The Strange Woman Inside

I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.- Mary Ruefle

You reading these words, I writing them– where are we going?  What is the plan? Your find yourself here– but do you really? Do I? Where do we find ourselves– really? Sometimes, even on days when I have nowhere to be, I feel a strange pressure within. What is this feeling? I believe it has something to do with the strange woman inside. 

It has come to my attention recently, that inside me, is a woman who believes she is running late. Who is she? How long has she been there? And late for what? These are reasonable questions. I don’t believe she knows the answers. I know I don’t. This does not stop either of us from feeling a sense of low grade urgency. “Hurry please!” she whispers, always demanding, but never impolite. “Hurry please!” And I, who have always disliked hurrying, feel an odd compulsion to obey.

At such times the delicate, green fronds of my awareness pull back and curl up tightly. Like a touched touch-me-not, I too am capable of closing up shop in an instant. Capable of withdrawing to a safe distance within myself, that is to say, out of reach of the coltish and curious present. Dogs and toddlers are the opposite of touch-me-nots. They gambol about in constant full-bodied contact with the here and now. Because they exist in a state of near-constant surprise, they are not fascinated by the future, and they are unafraid of delays. 

But for those of us freighted with dreams, unmitigated contact with this moment always runs the risk of delaying our arrival at the next (somehow more important,) moment. And according to the nameless, recently discovered woman inside me– the one who believes she is running late– all delays are disadvantageous. So even though we do not know where we are going, she and I, we have been trying to get there quickly. We have been trying not to waste time being here, when we could be arriving there. But recently, it must be reported, I have been falling short. 

Ignoring the exigencies of the situation, I have tended to tarry. Have allowed myself to be waylaid. By crow calls and hummingbird wings, by moss drifts on old oaks, by the long lasso of the lily’s scent. By the sunlight that pours into my pockets bearing a silence so wide, it opens closed spaces within. A silence so deep it swallows up the strange woman inside. Her urgency, mine, and our memories of each other– submerged in a sea of gold. 

Now, you who find yourself here (or do you really?)– tell me — where did I lose myself? Where am I to be found?

No, no – wait!

I’ve changed my mind. Don’t give me the answer. Why spoil the mood?

Let’s continue to dance instead. Let’s continue to dance this dance, of losing and finding, finding and losing, losing and finding — until we are both so dizzy, so dazzled — we cannot tell the difference anymore.


To Savor and Be Savored

First a riddle:

One of those beings whom it is difficult to describe pleasantly.  Overpowering, off-putting, unshapely. And yet…And yet in the right context, with the right collaborators, her essence transmutes her edges into something altogether irreplaceable. She softens into subtle appreciation, imbues her community with richness and depth, and vanishes entirely in the process. Closely examined, her powers are mystical, even saintly.

Next a clue:

She’s believed to have traveled across the Hindu Kush with Alexander’s army. Long after the would-be conquerors turned to dust, she remained in India, having vanquished the subcontinent without raising a finger. [Remember: To be mighty is not the same thing as to be long-lived.] Her perpetuity has something to do perhaps, with her gift of elevating all around her. Her talent for punching up the bland existence of others. Her wisdom lies in knowing that life aspires to savor and be savored. Her greatness lies in devoting herself unreservedly to this warm-blooded dream.

Now the answer:

She is asafoetida.

A speculation:

Unbeautiful and deeply desired, her strange charisma is such that you will find her written into ancient scriptures, praised for the medicine of her presence, admired for her virtues, invited into every home– but left out of almost all poetry. Not everything that delights us is deemed lyrical. Some entities travel on bright limbs and lithe syllables. Like hummingbirds, sunflowers, saffron and starlight. Ravens, and raindrops, driftwood, and snail shells. Tumbleweed, tidepools, barnacles and temple bells. They find their way into poems with the ease of an otter slipping into its river. Other beings are more burdened, in that their selves and syllables do not lilt, they lumber. They are not the sort to ripple or reverberate, rather they lie athwart, like a boulder on a narrow mountain pass. Interrupting the flow of traffic and thoughts, of rhythm and rhyme.  This does not empty them of poetic possibility. Not at all! But not everyone recognizes this. Perhaps this is why poems about asafoetida are few and far between.

