Over A Cup Of Hot Chocolate!

Christmas bade a cheery adieu. The New year crossed the threshold. And I forgot about my scribbles until I opened my little book to pen a few notes today.

The last entry took me by surprise because I had forgotten how I felt and what thoughts were galloping through my mind that evening, on December 7th as I sat over a cup of Timmy’s delicious hot chocolate!

Isn’t it interesting how we move from various stages of emotions, thoughts, and expressions and how writing it down works as a release button?

Whatever the feelings – anger, frustration, regret, sadness, joy, nostalgia, a sense of achievement, gratitude, hope, whatever – writing is cathartic… therapeutic.

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A cup of hot chocolate, a pen, and a small notebook.   It started with a walk… a stop at Tim Hortons… here goes —

“How Great Thou Art!”  That’s the thought playing in my mind. I’m always gobsmacked when I consider my plight; my circumstances in January 1992 when David died and left me penniless and totally bereft of any support, shelter or sufficiency.

I was not in the place I am today vis-a-vis confidence, ability, capability, wisdom, and information and knew nothing about fending for myself. I was a big zero in that department; naïve, ignorant of the way-of-the-world in a practical sense. All my knowledge lay in theory. I  believed it would suffice!

Was I in for the biggest shock of my life! It was time for Truth & Dare.

No, not the game we play with our friends but the game life plays with you when the only thing you can do is: face the truths and dare to do whatever you have to do; even if your knees are knocking, your heart’s in your throat and you’d rather be the heroine in a fairy tale than in the story of your life. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed in life.

I learned all about endings and beginnings.

I had been cocooned far too long, it was time to crawl out. And that’s what I did… crawl out.

“Change is about submission.

Once you submit to change it happens,

whether you are awake or asleep.

This is what the caterpillar told me” -Joy Clarkson

It was a heady experience. Dread, anxiety, anger, fragile self-confidence, bravado, strong will, determination, strong faith, hope and trust in God, self-pity, defensiveness — a cocktail of positives and negatives at its best and worst.

That’s how I stepped out on my own: Single, alone, and lost.

I was a toddler again; still not steady on her feet; tottering, falling, getting up, and stumbling and falling again. But through this, I learned. Not always in the best way nor with the right attitude. I viewed the world with distrust. Was always on the back foot – and defensive. A single mom trying hard to be both mom and dad.

I became the sole provider, and it was scary. I wasn’t earning enough as a teacher. My salary, which David called “a drop in the ocean,” now shrank into an even tinier drop in an ever-growing ocean of expenses. But that’s all we’d have to survive.

But God had been working to prepare me for this day.

About three years before tragedy struck like a bolt from the blue, I felt an urgent and strong need to further my education, even against opposition from my husband.

I got my Master’s degree, a second Bachelor’s degree {this one in education} and also auditioned for and then worked, ad hoc, in the drama division of All India Radio.

The degrees would ensure a better position as a senior teacher with a higher salary. The drama hobby at AIR didn’t pay much neither was it a regular thing but I did it because I love dramatics. That’s what I thought the urge to join AIR was!

I didn’t know it then but all these came to my aid in a bigger way than I had imagined.

I completed my MA in Eng. Litt. but had only cleared the entrance test for the B.Ed. degree course when he died. My Master’s degree put me in the senior teacher category and I moved to teaching the secondary and higher secondary classes. The acting hobby paid off as they selected me as a higher grade artiste, so there were meager improvements in our finances. 

Although the money coming in turned out better than if I had not upgraded my qualifications for the job, it was still far from enough. But definitely, more than I could have expected at the time!

The Principal of the new school I joined, when we shifted back to the hometown, was kind enough to offer me the complete basic salary of a fully qualified senior teacher ( I was in the middle of my teacher’s qualification B.Ed. so he couldn’t add in the benefits). This was more than I had expected and I hadn’t even asked for it! 

The Station Director at AIR assured me of at least one drama each month, sometimes there’d be two. I had not asked her either. 

God was at work here!

None of this was as easy as it sounds. Not being a confident person I found myself in a quandary at this difficult time. It scared me and I hid my reticence and ignorance under the cloak of bravado. But with God on my side, I picked up the courage to fight my battles.

I dared to step off the cliff. Dared to dive into deep waters. I didn’t know how to fly nor how to swim but I had a life jacket and a parachute: FAITH!

I survived the buffeting waves and raging storms.

Was it smooth sailing and a smooth flight? Far from it.

I had lessons to learn. Faith is a teacher. When you walk ‘with’ faith, it teaches you many things and the first thing I learned was that faith doesn’t support foolishness, foolhardiness, and arrogance.

