Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tribes at St. Alban's - December 2010

I often reflect on how it is that a group of people come together and create a comfortable and inspiring community. This week a group of teachers and teacher candidates came together with the intent of learning about Tribes. Everybody had the same objective for being there and, each person, (except for one couple) came alone. There were 20 participants. The 4 day in 3 scheduling, makes for a pretty intense time, particularly for me, the trainer. I want to keep the pace moving, and at the same time, not wear out brains and bodies before I have presented important materials.

During the first module I usually show a film that features Bonnie Bernard who shares her studies about fostering resiliency factors in youth. The film is impactful for teachers because it emphasizes the effect that teachers have on young people as they grow into independent and productive human beings. It is a really good film, and, I find that it provides inspiration for the participants as we embark on this 24 hour training together.

Recently I lost my DVD of the film so I’ve been using my video version. St. Alban’s VCR, where my session was being held, was not working! Instead of panicking, I decided to invite the entire class up to my house to watch the video. I live a half of a block away from St. Alban’s. I suggested that the participants grab their lunches or go to the nearest Loblaws to purchase their lunch, and meet at my house to watch the film together.

The bonding of this group happened almost immediately. By the end of lunch that day, all 20 participants were comfortable with each other. Exchanging emails and telephone numbers they were arranging carpools and sharing lunches. Undoubtedly, the inclusion stage with this group happened organically and naturally.

Comments like “Wow! This is the first time I have ever taken a course and been invited to the instructor’s house!” or “Hey, this is just like going on a field trip!”

Calamities like this, and working our way out of them together brings the learning alive. Learning is only worth happening if it’s relevant outside the walls of the classroom. And certainly, whatever happens in our Tribes sessions also happens in all of our classrooms in one way or another.

Last week’s group was a joy. It reinforces my ideas that everything happens for a reason. Someone (I think it was my friend Penny) taught me that learning is fundamental. First you have the fun. Then you have da mental!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Institute for Child Studies and Tribes

There is something about working with teacher candidates that I find completely inspiring. Perhaps it’s because they are fresh and excited about teaching and anxious to do a great job in the classrooms. They seem to be idealistic in a real sort of way and definitely genuine in their belief about changing the world. I feel honoured to be accepted as a part of their pursuit.

The group I’m working with now is from the Institute for Child Studies at OISE, University of Toronto. I am noticing above everything that this group is smart. Along with their intuitive intelligence about teaching, they seem to have acquired knowledge that supports who they already are. Their programme is a Masters programme in Education. Various Bachelor programmes come together in one group to create a solid foundation in education and/or human development.

It is also wonderful working with a group who are already immersed in the stage of inclusion. They know each other, joke together, and despite the fact that there is limited job availability and lots of opportunity for competition, they seem to be so supportive of each other and helpful and together.

It reinforces the idea that establishing a solid foundation of mutual respect and appreciation is critical. I’m wondering if their appreciation of each other further encourages information sharing and, enhances the achievement level and degree of knowledge learned.

Sharing this time with them has reminded me of the difference between assessment and evaluation. When your classroom runs smoothly there is very little need for tests. Students stay on top of the material, get directly to the tasks at hand and ask questions on their own when there is need for clarification or desire to extend their learning. For students who need more….asking for it pushes us just a little it further. As teachers, we can’t expect ourselves to know everything, but we sure want to stay open to learn.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gurukala


“You are not the doer”. Says Margaret an Indian woman of 61 years and my newly discovered spirit sister. “I didn’t understand that when I was younger. I do now. Nothing that happens to us is irrelevant. Everything happens for a reason. And all the reasons are all important.”

My last few days in India are perfect. I am with Mah (that’s Margaret) in a, once upon a time ashram, that has become a small retreat for anyone who wants to be here. In the 70’s Gurukula was the home to Guru Nataraj and his devotees. Living communally, studying and practising the Guru’s Nataraj’s teachings, Mah and her husband Vinaya lived with others. They grew food, bred cows and chickens and rabbits, practised Yoga and studied with Guru Nataraj. Everything they did was because of and in support of their Guru.

Looking at pictures from those early years, Mah and her husband, Vinaya wear love beads and headbands, reflecting the vision of the time. Sincere in their quest for inner growth, cosmic love and ultimate peace, Mah still struggles for the similar values that inspired her to become a member of this Ashram in the 70’s. Things haven’t changed much for Mah since then. Her 4 children have grown up and moved away, and have families of their own. Vinaya is gone most of the time teaching in other areas of India and abroad; a proclaimed disciple of Nataraj. Mah is the lone caretaker of the 10 acres now, nurturing the land, actively improving the space and consciously making it available to anyone who needs help and attention. She has become the real earth Mother of Guruluka and the one that ultimately lives the dream of the ashram.

“Some days when I am aware of my own ignorance and I realize how much I don’t know, I understand. It is just like what the Guru says. There comes an understanding and when it comes, I realize it’s not wisdom or something great. Its just simplifying life and it gives me more freedom, happiness, comfort. There is nothing big that leads to enlightenment. It’s only about remaining hopeful.”

Hope nowadays is reflected in the new Bookroom being constructed near the old meditation room. Mah’s vision, along with friend and collaborator, Sahadevan’s skill as an architect, create the necessary energy for the beautiful developments. Mah sees it as a place to meditate, read, think, and be quiet. There is a place for prayer, for sleeping, and for washing. Small gardens beginning to sprout where the landscaping has been carefully planned lend to the natural and simple beauty.. Each cluster of money donated to the ashram is allocated to help finish this project. Any one who stays at the ashram is encouraged to work.

The common house that centres on the kitchen, is a simple shack made of solid cement and wooded roof protected by shingles made of . I am told that this roof replaced the palm leaves that used to separate them from the sky. Together Mah and I laugh about her memories of the cockroaches falling from the large leaves. I am humbled by my own fears of those critters and comforted that Mah shares the same gross fear. In fact, I am noticing how much alike Mah and me really are and how quickly we are bound to each other’s spirit.