A lesson in language

We humans are a fickle lot, fueled by a potent mixture of ignorance, enthusiasm, arrogance and grace. We make up our minds– but our minds are so very different. Contradictions are bound to abound. In bygone days asafoetida was called Food of the Gods by the Persians. Today the French, Turks, Germans and others call her some version of — Devil’s Dung. Celestial seasoning to some, an utter abomination to others. This is not a problem, but a paradox. They are not the same thing. Sometimes what is lost in translation is subtle and wafting, like a nuance. Sometimes it is teeming and weighty– like a world. 

The anatomy of a spice

No matter the name it is assigned, this noxious spice is derived from Ferula asafoetida, a perennial herb with lacy green leaves that grows to nearly seven feet. Every part of this plant exudes a fetid scent. The roots of this plant contain a milky sap. Cut the stalk close to the ground before flowering season, and the sap will dry into an odorous, plentiful resin–as much as two pounds of resin in three months. This reeking resin, long out of daily use in its countries of origin, ignored by much of the rest of the world, is a prized spice in India. To the native nose, a single whiff is enough to be unmistakable. This malodorous spice disappears into Indian delicacies and everyday fare alike, where it miraculously tempers itself, and all things alongside it into a difficult-to-describe form of deliciousness. If you think of asafoetida as an Indian spice, you would be both right and wrong. The country that accounts for an estimated 40% of the global consumption of asafoetida, imports it from the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan (more than 12,000 tonnes a year.) To be native to a place is nice, but one does not become a celebrity by staying at home. Every spice knows, to be properly feted, one must venture abroad. And so it is with this strangest and smelliest of spices. There is in this fact, odd comfort to be had.

The takeaway (that is also the giveback):

Maybe asafoetida reminds us that there is place in this world for every eccentricity– including our own. Reminds us that every obnoxious tendency we encounter is also a potent gift, awaiting the hot oil of life’s frying pan. Maybe we too are destined to spill our singular flavor into everything– and vanish without a trace.


In the Dark

tonight thoughts run loose

the mind is a zoo and someone

has unlocked all the cages.

moon,

what is it you have done

that some nights you must hide your face?

starlight has crept into every corner,

do you see it?

a silver haunting.

this is what it looks like

when the past comes back

on bright, fierce paws

to play with

the present.


The Quid for Which There is No Quo

When one considers the facts, it appears undeniable that the human capacity to earn affects the human capacity to yearn.  Purchasing power renders us prey to the sales pitch. And sales pitches befuddle the soul’s longing. Animals have no purchasing power. They cannot easily be manipulated into yearning for things that are not aligned with their essence. This is why advertisers leave them alone. Animals are not susceptible to billboards, Google ads or product placement. In their world, Twitter is three or more birds on a wire. An influencer is anyone to whom you might be love-interest, or lunch. Animals do not have to untangle their aspirations from trendiness and the shimmering maze of mass marketing. They excel at following Mary Oliver’s counsel, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” For humans however,  with our ticker tape, telemarketers, hyperlinks and one-click orders, it can be challenging to locate the wild and tender being who lives deep within our bones. The one who is penniless, barefoot and rapturous. The tangle-haired vagabond who never stops singing. 

The trick then, is to train your senses like an animal’s. To become increasingly aware of, and responsive to all the unearned pleasures lying in great swaths around you. The quid for which there is no quo. Like amethyst sunsets, alabaster moons, and Amaryllis Belladonna… Are you unacquainted with the latter? Let me introduce you. But first, “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. And no one answered. Reader, just because he was a bard it does not mean all his questions were rhetorical. What’s in a name? A great deal of poetry if you’re lucky. Because in days of yore (ie before we lost the intuitive genius of imagination, and started churning out prosaic epithets like modem, credit card, and chairman,) we had a gift for summoning up the spirit of a thing through its christening. Names were cast like spells through the air, and the world’s entities were instantly vivified, summoned into brightened states of being by precise vibrations. Call a rose a skunk cabbage, and it will, almost certainly, die a little inside. 

