Author Archives: Pavithra K. Mehta

Cloud Pillows

“I’m going for a walk up the hill,” she announced nonchalantly. And because we live in a safe neighborhood and I can see the path that runs all the way up the hill from our kitchen window, I nodded at her with a reciprocal degree of nonchalance. My daughter had woken up this morning believing she was old enough now for independent strolls, and had announced this belief over breakfast. She is five years old, and was born knowing her mind.

She slipped into her bright blue flip-flops and reached for the door handle, looking over her shoulder to give me a quick, grave and wordless nod. Such a mature,eloquent gesture it both amused and astonished me. I looked down to hide a smile.“Enjoy the sun,” I said. “And the clouds,” she added, “They look like pillows today. My favorite kind.” “Mine too,” I said quickly. I don’t know where she gets a lot of things from, but this particular fondness of hers comes directly from me. There must be a gene for it. “Enjoy the sun and the cloud pillows,” I say as the door closes softly. She was never a loud child, always careful beyond her years with inanimate objects.

I can see her walking up the hill. Leaning a little forward into the angle of the slope. In her white shorts and red and white striped shirt with the long sleeves she looks like an unseasonable candy cane. Long sleeves because she doesn’t do short sleeves. She told me last summer in all seriousness that her arms were too skinny for short sleeves, that they made her look silly. I am not sure who she gets her sense of fashion from.

There is no one else on the hill today. The path is flanked by tall apartment buildings like ours, and identical tall buildings stand guard at the top of the hill. The hill, the buildings, the sky above – they are so big and in their midst my tall-for-her-age, solitary daughter looks unutterably tiny. And so brave. Every now and then she pauses, flings a glance up at the sky or back over her shoulder. She can’t see me from where she is, and cannot possibly know for certain that I am watching her. And from this distance I can’t read the expression on her face. Sometimes when I watch my daughter – even when she is right next to me, I feel like I’m looking at her through plate glass. I don’t think she tries to be unreachable. But her thoughts often wander places my mind can’t follow, at such times I have no idea where she is thinking.

Suddenly she stands very still, and I sense, the way only a mother can, that
something has happened. Her hands have flown to her face. She kneels on the
pavement and I wonder with some degree of astonishment, if she is praying. I am
not a religious woman and if she is indeed offering her genuflected salutations to her Creator or the Universe it is not a custom she picked up from me.

Now she has risen and is returning down the hill, not running but walking very fast, so fast that I fear she might trip on her own flip-flops. She has not yet mastered the art of simultaneous speed and steadiness. But she doesn’t trip. As she gets closer I can see her face and I can see she has been crying, is in fact still crying. Her hands curled into fists by her side.

I meet her on the sidewalk. She walks straight into my arms, not questioning my presence, nor how I knew to come find her. “What happened?” I ask, holding her close, unsure of what metaphysical realm she may have inadvertently stumbled into. This intuitive, quaint and extraordinary child of mine.

She tilts her head up, tears still leaking out of the corners of her eyes.

“I bit my tongue,” she says sorrowfully.


Sometimes it strikes me as curious. The many, seemingly disparate meanings certain words hold. Words like Swiss Army knives. Small enough to slip in your pocket and capable of unfolding in different ways, depending on whether you need to whittle a piece of birchwood, open a bottle or tighten a screw. This makes them convenient– but also at times when context is unclear– confusing. A Swiss Army knife on a camping trip is easier to understand for instance, than a Swiss Army knife in carry on luggage going through airport security.

Misunderstood Swiss Army knives are typically confiscated. Misunderstood words however, will typically continue to travel through the world unchecked, trailing bafflement, umbrage, heartbreak, hilarity or–fertile possibility in their wake. Unlike a misunderstood Swiss Army knife an imperfectly word can cause happy accidents, advantageous reactions– even poetry. Especially poetry.

Meaning more than one thing means carrying, at all times, the potential to be useful, problematic, poetic, or various combinations of the aforementioned. In some ways this is the precise definition of what it means to be a person.


In the dictionary the word ‘visitation’ has several meanings. Though they do not at first glance appear to be related to one another, they actually are. These meanings brush up against one another in inventive ways.

Visitation (noun)

 “an official visit by an important person especially to look at or inspect something

The appearance of a divine or supernatural being

a time before a dead person is buried when people may view the body

a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath

a severe trial 

access to a child granted especially to a parent who does not have custody

the visit of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth recounted in Luke and celebrated July 2 by a Christian feast”


Yesterday, after sunset, a visitation. Actually, two.

I stepped into our mudroom and startled a little cat sitting at the top of the staircase outside our front door. She darted down the steps. Then stood behind the trumpet vine bush at the base of the staircase, her head peeking around it so that she could still hold my gaze. We stared at each other silently for a few moments, then I called out to my husband to heat up some milk for her. I crouched down at the top of the staircase and began talking to her. Where did you come from sweet one? What do you want? Are you hungry you beauty? I began to walk towards her and she stepped cautiously out from her hiding place. Then rolled on her back and let out a plaintive miaow. A movement so trusting, and endearing it made me smile. If it was a movement calculated to win over hearts, then it was well played. 

When I placed the container of warm milk on the step below me, she stepped up to it on her ballerina paws with no hesitation. Began to drink, pausing every so often to look up at me again as if suddenly transfixed by what she saw. 

We stood at the top of the staircase, in our darkened mudroom watching her. She drank and my heart filled. 

Not long after she had vanished into the night, we looked out and saw a little fawn at the base of the staircase — a startled brown face in lamplight looking up at our startled brown faces in the window.


What if –we are each other’s visitation?


The Private Shirt

The undershirt is the shirt that is not meant to be seen. The undershirt is a private shirt that exists primarily to preserve the outward appearance of the public shirt– the shirt that is worn over the undershirt. The private shirt, the shirt we do not see, is the shirt that does the heavy lifting. The private shirt is the shirt that absorbs the wear and tear of inner life, so that the public shirt, the shirt we do see, does not have to. Because of the shirt that we do not see, the youthful appearance of the shirt that we do see is prolonged, making it significantly harder, if not entirely impossible, to accurately guess the age of the public shirt. In this way the private shirt, the shirt that we do not see, in other words, the undershirt, is not unlike the portrait of Dorian Gray. Though as far as we know no Faustian pacts were involved in its making.

