch as the water that flowed out of the air conditioning pipes snaked out on one end and congealed into ice at the other end, making me feel fortunate that I was now on the warmer side of the patio door.  One of the most frequent phrases I heard were – ‘when summer arrives”. As if all eyes were pinned on the opportunities that the warmth of summer would bring.

Slowly, the earth revolved and the season changed. Summer shone on us with its full glory, and what a resplendent glory it was! 

The destruction of winter had breathed a will to prosper even in the tiniest of shrubs. The greenery that rose from the ashes had something special about it .. a hunger of its own. I have never seen leaves so alive, and trees so lush in any other season.  It was almost as if the trees have suddenly discovered their power and are burgeoning to  grow out and vanquish everything that had stopped them before.

This incessant, inevitable cycle of nature reminded me of the important role of destruction in creating a better version of life.

The path to evolution is paved with destruction.

What has made you successful in your past might not lead you to victory in your future. You have to destroy your beliefs and learnings to pick up new ones.

To move from one level to the next, you have to unlearn all that you’ve learnt and re-learn again!

Photo by Autumn Mott Rodeheaver on Unsplash