Amaryllis flowers are well-named. Derived from the Greek, the word means to sparkle. Like many things Greek, it can be traced back to a beautiful nymph. Beautiful Greek nymphs fall neatly into two categories — the be-sought, and the besotted. Amaryllis was besotted– with a disinterested shepherd. She turns, as the spurned in Greek legends often do, to the Oracle of Delphi– that dispenser of non-linear advice, who excels at keeping things interesting. Oracular wisdom suggests Amaryllis adopt a 30-day regimen of piercing her heart with a golden arrow while standing at the cottage door of her crush. She complies, and on the final day of this rather risky business, the crimson drops of blood splattered on the ground are transformed into ruby red flowers. The theatrical alchemy of it all melts the shepherd’s indifference. As he embraces his self-harming sweetie,  Amaryllis’s pincushion heart happily heals on the spot, and the slender-throated, newly sprung flowers become her namesake. Not all Amaryllis flowers are blood red however. 

Our Amaryllis are the aforementioned Belladonna variety (Belladonna meaning, ‘beautiful lady.’) They are a pearl pale pink. Technically they aren’t ours. Or anyone’s really. One day we woke up, and they had surrounded the perimeter of our home, like a glamorous army. If one must be besieged, then may it always be, by a floral militia. One whose heads tilt so prettily on brown and leafless stems, one whose petals curl so gently at the tips, you forgive them their trespasses now and forever. 

Because their tall stems are absent any shred of leafy apparel, and because their scented multi-blooms are frilly-faced and feminine, they are also known as Naked Ladies. If this sounds scandalous to you, remember the life of every flower relies on scandal, on secret trysts in velvet chambers, and all manner of comings and goings. It does not behoove a flower to be prim or proper. Arguably it does not behoove anyone to be prim and proper. Ask a whirling dervish if you care to be set straight (or set reverently giddy,) on this point.

If you think the Amaryllis arrived right before bloom time, you would be wrong. They were there long before you noticed them, first hidden deep in the ground as gloriously lumpy, misshapen bulbs, then emerging in late winter, disguised as emerald assemblages of strappy green leaves. Sprightly and promising — but promising what? The leaves betray nothing, and before any blathering Springtime buds appears, the propitious leaves abruptly wither, die, and disappear.  All that green hype, and now — just bare earth. So much something, come to naught. A letdown of sorts. And this is where an error in perception begins. The blunder is understandable given how much of our lives are conducted like a negotiation. In negotiations transparency and concreteness are key, one does not settle for ambiguity unless one is exceedingly gullible. The clever do not say, “I will give you my blood, sweat and tears, and you give me — a surprise.” No. The clever will hammer out clear terms and clauses. But mystery– mystery always deals on its own terms. Mystery will always have the last laugh.

And sometimes it laughs in the trumpet-shaped flowers of Amaryllis Belladonna. Flowers that escape the tight clasp of their buds, buds held aloft on erect and determined stems, stems that rise from bare earth like holy resurrections, long after you have given up all hope. For years (years!) you do not connect the dots. These yawning pink beauties rise from the graves of those disappointing green leaves. The discovery has all the shock of a divine revelation.

Absence is a misinterpretation– of invisible presence. In this very moment, hidden immensities are being transfigured in the dark. There is no keeping tabs on life’s endless love affair with the sun. So stop scheming for trifles dear heart. You’re not a bounty hunter, you’re the motherlode. Stop with your drudgery dear mind. You’re a wellspring, not a grindstone. Beloved Friend –enough of your frenzied industry. Try a different way.

