My mother is 95, a lovely woman whose passion in life was to care for others. Even in her late eighties, she was volunteering at a nursing home, fundraising for various causes, and attending groups at her church. She was living in her own home until six weeks ago, when she had a terrible fall while getting out of bed. She broke her left collarbone and hip, as well as suffering a collapsed lung and a head injury. The acute injuries have now been treated, and she’s been transferred from the intensive care unit to a ward in an older part of the hospital where elderly patients await transfer to a nursing home.
She’s eating very little, and has been slowly but steadily declining in strength. She’s fully prepared to leave on her last journey, and I don’t think it will be too long now. So every day I come and sit with her, for as many hours as I can. She’s in a room with three other people, all elderly and bedridden. Her bed is by the window, although there’s no view but the walls and roof of the adjoining section of the hospital.
It’s a strangely intimate environment. If someone is in pain, the others are aware of the soft groaning or muffled sobs. At night you can hear the snoring of those who have fallen asleep as well as the tossing and turning of the sleepless. Bodily functions become obvious by the nurse bearing a bedpan, or by the emanation of smells that permeate the small room. The doctors come to the bedside and discuss the most intimate medical details, with the only privacy a flimsy curtain.
Visitors come and go, and soon we get to know each other. The daughter of one of the patients in the room is about my age, and we exchange information that we’ve gleaned about the ward. She tells me about the tiny kitchenette where can I go to make a cup of tea, and I explain the various roles of the staff who bustle in and out of the room. We gossip about the nurses and physiotherapists, praising some and complaining about others. Mostly, we exchange stories about the elderly parent we are now caring for, wanting to keep the images alive of the vital, loving people they were.
When I leave the ward in the evening, I know that the other patients and their families will be watching out for my mother. She’s fairly clear in her mind, but at night she can get confused and is unable to remember how to use the call bell. The woman in the bed next to my Mom says to me, “Don’t worry about your mother in the night. If she needs something, I’ll press the call button for the nurse.”
And so life in this little world continues, with its pains and sorrows but also with tenderness and love. The thread of human connection that links us to each other seems even more precious in this fragile land of the sick.
I recently learned that Cloud Messenger is listed as a finalist for an Indie Book Award, in the Memoir category. Thousands of writers apply for these awards, so I was thrilled to find out that Cloud Messenger had been recognized in this way. Cloud Messenger has also won a Canada Book Award. I took a diploma course in creative writing through Humber College a couple of years ago, and it was during those months that I did some substantial work on the manuscript. My writing mentor was MG Vassanji, and he recommended my manuscript for a Letter Of Distinction. Public recognition of my writing is exciting - but still, what means the most to me is when someone says to me - "I really liked Cloud Messenger because it reminded me of something that happened in my own life. It got me thinking." To me, that is exciting! It is such an interesting way of connecting to others - through writing.
Earlier today I went to hear Dr Abraham Verghese speak at McMaster University. Today is Graduation Day for the current class of medical students, and he was scheduled to give the convocation speech. But in the morning he spoke at an informal gathering of faculty and students who are interested in his work and his ideas. Speaking about his works of fiction, he said that he is always fascinated when people tell him their own interpretations of his work. Sometimes they've made connections that he had never even thought of! That's a wonderful thing about writing - the reader enters into an imaginative journey with the author. Even though we may never meet our readers, a connection is formed.
Harriet Tubman once wrote: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Dreams that change the world - what an astonishing idea that is! Yet we see dramatic examples of such dreams arising in the most unlikely places. Consider Malala Yousafzai, the 19 year old young woman from Pakistan, who was shot in the head by the Taliban, who felt threatened by her strong advocacy of girls’ education. After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the UK for treatment, and she made a remarkable recovery. Some months later, she gave a speech at the UN, to more than 500 young people aged 12-25 from around the world. She spoke with grace and compassion about her dream for universal primary education for children around the world. "Let us pick up our books and pens," she said. "They are our most powerful weapons.”