These were tough lessons.

They were foundation lessons.

Lessons that gave me a strong platform on which to stand firm. Today, it looks as simple as a hop, skip, and jump! Yes, a shaky hop, a daring skip, and a scary jump.

I made terrible mistakes: Regrettable decisions, wrong judgments, wrong actions. Actions that were not thought out. I did not consider the repercussions of what I was doing; the negative fallout which would harm or hurt me more than anyone else.

Yes, I learned some hard lessons. I made mistakes, but I learned from them. That was the saving grace! Making mistakes is not the mistake or the problem. Not learning from them is. Not taking home the lesson and working on it is. Not changing, not growing is.

So how do you know what is wrong?

How do you know where you’ve gone wrong?

And how do you know why you’ve gone wrong?

At which point do know you’ve got to change?

When do you ask yourself, ‘how do I change’?

Questions and more questions. I searched for answers. I prayed and sought wisdom in God’s word. I listened to teachers and spiritual leaders. I read articles, messages, and books. I argued with myself… I fought. But when you seek you find. What you seek you find. The best lessons came back to me down the years; Daddy’s lessons. I recalled all that he had talked to me about. All that he had taught me. That’s how I grasped the most important lessons and started the process of change that would pull me out of the rut of despair.

I squirmed, groaned, and moaned. Disappointments, let downs, depression, despondency, anger are formidable opponents. It takes a strong will to change and humility to accept that you need to change.

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This marked the end of a significant chapter of my life and the start of a new one. A chapter that would see the birth of a new person and a new tale, in the sequel to my life story before January 1992!

 

 

 

 

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Little Things Are Big Things

“There are a lot of little lessons that can be taught around the home without sitting a child down and boring them to death with your philosophy of life.” -Helen McRoy

Lot has changed from the time I was a child back in the late-fifties until now! Put down in years like that, I feel ancient! But that’s the point, it makes me all the more thankful for a childhood which was less materialistic, and people had an abundance of time to do whatever they had to do.

In our time, parents didn’t substitute quality time with the children by overloading them with presents. At least my parents didn’t. One can argue that we weren’t ‘rich’ but again we were not ‘poor’ either. And neither did they try to compensate their absences with gifts or promises of making it up to us by taking us somewhere or treating us with some goodies we relished. We took their absences in our stride. They explained that they had to do things that required their time and attention so we would have to be ‘good’ and listen to Mary or Teresa or Ammachi or whoever was the nanny at the time. And that’s how we came to understand that occasionally our parents would have to take time out for themselves too. We accepted, cheerfully, the time we had to ourselves.

Our parents encouraged us to play outside more than inside the house. They had nothing to fear if we played outside – in the garden or with our friends or if we went cycling down the street or skating in the skating rink nearby. Our playtime got divided into – outdoors and indoors. Indoor games were fun. We had a collection of board games that we played competitively quite often.

Today, adult supervision is a must at all times even if the kids are playing in the front or backyard. Besides, children nowadays possess too many gadgets to keep them holed up inside the home. The times, they are a changing!

Reading story books, general knowledge books became a bedroom pass time and discussing what we read or learned or didn’t understand became talks around the dining table at mealtime – Sobremesa. Sadly, I don’t get to see much of this these days. Everyone is either in a hurry to eat and vamoose or then, watch something on the TV, iPad or smartphone while they eat instead of talking to each other and sharing their day or experiences. 

Our conversations remained light, humorous, interesting and informative without being heavy. With the great meals, mummy served us, we’d get a good helping of stories and food for thought from daddy. We never hurried. 

It was quality time for us.

Materialism wasn’t as big a thing in our day. Today the ‘things’ one owns define who you are – your social status, the rung you’re on… and that has formed value systems. It wasn’t funny how someone told me that I had “middle-class” values! A ‘fresher’ in college, I had no exposure to this whole new world outside our traditional upbringing and social milieu. To be honest, I didn’t quite get what they meant by ‘middle-class’ values! 

I imbibed my values from my parents, teachers, church, and nobody had tagged any of these as ‘middle-class’ values. I learned a new thing. Values had different levels or standards. I observed the differences that marked the values of the various social strata.

The reason, I found out, was that we weren’t the members of any social club, liquor was a no-no, swearing was a no-no {my father a Navy guy would say ‘ruddy’ when he wanted to say ‘bloody’. Yes, even ‘bloody’ would raise my mother’s eyebrows up to high heaven! Ours was a very traditional ‘Christian’ upbringing influenced by European missionaries. 