Remember —

The flowers don’t earn the seasons. No river deserves its way to the sea. 


No Fixed Address

June 20th 2022, San Juan Blvd, Belmont CA

To be indiscriminately captivated means to be at home anywhere, everywhere, nowhere. Why fault this faculty? Single-mindedness is so often misapplied. Would she tell the bumblebee not to be so flighty? Would she command the butterfly to be less fickle? So much depends on their roving eyes, their ravishing way.

Her life, and theirs. 

To be one with the Ten Thousand Things is her true nature. This is not dispersion. It is the end of a long exile. After living cramped in a dingy attic, like the blighted stepchild of fairytales– a return to a vast homeland.​

The heart, she discovered with a start, has no fixed address.


Not Shaken, Not Stirred

A doughnut or donut is a maneuver performed while driving a vehicle. Performing this maneuver entails rotating the rear or front of the vehicle around the opposite set of wheels in a continuous motion, creating (ideally) a circular skid-mark pattern of rubber on a carriageway and possibly even causing the tires to emit smoke from friction.- Wikipedia

An important disclaimer about doing donuts

You shouldn’t. Driving in an aggressive manner in public is almost definitely illegal where you live. Doing donuts is dangerous. […] Other than it being totally rad, there’s no good reason to do donuts at all. What are you trying to prove man? What are you rebelling against anyway? – Stephen Johnson in, “How to Do a Flawless Donut,” on Lifehacker

It’s midday on a sun-licked Sunday. We’re sitting on their front porch, his parents on one end, us on the other. The car explodes out of nowhere, into our awareness. The sound it makes is part shriek, part rumble, and it does not stop. It sounds to me like the sound of impending doom. 

I’ve never seen someone doing doughnuts live before. The experience is simultaneously fascinating and vaguely terrifying. Very Second Coming. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, he comes heart-stoppingly close to hitting a parked car (ours.) This falcon and his falconer are definitely incommunicado.The center cannot hold— yet somehow it does. Such simultaneous precision, and profound carelessness on display. The tires screech, sparks fly, the air fills with the discomfiting scent of burnt rubber. A series of concentric circles streak the blacktop.

We are the only visible audience to this daredevil act of -? Audacity? Artistry? Virtuosity? Vandalism? Dexterity? Delinquency? How much of a threat is this young man? Should we stay for the whole risky show or exit the scene? Do we say something, do something? Or will any move dangerously disorient him? Where exactly is the line again, between extreme sport and hooliganism? But this is not the time for fine distinctions. Now he is spinning himself out of the intersection and down the narrowed street, swiveling so close to the curb that every cell in my body is sympathetically braced for impact. Then this tornado on tires, this cyclone of cacophony, this menacing maelstrom disappears, as abruptly as he arrived. 

A pause. Even the silence in the air is jangled. After a few beats…

“He’s driving a Mazda,” observes my father-in-law.


Penpa Tang-ing with Neha

(November, 2005)

Neha is the recently-turned-eight-year-old across the street. Every encounter with her is an edifying experience. A few mornings ago she skipped over with her grandmother and our share of homemade Divali sweets. I was en route, basket in hand, to our back yard, to gather morning flowers. “Pavithrakka can I also come? I am loving flauv-ers very much,” says Neha, in her fun, formal, not always grammatically correct, but unfailing expressive English. “Of course,” I say, and we head towards the Coral Jasmine tree out back- a tall, slender trunked beauty that all year round rains fragrant white blossoms with bright coral stalks onto the grass each night. Gathering these flowers each morning is a ritual of enchantment. Magic is born in the presence of such unreasonable, unravished beauty.