(And yes, it’s true. “Dorian Gray jokes never get old.”)


When we first moved into the studio, now twelve and a half years ago, the studio we would live in for eight and a half years, the first thing I bought was a speckled blue ceramic vase with a round curved rim. My husband viewed it with the automatic suspicion  he accords all things secondhand. But I loved my Goodwill vase from the very beginning.

I’d cleaned our closet before the move. With virtuous aggression (which is my mode of closet-cleaning) I expelled items I did not use or like enough to warrant possession. Feeling generous and efficient I filled several brown paper grocery bags and we had driven to the thrift store at the corner.  I dropped the donation bags off at the door, and walked in. There is something endlessly fascinating to me about secondhand stores, filled as they are with irresistible fragments of lives that are not one’s own. I found it on a bottom shelf in the back: a china blue vase with black speckles. Someone had made this vase with their own hands. It had one-of-a-kind-ness stamped all over it. I loved it without reservation. A little sticker on the bottom said $3.

I carried it to the cash register like a hard earned trophy. If a vase counts as furniture, this was the first piece of furniture we bought for our new place. Even before we had a dining table, or chairs, a bookcase or a lamp, we had a china blue vase for flowers. My husband smiled at my joy. “ It’s nice,” he said, “ Make sure you wash it well – or actually,” he corrected himself as he often did in the early years of our marriage [less so in these later years when we have grown into gleeful ‘bargain buddies’], when asking me to do something domestic, “ I’ll wash it.” And he did. Three times with disinfectant soap.

Our studio fits us the way your mother tongue fits your mouth. Naturally. And in a way that predates thought. It fills me with wonder and dread sometimes — the thought that we were very on the verge of living elsewhere. We had looked at several different places. A little cottage south of us, that sounded so quaint in the ad and in reality was a vaguely depressing structure in the middle of a cement driveway, the only redeeming feature about it, a beautiful redwood tree by the front door (if I could have taken her with me I would have). Then there was a little unit in a building off of a busy throughway, an old man named Merino, who looked like a cobbler or puppeteer from an ancient fishing village, showed us around. It was a creaky and oddly-angled place full of charm and inconvenience. There was the rather bizarre little apartment built above a single family home. The landlord was Persian, motherly and disorganized. The man who’d been renting from her had seashells and skulls all over the place. Also a gas mask that hung from the ceiling of his bedroom that was filled with different kinds of fur. We averted our eyes and left in a hurry. Then there was the one bedroom place embedded in a hive of apartment complexes. It backed up to a hillside, and the rooms overlooked parking garages. There was a pleated wall you could pull out, accordion style to turn one room into two. It was down the road from a beautiful knot of walking trails. For this reason alone we almost took it.

During my husband’s lunch break we sat in the car outside the leasing office. The manager, a lady with dyed blonde hair and a cigarette-scratched voice had told us not to dally because this place was a gem and would be ‘snapped up in no time’. We didn’t get out of the car. Something held us back. We did not love this apartment. Let’s let it go we said, and with nervous conviction, we’ll find a different place. That afternoon I called up the number listed next to an ad for a studio in the hills. The woman who answered the phone said it was only big enough for one person. Oh, I said, I’m looking for a place for two people, but thank you. And I put down the phone. A few minutes later she called back — “Who’s the second person?” she asked. “My husband.” “Well in that case it might work,” she said, “if you like each other.” We made an appointment to see it that evening.

It was winter, and already dark by the time we drove up, passing as we did, a curious structure at the intersection. A little round tower complete with a pointy shingled roof, and a curved blue door. We didn’t know then, that this unmistakable landmark would become an integral part of the directions we would send all our future guests. “Look for a little lost tower that looks like it wandered out of a fairytale…and turn left there.”

When we pulled up to the house, one of the landlords was sweeping leaves on one of the driveways. He is pleasant-faced, crinkly-eyed and full of a deep affection for this building he now owns a third of (after the sudden demise of a fourth partner).

How to describe the house as it was then? An old, massive whitewashed Spanish style home perched on the edge of the hill. It is the second oldest house in this small town, where Jack London once had a summer job at the laundromat down the street. Built by an eccentric millionaire as a summer home, it was later converted into a series of smaller units. As a result it now has three different driveways carved into three different levels of the hill.

There are two wooden decks — the lower one half-heartedly cordoned off adjacent to a three car carport, past which there is an open door way, that leads to a glass door. We alk through and are standing in a corridor. There are two tall potted plants along the walls. Three glass paned doors with full length burgundy curtains behind the glass. The landlord stops in front of the second one, turns the knob and walks in. We follow and are immediately in another narrow hallway at the end of which is an arched open doorway, and beyond that I see a room at the far end of which are two windows side by side. I quickly make my way to the windows and look out over a glorious expanse of the hills by night, dotted with flickering lights. My breath catches. “This is it,” I say to my husband, urgently, fervently. “Shhh,” he says with a smile and a warning lift of his eyebrows. Many times over the years he will replay this moment for dinner guests who are charmed by the simplicity and beauty of our small space with its big view, “Shhhh,” I said to her, “Don’t ruin my bargaining advantage!” I always smile as he tells this story. Because he is not, as this story makes him out to be, the world’s best bargainer. He is far too soft-hearted and generous for that. But I have let him tell the story his way for so long now that to edit it at this stage would almost seem like a lie.

He needed no convincing that this was our home — it was settled the instant he was shown the curious raised room that is a cross between a cupboard and a coat closet in the hallway — you have to hoist yourself into it. A carpeted space tall enough to stand up in — and large enough for two people sit cross-legged in together. “Our meditation cell,” he whispered.

Technically this is not a studio because it has a separate kitchen. It is joined to the main room by way of a very short corridor on one side of which is the door to the small and perfect bathroom, it’s window too overlooks the hills. We are high up enough and half hidden by trees such that curtains are unnecessary. As we look out there is no one to look in. The shower stall gleams, there are recessed lights and above the mirror three bright bulbs. The kitchen makes me want to whirl around and dance. It is unexpectedly capacious and has been newly remodeled. Honey colored cabinets, granite countertops, a wide, deep stainless steel sink and a window, that like every other window in this beautiful home, looks out over the hills. I am in love. So much that it hurts a little. I can see us living here in this cozy space that is tinier than any home any one in my family or my husband’s lives in. I can see us living here so clearly that it feels like we already do. Is it possible that places can find people?