We weren’t allowed to sing certain songs that had even the slightest reference to anything with sexual undertones. And ‘sexual’ undertones’ for my parents could mean “lipstick on your collar” or “1 and a 2 and I love you let’s play the game of love!” The list was long. Singing wasn’t banned, however. We could sing and trust me there were many songs we sang. But the music that kids my age were listening to wasn’t what we listened to at home.

It was the same with dressing. Mummy had her own ideas how we should dress as ‘young ladies’. And though, I didn’t tow the line always, I stretched the limit, but I wouldn’t go that far as to create a scene at home. I refused to accept invitations to any place my so-called friends invited me. Our middle-class values kept my necklines higher, my hemlines lower than theirs. No, I wasn’t granny-ish! Only a ‘different’ fish in their kettle.

Suppression gave way to expression as we grew older. We became assertive and things relaxed but it also brought in hypocrisy!

We learned to have dual lives. We wore many masks! One for church on Sunday. One for all church parties. Another for school, an upgraded one for college. You see, by that time we had moved from our one-horse town, in Punjab, to the Capital city. Life, as it was, transformed.

Schooling from grade five onwards had been in a public school in a small Air Force station. However, in the eleventh grade {Higher Secondary as it was called then}, we moved to the city. Not that the capital city was modern by any ‘city’ standards. It was a bigger and better life in terms of civic amenities, and infrastructure and other provisions, but attitudes and mentalities were yet to broaden as they have today. Whatever, for me it was a huge difference –

  • Academics: better quality of education because of a better teaching staff.
  • Social: I was meeting kids more to my liking and interests and I had a social circle outside of school. We had a church where the services were in English and I could understand what was going on. And a youth group!
  • Opportunity: Better colleges and university.
  • Environment: Huge differences all around.

Situations, circumstances, and needs change with time and there are many new demands that come with change. So it was with us too. However, looking back, I realize what a great part these restrictions played in my life. The strict discipline on how I had to walk, talk, sit, stand, express myself especially while talking to elders inculcated respect in us. Please, Thank You and Sorry were words we learned to use in abundance. 

Everything had a time and a place and everything was done in time and put in its proper place. Because we had servants, this was a very important lesson we learned. We could not fling our things about for the servants to pick up after us.

Discipline, not only in the way I conducted myself but also in my daily routine has seen me through the most difficult periods of my adult life. Time management, prioritizing, organizing came to my rescue when I needed it the most… and with ease. No surprises here, it had always been a way of life for me!

All the times I was checked for not saying ‘Thank you” and showing my gratefulness when I was a small girl, taught me gratefulness for the littlest things that someone did for me; to be thankful for the little things I have instead of miserable for what isn’t there. This lesson on gratitude that zoomed over my head as a girl {I said ‘thank you’ because it was expected of me!}, seeped into my heart and I realized what a wonderful lesson it was!

I realized, much later, what my parents wanted to teach us about living with discipline, values, and boundaries. Precepts are the guidelines for a good life and provide a solid foundation on which to build our lives. 

These values helped to build up our character so we’d not get blinded or mislead by the bazillion theories, advice, suggestions, and influences we’d meet on the journey through teenage years and young adulthood. 

In hindsight, I see how stupid it was for me to have felt the way I did, it wasn’t necessary.  My friends were fine with me and those who didn’t accept me couldn’t be my friends, anyway! Not that clear or simple to a naive sixteen-year-old then. Instead, I allowed myself to feel ‘less-than’ and lowered my self-esteem. So I resorted to donning hypocritical masks. The dichotomy created cognitive dissonance and my life did not go the way I wanted it to. Not being me, troubled me.

One day, just like that, I decided I didn’t need masks. I am not ashamed of who I am nor do I want to fit in by being someone else. Standing for my values and convictions mattered and what people assumed about me, didn’t matter, and if I didn’t stand for something, I’d  eventually fall for anything.

I discarded my masks and relieved myself of that unwanted burden.

These little lessons imbibed in childhood, the snippets of memories that strengthen and reinforce the learning are the really big things in life. 

 

Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

 

 

 

Daring To Be Vulnerable

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness we will we discover the infinite power of our light.” -Dr. Brene Brown

The best things; people and places, friendships and companionships never lasted long – at least not as long as I’d want it to. ‘Goodbye’ seemed to come around too soon. But I was young – a little girl- and the exuberance and expectations of youthfulness;  the hope of new and more exciting experiences helped to blunt the pain of loss and too many changes.

As the years rolled by and friendships began to mean more – there were stronger bonds of closeness and dependability – moving away became harder. We were not in an era of such high technology as we are in today.