The cement floor replaces the cow dung that used to be spread on the ground to protect the growing children. The gas stove sits where the open fire used to provide cooking space. Today, a refrigerator squeezes into an empty space on the side of the entrance door and preserves the many rolls of paneer, and bowls of freshly churned butter and buckets of freshly made curds that Mah makes daily.

Two cows are milked twice daily, and with the milk, enough revenue is generated to feed the other cows, calves really, so they too, will grow to produce milk. 6 litres of morning milk goes to the village, and, then each evening, enough milk is produced to share with the few people who live here regularly. Mah makes food for anyone who is staying here and provides full meals for all the workers who come to sustain the buildings and the landscaping. She makes strong coffee with hot sweet milk each morning, and, in the evening, insists that a cup of warm milk with honey will contribute to a warm, comfortable night’s sleep. Both are habits I have embraced!

Peacefulness and calm is here for me. As I walk through the grounds the trees rustle, and, although the sun shines, the heat is manageable. I am not accessible to Internet and Facebook and bank statements. I have made time to meditate, play my guitar (I’m still not any good) and talk with the people around. There are 5 of us staying in the ashram right now, except for me, all semi permanent residents.

Mahima is Mah’s daughter who happened to come for the week. We all agree there is something cosmic about her coming, unexpectedly, the same day as my arrival. The three of us spent many hours in conversation sharing experiences as mothers, daughters, and women in diverse cultures. Our relationship has grown fast, and strong. As Mah says, “Things don’t happen by accident.”

We milk cows, sit cross-legged in the kitchen over countless cups of coffee, read to each other from books, share personal writing, and have hours of conversation considering the meaning of life at this stage of our existence. We prepare and eat wonderful Indian meals, Mah insisting on separating a small portion of each dish to protect me (needlessly) from the hot spice. We make curd and various flavours of paneer. We hug trees, go into town to shop, walk in the gardens, and take care of the animals. Sahadevan and I even go up the road to the local cafe where we share a beer.

Mah says “Life is like a heartbeat, it goes in and out in and out. We need to go with the heartbeat. The heartbeat of the soul becomes life. The purpose is to feel comfortable being a part of the whole that is there. It has a personality. The core of life is that heartbeat.”

Mah is the heartbeat of GuruKula. Mah is what keeps the place alive!


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Keeping It Simple


Exhausted…truly exhausted, I have just arrived in Bangalore. I am on my way to a small and very quiet ashram in a town outside of the city. My teacher’s teacher lives there and I am going to spend my last 4 days in India with her. I have no idea what to expect. It is just another adventure that awaits me.

My hotel is a small hotel conveniently located near the bus station. I’m not sure if it’s because the bar of soap they gave me is so small, or if it’s because I am so dirty, but in order to feel clean, I used almost the entire bar in one washing.. It seems to be a clean hotel and the people are really nice, but I think I’ll keep my suitcase closed the whole time just in case.

Settling in quickly, I immediately take a walk around the bustling city. Even at 10:00 at night, the streets are packed. I end up buying myself a bottle of beer to enjoy in my room, and I my way back, stop for a quick masala dosa at the vegetarian restaurant connected to my hotel.

The trip here has been incredible! For me, it’s been a perfect example of why I love India.

The 11-hour train ride from Fort Cochin to Bangalore travels through fields of rice paddies and fields of ancient woods. Kerala is a part of India that is mostly green; beautiful fields growing cashews and coconuts and spices of all kinds pass by from my window. Occasional groups of small mountains are in the distance. Without a map, I’m not sure which mountains they are. These periods of green are sporadically interrupted by villages of multi coloured rooftops and simple cement homes.

For much of the ride, I stand on the shaky platform connecting two cars. Open to the passing scenery, I hang on to both side sand let the strong winds hold me back. I feel a little bit like Kate Winslet flying from the bow of the Titanic. I wonder why, in Canada the cars are closed off, preventing us from experiencing these simple joys of train travel.

The people around me on the train are what really make me love India! Across from me is a family of mother, father and 4-year-old son. Our conversation begins with “Where you from, madam? What country?” That’s a typical ‘pick up’ line for most communication starters. I end up spending lots of good time with the son. We colour together with the markers I have in my bag. He is thrilled when I pull out my monster puppet from my suitcase. I even have a container of play doh that keeps us busy for a long time. But the real gift we shared was this:

During the duration of the trip, it is a treat to purchase the foods that are sold on the trains. Passengers are regularly buying cups of sweet coffee or chai from the men walking up and down the aisles, yelling “Cofi, Cofi”. Or “Biryani biryani... veg, egg or chicken biryani” “Chali Chali (that’s chai). I buy enough coffee for everyone presented in paper cups. Typically, people throw empty cups and any form of garbage out of windows. Of course, that would be a ridiculous thing for me to do. Without garbage cans any where in the train, I take my empty plastic water bottle and I twist my cup to squeeze it into the spout. There I collect my garbage throughout the trip.

As the little boy begins to throw his cup out the window, I offer him my bottle to do the same. He is pleased especially when we share a friendly ‘high five’. The conversation with his parents is about keeping the country beautiful. By the end of the trip everyone in our area of the train are squeezing their garbage into the bottle! There is talk about ‘habit’ and how difficult it is to change. The understanding that the little boy will be forming other habits was definitely realized!

One man, a doctor of forensic science asks me,” What do you like about India?” I like that question. It makes me think. Finally, I answer, “I like the simplicity of India. The gentle spirit of the people allows me to feel safe and accepted. There is no need to be other than what I am. I like that. It’s just simple.”

Later on the same man asks, “In Canada are the trains the same?” I hesitate to answer. I don’t want to insult him. He has no idea how different things are in Canada!

“Yes”, I answer finally, “Much different.”

“How different?” he asks, “Cleaner?…more sophisticated?”.

“Yes….much cleaner and, yes, more sophisticated.”

