Friday, October 2, 2009

A very successful man

I learned recently that my former father-in-law died. It's been about 9 years since I've seen him. After my divorce, I tactfully backed away from regular contact with my ex-husband's family. Not for any reasons of bitterness or unresolved issues, simply to enable my ex and me to follow our new life paths. But thinking of Jacob's passing brings back memories and I feel the need to write about him.

Jacob was a humble man about his many accomplishments in life. He was very successful but not in the flashy or excessive way that modern society notices. I would say that in terms of things that really matter in life -- raising a family, being a good husband and father, and being a decent human being, Jacob's life was a real success story.

Like many men of his generation, Jacob felt things deeply although he didn't always articulate these thoughts. This was the era of men who preferred to sort out their thoughts by watering the lawn or pruning a bush. He grew up in France and experienced WW II as a young man. In the aftermath of the war, Jacob saw many terrible things and this caused him to doubt the existence of God. Yet I never heard him speak of hate. In contrast, he valued harmony in all forms -- within his family, his circle of friends, with neighbors, or his customers. I have a funny memory of him wearing a baseball cap with the inscription "One world - One love" on it. He retained an Old World sensibility yet was tenderly amused by the brash openness and optimism of American culture.

He had a strong love of animals and at one time considered becoming a veterinarian. But the need to support a growing family, three sons in all, turned Jacob's talents toward the practical world of business. He excelled as a top salesman and was a motivational manager. If I had taken the time to ask Jacob for business advice, I probably could have learned a lot. But at that point in my life, I felt that I knew all the answers, and I was more interested in doing than listening. Jacob never made the annual list of top executives at Forbes magazine. However as a person, he topped any list for his qualities of honesty, dedication and integrity. Jacob was a greater success than some of the ethically bankrupt executives that I have interviewed as a journalist over the years.

Jacob loved his garden and delighted in his blooming cactus plants and fuchsias. In my mind's eye, I can see him carefully studying his plant kingdom. When I needed some quiet time at large family gatherings, I would go outside and admire Jacob's efforts in the garden. Sometimes he would walk along with me, making friendly and low-key small talk, explaining the nuance of a particular flower. Jacob's kindness extended to plants and to people alike.

In his retirement years, Jacob took up ceramics as a hobby. Working with clay, at this time of his life, was an interesting physical and mental activity. He enjoyed being around people yet the act of creating a vase is a solitary activity that lends itself well to contemplation. I think this new hobby was an interesting catharsis in some ways. In a practical sense, his first bowls were very heavy and the glaze was uneven. But his talent quickly evolved and the bowls and vases became lighter, finer and objects of beauty. Every eye that saw them, wanted one -- soon Jacob's creations were adorning tables and shelves in the homes of family and friends. Even strangers would comment and want to buy them. What started as a casual past-time became an avenue for personal expression.

I still have a small multicolored vase from an early artistic learning phase that I would describe as 'Jacob discovers color'. Bright patches of blue, purple, orange and yellow form a colorful mosaic. The vase has been in a closet, forgotten for years, but today I remembered it and washed the dust off. I've added some daisies and put it on a table in my office. The colors remind me to be happy and "enjoy life." I think Jacob would like that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

From beautiful to ugly, in just a few seconds...

I was traveling home on the train and it was an uneventful trip for most of the way. The warm weather made people quiet and we stared with restless boredom at the floor, at each other, or our hands.

I decided to open my new briefcase from Muji ( I bought it because of the minimalist Japanese styling and it's the right size for my portfolio. The only downside, which I discovered the hard way during my commute, is that you have to pay attention to how you open it. If you open the zippers on both sides, the briefcase playfully opens at an amazing rate of speed and dumps all of its contents on the floor.

And voila, this is what happened to me. Fortunately I did not have anything embarrassing inside the briefcase. But my portable phone hit the floor, some papers gently floated across the aisle of the train, and a pen rolled under some seats. A woman kindly came to my assistance, even though she had a baby in a stroller. I thanked her and she returned to talking with the friend next to her in a mixture of French and an African language.

What happened next is when beauty intersected ugliness. A tall, very slim young French woman stood in front of me, looking at her portable phone. Her understated but expensive style of clothing suggested to me that she would get off the train in a city two stops ahead of mine, a town known for its 'bourgeois' ambiance. There was not an ounce of fat nor a pimple or stray hair on her young proud body. This modern goddess tossed her long hair and gazed with disinterest at her audience.