Through the window we can see the graceful white dome of the Greek Orthodox Church at the bottom of the hill. When the bells begin to peal, turning the moment sonorous, holy, I take it as a sign. The heavens have spoken. This will be our home. The next morning we signed the lease. That afternoon I bought a speckled china blue vase.


St. Kevin and the Blackbird 

by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.


How achingly lovely is this poem? It’s based on an Irish legend nearly 1000 years old, that Heaney retells to perfection. The vivid imagery of the first section holds you hostage. You are captive in the cramped cell of this verse with its kneeling saint, its window and that single upturned palm. Then the arrival of the bird! Hard to read these lines and keep your hands from tingling. Such a precise description, that for a moment, it is the reader’s hand that holds the nesting bird. And it is the reader who has, with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a magnificent phrase].  And then the birth of that breathtakingly generous commitment so quietly announced. “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” A softly stunning line that requires a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement then, of that starry asterisk. A beat, in which to find the ground again.

And how masterfully the storyteller shifts the tone directly after. Lifting the curtain to tease out the truth that lurks beneath the mythical. Introducing the paradox of seeking out the real in the realm of the imagination. We must try to put ourselves in the skin of the saint. And doing this, are shown a fork in the road — does our inhabitation of the holy introduce our rickety mortality to the saint, or does it elevate us into his transcendent experience? Heaney gives us both possibilities to live. And how. He gives us the sore forearms and the suffering knees. He gives us too the numb lostness –the creep of the underearth. And we, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollows of our palms, we can extrapolate. We know what it is to have pins-and-needles. “Is there distance in his head?” And again the poem makes a beautifully abrupt turn. From the physical to the metaphysical.

A question that places distance like an object as a possibility in someone’s head. And the beauty of it is that we know instinctively what that means. To feel an inner expanse that is not an attenuation [Remember St Augustine’s claim: time is the distension of the mind.] The spaciousness that does not stretch, that is one with timelessness and that can sometimes be stumbled into. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and being no saint he concluded the sentiment with “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” But Kevin’s dreams are unclouded. His heart mirrored undistorted in the river. His prayer untainted and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” An aspiration that mirrors the pith of the Gita:”You are entitled to your labor, not to the fruit of your labor.” An aspiration that issues forth not from mind or lips but from the entirety of his being– and then those lovely, lovely last lines:

“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”

And we, standing again in the skin of our own lives, full of mistakes and memories and self, we know, as the poet relies on us to know, what St. Kevin does not. That the river’s name, of course, is Love.


Heaney reading St. Kevin at the offices of his publishers, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

“[This poem is] based on a sense of doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. And I think that a literary publishing house which continues to hold those values is in that domain of a self belief and faith and chosen values opted for and stood by. Publishing is to some extent still, and to a great extent here I think, a labor of love, and a matter of work for the right reason, and–even if you aren’t going to get any great monetary reward–to keep going.”



There is a very small hole in my husband’s gray pants. We noticed it a couple weeks ago when it came back from the dry cleaner’s. Not to imply that the dry cleaners are responsible for it, though they well may be. But just that that is when the hole first came to our attention. It is the size of a new crayon tip, and located in the region of the left pocket. Because it is in the locality of the pocket, it is not an empty space one glimpses through the hole but the whiteness of the white silk pocket lining. A small dot of white on an otherwise gray pair of pants. It is not very noticeable unless you already know it is there, in which case it is impossible not to notice it. We forgot about it until, this morning my husband put on the pair of pants and discovered the hole anew. “Why don’t we color it in?” I suggest. This proposal has all the sophistication of a first-grader. He is game to try it. I find a gray pen and begin to color in the hole, but my efforts do not go very far. The cloth does not take the ink. I pull out a black calligraphy pen then, working under the dubious premise that a black dot on a gray pair of pants is somehow less egregious than a white one. But even the stubborn ink of the calligraphy pen leaves little mark on our little white spot. It is bright as a tiny moon and just as persistent. I could try and sew over it with gray thread I say doubtfully. My mother is, but I am not, an accomplished seamstress. I don’t think that will work says my husband, who in most cases thinks I can do anything. But even his generous imagination falls short in this instance.

The Auntie Effect

Siya had decided it was time to break the news to the aunties. They arrived every day promptly at 3pm, expecting her coffee and company. There was one in every size. Large, medium and small. The shortest aunt was the oldest, and the tallest aunt the youngest. Siya found this counter-intuitive. Technically they weren’t even her aunts. They were Minna’s. Minna who had recently up and packed her bags and moved to India to volunteer in a desert village where she didn’t speak the language, but was somehow helping women artisans adapt their product designs for a contemporary marketplace. 

Siya glanced over at the fridge where Minna’s latest postcard was displayed. A red quilt embroidered with intricate white snowflakes and studded with tiny silver mirrors. “We’re in Bloomingdale’s just in time for Christmas sales!” she’d scrawled on the back, “Can’t wait for you to meet the wonder women I work with. I don’t know when they sleep (or when their husband’s work). They are TOO sweet (and so is their chai). Come. SOOOOOON!”

Minna was like a heroine out a storybook. An orphan raised by a pack of aunts. A willful, quick-tongued child who’d grown into a spirited, bewitching young woman. The first time they’d met, Minna had pulled Siya’s braid. Hard. Siya’s eyes had filled with tears, but she did not cry out. Instead she bit her lip and looked at the ground. Minna dropped the braid and offered Siya a half eaten chocolate and her lifelong protection. For some reason they’d been inseparable ever since. Or had been until Minna left for India. Now it was just Siya and the aunts 

Minna had known how to handle them. Like a clever sheepdog she herded them away from treacherous subjects, (Marriage. Babies.) kept them busy in the green pastures of benign conversation. She knew how to get them arguing over the secret ingredient in their great-grandmother’s famed pumpkin curry, or recalling the day their school flooded and the teacher simply stood on his desk and continued class, or remembering the 104-year-old tailor in their village who could size a person perfectly with one glance, who declared measuring tapes, were for amateurs, and who exacted revenge on snide customers by stitching their blouses just a tad too tight. Not so tight that it warranted complaint, just tight enough for them to be in a perpetual state of vague discomfort. 