We both smile knowingly. “But once you get sophisticated, it’s not simple anymore.” I say.

I think we understand each other.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Gratitude



I have been blessed with a spiritual family. Sajee, a Yoga master, his wife Aji, daughter, Vinaya, son Taku, and mother, Suleka, who I call Ama. My stay in Fort Cochin is enriched forever because of the new friendships I have developed with each of them.


Taku is 15 years old. Tall, slim, smiling and quiet, Taku is very talented, and though he doesn’t say much in words, his character is strong and confident. During my visit this month Taku began guitar playing. At first learning songs from the Internet, he sat for hours at a time replaying pop songs and practising until they sounded the way the original artists meant them to sound. Any time I was at their house, Taku was strumming. His music filled the sound space. His sister, Vinaya, proudly says, “Taku is very talented. He plays football, all kinds of sports. He plays music and he’s very smart in school.” Her admiration and love for her brother is beautiful.
Vinaya is 12. She and I had many adventures together. Riding our bicycles through Fort Cochin, we carried out chores, ate lots of ice cream and talked to many people while walking along the beach. Vinaya and I visited the Jewish synagogue in Jew town. It was the first time she had ever heard of Judaism. In the same trip we went to a Jain Temple, another religion she had not known of. It was exciting for me to take Vinaya to places in her own hometown that she had never seen before. I think there were days that we actually tired each other out. Vinaya was a wonderful companion, sharing the simple joys of Fort Cochin!

Amma, is one of my Indian spiritual mothers. Crouching in the corner of her little room, I would find her engaged in prayer and occupied in her own communication with God. The melodic chanting and the eventual sound of the bell, indicating final prayer reminds me to connect to my own God, or, at the very least, my own Godliness. Carefully and lovingly preparing satvik meals for breakfast and dinners sustained me after each yoga practise. Delicious, nourishing and energizing I regularly wonder how she has so much patience to instruct the many soux chefs who try to learn the art of satvik cuisine in her kitchen.
Aji reminds me about my own quest for balance in daily life. She is so pleasantly real and full of love for life. Her strength, like a lion protecting her cubs, is mixed with compassion, understanding, and dedication. Working hard outside the home, she still makes time for others. My Indian wedding experience was enhanced because of Aji’s attentive presence during the entire day and, especially, wearing her sari for the occasion. I think Aji was as excited as I was getting dressed for the wedding, and I never would have been able to get dressed without her! We had such a great time together in Ernakulum where I bought Indian fabric so that she could make me a salwer. What a talented and smart woman!

Sajee, dear Sajee! He is my teacher, my friend, and my spiritual brother. My life is so enriched since he has become a part of me! I learn so much about ahimsa, compassionate living, unconditional love, and unity…Yoga. His strong positive energy, ability to teach others, and openness to listen and share have filled my days with richness. We spent wonderful hours talking together. All I would have to do is call on his cell phone. “Sajee? How ya’ doing?” I would innocently inquire.
“Where are you?” he would reply. “I’m sitting at the beach, just watching the water.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He would inevitably say.
And he was! The hours of conversation we spent together were often profound. And then there were often times of long silences. Whether it was conversation or periods of quiet, most of my time with Sajee, was profound and rich. I will remember his melodic instruction in Yoga and his unique, gentle and loving guidance in meditation. Sajee is, for me, a great Master!
My month is finished in Fort Cochin. My body hurts still sometimes, but my spirit, my psyche and my heart are healthy and full. Thank you to my spirit family. I can’t wait to see you again soon!!!!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shilpa Society

My work at Shilpa has been very interesting. The school services about 140 multiply handicapped children, all of whom have a mental disability of some kind. The children, for the most part, seem happy, friendly, eager and safe. At first glance the school seems ideal, servicing many very needy children at one time in a calm and pleasant manner.

I think many of these children are capable of doing more. Sometimes, as professionals, we tend to settle for what comes easily. Instead of pushing capacity and maximizing potential with kids we satisfy ourselves with the small accomplishments. Though many of the children are non-verbal at Shilpa, many can speak and show signs of further literacy potential. Some of them, even with no verbal skills can learn to play a musical instrument appropriate for their physical abilities. Certainly a large proportion of the children could learn enough to improve their possibilities and prepare them for self-respecting and worthwhile jobs.

In the beginning of my work at Shilpa I delivered 49 musical instruments to the school, a commitment that Paul and I made the last time we were here. Tambourines, shakers, little drums, harmonicas, wooden flutes, and assorted percussive instruments ensured consideration of all abilities and physical restrictions. We even made wrist bracelets with bells so that all children…even those with limited mobility, could participate in making music! There is music for everybody!!!

Upon the delivery of the instruments the teachers were thrilled and noticeably grateful. They claimed instruments for their classes and made a plan about how to share them. The experience was exciting and I felt satisfied with our contribution. Since that day, however, I haven’t seen any of the instruments! The place remained quiet until I decided to engage the staff and kids in music making!

The last day together, with my friend Sajee, I distributed all the instruments to the eager students. Beginning with simple patterning exercises, the children were able to reproduce simple, and then more complex patterns of sound! There was such contagious joy as they each played their instruments and laughed. After a while, we played music and just had fun. Those that could…danced. And those with limited mobility simply made noise! The energy exploded. The children were totally energized. Calming them down with some simple breathing exercises, modelled how to create energy in a classroom and still being able to ‘be in control’. Sometimes I think teachers are fearful of too much noise.

Academic instruction at Shilpa is limited. Teachers supervise simple activities but from my observation, don’t really teach. Teaching requires intentionality. Long and short-term goals are necessary in order to clearly identify progress for each child. Teaching is about setting clear objectives and finding the connections for each student to reach them.

I brought a pile of picture books from my closet in Canada. I realized that, between the language barrier as well as the cultural barrier, and the fact that most kids have difficulties holding books, I would need to modify my approach. The physical action required for reading made the skill extra challenging. Good teaching begins with finding the place where your students are. Once that is established, we can take them to the next step, as long as we are clear about what that step is.

