Category Archives: Only the Beginning

Calling Cards

Calling cards. Plastic, pocket-sized cards — the brand he always looked for back then was called Mother India. Yellow, red and white, with a little map of the home country outlined in one corner. If you paid cash you could get a card worth $5 for four bucks. You scratched the little black strip on the back to reveal a pin number that you entered when the automated voice told you to. At 7 cents a minute it was way cheaper than what the regular phone services offered. “Calling card,” he said softly, under his breath. He’d been reflecting just the other night, about how he didn’t really have a calling. It was a thought that had never surfaced before, but he’d attended a talk that evening by a man about the same age as him, a man in his mid-thirties who’d spent the last ten years working in a middle-of-nowhere village of South India. He’d built a school in the village and started an organic farm, and founded a very successful village-version of Alcoholics Anonymous, while  his wife led a remarkably effective women’s group. They’d stopped three child marriages and had come very close to locally eradicating the dowry system (a system technically illegal, but still in practice.)

The man speaking was handsome in a way that Indian men seldom are, he was also articulate and inspiring to the point of being quite irritating. He wore a white khadi kurta with blue jeans and Bata slippers. An outfit that somehow lent him an air of offhand nobility. His wife was equally articulate, and had a quiet gravity about her just as compelling as her husband’s animated warmth. When she smiled she lit up the room. He had never seen that happen before, had always thought the phrase was a bit of a tired cliche — until that moment when someone had asked a question about boredom. “Don’t you sometimes get bored stuck out there with a bunch of rustics in the middle of nowhere?” Such an obnoxious question, he had expected the couple to get huffy and indignant. But instead the man had laughed boyishly, and at the same moment, the seriousness on the wife’s face had slipped, and there was her smile, revealed like moonburst on a dark night, and it had taken his breath away.

He thought moodily about that quality of radiance he’d witnessed in the two of them. There was nothing at this particular moment that seemed the least bit radiant about his own existence and he was often bored. True, he was successful but in an unspectacular way.  He had reasonable self-esteem, and no definite calling. He wished suddenly, and with a fervency that surprised him, that there were calling cards that actually lived up to their name –cards with lines you could dial that would be answered by a friendly anonymous stranger who would tell you in a matter of minutes what your calling is. He had no faith in the battery of personality tests and the expensive career counseling sessions that were on the market. But a calling card — now that was something he would try out if such existed. $5 for the answer to one of the most persistent riddles of humanity — “Why Am I Here?” — it seemed like there would be a sizable market for something like that.


Protocol

She enters the room slow marching, in the manner of a bride down the aisle– carrying not a frilly bouquet– but a tray bearing six individual steel tumblers of steaming coffee. Her eyes are downcast, giving viewers an impression of timidity or coyness or both. In reality she is neither. She is just a woman trying very hard not to spill coffee. As she walks, unbeknownst to her audience she is maneuvering the tray through a series of skilled and imperceptible movements to ensure that these cups, (which her mother with misplaced enthusiasm has filled to the very brim) do not runneth over. As protocol dictates she approaches the oldest man in the room, her grandfather, and extends the tray. As protocol dictates he waves her towards the oldest male guest, her prospective father-in-law. As protocol dictates he waves her in the direction of the host, her father, who waves her back. All this hand-waving is accompanied by a specific brand of head-shaking intended to imply gracious deference. A visitor from a distant land might understandably, if incorrectly, conclude from the proceedings that the order in which these half-dozen tumblers of coffee are dispensed is a profoundly significant matter, one with serious implications for national security or global warming. Meanwhile the tray is growing unbearably heavy and our slow marching prospective bride is sorely tempted to drop the whole thing on the floor and head for the nearest nunnery.


Wings

“She has what?” His mother’s voice escalated dangerously and he realized that this wasn’t going to go over well. Returning, newly-and-unexpectedly-married, from a routine business trip to India had been bad enough, but now there was this awkward situation to be dealt with. He cleared his throat and tried to sound casual, “She has wings.” His mother dropped the tea cup she was holding.