But Siya has no talent for shepherding, so now with Minna gone, the aunties are out of control. They’d broken out of the corral days ago and there was no turning them around. 

“Siya what do you think of this fellow? We think he’s perfect.” said Auntie #1 waving a photograph under Siya’s nose. The sixth photograph in the last week. Each one of a different fellow who was believed to be “perfect”. “Siya don’t you think Minna would make a wonderful mother?” said Auntie # 2, “She has so much extra energy, mothering would be perfect for her! See how well it suits you?” “Siya when you talk to Minna tell her it’s high time she gave a serious thought to her future,” said Auntie #3, “She can save the world after she’s settled down. First things first no?”

“It’s not that I don’t like being married to you,” Siya said to her husband as he dried the dinner dishes, “But somehow spending time with the aunties makes me feel like going off and doing something terribly scandalous.” “The Auntie Effect,” said her husband gravely, “I should ban them from the house.” “As if you ever would,” she scoffed, “You egg them on.” And he did. Terribly. He adored the aunties and the home cooked delicacies they brought with them. “It’s not fair,” she once told him, “The more you eat the more they love you. The rest of us with normal person appetites just can’t compete.” It was not uncommon for the aunties to come for tea and stay past dinner time. Siya would come back from putting the baby to bed and find one of the aunties hovering over the stove, another chopping onions like her life depended on it, and the third rummaging through the fridge looking for green chilis.They were far better acquainted with Siya’s kitchen than she was. Last week the three of them had rearranged all her shelves and drawers. Siya still wasn’t sure where the can opener was in this new configuration, or any of the dessert bowls. “Have you told them yet?” her husband asked as they were turning back the covers that night. “Tomorrow,” said Siya. “You said that yesterday,” her husband reminded her. “Don’t nag,” she responded, “I’ll tell them tomorrow.”

The next afternoon as soon as she opened the door she said, all in one breath, “I need to tell you something.” The aunties exchanged silent, worried glances, and proceeded to sit down on the living room sofa one next to the other in descending height order. An arrangement which temporarily distracted Siya from the news she was about to share and made her wish she could take a picture of them on her phone to send to Minna. 

“Are you getting divorced?” asked Auntie #3, her eyebrows knitted together in a fierce scowl. “No of course not Auntie!” said Siya, shocked and a little offended at the very idea. “Everybody seems to be getting divorced these days,” said Auntie #2. “Like it’s some kind of new fashion,” tacked on Auntie #3, who was fond of calling everything she didn’t like about modern society, “some kind of new fashion.”. “Minna isn’t coming home for Christmas” said Siya quietly. There was a brief silence in the room, interrupted only by the baby’s quiet babbles from the corner of the floor where she lay on her blanket happily unaware of the unwelcome news that had just been shared.

Then the aunties began speaking all at once, “Why not? What happened? Does she need money? Is she hurt? Is she in love? ? Is someone blackmailing her? Should we go bring her home? Should we call the police?” “She loves living in India,” said Siya with a little shrug and a smile, “She’s thinking of staying permanently.” “In the middle of the desert? Where there’s no airport? Or family? How could she possibly want that?” Again a chorus of confused questions rose in the air, “Doesn’t she miss us? Is she mad at us? What did we do?” “Nothing — you did nothing wrong, and everything right! She loves you so much and she misses you. She wants you to come visit her in the second week of January, on the day of the big festival.” Auntie #3 narrowed her eyes in suspicion, “Why didn’t she tell us all this herself? Is she hiding something? She knows we always can tell when she’s hiding something.” “She wasn’t sure how you’d take the news. She knows how attached you all are to her, she was just nervous about it that’s all,” said Siya in her best soothing voice, “You know how she hates making anyone feel bad.” “Then she should have just come home for Christmas like she’d planned,” grumbled Auntie #1, “None of us have been to India in over three decades, not since — “ She trailed into silence. Not since the day that Minna’s parents had been killed in an accident. The three aunts — her mother’s older sisters, had bought their plane tickets and boarded their flight that very night. And they’d never looked back at the lives they’d left behind. Minna suspected at least two of them had left husbands behind. A fact they all vigorously denied.  We were meant to be spinsters they said. We were meant to be together to take care of you.

She was their golden child. A three-year-old spitfire when they first came into her life. She’d refused to love them for the first year they were with her, afraid that if she did they too might disappear on her one day. Then one day she’d crawled into Auntie #1’s lap and fallen asleep holding Auntie #2’s sleeve in one hand, and Auntie #3’s sleeve in the other. She never let a day go by without seeing all of them. Even in India she Skyped with them every day. 

Siya and her husband had been tasked with teaching the aunties how to Skype. That’s how the 3pm visits had originated. It was meant to be one tutorial on one afternoon. But the aunties had learned nothing that first day. Instead they’d fussed over the baby and folded all the laundry, and briskly hemmed the ends of the living room curtains (which Siya had meant to leave fashionably trailing). At the end of the first week they’d learned the basics of Skype, but they continued to show up at 3pm each afternoon with no indication of ever stopping.  And now Minna was calling them back to the country that was once but no longer their home. 

“You’ll have to come with us,” said Auntie #2 looking directly at Siya. “You and the baby. We can’t convince her on our own.” “Convince her of what?” “Of the utter foolishness of her plan.” Siya opened her mouth to say something and then stopped, the aunties were planning to make the trip. Minna had thought they would need a lot more persuading. But here they were negotiating the terms of travel. “I’ll come with you,” she said, surprising herself, and later that evening her husband, who had not seen this coming. “Why are you going with them again?” “Because I feel implicated,” she responded. “And the baby?” “She’ll help keep me sane while I’m away and in the midst of Minna and her family’s madness.” “Alright but don’t get it in your head to move there,” said her husband, “You have to come back and find our dessert bowls. Or I’ll be eating ice cream straight out of the carton the whole time you’re away.”

I Miss You

For V (with gratitude and apologies to Billy Collins), 2005


You are the rice and the bowl

The brass lamp and the prayer


You are the distant sound of temple bells at dusk

And the elephant’s trunk poised in blessing above a child’s head

You are the wholesome fragrance of thulsi in the garlandmaker’s basket

And the wise old banyan tree where the birds rest their songs.