Before class, I cut the pictures out of several of the books and glued them (I always travel with a glue stick) onto large slips of paper. After distributing the cards to the kids the next morning, they each dictated a sentence, in Malayalam, for the pictures that they had. The teachers transcribed the sentences onto the paper. Each child was instructed to ‘write something different than the one before”. The children did well, offering diverse ideas and contributing to an array of sentences for each of the illustrations. They were pleased, and, familiar with their own words, several of the students were even able to read it back.

I find working with multiply handicapped children exciting. Even with my belief that all kids can learn, finding the appropriate connection for each child is unique and very specific. Perhaps it is the language barrier. Too much of my interaction with the children is lost in translation! Maybe it’s the attitudes of the teachers who seem a bit too complacent about keeping their students happy and disciplined. Expectations are minimal. Simple completed tasks are accepted as enough with no effort to push a little more. Children are engaged in repetitive tasks that do not offered challenge and opportunities for growth. I tend to push harder and look for ways of pushing just a little bit more. Sometimes challenge, and some degree of pain, is good for growth.

The Shilpa School has a strong history of success and is certainly a haven for hundreds of beautiful children, many of whom might be out on the street bordering on the edge of survival. At Shilpa they are given a bright, pleasant, friendly place to be and everything they need for daily survival. I look forward to my continued involvement there and feel grateful to be associated with such a wonderful place!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Kerala Wedding


My new friends Bomi and Victoria have a daughter who got married this weekend. Early last week I received a call from him inviting me to the wedding and also to the pre wedding dinner. I immediately accepted! What an opportunity for a Canadian girl!

Roshni and Bomi are marrying for love. That is unusual in India where arranged marriages are common. Parents are usually expected to be more adept at choosing a partner for their offspring than the offspring themselves. If, it turns out, that the marriage doesn't work out as well as expected, the parents intervene. Most young people in India are comfortable accepting parents' selections. If the couple marry for love, families of the couple take no responsibility for the outcomes. For Roshni and Bomi convincing their parents to marry, was apparently not a simple task.

The weekend begins with a pre wedding dinner at the bride’s house. It is a ritual to welcome neighbours, friends and family to celebrate, and, share nostalgia about Roshni’s life in her birth-home. It is also a time to bless her future. After the wedding, her home will be with her husband and his family.

The dinner was delicious, but it definitely wasn't about the food! The family and friends were joyous, and welcoming! I met so many wonderful people with whom I had great conversation and made future plans for getting together. time. In a modest home, hidden in the narrow alleyways of Fort Cochin, people wander in and out, eating, talking and socializing. There is no music, no liquor, and no wild behaviours. Just a solemn, quiet and friendly gathering.

Early the next morning I make my way to my friend’s Aji’s house. There we dressed for the day. Wearing a sari is (almost) mandatory at a Kerela wedding, regardless of one’s cultural background. I was thrilled for the opportunity!

Aji chose one of her most vibrant saris for me to wear, and we both laughed as she tried to instruct me about putting it on. With 5 ½ meters of fabric, folded and creased and twisted and draped, I decided to just let Aji dress me. I’m not quite ready to learn how to do it by myself. Too much work. I felt wonderful in a sari, although it definitely would take some time to get used to. I was a bit uncomfortable with the open midriff, and I kept stepping on the long skirt.

The bus ride to Ollur took 2 hours through rough roadways and crowded neighbourhoods. Travelling in India is never boring. Between the compact little villages that line the roads, the treacherous passage on unfinished roads, and the constant beeping of horns, there is always something to grab your attention. The bus, full of Roshni’s family and friends was quiet and sleepy.

Arriving in the village of Ollur I notice that the village is small and compact not unlike most villages in Kerela. Driving through the narrow streets, however, it is evident that there is some degree of wealth in this place. Large, and simple homes line the busy road and well-manicured gardens reflect a more middle class community. I would guess that that might have made it easier for Bomi and Victoria to agree to this marriage for love.

In India, ritual and prayer make up the marriage ceremony. In the Catholic Church, the ceremony is simple with the priest singing from the scriptures. Strictly in Malayalam, I didn’t understand anything, but gestures and common practises led to a feeling of familiarity and understanding. Hands together at the heart, arms lifted in welcome to God, eyes gently closed, all reinforce the solemnity of the ceremony. The marriage is only complete when the bride and groom place their hands on the Bible and join together in their prayers. Then they both sign a contract of marriage.

Sony presents Roshni with a sari that has been purchased by his family. After the ceremony, Roshni is excused from the crowds to change into her new costume. She is now a member of the groom’s family.

When the formal part of the wedding is over, all guests are invited to eat. The hall is packed with tables of food…. curries and rice, chicken, and beef and fish. When I enter the hall, there are no seats at the tables. People eat in shifts. Only when four seats become available did Aji, Taku, Vinaya and I sit to eat. Still….no music, no liquor, no dancing, no wild behaviours. At the end of the meal, I am thrilled to finish the meal with vanilla ice cream. Vinaya and I ate (at least) 3 portions each!

Following the meal, the newly married couple go directly to the groom’s parent’s house, where they will live. It is the first time Roshni has set foot in this home. All the attendees of the wedding accompany them to offer support and protection for the transition. It is then that Victoria and Bomi, say good-bye to their daughter and send her off to live with her new family. I can only imagine the loneliness Roshni must be experiencing albeit surrounded by so many people.

I talked to both Bomi and Victoria on the bus ride home. “How do you feel?” I asked them both separately. Bomi answered quickly, “I don’t feel.” He said. “It just is.” Victoria, on the other hand, responded, “I’m sad. Really sad. And happy too.” I think I understand that!

The bus ride home was unlike getting there. Rain caused several of the roads to close and, typical for India travel, it took double the time to get home! This time though, with music blasting, and guests dancing in the aisles there is a wild expression of life!