But we know that not all dreams come true. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our dreams are dashed or shattered in the most devastating way. Danielle was a young woman in Burlington, Ontario, who began to suffer from a severe eating disorder. Her parents struggled desperately to get her the help she needed, and as a family they all battled this condition for years. Danielle improved for some time, but eventually relapsed and died of her disorder. So many dreams must have died with her – her own as well as those of her parents.
Several years after her death, her parents founded Danielle’s Place, an organization that provides support to those whose lives have been affected by eating disorders. In this way, they created a new dream from the ashes of the old. Such stories inspire us to trust once again in the power of dreams. But after we face a devastating event, we will no longer hold that innocent trust that “everything will turn out alright in the end”. Rather, we are called to a higher level trust in which the dark realities of life are acknowledged and accepted, and yet we remain willing to dream again.
That was the great lesson I learned during those turbulent years described in Cloud Messenger. I went to India with all kinds of hopes and dreams, most of which were completely unrealistic. When our health program did not evolve in the way that I’d hoped, I felt devastated. I concluded that my work had been a failure, and fell into a significant bout of depression. With time, I was able to see the beauty of the journey itself, and all that we had accomplished along the way. As I move into a new stage of life, I’m beginning to dream about India again. Garhwal and its people still call to me, and I would love to re-connect in some way. I hold those dreams lightly though, recognizing their magic and their truth, but not creating impossible expectations this time around. Let’s see what happens – I embrace the mystery!
Parker Palmer offers a thoughtful reflection on a phrase from a poem by WB Yeats, who writes of “the lying days of my youth”….
My youthful “lies” weren’t intentional. I just didn’t know enough about myself, the world, and the relation of the two to tell the truth. So what I said on those subjects came from my ego, a notorious liar. Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up…
Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.
Cloud Messenger explores this very theme. I was a young idealistic woman who actually had very little understanding of myself or of my husband Pradeep. When I went to India, I had grand ideas that Pradeep and I would create a primary health program that would be effective, low cost and sustainable. My primary working principle about life was that if you try hard enough, you’re going to succeed eventually. This principle was challenged again and again during those years I lived in India. We did create a primary health care program, and we certainly worked hard, but ultimately it didn’t succeed – certainly not in the way I was hoping. Faced with this tremendous disappointment, I fell into a major bout of depression. This devastating experience transformed me into a “contemplative by catastrophe”, learning about myself the hard way.
Looking back on it now, I realized that I was working from an artificial sense of the self created by my own ego. When my dreams were dashed, I was forced to question myself deeply. I slowly came to a more profound understanding of who I am, realizing that my true gifts in life lay elsewhere. I was learning the “soul truth” of myself, a journey that continues to this day.
I write this blog post sitting on the veranda of a hotel in Rishikesh. I can hear birds chirping, motorcycle horns beeping, and dogs barking. Not far away I can see the broad sweep of the River Ganga, the turquoise water sparkling in the sun. Two brightly coloured rubber rafts bob on the surface, and I can faintly hear the shouts of the boaters as they are swept down the fast flowing river.
I am in India for a brief visit, celebrating the recent marriage of my daughter Sonia to her husband Matthew. Their Canadian wedding was last June, but now our Indian family and friends have a chance to celebrate with them. Matthew has been fascinated by his first visit to India – as an archaeologist, he has plenty to discover in this country! He’s adapted remarkably to the culture, and has made a great impression on our Indian family.
On a visit to Sivananda Ashram earlier today, I met Susan, one of my first friends in India. She and her father Bill were both a tremendous support to me in those confusing first months of life in India, when I often felt lost and bewildered. I also met Vijaya Mataji, who was my Hindi teacher. She lives in the same humble room where I would go for lessons every morning, more than 30 years ago. Delighted to see me, she immediately set about preparing tea on her little kerosene stove. Just like old times!