However you are not the droplet that sleeps on the lotus leaf in the

middle of the pond

The potter’s wheel or the stray notes in Krishna’s flute

And you are certainly not the cry of the milkman in the morning

There is just no way that you are the cry of the milkman in the morning.


It is possible that you are the splash of the bucket lowered into the well

Maybe even the custard apples on the bough

But you are not even close to being the red banana flower


And a quick look in the mirror will show

That you are neither the saltspraysting of the sea

Nor the hurling grace of the fisherman’s net.


It might interest you to know,

Speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

That I am the sound of crickets at sundown.

I also happen to be the shooting star,

The umbrella turned inside out by the wind

And the silk woven mat on the floor


I am also the sway of the coconut palm

And the longing of the red earth for rain

But don’t worry, I’m not the rice and the bowl

You are still the rice and the bowl

Not to mention the brass lamp and — somehow —  the prayer.


Ten years and more later…

My husband is not a sentimental person. He has a box of old letters, photographs and miscellaneous keepsakes saved more by benign neglect than emotional attachment. He is as likely to ever want to look through it as he is to want to go salsa dancing on a Friday night. Which is to say– very, very unlikely. As far as I can tell, he is immune to nostalgia. This affords him a kind of peace that I sometimes envy. While I am far less sentimental than I once was, I’m still prey to occasional bouts of nostalgia that fell me like the flu.


“I miss you.” Three words that I’ve said so often to V over the years, and his response has always been the same: “But I’m right here.” And he always is. I have never known quite how to explain this quality of missing. The piercing sense of the absence of a thing that surfaces bewilderingly and most keenly in the full-blown presence of that thing. It is a subtle, gnawing, uncomfortable sensation. Like an itch that’s impossible to scratch because it is impossible to locate. A distance impossible to bridge because it isn’t located in space. But you feel it. You know you feel it.  In an unguarded moment this feeling can bring you to tears. In moments when you are better defended you laugh it off.

Life is a strange animal. And animals get hungry. And it is hunger that gives us the potential for tragedy, comedy. Hunger that gives us the potential for metamorphosis, and evolution. 

Hunger is an animating force. Perhaps the animating force of this world. And it is fundamentally defined by the sensation of lack, and its identical twin, the sensation of longing.


“It’s funny,” says my husband, “But these days I get hungry while I’m eating.” I look up at him across the dining table and we burst out laughing, because it’s a ridiculous statement and yet it makes perfect sense. It is not long after the ER visit. V at this time had spent two weeks on a strict diet of fruit, rice and boiled vegetables. No spices, no sugar, no gluten, no dairy and very little salt. “I’m eating plenty,” he says, “But there’s this entire compartment in my stomach that stays permanently empty.” He is smiling as he says this, his eyes full of merriment and not a trace of self-pity. V has always enjoyed variety in his food, but he has no trouble accepting, with monk-like contentment, whatever happens to be served on his plate, literally and metaphorically.

I think again, what I’ve thought many times over the years: This person whom I live my days side-by-side with, is no ordinary being.


From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

hunger (n.)

Old English hunger, hungor “unease or pain caused by lack of food, debility from lack of food” from Proto-Germanic *hungraz(source also of Old Frisian hunger, Old Saxon hungar, Old High German hungar, Old Norse hungr, German hunger, Dutch honger, Gothic huhrus), probably from PIE root *kenk- (2) “to suffer hunger or thirst” (source also of Sanskrit kakate “to thirst;” Lithuanian kanka “pain, ache; torment, affliction;” Greek kagkanos “dry,” polykagkes “drying”). From c. 1200 as “a strong or eager desire” (originally spiritual).

appetite (n)

  1. 1300, “craving for food,” from Anglo-French appetit, Old French apetit “appetite, desire, eagerness” (13c., Modern French appétit), from Latin appetitus “appetite, longing,” literally “desire toward,” from appetitus, past participle of appetere “to long for, desire; strive for, grasp at,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + petere “go to, seek out,” from PIE root *pet- “to rush, to fly.”


“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.”

This is what it distills down to. 

“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.” 

Just so you know — this is the only conversation we are having. And by we I mean me. I mean you. I mean almost anybody. Almost everybody. This is the only conversation we have ever had (no matter how much it seems otherwise, it’s all just variations on the theme), with each other, with ourselves, with our God/s, with our time, with our reality. 

“I miss you.” 

“But I’m right here.” 

The compartment in your stomach that cannot be filled. The itch that cannot be located.

The hunger we carry like a koan (that is our privilege to carry like a koan)–

Until we don’t.

[End of conversation.]

When Were You Most Happy?

Journal and letter excerpts from early 2005
I am part of a small team that is working with 11 women from rural Andhra Pradesh who were selected to undergo a one-month training program. Their ages range from 22 to 49. Most are in their mid-twenties. Ten of the eleven were all married before the age of fifteen.

Over the last week we have taught them the basics of how to plan and shoot for a basic news program. The idea is for these women to bring out a monthly video series that will be screened across all the villages in the district through the existing government network. Each month’s program will have a special theme and will be broken up into different segments (song/drama/short documentary/health tips/people’s opinions etc). The women will select themes that they feel are important and relevant to their communities and will then decide what kind of action they’d like to bring about in their villages through
their program.

This month the theme they’ve decided to tackle is child marriage. Much to share about different aspects of the training and the other people we are working with to make it happen, the translators and technical support staff, the children from the orphanage/school next door who climb up the walls and throw fistfuls of roses through the windows while we’re teaching, R– the woman who serves us tea whose husband told her to sit in on our classes so she could learn how to use the camera too. N, our driver who now knows the difference between a long shot, close shot, a pan and tilt-up…


The Deccan is full of rocks. They are grey and harsh. There is no water in the reservoir. Even the greens in this landscape are grey. Or is it just my mood?


We are in a government office. Tea and the stench of too many cigarettes in the air. Someday I will stop being polite and say something.