6 hours of travelling was worth the 3-hour wedding experience. I would do it again in a flash especially if I get to wear a sari one more time!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Not just a Doctor's Office


Dr. Sreedevi is my Ayurvedic doctor. She’s been doing this for 35 years. She is plump and dark skinned and has a perpetual show of teeth through her broad Cheshire smile. Sreedevi and I have become good friends and I get the feeling she enjoys my visits as much as I do. With her I feel cared for and sincerely loved.
The therapist’s name is Sindhu. Youthful, (24 years) with a gentle and shining beauty, Sindhu is timid in her liveliness. Not comfortable in English, she usually repeats whatever it is I say. The water is very hot, Sindhu”, I might say. “Water hot.” She parrots with the typical Indian head wiggle.


One of the purposes for me coming to Fort Cochin is to deal with (what Western doctors call) arthritis. I just know there is a way to deal with the pain and progressive deterioration of the ailment without the use of cortisone and surgery. In Canada, the cost of alternative practise is prohibitive. In India, Ayurveda is well practised and highly respected as a medical practise. It is inexpensive, and completely manageable especially when considering Canadian Dollars.
There are various types of therapy in Ayurvedic treatments, many of which include massage, medicinal oils, heat, diet, meditation and relaxation. The treatment that has been prescribed for me is called Kizhi (pronounced Kiri). Each day for 7 days I lie on the massage table. The first ½ hour is a general relaxation body massage, to stimulate the blood and warm the circulation. Then for the next hour a therapist applies warm medicated packs to my body to induce perspiration and sooth the joints. The kizhis (packs) are made each time with herbs, medicinal leaves and theraputic oils according to the doctor’s recommendations. The therapist, using two kizhis gently thumps the body with one while the second one heats up. Then she switches so that the application is always very hot.



Yesterday I told the doctor that I am having so much trouble sleeping. Though jetlag could be the cause now, I also have sleeping issues even when I’m in Canada. Sreedevi lovingly handed me two tablets to take at 9:00 tonight and the invitation, “Come tomorrow. We do Shirodhara.”

Shirodhara is a form of Ayurvedic medicine that involves gently pouring liquids over the forehead (the 'third eye'). It is recommended for creating a relaxed mind and body, good sleep, increases memory and will nourish the hair roots. “Okay”, I thought. Let’s try it!
Shirodhara was an experience unlike any I have ever had! The constant and consistent flow of cool oil on my forehead almost immediately quieted my thoughts. I found myself drifting, not sleeping; just flying through the atmosphere. I think I have never felt so relaxed!
Last night was the first night since I’m here that I slept more than 3 hours. This morning I brought flowers to the clinic from a local roadside cart. Sreedevi smiled broadly at me and said “This will make it so you here, with me all day!” Sreedevi is one of my blessings here in Fort Cochin.
Sindhu, Sreedevi and others are people who thrive on the healing of others. They genuinely care to know that what they've done is helping. I feel blessed to have these people in my life. With their love and professional attention I am feeling healthy, strong, and vital!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Eating Alone


I know many people, both men and women, who crave the opportunity to sit in a restaurant in solitary bliss with no one to talk to and no other distraction other than being alone and enjoying their food.
Paul and I would often comment on the number of people we saw in restaurants sitting by themselves. “Is he lonely?” “Do you think she wants some company?” “How long are they out there travelling and spending time with no one to talk to?”
I like talking to people. Sharing mealtime is a perfect opportunity for that. Our family ate together regularly. I’m used to rich conversation and eating! Travelling alone does not mean I have to always be alone!
Most of my meals on this trip have been eaten with my Yoga family. It is common to share a meal after Asana practise and meditation. My Yoga teacher’s mother conscientiously prepares a full 4 course Satvik meal while we are practising. Then we all sit together to eat.
Occasionally, I take a meal outside in a restaurant, of which there are many here in Fort Cochin. Usually I decide what kind of food I crave. Choices include vegetarian, and non-vegetarian. And especially in Fort Cochin, there are delectable fish dishes available in restaurants where the cook walks to the water front to chose the fish specific for your order. You can’t get fresher than that!
On Saturday, as part of my day, I decided to try a local dish of grilled calamari and rice. I sat down at one of the outdoor cafes where young men stand on the side of the walkway beckoning hungry pedestrians to eat. Attention was immediate with the offer of menu and “What would you like to drink, miss?” (They mean soft drinks. Liquor is forbidden in most restaurants in Kerala).
Sitting beside me was a lone Indian woman. Her attempt to initiate conversation, “Where are you from?” was quickly accepted and, before too long, I invited her to join me at my table. We had a wonderful meal together and shared our personal information. Originally from Delhi, she is a journalist for one of the many Indian National newspapers. She was visiting Fort Cochin to cover a story. Conversation was rich and I learned so much about her and about Northern India. When we finished our meal, we paid our own bills and parted. I learned how easy it is to have company even if I travel independently.
Today, I decided to have a late breakfast out. Paul and I had frequented The Kashi Art Gallery and Café when we were here together in February. I decided to satisfy my desire for hot natural oatmeal and brown honey with whole multi grain bread and wonderful pressed coffee. These are not staple foods easily found in Indian cafes. What a treat!
I found the place easily and, leaving my bike outside, walked through the one room gallery of artwork on display. Just past the gallery is a simply furnished restaurant area. Natural wooden tables are strategically aligned to ensure everybody has access to the outside environment. Various species of lizards and other tropical wildlife run freely, (mostly) on the outskirts of the décor, but sometimes make their way closer to tables of feasting patrons. As I walked through the entire restaurant I was disappointed to find only one empty table that was in the front corridor. It wasn’t my first choice, but I happily sat down to order.
Within a minute, a brown haired, bespectacled man approached me to inquire if I was sitting alone. “Yes.” I said. “Would you like to join me, or, if you like, I’ll join you?” he suggested.
I felt completely comfortable accepting his invitation. and got up from my table to follow him to his spot, right middle of the of the outdoor area. There he had been enjoying his coffee and reading. We spent the next two hours talking and sharing cup after cup of pressed coffee and food.
It turns out, Matt is a British 43 year who married the love of his life three years ago, having met her during his first trip to Kerala. She is Malayalam. He is British…not a usual match here in India where marriages are usually carefully arranged and organized by the parents of the bride and groom. His stories are rich and unique!
The people here genuinely like to interact. There is sincerity and joy in communication and an honest regard for others. I understand that. I feel very comfortable with it!
I’m happy that I’m not afraid to talk to strangers. I feel confident in my intuition about people and often inspired by the depth of interaction and personal information that we share.
My boys often make fun of me for talking to strangers. They often chide me for smiling to people on the street or initiating conversations that lead to extra minutes of talking. They sometimes (respectfully) warn me, “Mom. Now don’t talk to anybody!” as we enter a bar together or meet at festivals or public gatherings.
I don’t listen to them though. I like people. I like talking to them. I enjoy listening to their stories and sharing life's lessons through our experiences. If I had my way, I’d never eat in a restaurant alone!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stephano