“She has wings?” His mother uttered the word like she’d never heard it before. Yes he nodded, trying to appear casual. As if flying appendages attached to one’s bride were perfectly normal. “And you knew this when you married her?” He nodded again, remembering their first meeting. She had been barefoot. Standing on the sea shore, wearing a white blouse, a long moss green skirt and a wistful expression. Her wings were fanning gently behind her, like a resting butterfly’s. He had never seen anything so beautiful. She filled his heart with tenderness before he even knew her name. He did not know what she saw in him. Safety maybe? In a flighty world he was solid as the earth. He asked her out to coffee, and even though she did not drink caffeine, she said yes. They were married within the week.

Somehow the wings had never troubled him. In his eyes she was a magical creature, a being not entirely of this world. On her the wings seemed perfectly natural. He’d asked her about them once. And she’d answered his questions without hesitation or embarrassment. Yes she’d had them since birth. No her parents (both dead) did not have them — though there were rumors of a maternal great-great-grandmother who had been ‘touched by angels’. No they were not removable. Yes they could be concealed under clothes without discomfort. Yes she could use them to fly. High enough to clear tree tops, but not much higher. And only for relatively short distances — she could cross a pond or a small lake easily, but not an ocean. So he bought her an airplane ticket, and they traveled back to his home in the United States together. She had never been in an airplane or out of India before. On the flight they traded seats so she could look out the window, her eyes enormous with wonder.

His mother who knew he was returning from a work trip had been expecting him, but not the bride. They had not informed anyone on either side of the wedding. Delirious with happiness he imagined his only living parent would be thrilled to have him show up on their doorstep with this lovely overseas wife as a surprise. His well-bred mother’s eyebrows had shot up past her hairline when they were introduced at the door. Her smile had stayed in tact, but lost its warmth so rapidly, that his dark-haired wife actually shivered, and hugged her elbows. A gesture that made her look so lost and waif-like that he wished they could turn around and go home.

After seating them in the living room his mother had excused herself to put on a pot of tea. He had followed her into the kitchen, and wanting to have it out, had mentioned the wings. After high-pitched disbelief, and a shattered teacup, grimness had descended on his mother’s face like armor. “You have obviously lost your mind,” she said, “ I don’t know what kind of trickster that woman is, but she’s up to no good. You’d better keep a separate bank account and one eye on her at all times.” He tried to stand up for his wife’s innocence, but his mother waved him aside with a swatting-fly gesture as old as his childhood. She placed a white china teapot patterned with pale pink roses on a tray, with matching cups and saucers. “We’ll have to look into clipping them,” she said. “Clipping what?” he asked bewildered. “Her wings of course,” said his mother, before sailing through the door to serve hot tea with a side of chilliness to the woman waiting in her living room. A woman whose eyes were slowly beginning to spark, like two black shards of flint.

Outer timidity can mask a fierce resoluteness of spirit, a domineering exterior house deep-seated fragilities. And no one’s wings can ever be clipped without the clipper losing their own place in the sun. He knows these things, or at least suspects them, and because he is not a man given to foregone conclusions, he finds himself curious about where this situation is headed.

As he joins the two women in the living room he is thinking of systems dynamics, non-linear relationships, the butterfly effect.

A woman chances to flap her wings on a sea shore somewhere in India and…


New House

The telephone was installed at 11 o clock on Monday morning and now sat on her desk like a perfectly self-contained cat. She derived an odd sense of pleasure from seeing it there. “A telephone makes a new house less lonely,” she said to the wall of the study. It stared back at her wordlessly with a pale, blank face, and she made a mental note to hang up some pictures that afternoon. Maybe the watercolor prints she’d purchased for a small fortune from that shivering sidewalk artist in the park. Thin boats silhouetted on an indistinct river at sunset. She knew very little about great art but enough to know that this was not it. And yet something about the narrow frame of the boats and the flawed river had moved her indescribably. They spoke to her of life’s uncertainty, its ultimate imperfection and now, months later, a lump rose and bloomed richly in her throat just thinking about that moment of insight and extravagance on the chilly pavement.

She hadn’t yet admitted it to herself yet, but she was waiting for the telephone to ring. Outwardly she busied herself with other tasks. Cleared up the breakfast dishes, and carefully collapsed an empty cereal box before folding it as flat as she could to store away in the recycling bin outside. Tuesdays they collected the recycling. Was it Tuesday? She wasn’t sure. She would have to crosscheck with the printed calendar sheet they had given her with the collections days marked off. She pulled the sheet out of a kitchen drawer, stared absent-mindedly at the array of empty numbered boxes that represented the shape of her days. She didn’t notice the way her head had tilted slightly off to one side, the way it does when one is trying to listen for something in the distance.