Training office in the middle of nowhere. The women with their shy smiles, giggle fits, glass bangles. They are so young in years and so old in life. Married at 13, 14, 15. Two children or three. Husbands who desert them, in-laws who do not help. That they are here with such joy, pride and enthusiasm shining in their eyes…their individual stories so inspiring. I have been talking about the power of stories to change the world—these women have been living it. “Reporters.” I love the way they say the word. They wear it like a badge of honor.


Such a late night but I am awake early. The same emptiness rolls into wakefulness beside me. I am growing accustomed to, if not particularly fond of it. I walk into a dark explosion of birdsong. Tea in a warm mug sitting on a cool slab. Emotion says Tolle (Eckhart) is the meeting point of body and mind. In the middle of the morning I realize in a random moment how blessed I am. And for that short space the emptiness curls around me with the comfort of a hug.


Today was a little hard. N wasn’t here. Or M or Y. And the cameras aren’t here either. I can deal with all of this. The part that gets to me sometimes is that I’m not here. There is a tree outside the window, tall, wide-branched, leafy. It makes me feel better at different points during the day. At night I fall asleep. Dreamless. Deep.


Absolutely Clear

Don’t surrender your loneliness 
So quickly. 
Let it cut more deep. 

Let it ferment and season you 
As few human 
Or even divine ingredients can. 

Something missing in my heart tonight 
Has made my eyes so soft, 
My voice 
So tender, 

My need of God 



Found Hafiz in the weeks before Hyderabad and wondered where he’d been
hiding so long…he says such simple straight from the heart things…

But back to the opening theme of loneliness for which the outskirts of Hyderabad are the perfect backdrop. Uncompromising stretches of rocky red hills, unlikely ballerina boulders balancing impossibly on tiptoe one on top of another, one breath of wind and it seems like they would all rumbleroar towards the vast emptiness of the Deccan plateau- there can be such a deathdreariness to this landscape- the dry reservoir bed where white cranes flock by the hundreds, dotted with the thorny ‘mad acacia’- that bramblebush tree, that steals everything from the soil, that unwelcome invader that has taken over so much of the Indian
countryside (as a child every time I saw the army of it from a train window unaccountably I would feel the urge to cry). Even the greens in this landscape are grey-tinged. No comforting hint of lushness anywhere. In the far distance the ghostly, imposing silhouette of Golconda Fort. Its wide walls, high towers, secret tunnels reminding you of cold-blooded conspiracy, and an age riddled with fear, hatred and war. A harsh, heated landscape drawn with hard lines. It does not
pretend to be friendly or charming. Its hostility can hurt a little if you let it. And I let it. Not very long or very much, and I still can’t quite comprehend why it happened the way it did…but I got there and within half a day felt such a sinking in my soul that it surprised me deeply. […]

To feel so confused was-confusing. All of a sudden I couldn’t understand beyond a very surface level what I was doing here in this whole other state with these whole Other people. And I was suddenly homesick not for home but for- of all places- the quiet courtyard of the meditation center in Madras, where you walk one foot-in-front-of-the-other, try not to step on ants and hold a special kind of stillness in both hands. It has been so long since I have felt this kind of—uprooting– this sense of bewilderment at my surroundings, this kind of desolation– and with so little reason too!

We are staying in a government hostel in the midst of a rambling ramshackle government compound full of faded buildings, long, grey tree-lined walkways and a funny little dining room staffed by ten cheerfully incompetent boys who all looked about fifteen years old and who were always bringing you flasks of soverysweet tea. I remember walking up the stairs to the terrace of our building thinking- I really need to find some small space to sit in- and I remember the relief of reaching the top and finding a beautiful place up there between the water tank and the pipes and the dried fallen leaves from the neem trees all around. And I could see the sun from there struggling palely to extricate itself from gently clinging branches. And suddenly things were tugged-in-the-direction-of (if not pulled completely into) perspective. So each morning of most of my time here this is where I’d go before the day ‘officially’ began. My space for yoga, sitting- and reading (finally) The Power of Now […]

And while this was happening to encounter the spirit of a dozen young women each with a story of such humble courage, each with such a strong presence of love and burning enthusiasm […] So much learned about so much in those weeks. G knows rural India with a difficult, hard earned intimacy that made me so often remember something you said in Pondicherry to N (and which made me smile and think– here is the only person I know in the world who could and would manage to work a sentiment like that into ordinary after dinner cafe conversation and not sound pretentious). You said: I don’t care to see things in a positive way. I care to see them in a real way.

I think I have always believed that the real is positive– or at least– not negative. But I can see how naive idealism can blindfold. And how you have to wholly accept the painful, ugly, and sordid before you can comprehend the essence of beauty, of love, at the core of all things…not something I have been called on very often to do–surrounded as I am with such wholesomeness so much of the time…which is why times like this one are a test.

One of the most valuable things about being away was what it showed me about the hidden biases in my own heart, the subtle setting apart that sometimes happens in situations like this…and then the pointing of a precise finger at all the areas where work (and much of it) remains to be done within…when you see mud in the world it is because there is mud inside you said a wise woman once…so this then was my moment of mudgazing…

To touch with inward compassion certain kinds of unwholesomenesses that cross my path does not always come easy to me. I cringe or run or sink into unhappy desolation effectively cutting myself off from any kind of comprehension and clarity. But this time was so different. To learn the history of pain and degradation of some of these women, to witness the dignity and grace with which they have salvaged their stories. To see the reflection of one person’s story in another and another…to feel and sense the causeless gratitude surrounding and leaning on my own presence there, to see how we each connected to the other with an intricate logic beyond explanation, to understand in a dim, glad, unarticulated way why we were all inhabitants of this particular time and space…Then somehow each day began to unfold itself with the mysterious perfection of a flower blooming. Each moment its own wordless fulfilled reason for being.

The first day and a half spent (on an internal level) focused on a fierce awareness of being not so much alone as only. A concentration on everything that was missing. When you are staring so hard and so selfishly at what is absent it is very hard to be present. And on the happy flip side of that– the more present you are the harder it is to feel absence. Not sure if that makes as much sense in words as it does inside. But oh well. The point is that the transformation when it happens is so slight and so tremendous. And suddenly yesterday’s dreary drive down the gray landscape of onliness turns into one of breathtaking beauty and fullness…I almost could not believe the unsummoned sense of loveliness that came and settled in the same places that had first filled me with such a dramatic sense of darkness…This is such a truly beautiful place- with gray blue sky brick red earth olive green trees with explosive magenta interruptions of bougainvillea trees, an orange insolence of flame-of-the-forest defying the austere tri-color palette of the rest. Something enduring and solid and heroic about this terrain– like the face of a very old person.