One wrote letters, snail-mail, and soon the frequency of writing and receiving mail would peter out and finally die. Old friends became a vague memory as new ones took their place. But this transition was not as easy or smooth as I consciously thought it was. Somewhere at the sub-conscious level I was taking it harder and reacting to it in a very wrong way. To avoid the pain I was slowly developing a shell of protection. I didn’t want to be hurt anymore. So I would never give a hundred percent of myself to any relationship.

I liked my friends, and I made friends easily but there was always something lacking because I did not get too close to anyone. I was guarded in my relationships, not open. This distance I maintained distanced them from me. They took it personally and our friendships, though warm, never developed into life-long ties.

While I felt bad about it, I also felt better because our constant moving from place to place didn’t affect me emotionally the way it did earlier. I wasn’t breaking down inside anymore. My heart and my mind were intact; I was not vulnerable anymore. I was slowly becoming distant – ‘arm’s length’ is how I’d say it: ‘Keep at arm’s length’. I don’t know when or how I built these walls around me but walls were surely rising and imprisoning my soul.

Saying bye to someone you love is painful. Especially when you know you aren’t going to see them anytime soon or probably never meet them again because chances are, you’re not going to return to that place again.

The first pangs of farewell pains that I experienced were when my two elder sisters left for boarding school. I must have been six yrs old and it was terrible. I can still recall how it hurt so much, even though they would be away for less than a year, coming back for their long holidays every summer. I’d dam the tears that welled up as soon as the railway station came into sight. Then I’d let the floodgates down and let them flow and flow long after the byes were said and the train had chugged out of the station. Long after we were home and I was in my room. The emptiness would seep into me and I’d sit on the floor, take out my tea set and dolls and bawl my heart out. I still remember that! And this was how it was in the following years; I’d hurt so bad with every departure!

I also remember that as the years went by and both of them had finished with school, yet, they were never at home. They’d come for a short break and go back to wherever they were at the time. But what had changed was: I no longer felt the wracking pain of my childhood. Not that I was so grown-up but because I had learned to “put a stone on my heart” as the saying goes. We were brought up to keep our emotions in check. A stiff upper lip. So no matter how much my heart ached, I held my head high and went about living life as usual. If I needed to vent, I stuck my head in a closet and cried or buried myself under the covers and wept copiously on the welcoming foam of a pillow or then, took out my journal and wrote, wrote, wrote until I couldn’t see the page through my tears. I had learned this by the time I turned ten!

I had learned this lesson so well that when I said the most painful farewell I would ever say in all my life, I was still holding back – still pulling on the reins to keep a check on myself. I wanted to scream, shout, bang my fists, grieve, but all I did was shed a few tears, in fits and starts, and try to maintain a calm and cold exterior. The biggest love of my life had gone forever! An unexpected, shocking departure from life and those who loved him so well. A life truncated in its prime.  Yes, my husband had died of three successive, massive heart attacks in his thirty-ninth year, and I couldn’t let my guard down. I had to maintain a show of strength – emotional strength.

I thought it helped in keeping me from crumbling; from losing my sanity. I was so focused on being strong; on not making a public display of my inner-most feelings, not letting my young sons see me weak and devastated that I didn’t dwell on my personal loss. In hindsight, however, that was bad for me. I suffered the agony for years. For years I remained angry with my husband for dying and leaving me alone. For years I rolled up into a fetal position and wet my pillow with muffled sobs; so great was the pain.

The worst was, we had not said our final goodbyes! He died on one of his tours. He came back cold and dead. The best was when he was leaving home, although we had said our casual bye-byes, he turned back and with a rare, broad grin waved a bye to me again. I almost missed it because he never did that ever before. Once he was out of the gate he’d just drive away, our ‘see you’ being said. It took me by surprise and I did wonder for a second, ‘what was that?!’ But it made me happy and I saved the moment. This image came to my rescue every time I felt desolate because it was his ‘final farewell’. And what a memory it was!

This image brought relief because it became ‘our’ final farewell. Down deep I still ached because I knew I’d never see him again, but whenever I thought of him, this last image spoke volumes to me; it still does. The pain will never go but I have accepted it and it has become bearable.

I thought I had dealt with my unexpressed anguish and loss very well. Unknown to me it had a negative fall-out that carved out a new me. I became scared of loving anyone too much. I was afraid if I showed too much of love, or clung to anyone they would leave and I didn’t want to be hurt so bad again. I refused to love with all my love. I was afraid to show too much love towards my kids too.