I wish I could say that such a poetic start to the morning renders one invincible to all the daily demons of impatience, and indignation, of I-ness and My-ness and My-Soul-Is-A-Squashed-Tomato-ness. But apparently you can’t buy that kind of invincibility with a basketful of flowers. It takes a modicum more diligence, more vigilance than that. But what gathering a morning basketful of flowers can provide is- a sort of sacred space to set the tone of the day. There’s a Tibetan phrase for this that I learnt recently– penpa tang. And I have found that setting that sacred space does make a difference in how I live my day- or at least in my awareness of how I live my day. Or perhaps I’m just trying to dignify my self-proclaimed vocation, of, à la James Kavanugh, being born to–

(…)catch dragons in their dens
And pick flowers
To tell tales and laugh away the morning
To drift and dream like a lazy stream
And walk barefoot across sunshine days”

Either way, I am here now with Neha, under the Coral Jasmine tree. When it rains at night, this tree pours. And it is monsoon season now, so the ground beneath the tree is carpeted in white and orange. Drifts of blossoms, so deep they can be gathered by the careful-not-to-crush fistful. I reach over with both hands, and shake the trunk gently. Neha tilts her head and looks up, watching the white sudden swirl of blossoms, blossoms falling like stars, falling like snowflakes. Her expression one of perfectly mingled awe and delight (my day is made in that moment.) We both bend in unison to the sweetly-scented task at hand. I find myself wondering, with a faint twinge of apprehension and amusement, what Neha is going to say next. I am loathe to let the lyricism of this moment veer into the prosaic. As ridiculous as it sounds, I find myself wanting to shield the sacredness of the space from small talk. This is because I have momentarily forgotten that 8-year-olds do not do small talk.

“Do you like Mother Teresa?” Neha’s question asked in the micro-interval between one handful of blossoms and the next, is matter-of-fact and sans preamble.

“Y-yes,” I answer, somewhat startled, but also intrigued by, her choice of conversation starters.

“I also am liking her very much. She is helping all the people who are suffering from This and That. Nobody else to help them otherwise. All the people in the world say she is very kind. And then she died.”

The small heap of flowers in the basket is growing. Fresh, soft white flowers today. Dried brown brittle ones tomorrow.

“What did you say?” I have to know whether I heard the last part of this little impromptu speech correctly.

“She died,” says Neha, all of eight, “End of story.”

“End of story,” I echo.

“Pavithrakka look at this,” she is pointing to a fern under the tree, a fern that is now strewn with small white flowers, “It looks like the flowers grew there, no?” A thought I’ve so often had.

“Yes it does. Neha– what do you want to be when you grow up?” And in my head I have already framed her answer– she will want to help people suffering from This and That, like Mother Teresa.

Neha looks over at me for a brief moment, then–

“I think I will also be a Flower Collector,” she says.


Grace

One morning (this morning,) a black car runs a red. Surges into the intersection. And just like that, coming home from a lab test, we are on a collision course. There’s oatmeal waiting at home. Oatmeal with raisins, cashews, shredded coconut and a dusting of cinnamon from Ceylon. The car is moving fast, time is moving slow. I call to my husband in a voice that is urgent and soft. Not unlike the voice I use when pointing out mourning doves in the garden. He brakes, the car sails past. The driver does not see what he just missed.

Our lives.

We are almost home. The sidewalks are sunny and quiet. The leaves on the trees, so green. Nothing has changed. Everything is different.

And breakfast is a benediction.


Mountain of Light

I remember learning about the Koh-i-noor diamond in history class. That fabled diamond whose name means ‘Mountain of Light’ and whose fate was mixed up in a parade of invasions and colorful dynasties. Thought to have been pried from the earth in the mines of Golconda for a forgotten raja it eventually surfaced in Babar’s kingdom, who set its worth at “the value of one day’s food for all the world,” then left it to his son Humayun, who set it bouncing between the hands of emperors and sultans, several of whom were overthrown by ambitious offspring. Like Shah Jahan, in whose hands the Ko-i-noor twinkled for a bit before tumbling to Aurangzeb, his infamous son and captor. What a fickle life it led, this glittering rock. Gifted to hospitable Shahs, hidden in harems, sewn into turbans, serially stolen, traded for thrones, signed off in treaties, routinely tangled up in palace intrigues, ritual blindings, and mightily cursed. “He who owns the diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes.” There’s a catch for you.