Opened my eyes in the middle of meditation one morning and found a squirrel a whisper away from me. He was drinking from a small pool of spilt water on the ground. So close I could see the glugglug in his throat, could feel with sharp intensity his throbbing, bright-eyed aliveness. When our eyes met, mine held more apprehension. His were unconcerned. In inexplicable moments like that maybe is where the quest ends. For reasons. For purpose. For meaning.

And none of this even begins to touch upon the details of what we were doing and what we did there. But no matter- all this is just to say (in my usual incredibly convoluted way) something very ordinary– reading Tolle on the roof one morning I crossed a line where he is pointing out that the role of relationships is not tied to making us happy but to making us more conscious. And I was filled with such deep peace hearing the truth in that– and acknowledging it to be in accord with my own experience… seemed like Tolle was just rephrasing Hafiz with simple prose in place of wildflower poetry…and everything at least for the moment was–

Absolutely Clear.


Dhyanam? Says M. They want to sit in silence awhile this morning. I had them start the workshop this way yesterday. It surprises me—the sweet sincerity with which they ask to continue the practice. They sit in cross-legged concentration. Hands folded, eyes closed. Their simple good-heartedness makes them glow a little in this clear morning light.


Little Ruki who is so shy and sweet shows me the scratch on her finger from the thorns on the rose she plucked for me.


In 7 of their 10 villages people of certain castes are not allowed into the main temple.

L says it’s because they steal coconuts from the priest. ID says its because they are not clean and never bathe. PD speaks up then unexpectedly, asks a question in a voice that is quiet but firm: If the body is clean and the heart impure what reward will that prayer have?


L’s dead-on imitations of all the other women, and each of the facilitators. When she’s imitating me she sits the way I did most of this morning. One knee bent at right angles to the floor, the other tucked under me. All odd angles. My chin on the bent knee, my half-smile. She does all of this to perfection. Nailing my expressions, my posture with rib-tickling perfection. Such a sharp eye for caricature this slender girl has. With her snapping vitality, sharp features and quick smile—she has the group rolling with laughter. At the end of her impromptu performance she says, I have so many difficulties—but being able to make all of you laugh like this makes me feel better.


Today we bring out the cameras. Such excitement in the air. It hits me again, the incredibly arresting power of moving pictures. And to see these girl-women with their silver anklets and work-roughened hands, to see them step behind the tripod trembling a little with the thrill of it all, to see them squinting with comical eyepiece, to see their expressions of intense concentration, apprehension, delight is – Beautiful.


When I walk in this morning a murmuripple of approval runs through the room. My green and white cotton handloom sari they like. My unruly hair not so much. M has me sit down and combs it with her fingers, braids it and twists it into a knot under P’s supervision. Someone brings out hairpins and a rose. When she is done everyone is happy.


N, the driver is a sweetheart. A gruff, broad shouldered, bearded man with lovely eyes and an air of warm, straight-forward capability. The women receive phone calls from their homes on his mobile, and yesterday he bought a small bag of mango-flavored candies for all of us.


We are feeling the uniqueness of this space, and the need to spend more non-classroom time with the women. We decide to stay overnight with them at the training center the next day.


It takes a few days for them to stop calling us Madam and Sir. At first they are very resistant to using just our names. But we insist. Then later on they turn to blackmail. Madam if you dance for us then we will call you Pavithra.


In the evening they drag me in to dance. Rollicking Telegu film music. Nothing to do but tuck the end of my sari in at the waist and get to it. They won’t let me stop until the tape hits the end. They want to know where I learned those moves – I think it’s funny that they think I’m good when I’m this bad.


D forty-something invites me to spin with her in a corner of the room. L rushes to get the camera, we cross our arms and take hold of each others’ hands, then turn, turn and turn together. A girlish game that they still play and why would you want to stop them? Let them even at this late date inhabit moments of the girlhood snatched away from them so soon.


Handclapping games. I teach three of the women. And the next day they all know how it goes.


That night I ask V what moment in her life does she remember being happiest in. She says after a reflective pause, and with a matter-of-factness that saddens me, Mada—Pavithra–there is no happiness in my life now…but when I was a child I used to play kabadi. That was the happiest time. Then when I was 13 I got married and my childhood and happiness ended there.


It is Sunday and in the evening “Ice-Cream Uncle” cycles up to the front gate. All the children are waving sticks of coldsweetdelight. S runs up to give one to me—I am so reluctant to rob her of it, but know I have to. I take a bite and the whole crowd of children laughs, claps and cheers—such a gleeful generosity theirs. S comes out and buys up the whole cart for them.


M’s horrific story. Some things are beyond imagination. I look at her calm, impassive face, her sturdy manner, and wonder at the cost of her composure.


Sitting on the steps of the school. A sudden shower of rose petals over me. They do so much these young ones to try and make me feel special. Being the recipient of such grand, unwarranted gestures makes me feel spectacularly silly. They make me laugh and want to hug them all.


R has a pouting girlishness about her, a harmlessly flirtatious femininity that lends her an air of coquettish confidence. She loves dancing. So does her 9-year-old daughter. There is no television, radio or cassette player in their home. The only time they can listen to music is when the temple plays songs over the loudspeaker. They live near the temple, and at the first beat of music everyone in the house stops to dance. R says sometimes her daughter will come into the kitchen while R is chopping vegetables and, to the beat of the chopchopchop—she’ll dance.


I am refastening the clip in my hair. One of the children darts forward and then exclaims—Shampoo! In the next half second there are 20 kids sniffing my hair, shouting out lout and gleeful—Shampoo!


Today N, S, and R from the orphanage school climb up the wall of the classroom and throw fistfuls of pink roses through the window while I’m teaching. What to do with these adorable angels?


Green parrot screeches on the top branches of a gently swaying tree before flying away. What a world of wonders…


The stories that spill and splash on the flower, running with blood and tears. There is such an outpour that it stuns you –the commonplaceness with which the outrageous can occur.