I made a new friend this week. Stephano was selling hats on the waterfront on Friday afternoon. He stopped to try to sell one to me. Once he was convinced I wasn’t buying, he joined me on the stone bench under an old gnarly tree in the park. We stayed there together for over an hour sharing initial introductions.

Stephano is from a small town in Karnataka just outside of Bangalore. His family lives modestly, each of them working hard to have enough to prepare meals and subsist. Though he didn’t say any of this, I would guess there is no running water and certainly no electrical appliances. His two older sisters and their families live near by and all of them work at odd jobs to survive. We talked about his family, his small modest home, his relationships with his mother and father, and the challenges and joys with his siblings. In a short time, we became friends.

Three years ago Stephano lost his leg after being hit by a car while walking down the road. He lost his girlfriend in that same accident, and his job shortly after. He is 26 years old. After the accident, he left his home and came to Fort Cochin where he walks with the help of a short stick, which came directly from a local tree. Today Stephano is selling hats to tourists on the makeshift banks of the Arabian Sea.

When I finally convinced him that I really was 56 years old, he insisted on calling me ‘Auntie’. Auntie is the name of respect for older women. I suppose that’s what I am.

And when we parted, he probably never figured we’d see each other again. Neither did I.

Today I thought about Stephano again. It was late morning and I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I decided to ride in to town, do some chores and meander my way down to the water just to see what might happen. If I saw Stephano, I would ask him to join me for a meal.

Riding through the now familiar streets of Fort cochin I parked my bike at a local shop where the proprietors don’t mind watching it while I’m away. I dealt with my chores and started my stroll down to the waterfront. The quiet was only amplified by the activity. The fish being hoisted from the sea in enormous nets by the busy fishermen seemed aware that they were going to end up on someone’s dinner plate. I could almost hear their mercy cries.

Families, strolling together after their Sunday morning prayers are holding hands, laughing and enjoying their Sunday holiday. Many people make direct eye contact with me. They smile and often stop to talk. Their interest in me is obvious and deliberate. Their laughter and attention towards a white woman from' somewhere' far away comes honestly. Often a person simply extends a hand, shares a smile, and simply says, “Welcome”. In a place where I am so strange, I do not at all feel like a stranger!

After walking for a while and I eventually sit on a rock overlooking the water, feeling completely content and at peace! I marvel at the beauty of the water, the flow of the boats that glide their way through the waters, the colourful array of merchandise lining the grounds of the waterfront. How lucky am I to have this time in such a beautiful place!

As I sit, several people come to sit with me to talk. Babu was one such man. We talk about many things including Yoga. When he starts to talk about Tantra Yoga I warn him that many women might find that a little weird and that he perhaps, might reconsider how easily the word sex flows from his mouth. I trust in his harmlessness, but I’m not sure others would. When he senses I am eager to get back to my writing, he picked himself up and extended his hand as he says good-bye. No harm done! Ahimsa.

I did finally find Stephano sitting with a group of his friends. As I approach, his joy in seeing me is apparent. We reconnect quickly and before long we are walking off to the nearest local kiosk for lunch. “You pay for lunch, Auntie?” he asks, seemingly worried about not having money to pay for it himself. “Of course I will, Stephano. It’s my pleasure.”

We sit at a local restaurant, the kind my mother warns me never to eat in. Stephano knows just what he wants…grilled fish, rice powder and curry which he ate vigorously. “Thank you, I’m not hungry.” I say.

The cook insists that I eat the freshly fried bananas and sip some sweet hot tea. We sit together with other men eating their meals, many of them wanting to find out about me. People pass inquisitively with the same curiosity. My friend responds to their queries with pride. He is happy. So am I.

As we walk back to the water I find it challenging to keep up with Stephano’s fast paced hopping. Never a complaint. No more requests. No expectations. Only gratitude and appreciation.

The meal (with ice cream for dessert) came to 53 rupees. ($1.03) But my new friendship is genuinely priceless.

I know I’ll see Stephano again. I think he knows it too.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Choosing Happy

We have the choice to be happy. That’s what yoga teaches. I sometimes need to be intentional about remembering that. Ego interferes with that sometimes. “Am I good enough?” “ “Do I do enough in this world to be deserving?” “ Am I loved enough?” Do I love enough?” “Is it ever enough?”

These are some of the questions that plague my soul sometimes.

Last night I went for a bike ride into town. I grabbed something to eat and just got on my bike and rode. I’m happy on my bike. I feel free. I observe, feel a part of what’s going on and yet I keep moving as if I’m just passing through. As I glanced over my shoulder, passing a crowd of men laughing together while sipping tea at an outdoor table, an older man with a long white beard called out to me, “Don’t look back, miss. Never look back.”

Only in India would someone shout out comments like that on the street. Its’ simplicity is profound. It doesn’t really take much more thought than that. Just “Don’t look back.”