The years went by and there were many farewells to friends and family as we moved from one place to another. It wasn’t a good experience but I no longer hurt so much… I missed my friends and family but it didn’t pain me as it would have before. Then along came a little bundle of golden fur. She was called Heidi.

Heidi was a golden retriever pup just a month old and she stole our hearts. Something inside me began to melt. The walls began to crumble and slowly I allowed myself to bring someone close to me. So close that she became my companion and confidante. She was not a dog for me, she was a person, my friend. I became defenseless; vulnerable and experienced so much of love from her.

She understood me when I spoke and even when I was quiet. She knew my silences, she felt my every feeling and responded to it. If she saw me with my face in my hands, she’d be there sitting in front of me moving my hands from my face and trying to get on my lap. She knew even if I was crying quietly. She’d come to my side and cuddle and lick my tears. She was the one who brought me out of the abyss of anger, self-pity, and the victim mentality. I was reluctant to get out of there. Heidi won this round. Letting go of my anger against David for dying and leaving me bereft was a life-saver for me.

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Heidi did indeed bring a ray of sunshine and literal warmth with her soft, furry body. And then when she had become my sturdy pillar of strength and emotional support she got cancer and died! That she had to be put down didn’t help the situation. I was devastated and, even now, when I think about her leaving the house on her way to her own ‘execution’ I am moved to tears. She went away trusting us – Moreso me. I hugged her and kissed her and let her go. I was against it but that doesn’t count, I acquiesced ultimately.

I was back to square one. The old me was doing a victory dance and whispering maliciously: ‘I told you so, I told you so’!

This was when God responded to my desperate cry for help. It’s not that He wasn’t on call before. I would pray and have my daily chats with Him. He’s been my BFF for a long, long time. But I used Him as my sounding board. And one who rendered help and protection when I needed it. I rejected the solutions He offered to my problems and stubbornly clung to my shadows, my walls, and wallowed in my misery: my fears, insecurity, and anger.

This time, however, I listened to Him instead of Him listening to me. It was the beginning of my new walk with God. The beginning of a new understanding. The understanding that to experience the wholeness of loving and being loved, I had to keep myself vulnerable. I had to let down all barriers and love wholeheartedly and even allow myself to be heartbroken, if at all that happened.

That’s what I had done with David, that’s what I had done with Heidi, that’s what I did with my kids – I had let down all barriers and let myself be open to giving and receiving love. I was vulnerable; I got hurt, let down, disappointed and sometimes desperate and frustrated but I always overcame and bounced back. These were the closest of bonds and I knew I could rely on love to set me free from my self-imposed imprisonment.

I had known love and the unique friendship David and I shared in our marriage.  I made beautiful memories to sustain me when I needed love the most and it wasn’t there. Maybe no one was there but the memories of happy times, good times, loving and caring times were always on hand to pull me out of the doldrums. I am grateful for these everlasting moments. Now it was time to come out of my shell. So, I let myself be open to the possibility of being hurt once again and in return, I strengthened my existing friendships, made new friends, and began liking the person I was becoming.

That’s what I relearned… to break down the walls and let love flow.

“To share your weakness is  – to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” -Criss Jami

It was the best thing I had done in my life: open myself to love and be loved. Love taught me it was okay to grieve for my loss; it didn’t make me weak, on the contrary, it made me normal and helped in the recovery process which in turn made me stronger.

I grew in my closeness to God and understood His love in a new light. In my walk with Him, I realized that I have good reason to make close ties even if it meant being hurt or that the ties would be eventually broken. We will all meet again in the sweet by and by. The fear of separation or loss must not keep us from feeling the great love that God has placed in our hearts and from sharing that with our family, friends, neighbors, so we might shine for Him.

Being vulnerable has brought more love into my life. I have grown stronger with the walls down and the protective shell removed. It has made my friendships worthwhile and long-lasting. I have learned that it is in giving love wholeheartedly that we receive more back. My best memories are of the times when I had opened my heart, unreservedly, unabashed, unafraid; the times when I received so much of love and care.

Love {and the vulnerability it brings} taught me forgiveness, tolerance, kindness, patience, self-control, understanding, humbleness, caring, sharing, resilience, thoughtfulness, and gratitude. It also kept me grounded. How poor was I when I kept my heart in a tower, safe and unbroken! How rich I am with a wealth of love and old friendships that have endured time and hardships and new ones that have enriched me no end and a family – sons, daughters-in-law and the most beautiful grandkids – love brings it all together!

“With each passage of human growth, we must shed a protective structure {like a crustacean}. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.” -Gail Sheehy