Kadha Kadhu Nijam.

Stories of abuse, murder, attempted rape, stories of suicide, adultery. Sordid stories. Chilling, stomach-turning, insides-churning stories. You want so much to believe these stories are not true. But they are and you realize what a complex animal man is. How much inhuman-ness there is in human nature.

How much compassion do we need for this to change?


Today we sent them out on a Vox pop assignment. To ask the people two things:

  1. What’s the right age for a girl to get married?
  2. What can we do to stop child marriages from happening?

To see the bunch of them—with their bangles and toe-rings, the kumkum on their foreheads, holding cameras, microphones, tripods, headsets, setting out with these undreamt of tools of technology to question the very systems that played them false—these once-upon-a-time child-brides who have suffered so much for so long, standing up now and daring to look for different answers.


They are so funny, each time we send them out to shoot they insist on shaking hands all around, gathering good luck and good wishes like schoolchildren setting out for the board exams.


The schoolchildren here have all learned it by heart – that ridiculous song that I don’t even remember learning and feel like I’ve known forever. It has been such a hit with this group. There is something very catchy in its nonsensical lyrics. They sing it now in hushed gigglesome whispers when I walk by, hoping I will pick up their cue. When I do, the clouds lift a little as their voices hit the sky.


ID who has wide, wide eyes three girls and very callused hands. She was married at 11, delivered her first child at 12 or 13. So much girlishness in her manner. How is it again that she is the mother of 3? She seems the happiest of all the women here. When she talks of her husband her face lights up. He takes such good care of me she says with her shy giggle. What makes her happiest? The question stumps her as it does most of these women. “My life is my home, my children, and husband,” she says. Happiness as a concept has no space here. Who does she admire and look up to for inspiration? “The women who go to work in offices. If I’d studied I too could go places here and there,” she says wistfully. What do you do when you’re sad? “Sit quietly.” When you’re angry? “I don’t get angry. I’m too small to get angry.”


CK’s epic story involving the Chocolat-style Mother-Daughter duo, the radical Naxalite who fell off the terrace, the swindling, illegitimate child –“Watch out for the O.Henry/Roald Dahl twist at the end says S—and it comes sure enough, leaving me gaping like a goldfish.


J’s home in CK set on the edge of the village where all those of her caste live. She does not seem to resent this clear geographical discrimination. The house is charming. Entire tree branches for beams, a high ceiling, mud and tiles and thatch. Water in a silver chembu. A small square open courtyard in the center, with a tap for washing feet perhaps.


ID giggling uncontrollably as she remembers a time when she and her husband lived in a one-room hut with a leaky thatch roof. When it rained water would come pouring in and she would begin to cry because they were so poor and lived so miserably. Her husband to cheer her up would spring into action and place steel tumblers underneath each leak and say to her merrily, “See what a beautiful home we have ID? Is there anyone else with such a special house? And I made it all for you!” Thinking of that young husband putting a tender, humorous, brave face on their poverty makes my heart swell with gratitude. When I cry he makes me laugh she says. He has never felt badly that they we have three daughters and no sons. It’s only me that wishes sometimes that we had a boy. He is so proud of our daughters and has such big plans for them. This one will be an IAS officer, that one will become the Collector…” Again she trails into happy laughter. He insists that the whole family eat together, the daughters, his wife, sometimes he’ll drag his mother in from next door to join them. This young agricultural laborer born into a life of poverty, struggle, injustice and pain—how did he develop these qualities of light and love?


All of them with silver anklets, silver toe-rings. So much about their persons that sings—inspite of their sadness.


Babul trees, black lace against an evening sky.


L’s father performing Shiva puja. The intricate rituals and arcane hand gestures, and the little white flower he tucks behind one ear at the end. Red earth paste smeared on the ground outside the front door, decorated with white ash, vermilion and sandalwood. The bathing corner behind a wall in the kitchen of her house, barely big enough to stand in, and that is where they wash.


Walking down the village streets with V –curious neighbors enquire loudly of her, “Who’s she?” No break in stride as she tosses back over her shoulder, “Ma Akka.” (My older sister.)


L is 25, a slender, sharp-featured girl with a quick wit and lively intelligence. She was married at 14 to an abusive alcoholic from a neighboring village. Her beautiful two and a half year old son A is the sole streak of sunshine in her existence. “I can forget all my troubles Pavi, just thinking about him”. She left her husband after the birth of her son because she could not bear the thought of him growing up around such a father. When she was six months with child, her husband came home drunk one night. She craving something sweet had asked him for food. He forced her to eat out of the toilet. This story would keep coming back to me over the days as I’d look over at L’s face during our classes, its varying expressions of laughter, sadness, girlish wistfulness, hope, affection and sometimes deep despair. Horrifyingly enough hers isn’t an uncommon story here…but what is uncommon is what L said afterwards– when I asked her what her dreams were now. “I want to stand on my own feet, and earn a better future for my son. I don’t want to depend on my parents.” L lives with her mother and father— sweet-natured people, very pious and very poor…”I want to earn my self-respect and if my husband comes to see me then- I won’t be angry… I’ll feed him.”

Her words are simple, but that last thought blew me away. That this young women robbed of her childhood, treated so inhumanely, that she could reach into her heart and find a dream that throbbed only with love, compassion and forgiveness moved me beyond words.

L isn’t a submissive person- her dream doesn’t stem from lack of strength, or an inability to think for herself. But who educated her in the ways of wisdom? Who taught her to aspire to rise above even the most seemingly justifiable hatred, anger and resentment?

No one. This dream and its wisdom are entirely her own.

Sometimes unexpectedly you trip over the divinity that lies within another human heart. And all you can do is fold your palms and be grateful for the gift of that discovery.



A child strong enough to be burdened with a peculiar name. Thirteen her parents called her. “That is not a name. That is a number,” offered a five-year old kindergarten peer (a boy with an unadulterated lack of imagination who would grow up stating the obvious and living it too). “It’s not a number. It’s an invitation,”  Thirteen said to him, because that is what she had been told by her mother. And it was only when she was sixteen that she thought to ask, “An invitation to what?” Her mother had stopped planting dandelion seeds in the backyard long enough to say, ” An invitation to flout common fears and defy ordinary expectations.”