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit work for doing no harm. It’s also simple. I often think about my behaviours in this life and how I can be better; do more; practice tikkun olam (healing the world). I have come to believe that to live cleanly is a matter of making sure I do no harm. Often teachers in my workshops ask me questions that begin with “Is it okay to….. when trying to help a student?” My answer is inevitably, “It is okay to try anything you think might help, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” The more ways we interact; the more approaches we use to attempt to communicate, the more likely we will be to help others realize success. Ahimsa….no harm.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning in Cochin

There is just something wonderful I feel as I travel through the streets of Kerala. After 28 hours of travel from Canada, I feel absolutely exhausted, and yet I am exhilerated! I am full up. People here are so welcoming and happy. As they see my smile, theirs becomes even bolder. There is a silent communication that happens between us that is so loud. I feel close to many of them as if we are actually brothers and sisters. There’s something so familiar.

I wish I could photograph the noise on the streets. Cars honk at each other vigorously. Bumper stickers here shout “Please Honk!” And they do. There is no road rage. Just everyone driving wherever the heck they want, with no rules, no boundaries and no order. And no one gets angry! It’s crazy!!!

Jet lag is what wakes me this morning. But the life outside is what inspires me to open my eyes. The musical prayer of the muezzin from the nearest minaret comes louder than the vicious spin of the fan above my head. I turn off the fan just so I can hear the rest of the world rousing outside my window.

The birds are waking up too. They begin to squawk with purpose and strive to share their song with each other. I can’t imagine they do not act as an alarm clock for many once the call to prayer has ceased. They have certainly woken me up from the inside.

The mosque reverberates with men’s voices in prayer. I hear them from very far away. There is nothing but the sound of the waking birds to interfere with their sound transmission. I don’t mind being woken. I like being surrounded by others’ prayer.

With the fan off, I hear the mosquitoes and the neighbour washing outside my window. A flute plays softly as she prepares herself for the day. Does anyone know it’s 5 in the morning?

I suppose I’ll make it to the early morning Yoga practice with Sajee. As always, I don’t like having to get up. And I welcome being up for it if I am awake.

There is something very special about the homey streets of Fort Cochin early morning. Men, wrapped in their sheets, stand outside their walkway brushing their teeth. “Good morning” I crow as I pass each one. “Gut morning” they each inevitably reply! The city is waking up and I feel it exploding in my soul! Good morning all!!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Leaving Home

I want this day to last forever and I also want it to end. I’m leaving home tonight for India. For the next month I will be on my own. My love and best friend stays at home. I’m off on an adventure!

My children are grown and independent. My work is good and provides us with enough income to get by. I have a reputation that is strong and promising. I like what I do and I seek balance. I am a partner in a storybook fantastic marriage with a man who supports my sense of adventure and loves me no matter how crazy I appear. I crave time to explore in my own time and in my own way. I want to understand the dance between independence and interdependence. I want to meet new people, practise Yoga, and experience other lands. I want to give Paul the gift of a full night’s sleep.

Too much unfinished business in India left over from Paul's and my trip earlier this year inspires my repeat visit. We had such amazing experiences, sometimes passing through places where I wanted to spend more time. I am doing that now. I am on my way directly to Fort Cochin, a small diverse community in Central Kerela. I’ll be studying Yoga, working in a school for multiply handicapped children, being creative and free, and healing with Ayurvedic treatments.

YOGA.....Sajee helped me bring my Yoga practise to another level. It is through Sajee I began to experience my practise as a prelude to living. His gentle guidance and non judgemental, unconditional love became part of Yoga as I know it now. It is no longer just exercising the body, but an on going practise for life, striving to be a good person and a loving being in search of balance.

WORK.....Shilpa Society (www.shilpasociety.org) is the name of a school for multiply handicapped kids. Paul and I visited there when we were in Cochin in February. They’re waiting for me to come and anticipating my working with their kids and their teachers for the month I’ll be there. My luggage is full of books and toys and musical instruments that several people have donated for me to bring to the children there. I love that my teaching practise brings me there. I can’t wait to get my arms around those children.

HEALING.....Fort Cochin is the hub of Ayurveda Medicine. The last time we were there Paul and I made use of the Ayurvedic massage. The doctor there suggested, that in order to really benefit from the Ayurvedic practise, you need at least 10 days. I intend to benefit during my stay this month. In the West they call it arthritis and the remedy is cortisone and then surgery. In India special diet, homeopathy., meditation and aromatherapy might heal my body. I’m going to give it a try and see if the pain goes away.

CREATIVE AND FREE.....I am carrying a guitar over my shoulder. I like carrying a guitar. It’s a little bit like walking a dog. People initiate conversation more. I don’t really play guitar. Not because I don’t want to play. It’s just that I never have time to practise. I am going to learn how to play 5 songs really well while I’m in India. They are songs that I have hand selected. I printed out the words and Paul wrote the chords down. I want to practise. I want to learn to play.

Writing is how I make sense of my world, and, ultimately isn’t making sense of our world what each of us tries to do in life? My world is full of wonder. I want to live it, understand it, and share it always!

I’m off on my adventure…

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Brookdale

My mother lives in a nursing home now. She is one of the many people sitting in the middle of the common room of Claire Bridge community. The residents are placed there because it is easier to care for everyone when they are rallied together instead of being alone in their rooms.

My mother is not happy. She is in the middle of this world and the next. Dementia seeps in and spreads quickly. There are many simple things, some of them basic hygienic practises, my mother can no longer do. She needs the regular care of others to help her in her daily tasks.

Brookdale is a good place. The people who work there show a great deal of compassion and care. They seem to genuinely like my mother. It’s the best we can do. And my mother is not happy. Mom puts up with the people in her midst. She is trying to fit in quietly.

“What’s your name, young lady?” That’s Georgia. Georgia has Alzheimer’s. Her eyes barely move. She seems to be looking at the same thing all the time. Her head moves but her eyeballs stay constant. Georgia smiles a lot though, especially when she looks across the table.