She loved the sound of the telephone ringing. The high, clear insistent purr of it that rippled in the air like an invisible flag – a declaration of someone’s particular need in that instant to reach out to her. That was part of the reason why she never answered it in the first ring, not even if it was a call she was expecting and she was right by its side. She always waited for at least three rings before picking up. Letting the sound fill her the way air fills a balloon, gives it definition and bounce. When she said “Hello” the balloon lifted softly and drifted towards a blue, cloudless sky of conversation.

She frowned down at the sheet she was holding. What had she meant to look up? Oh yes, the collection dates. It was Tuesday just as she’d thought. Why did that seem such a long ways away? Tuesday was tomorrow. It was the silence of the new house that did it she decided, it stretched from this present into the future like an empty clothesline on a windless day. For the first time she wished she was more of a plant person. It would have been soothing to have a couple of potted geraniums on the window sill or a small, sturdy palm in the living room. Something she could name and then talk softly to. She had never understood until now why some people did that.

***


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.”


Thirteen

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.”


Mingled Yarn

Story scraps from 2006

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn–the good and ill together. – William Shakespeare

She never thought of herself as the crocheting sort. In her mind it was something older ladies with withered pink cheeks, grandchildren and pies in the oven (just the pies, not the grandchildren) did, sitting by a crackling fire, or in sunny, mid-afternoon drawing-room circles, with fragrant, bottomless cups of gossip and tea. Crocheting, to her, was at once quaint, and foreign. Where she grew up, people didn’t crochet, for they had no use for the items that the act generally produces. You don’t need scarves, sweaters, socks, blankets or winter hats in the blazing year-round summer of southern India. But she didn’t live there any more. And when the wind snapped around her ankles, and nipped at the tips of her ears and nose she was grateful for woolen warmth. No. She had never thought of herself as the crocheting sort. But later on looking back she realized she ought to have seen it coming.

You see, the phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ wasn’t just pulled out of thin air. And there is a certain kindred-ness between the creative acts of looping wool and words along the slim needle’s narrative. And she had always loved stories. Picking them up like pebbles wherever she found them with caring, careful hands. They had a tendency to spill out of her pockets as she walked through the world.  When she first started crocheting she was startled to find that these stories found their way into the very fibre of the wool, until it was impossible to tell one sort of yarn from the other. She wasn’t sure what to make of this, and at first it frightened her a little. But in time she came to understand that even if she couldn’t always see it, there was an underlying design to the way these things worked.

Now, standing in front of the yarn rack she waited for one color to single her out. She had found that the quieter she was inside the more quickly and clearly she knew which skein was waiting for her. Today it took her a few moments to recognize that it was to be deep red. A red the exact shade of rubies and ripe pomegranate seeds.  A color that called to mind, blood, but not in a violent way. For there was something in the red yarn that carried an echo of those pulsing tunnels, those insistent threads that course beneath our skin, frequent visitors to the heart, whether or not we remember their laboring existence.

She reached out and picked up the soft coil, savoring its texture and gentle weight.

She never knew, when she started a new piece, who it was for. “Remember your audience” is something writers and filmmakers are often urged to do. But she was neither. And in any case, according to her, audiences were rather tiresome, they demanded entertainment—and then sometimes yawned, or worse still, fell asleep when it was provided. So she never “remembered her audience” when she started crocheting a new piece. Why try and “remember” someone when you may not have even met hem yet, and when people are always changing anyway, and when it is so much easier to meet everyone as if for the first time instead of stubbornly insisting on consistency.

She took the yarn up to the front counter to pay for it. The sales clerk was a young man with a purple airplane tattoo on his left forearm. He didn’t look like the kind of person who knew the first thing about yarn. He smiled when she placed the skein on the counter. “Great color,” he said, “ Rubies-and-ripe-pomegranate-seeds”…a sublime choice.” She looked at him a little more carefully then, “ Why the plane?” she asked, “ To remind me of the journey,” he said easily, “At some point we take off and at some point we land, and if you’re not the pilot you don’t really have complete control over your destination- but—” he paused for a moment, “But what,” she asked, “ But it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to do while we’re up there.”