The most interesting meeting was with Swami Vimalananda, who is now the senior swami in the ashram. He remembered me, and said with a gentle smile, “Yes, you are the person who gave us such good suggestions about the water system!” Readers of Cloud Messenger will remember the dramatic episode about the water issue, which led to our abrupt departure from Sivananda Ashram. How interesting that Swami Vimalananda remembers this, but in such a positive way…
I also had a lovely visit with my dear friend Ginny Srivastava, who’s also described in Cloud Messenger as an important figure in my life. She was born and brought up in Canada but married an Indian and has been living in India for the past 45 years. She’s done marvelous work in the State of Rajasthan, helping tribal women organize and use their collective strength to fight for their rights. Last year Ginny won an award given by the President of India for her years of work with tribal women. In our meeting this year I was encouraging Ginny to write a book about her work in India – this would truly be an inspiring read for people to learn about her powerful method of women’s empowerment. I was thrilled to hear that Ginny really enjoyed Cloud Messenger, and we had some long discussions about the process of publishing and promoting a book.
I always loved to go on village visits when I lived in Garhwal. We had good friends who founded an NGO called SIDH, whose primary focus was village education. I had a keen interest in the work of the traditional birth attendant (or dai as she is called in that part of the world). Meera, one of the SIDH field workers, offered to introduce me to Gooni Devi, a well-known dai of that area who lived in a village a few kilometres away. We set out that morning along a path descending into the valley below, skirting between farmers' fields filled with ripe corn. Meera described her work as a field coordinator with SIDH, her passion for women's literacy clearly apparent.
We reached the village in just over an hour, and a little boy directed us to Gooni Devi’s house, a traditional Garhwali home built of stone, with a slate roof. Gooni Devi, the dai of that village, was an elderly woman who had been practicing her craft for more than 15 years. She welcomed us into her home in the typical hospitable way of people in that area. We’d just begun to talk about women's health in Garhwal when Gooni Devi's daughter-in-law stepped quietly into the room and whispered something to her mother-in-law. Gooni Devi said - "Yes, of course, please show him in!"
An elderly man entered the room with a roll of paper under one arm. Gooni Devi explained to us that he was a well-known astrologer who lived in a neighboring village. It was October, a popular season for marriage, and Gooni Devi said that plans were being made for the marriage of her grandson. This astrologer had recently visited to draw up the astrological charts of her grandson and his intended bride, to see if it would be a suitable match. The elderly man sat down beside us and unwrapped a long yellow scroll of paper containing closely written script and symbols. He launched into a complicated explanation of how he could read the stars from his charts.
Finally, he nodded his head and said, "It's a good match." Gooni Devi nodded with satisfaction.
On our homeward journey later that day, an amusing memory suddenly popped into my mind. About a year before our marriage, I had made a visit to India to spend some time with Pradeep and to meet his parents. By this time Papaji and Mummyji knew that we were intending to marry, and Mummyji had called an astrologer to check the compatibility between my astrological chart and Pradeep's. I was rather alarmed by this and I asked Pradeep what would happen if we were found to be incompatible.
"Oh, don't worry," replied Pradeep airily. "I've already slipped him some money, just to make sure he gives us a good report!"
Pradeep's optimistic outlook on life can be buttressed by surprisingly pragmatic strategies, I thought, smiling at the memory.
The sari is perhaps the most elegant article of women's clothing in the world. It’s simply one piece of cloth six metres long and about a metre wide, and comes in a wide variety of fabrics from simple cotton to the finest silk. I was given many saris at the time of my wedding by Pradeep's relatives. I love the beauty of the sari – but learning to wear it properly is another matter! Let me explain how to do it…
First, I put on a short blouse handmade by a tailor to fit snugly to my upper body. Next comes a cotton petticoat, fastened at the waist with a drawstring. Now the tricky bit begins. I wrap the sari once all around the body, the edge being tucked into the petticoat. Then I must form the front pleats, making about four or five pleats of similar depth. It's difficult to make these pleats look neat and uniform, and even more difficult to keep them properly in place as the day goes on. I usually cheat and secure the pleats with a strategically placed safety pin. Then I wrap the free end of the sari once more around my body and then once again pleat it carefully before bringing it across my chest and over my left shoulder. The end should fall approximately to the knee. I would inevitably find that the end was either too short or too long and I would have to go back to the pleating stage to make adjustments.