In 1813 after decades of fighting, the Koh-i-noor returned to India (from a country that would become the country we now know as Afghanistan,) in the hands of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. By this time it was so much more than a ridiculously large and beautiful gemstone. It was a dramatic symbol of unassailable prestige and unstoppable power. Singh’s plan to bequeath the diamond to a sect of Hindu priests after his death, was not well-received by the British empire. An anonymous editorial of the time lamented that, “the most costly gem in the known world, has been committed to the trust of a profane, idolatrous and mercenary priesthood.” But good (or at least expensive) things come to empires that wait. England waited. Four violent years followed Singh’s death, four years in which his throne seated and unseated four different rulers of Punjab in quick succession. At the end of this gory period, the only living heirs to the throne were a boy-king and his mother. The mother was exiled, and the son persuaded to amend a treaty, effectively relinquishing his rights to his kingdom and signing the diamond into the hands of the British empire. To be fair to the Brits in charge, the young king was only ten years old at the time, and most likely supremely disinterested in diamonds and kingdoms. I wish I could tell you they gave him back his mother, and threw in a shiny blue bicycle to sweeten the deal. But that is not what happened. Not by a long shot. But let us leave that, at that.

Before sailing to England and being cut down to size and set in a late Queen’s crown, where it winks to this day, this adventurous bit of bling is recorded to have been 186 carats and the size of ‘a small hen’s egg’. I don’t know exactly what the size of a small hen or her egg is, but I recently learned that a carat is a measurement of weight equivalent to 200 milligrams. As such it is not all that interesting. But what is interesting is that the word carat comes from the Arabic quirat which refers to the carob bean that was part of the ancient Mediterannean system of weights and measurements. And I don’t quite know why, but the image of bygone traders and merchants holding up scales weighted with gold and gemstones on one side and little brown seeds from a local carob tree on the other, pleases me greatly. 
Perhaps this is where your interest in the Koh-i-noor diamond ends. But not everyone’s.

There is an attorney in Pakistan for instance, who has written more than 786 letters petitioning the Queen of England to return the Koh-i-noor diamond to his country. [“More than 786 letters” strikes me as a very specifically general number of letters to write. I wonder if the journalist who was researching the matter just got tired of counting]. Prime Ministers of India ,and MPs too, have made polite and repeated requests of their own. Not to be left out, direct descendants of the various rulers who came into possession of the diamond at different points in its tumultuous history also come forward with fierce regularity to stake their own serious claims. To no avail.

Let us now ponder on what an elusive creature fairness is. Un-summonable, capricious. Now you see it, now you don’t. As a child I believed fairness was a law unto itself, like gravity. I believed there were forces that kept it in play, that there were no loopholes, no exceptions. I believed grown-ups would always set things right, that grown-ups could always set things right. This is why as a child, it made no sense to me, that the Koh-i-noor diamond is ensconced in the Tower of London. I remember hearing from relatives that, when they visited as tourists, the guard winked at them and said, “It’s ours now. We’re not giving it back.” Telling the story, my family laughed. But my young heart was silently appalled.

I did not know then, and do not know now, what to make of it all. This is the trouble with delving into history. Told from enough points of view it’s sometimes (not always) hard to tell the right from the wronged. Acquisition and ownership are troublesome enough, even without empires. How we, with the limited powers vested in us, participate implicitly in wresting things from the depths of the Earth. How we foolishly call them our own. How we build our individual kingdoms of selfdom, and do not stop nearly often enough to wonder who we belong to, if not to this beautiful, besieged Earth, if not to each other, and to that ineffable something which lights us from within. Rendering each one of us into diamonds of note. Each one of us, into a mountain of light.


None

She has emptied all the pockets of her life and looked in all its hidden nooks and crannies (though to be honest, she’s not entirely sure what a cranny is,) and now she is quite certain she doesn’t have any. Answers.