“ And you want to sell yarn, is that it?” “ Is that what I’m doing right now?” “No,” she said slowly, “It’s not actually”. “Well there you have it, ” he stopped smiling then and broke into a broad grin, “You didn’t expect that did you?“ What is your name,” she asked, because suddenly, she really wanted to know what kind of nomenclature was attached to this young seller-of-yarn with the purple airplane tattoo that reminded him, and those who asked him about it, of the journey.

“Johnson,” he said, “But most people call me Jo.” “ Do you have any parting words of wisdom for me Jo?” she asked, as she paid for the wool and prepared to leave the little shop, “ The only completely consistent people, are the dead,” he said, “ Everything that surprises you is an affirmation of life.” “And that’s your message for me today?” “Mine and Aldous’s.” “As in Huxley?” “Yeah that’s right.” “Thank you,” she said, and gathering her purchase walked out the door towards a somewhat braver and somewhat newer world.

***

The art of crocheting doesn’t demand patience so much as it cultivates it. She had realized early on that it was impossible to hurry when one was crocheting. One might just as soon ask a turtle to sprint. There is something in the steady, yet skilled repetitiveness of the act that demands a degree of attention to the moment coupled with a disregard for the passage of time. She remembered in particular one morning the first week she’d started- she’d been sitting on a park bench frowning over the tangled mess of needle-and-wool in her hands, a deepening furrow of frustration between her brows because she hadn’t been able to get her fingers to fly as fast as she wanted them to, and she was beginning to feel impossibly clumsy and in adept at the whole thing. Out of nowhere a little white terrier had come scurrying up and jumped onto her lap, further tangling the wool in a few frantic moments of tail-wagging excitement. “ He seems to be having more fun with that than you are,” the voice was dry, and deep and not unkind. It belonged to a sharp-faced old woman who looked like she belonged on a broomstick with a black cat instead of a rambunctious little white dog. She raised one long, knobbly finger and for a moment it seemed as if she might be about to chant some sort of ancient spell that would cause time to flow backwards, automatically untangling the wool out of its present predicament and back into a neatly coiled bundle of unknotted potential. Instead she drew her finger across the furrowed forehead, smoothing out the little line that lay there. “ In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving,” she said suddenly, “ And see how the pattern improves.” “ Rumi?” she’d asked, and the little dog had looked over at her with a short, happy bark. “ Yes that’s his name, he chases his tail all day long, goes round and round quite exactly like a whirling dervish. And if you look carefully into his eyes you’ll see a poem there.” She tried to peer then into the laughing black depths of the puppy’s eyes but he had already jumped off her lap and was chasing his tail so fast that he was just a blurred circle of white. Ever since that brief encounter in the park she hadn’t had any trouble at all with tangled wool. And her fingers forgot their hesitation and found a rhythm she hadn’t known they knew.

***

She didn’t put much stock by her dreams— she didn’t have, nor had she ever had, one of those dream journals that some people keep by their pillows, that in the first groggy strains of consciousness they scribble in, one hand clutching a pen, the other clutching the colorful-but-fast-fading dream-scraps they’ve smuggled back with them into the waking world. She had once heard someone refer to dreams as “recycled impressions”, and she could see how that might be. She was not interested in recording recycled impressions. And that’s why it was strange that it should be a dream that had led her to decide to learn how to crochet in the first place. It was really Mark Twain’s fault. They had been eating lunch together (in her dream, of course) at a restaurant—a little Mediterranean café full of waiters with uniformly gleaming black hair and gleaming white smiles. Over a crisp bite of spanakopita he had looked her straight in the eye, from under those famously bristling, bushy white eyebrows, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” he said all this in a single breath and when he finished she had said, unaccountably, “I think I shall learn to crochet then.”

And that was how it had all started. Sometimes the hidden impulse of our lives is revealed to us in unexpected moments, and in those moments of revelation comes a deep sense of trust in the inexplicable.  When she woke from her dream it was with that sense of trust. She bought her first crochet needle and a skein of wool that same day.

***