“That’s my husband”, she says. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. We’ve been married for 63 years”

I look inquisitively at the man sitting next to my mom at the lunch table. The same people eat their meals together regularly. This is my first visit. I am meeting them for the first time.

“63 years!”, I exclaim. “Wow” that’s amazing!”

“Yes” says Harvey, “We’ve been together for 65 years. I live upstairs. I come down every day to have lunch with Georgia and to make sure she’s getting whatever she needs. We moved here from Arizona a few years ago to be near our children. We moved in to one of the apartments upstairs. Now Georgia needs to be down here, but we get to see each other every day.”

“Yep” says Georgia. “We met 65 years ago. He just walked in to my brother in law’s gas station and we’ve been together ever since. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. “

“That’s true”, Harvey pipes in. “It was a real gasser” He’s obviously used that joke before.

Constance sits across the table from me. She too, seems a bit disoriented. I watch her turn her head to look straight at Georgia. Her hand slowly crawls “I love you.” She says clearly. “I would love you even more if you loved me too. Give me your hand.” Georgia ignores her. Constance continues to stare.

I slowly slide my hand across the table. “I’ll hold your hand.” I say. Constance shifts her eyes from Georgia to me. She smiles gently. She thinks briefly and then switches her hand from Georgia’s direction into mine. Her eyes close just a touch and she says, “Hmmm, that feels so good. You feel so warm.” We sit holding hands for several minutes massaging each other’s palms and warmly moving our hands around one another.

The man sitting at the end of the table is called Ben. Ben never speaks with his voice. Everything Ben says happens with his eye gestures and the nature of his smile. Today, Ben is happy. His toothless smiles shows contentment with each bite of the hamburger he munches. Ben smiles and winks at me, a stranger. I am a friendly face sitting at his table.

Mom doesn’t want to talk to anyone. I am acutely aware of the stories that will never be told. Nobody seems to care about the stories. Nursing homes are necessary places in this society in which we live. I am uncomfortable.

As warm and compassionate and loving as the staff might be, they are still strangers to my mom. I wish I could take her home and be there for her on a daily basis. I know she is comforted when we hug together or when, while lying on her bed we lie side by side as two spoons in a drawer.

It will take a few generations to get us back to caring for our parents. It won’t happen in my lifetime. But if I plant a seed in my grandchildren’s soul, it is possible that they might nurture it and help it grow.

For now, I am comforted by the fact that (at least) my two oldest boys know that, whatever they choose to do about me better be pretty nice because they are not long after me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Doing and Being

There is a woman who comes to our synagogue every week. She’s not Jewish. I know this because I’ve talked to her.

Eva is a small framed, solid-looking Philippino woman with long, thick dark hair pulled together into a simple ponytail at the back of her head. The wheelchair that she maneuvers holds middle-aged Penny. She is paraplegic with coiffed sandy red hair, and thick wide rimmed glasses that often fall down the arch of her nose. Eva, I find out is Catholic. She is non practicing and unsure of her religious commitment. She has been sponsored from her homeland to be a full time caregiver for Penny.

Penny is Jewish and tells me she is relieved to have found our Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto. Here, she can practice Judaism in a liberal, traditional practice that values inclusivity and diversity. As a Reconstructionist, women and men have the same rights and responsibilities, Jews and non-Jews are both considered chosen by God, and the synagogue sanctuary is a home for all.

Penny’s accident a year and a half ago prevents her from living independently. She relies completely on the help she gets from others. Attending synagogue has brought her back to her roots, allows her to self reflect and helps her to feel reconnected. I’m not surprised to learn that Penny anticipates her weekly involvement in Shabbat service, time for prayer and meditation, and opportunity to interact and engage with others. I feel the same way about my attendance each week.

Eva makes sure that Penny gets to services each week, pushing her wheelchair through the snowy streets and settling her among the synagogue pews. Eva sits down beside her and throughout our very long service attends to Penny’s needs, sometimes turning the pages of the prayer book, often wiping her nose with a fresh tissue, occasionally whispering something to her.

Week after week they are there. As the traditional prayers and songs are sung together, I often sympathize somewhat with Eva. “She must be so bored,” I think to myself. “How noble is she to sit patiently with Penny during a 3 hour service.” I wonder about the depth of the relationship that must be developing between these two women and how each depends so much on the other.

At the end of each service, as we all meet in the dining area for our shared Shabbat meal together, I greet them both with a “Shabbat Shalom”; in English means “Good resting day”.

A few weeks ago, engaged in my own self-reflective prayer, I happened to glance over to the other side of our sanctuary. There was Penny in her wheelchair, leaning back, cushioned in her protective neck brace. Next to her was Eva. This time Eva had her own prayer book in hand and she was confidently and knowingly singing along with the rest of the congregation. “A real Jew.” I said to myself, and with a smile and a nod shared the sight with my husband Paul.

Eva was being Jewish. I wondered how much she understood…how much she knew. And then I thought, that for those three hours of practice, it didn’t really matter. She was engaged in communal prayer in our Jewish community. The two women shared something profound.

It reminded me then of what an old mentor of mine once said. In preparing me for professional growth and possible promotion, she commented, “In order to get this job, Amy, you will need to already be doing the job.” It made sense to me that I need to show that I could do what the job required.

Sometimes being depends on what we do. In Judaic law you don’t have to believe in God to serve God. Judaism is a religion of practice - lighting candles on Friday night, sharing a ritual meal before the Sabbath, sitting Shiva for deceased family members, and remembering the anniversary of their death by saying a memorial prayer each year, fasting on Yom Kippur, and symbolically throwing our sins in to the rivers in the form of breadcrumbs for ducks to eat as they swim away. For many the practice is the beginning of the belief. If we “do” Jewish before we feel Jewish, it is only a matter of time before what we do becomes who we are.

I don’t know if Eva will ever consider herself to be religious. And religion isn’t what this is all about. I realized that what we do in this world eventually translates to who we are. And what we are is recognizable, ultimately, in what we choose to do.