Her cold yet undeniably spectacular physical perfection provided all of us on the train with a welcome visual distraction. It also conveniently blocked my view of an older man across the aisle, who coughed loudly and stared at every move I made. Perhaps my tumbling briefcase captured his imagination and he was eagerly waiting for an encore.

But back to happened in seconds. The train stopped at the station (I guessed correctly - it was indeed the town I thought of) and the lovely Ice Queen got ready to open the door. At the same time, the African women got up and pushed the baby stroller to the door, accidentally bumping Queenie's silver-sandaled foot. They immediately apologized, with shy smiles that showed no bad intent. But the young woman's face became distorted with emotion -- instant anger, an frown of disapproval and then a hard look. She said nothing but turned her back and walked off the train.

I watched her from the window as the train rolled out of the station. Her hair moved in the breeze, her long legs moved like a model on a runway, and her perfectly shaped face was set in an expressionless mask. Yet how ugly she suddenly seemed...and her soul walked heavily behind, casting a dark shadow over each step she took.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A miracle in India: Faith, sacred fire or fantasy?

My recent trip to Rajasthan India had a positive start. My husband and I were met by our guide, Munindra, and our driver Pradeep. As I relaxed and reached out to India, I felt immersed in sea of humanity, yet without a sense of stress or uncertainty. One memorable experience linked to yet another, like luminous pearls on a silk cord.

But when we left New Delhi and drove towards Agra, I was surprised to notice that my feet and the lower part of my legs seemed to be much larger than usual. I never had this problem before. ‘Perhaps it’s the change of climate?’ I thought. The next day my legs were more swollen and I had discomfort walking. However the charms of Agra distracted me so I just walked more slowly and occasionally massaged my legs. I also tried taking aspirin, elevating my legs or spraying them with cold water.

But soon my legs and feet were more than double their normal size. I began to feel worried, as we were moving on to the countryside where we would spend a few days in the guide’s rural village. I called my doctor in France and his voice came in waves of broken sound over the phone. Possible blood clot in my for tests? I felt both laughter and panic rising in my throat. As I looked out the car window, I could see people walking along the dirt road and fields. A camel moved past pulling a cart.

“There are no hospitals here,” I said and I heard my doctor give a small sigh. I thought of the pharmacy located just 5 minutes from his office, a treasure chest of modern medicine with every imaginable kind of pill. But not for me.

When we were in Munindra’s village, I eagerly drank in all the new impressions. A gentle 80-year old woman who spoke in Hindi to me but said so much more with her eyes. The shy but excited children, the beautiful ladies in their vibrant clothing, the dignified look of the respected older men with their turbans. I sat at sunset, sipping a chai tea and enjoying the quiet beauty. Yet my legs ached.

Munindra got the idea to make a bath using leaves from a neem tree growing outside the house. Neem has so many qualities, both medical and spiritual, that they can’t be properly described here. Soon my legs were soaking in the neem-infused water. Munindra gently massaged my legs and then rubbed them with an aloe vera leaf.

Despite the temporary relief, my legs continued to look like sausages. We left the village to drive toward Mandawa. During a stopover at a peaceful and historic hotel, the Castle Pachar, the owner’s wife took pity on me and one of the employees massaged my legs with a lotion made with camphor. "Another night, another massage!" my husband joked.

But the next day, as I limped to the car, it wasn’t funny. Munindra sensed my anxiety. ‘I need a doctor,’ I said and he replied ‘yes’. At that point I also knew the Indian cultural habit of hesitating to say no to a request that may not be possible. ‘Yes’ could mean a polite acknowledgement rather than a firm agreement.

The countryside transitioned from fields to dunes. Women walked alongside the road carrying water gourds or bundles of dried grass on their heads. A bus rolled past, filled with people inside and hanging onto the roof.

“Here we can see an interesting place,” Munindra commented as the car stopped in the middle of nowhere. To be honest, I was irritable and uncomfortable so I didn’t listen to his description. The place looked like a cross between an ancient auditorium or a gigantic circular water reservoir. I slowly climbed down the steps under the watchful eyes of Munindra. ‘See the beauty,’ he said with a touch of uncertainty.

We were alone in this hot, open space. My husband took photos. Munindra walked off to wait at a short distance. Climbing up the stone steps I noticed some eucalyptus trees ahead. They seemed to beckon to me with the promise of shade and perhaps something else?