In the beginning I found that wearing the sari was a tedious chore. I could never get it to hang just right, and I was constantly worried that it was somehow going to unravel. At this point, I would call in Pradeep's sister Nimmi for an emergency consultation. In all the years that I have known Nimmi, I have never once seen her in a sari that wasn't perfectly draped. Even at the end of an exhausting day at a family wedding, she would look as elegant as ever. She was ever willing to help, and with a few judicious tugs and some refolding she'd have my sari looking just right - at least for the moment!
When I became pregnant, I began to realize what a useful garment the sari is. As my belly swelled, I simply had to release one pleat of the sari. No need for a maternity wardrobe! The sari is also the perfect garment for breast-feeding. I could loosen my blouse and tuck my baby in for a feed, while the sari remained draped modestly, completely covering both baby and the breast.
Women in the mountains wear saris, even when working in the fields or climbing trees to cut leaves for fodder. The first time that I watched this tree-climbing operation I was astonished. The woman wrapped the free end of her sari around her waist and then between her legs, tucking it in at her waist. Her sari was suddenly transformed into a sort of baggy pantaloon, much more suitable for tree climbing. Then she clambered rapidly up the tree, using her small sickle to help her get a grip on the tree trunk. She might have to climb 30 or 40 feet before she would reach a strong leafy branch. Crawling out along the branch, she would hack at the leafy twigs and send them fluttering to the ground. When her task was done, she would climb back down the tree as quickly as she had gone up. After tying the leafy branches together into a huge bundle, she would then unwind the end of her sari and re-drape it over her left shoulder.
I remember thinking at the time – Well, if she can climb a tree wearing a sari, I should be able to cope with wearing one on a social occasion! Over the years I lived in India, I gradually began to enjoy wearing a sari. Now, in Canada, I occasionally open the drawer that contains my sari collection and select one to wear on a special occasion. When my daughter Sonia got married last June, I had one of my favourite silk saris made into a two-piece outfit for her wedding. The shimmering blue silk with its patterned gold border looked suitably elegant for that very special occasion.
A young man named Dr Semwal had recently joined the organization we worked with in India. He had a basic degree in Ayurvedic medicine, but it was soon clear to both Pradeep and me that his knowledge of any form of medicine was minimal. He was brimming with enthusiasm and told us he was ready to take on any challenge. I recognized him as one of those dubious doctors whose confidence exceeds their competence.
However, I had to admit that he was keen to learn. He followed Pradeep like a shadow, learning a practical approach to medical conditions in Garhwal. When a dentist came to conduct a dental camp near Pauri, she offered to teach us how to extract teeth. She went over the basic principles of extraction and showed us how to use some simple dental instruments. Then she taught us how to freeze the mouth prior to extraction. She explained that the most difficult teeth to freeze are the back molars, because there is a small branch of the facial nerve that curves over the jawbone that must be properly located. She showed us how to identify the landmarks in the mouth and how to angle the syringe in order to hit the precise point.
This medical camp in Ghat would be our first opportunity to try out our skills. Dental care is very hard to obtain in these remote areas of Garhwal, and at previous camps we’d often wished we had some basic dental skills. We did well with our first few cases, mostly easy extractions of teeth that were already loose. But then a young man consulted us, complaining of persistent pain in a back molar. Dr Semwal and I both had a look and it was clear that the molar was badly decayed.