As I painfully walked up the last step, I found myself in front of a temple. An old man was standing in front of a small dome-shaped building which had a thin line of smoke curling from the top. He bowed and said Namaste and looked at me with quiet curiosity. I returned his greeting and stared back. Munindra appeared and began speaking with the man in Hindi.

My husband joined us and we discovered that this holy man’s job was to keep a sacred fire burning. The perpetual fire offered prayers and protection for the village. Munindra asked me to raise my long skirt and the man observed my sad big legs. He walked into the tiny temple, which looked like a large-size beehive of sorts, and Munindra told me to follow him.

I’ll describe what happened next in logical terms, because I am person who is more comfortable with practical answers. But you will see how this approach fails to really explain what I experienced.

The interior walls of the building were pale blue and the ceiling was darkened with years of accumulated smoke. The air was cool yet warm at the same time as I sat down on the stone floor. The man took two small metal sticks and began to pray and move the sticks in and over the fire, then sharply tap them on the floor near my legs. Time seemed to slow down and then speed up. I saw the man gather ashes and put them into a folded piece of paper, which he gave to me. I got up and walked outside. I was quiet as I walked to the car, unsure of what to think or feel, yet I was surprised to feel tears running down my face. Not tears of sadness, just tears of release.

No one said anything in the car for a long time. Then we arrived in Mandawa and we all started talking at once, feeling thirsty, wanting fruit, and eager to walk around. At one point I stumbled and my legs felt weak for a moment, yet also energized. My stomach area also felt energized, similar to the way I feel after an acupuncture session. Munindra smiled and said, “things are moving.”

I hesitated to lift my skirt and look at my legs for the rest of the day. Fearful that they were worse, the same...or completely better. Finally that evening as I got ready for bed I took a deep breath and looked down at my legs. The swelling had vanished. That night I had a deep, dreamless sleep. And for the rest of my 17-day trip, my legs were perfectly fine and returned to their normal size and vitality.

Back home again, I was eager to share this story with my doctor. He listened with interest and respect, then shared a story of his own. His teenage son had a long-time skin problem with his hands. No amount of medication or therapy helped. While the family was on vacation, they stayed in a village where locals told them of an old woman who knew cures. By chance, the doctor and the boy met this woman while hiking. She talked to his son and held his hands as they spoke, then gave him some leaves of a plant to rub on his hands. “The next day the skin on my son’s hands was clear and healthy, something that I could not do!” said my doctor, shaking his head.

I write this text, sitting at my desk in France and miles from India. I think of the holy man, sitting silently in the shade of the eucalyptus trees and tending the sacred fire. I imagine Munindra and his smile when he saw that my legs were better. I walk over to the shelf in my office and pick up the small paper packet of ashes and I hold it tightly in my hand. Some things cannot be easily explained.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cold days, warm hearts

So what did I do on Christmas? I joined my husband's family for a big dinner – 19 of us in total. The young people did a great job of decorating the table and serving the food. My father-in-law (previously described in "Smooth Stones, Shiny Stones") remains in a mental cocoon of Alzheimer's, but he was affectionately cared for by all of us and seemed to be happy. After dinner when the group played a game together, Pierre walked around the table, watching us. He was like a friendly silent planet, circling the sun of family warmth and activity. The two youngest members of the family, aged 2 and 8 months, were the center of loving attention too.

I have two special memories from this holiday time. One afternoon while I was staying with my in-laws, I felt very tired from all the celebration took a short siesta. When I woke up, my mother-in-law Jeannine was sitting on the bed, smiling at me. She gently touched my face and asked if I was OK. She was concerned, because in France, to say you are fatigué (tired) can also mean that you are depressed. What we said was not important, for me it was her motherly warmth and caring that touched my heart. This gentle woman made me happy, made me cry, and made me feel loved.

At the end of the holiday celebration, all of us said goodbyes and prepared to leave. Of course it was still freezing outside (literally -3 C). The wind rattled the branches of the bare trees and sun was starting to set, but the sky was still blue and clear. Then Gwenelle, a woman in the family, ran up to me to give a final goodbye. I expected a bisous on my cheeks, an airy, lightly impersonal French social kiss.

Imagine my surprise to get a hug – something that isn't very typical in France. I grew up in a culture where hugs are typical, so I like hugs a lot! I returned the hug and it was a good one – I could feel the energy exchange and emotion. When I looked at Gwenelle's face she looked vulnerable, happy and energized, all at the same time. In my mind, I can still see her face framed against the cold sky and feel the echo of her hug.

It's still cold outside, but I'm warm inside. In 2009 may the light of love warm your heart too.