“Do not worry!” said Dr Semwal enthusiastically, patting the man on his shoulder. “We’ll have that out for you in just a minute.” He drew up the local anesthetic into a dental syringe, and leaned forward to administer the dose. Only a few moments later, he lifted the dental extraction tool out of the sterilizing tray and reached into the man’s mouth. As he began to pull, the man let out an agonized bellow.
“Dr Semwal - you haven’t properly frozen that man’s mouth,” I said urgently.
“Do not be bothered, Madam,” replied Dr Semwal confidently. “He’s not really in pain. I have frozen him. This must be psychological pain only.”
Before I could intervene, he gave another tremendous yank on the tooth. The man once again roared in pain. But Dr Semwal had the tooth in his pliers, and he waved it happily before the patient’s eyes.
Many years later, I visited a remote area of Garhwal where we had once worked. I was chatting with the nurses at the centre, when I heard a familiar voice. It was Dr Semwal, smiling broadly and giving me an enthusiastic greeting. He had set up shop as a dentist in this area, and he told me proudly that he’d now extracted more than 2000 teeth! I hoped that by this time he’d developed more skill in dental anesthesia!
“To see the world in a grain of sand”… so begins William Blake’s famous poem, written hundreds of years ago. What does it mean to see the world in a grain of sand? I think of the hidden beauty that lies within every phenomenon of nature – beauty that we so often miss, in the everyday busyness of our lives. We are stuck in traffic on the highway, yet beyond us is the beauty of the sunset. We may feel irritated by a child who doesn’t follow the rules, yet the miracle of that child’s curiosity may escape us.
The miraculous underlying the mundane – it is everywhere present, but we must look for it. In my years of work as as a doctor in Canada and India, those miraculous moments always bring me the greatest joy. One day last week, I looked into the eyes of a newborn baby, and tried to imagine that child’s future… Who will she love? What pain will she suffer? What dreams will she pursue? Later that day, I sat with an adolescent boy from a troubled background, who was having angry outbursts at school. I perceived the fear behind his anger, and commented on this compassionately. Our eyes met, and the vulnerable child behind the angry young man was suddenly revealed. It was a precious moment of connection, and I knew that he and I had established a relationship.
In my work in India, I experienced those miraculous moments even before I could understand the language. One day, a woman wearing a tattered sari came to the hospital carrying her baby in her arms. I recognized her - my husband Pradeep had treated the child for pneumonia a week earlier. Because the baby had been so ill, my husband asked her to come for a follow-up visit. The baby’s mother approached Pradeep with great hesitation, anxiety etched in every line of her body. Pradeep examined the baby, and then spoke to the mother in a reassuring tone. The woman visibly relaxed, relief flooding her face. As she turned to leave the examining room, our eyes met. We smiled at each other, sharing her joy at the baby’s recovery. It was a moment of communication beyond words, a moment of the miraculous within the mundane.
Blog post #3 Nothing is settled. Everything matters
Here are some fascinating words to reflect upon for the New Year. The piece in italics was written by Robert Walsh.
“Nothing is settled. Everything matters.”
You can’t escape the consequences of your actions or the chances of the world. What is not settled is how the story turns out. What is not settled is what the meaning of your life will be. The meaning of a life is not contained within one act, or one day, or one year...What is done is done, but nothing is settled. And if nothing is settled, then everything matters. Every choice, every act in the new year matters. Every word, every deed is making the meaning of your life and telling the story of the world. Everything matters in the years coming, and more importantly, everything matters today.
In Cloud Messenger, a dramatic turning point comes near the end of the book, when Pradeep and I decide to leave our work in India and move to Canada. I feel deeply disillusioned, and struggle with a sense of meaninglessness. What was my journey to India all about? It seemed as if the narrative of my life had torn apart, and nothing made sense anymore. Yet now, with the perspective of many years, I can see deeper layers of meaning in my life that I had not been able to perceive at that time. I had no idea how the story of my life would evolve at that time. And yet as I grow older, I perceive the richness and mystery of that story in ever greater depth.