Root medicine 1

Undeveloped rolls of film, under my bed. Faces emerge from the liquid dark. Memories I forgot I had remember me. Jet lag pushes now into the past, the past into the now. I am here. India rising indeed.

The children are with me this time. Where did they come from? The seven years between this visit and the last are soft drinks fizzing and cutting the sweet scented jolt of whiskey I have been longing for. The India I have been keeping in my heart looks back at the real self she is the reflection of, and is pleased, “The years have been good to you.”

3am silence has begun to crumble as four year old and six year old tummies remember that it’s dinner time half a world away. As I pad quietly into foreign yet familiar kitchen to forage for pre-dawn here/evening there sustenance, memories of awakenings past prickle across my brow. I used to keep quiet, tell no one, wake no one, brain whirling, stomach howling, when it was I who was American grandchild come home. No close in age sibling to share my ravenous insomnia.

Already this is different for them, because they have each other. And because I am here. I know what this is like, the fear–love pull of roots on far flung branchlets. They are emboldened because I am here to anchor. Already they have giggled, snuggled, checkered, ribboned, and serenaded their ways into my Indian family’s loving embrace. Fed by hand, carried on tall uncle shoulders-newly anointed Prince and Princess.

Whether or not they remember, they will never forget. I never did.

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He Feeds Her

He loves his babies. Always has. His hands perfect for holding small heads. His long flat chest a place to rest and hear the thump-tha- thump just like it was in mommy’s tummy.

I hated breastfeeding. Never enough milk. What did come was so often vomited back onto those bags I lugged heavily on my frame. She’d scream with acid pain and empty belly.

He’d soothe her patiently.  Rocking, and shushing and swaying. Cooing, and patting, and humming.  Loving her with every inch of himself.  She’d sleep fitfully. Reluctantly convinced into rest.

Midnight feedings were hazy nightmares. He wanted to help.  But the best milk was in me.

Breast is best. Breast is best.  Breasts are beasts. Breasts are beasts.

After each feeding, I’d wake him, saying, “Take her.  I can’t do this anymore.”  He’d rouse himself. Sweep her up in the darkness. Pour sweet nectar into her ears.

Delirium twisted mother’s milk into mother’s bane.  But the shame, the shame seemed worse than this.  The shame and the failure:

A stay-at-home mom who does not breast feed.

Unspoken damnation whispered into my mind’s eye. “You’re a bad mother. Selfish. Weak. She will suffer forever. It’s all your fault.”

He said, “You don’t have to. It’s OK.  Don’t listen. I love you. You’re good. You’re good.”

No. You’re good. I am bad.

He said, “I want to help. Let me help. Let me feed her. You can rest. You can sleep. No more pumping. No more soreness. Let me help.”

Every day for months, we three danced this way.  And I felt myself pushing away from the child so waited for. Now, so hungry, always so hungry.

And me with nothing left to give.

So I let him help.  Knowing I was bad. She would suffer. He would leave me.  All good things, as they say, would come to an end.

But instead.

When the clock struck 10 I’d be fast asleep. A night-owl, he stayed up for the midnight feed.  And I, the early bird, took the 4 am, happy to be with my girl.

So rested, body mine, no pumping, no resentment.  Just the everyday trials of new parenthood – shared equally by two.

My burden had lifted.  And his was increased? Would his baby love stay so strong in the face of the feeds?

When I asked,  he said, “You don’t understand. You have given me a gift.”

“I hold her in my arms, bottle in hand, and she looks at me.  I see in her eyes something different, something new, something real.”

“‘You feed me.’ she says, without words.”

“I am her father, and I feed her. Don’t you see? We men are not supposed to feed. But I want to feed her. I need to feed her.”

He feeds her. To this day, he feeds her.  And she knows it.

And we are all free.

 

 

 

Queen’s Daughter

Your mother once saved me

from a fearsome beast.

We traveled to new lands,

and laughed in the face of danger.

We marched into battle

on fields of green grass.

She bested champions

with the pounding of her mighty hands.

And when it was time

to celebrate season’s end,

she wore a flowing gown of sky blue

Remember this always

you are the queen’s daughter

Walk tall, ride free, be Queen.

soft, and light, and filled with dreams.

Nightmares I remember

giant octopus

Age 4:

I am at school. It is empty in my classroom.  I walk through the long halls out to where the playground should be.  Instead there is a forest.  I see the kids and teachers hiding in the trees. I know what they are hiding from. I climb a tall oak tree with huge branches.  I hear a sound like a huge dream beating.  An enormous egg shaped purple dinosaur monster approaches me.  It says,”‘I will eat you and everyone here.  If you don’t want me to eat you, go get me some ice cream.”  I run inside the building.  I search and search and search. I find the ice cream in an old canvas magazine rack.  I carry the cold tub of Breyers chocolate out to the backyard forest.  The monster is gone.  The kids are gone. The teachers are gone.  I stand alone with the ice cream as it begins to melt. I am hungry, and it is my favorite flavor, but I will not eat it.   My stomach churns. Did I save everyone? Did I save no one? Did I save myself?

Age 16:

The sun glares off of the sand dunes.  I feel the power of the dark horse beneath me. My hair is whipped by the wind. My robes flap and flail behind me.  My people ride behind me with urgency.  We must return quickly for the ceremony.  I arrive at the longhouse.  There is trouble, famine,  war approaches. I am the clan leader. The high priest tells me that it is time.  We walk out to the side of the building.  A long iron rod sits in a bed of hot coals.  The starshaped brand will mark me forever. I I raise my bare right foot. He places the brand against my sole. I do not cry. This is the only thing I can do.

Age 23:

I stand on a sun-drenched hillside.  The bright green grass blows lazily in the breeze. There are dozens of children around me giggling joyously, at play.  A gray cloud moves across the sun and the breeze turns cold.  Over the hill crest, I notice water rising.  A bulbous form the size of a hot air balloon emerges.  The tentacles reach toward me – so many I can’t count them. They grab small bodies, lifting them into the air, squeezing them.  I fight one arm at a time. I can do it.  I free one child, and the now empty arm seeks out and plucks another child.  This will never end.

Age 36:

I sit in the driver’s seat of my old four door silver Honda civic.  My husband, my two children, my parents, my grandparents and all my kin by blood and by spirit, sit in the car with me.  I am excited to take this journey with them all.  We are taking a vacation to Ocean City, M.D.  I pull onto the bridge that crosses over the water.  I can smell the salt air,  feel the summer heat on my skin.  The radio is playing “Miss Independent” .  Then, right in front of me,  a silent wall of water, 10 stories high, appears before me.  Above me, the arching water touches the blue sky where seagulls soar.  In the car, we are all silent.  There are no words

I drew two pictures

I drew two pictures, just like the book suggested.  I was home alone, beads of sweat pooling in the crease between my thighs and the swell of my baby-filled belly.   The crayola box was covered in a thin layer of  dust.  I selected brown and red and peach and yellow, blue and gold and pink.  I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply.

Fear: I drew a dark, windowless room. I drew myself lying on a bed. My big, brown bulging form was strapped down by black wires and cords. I drew two women near me and colored their  faces peach and gave them long blond hair.  I drew word bubbles rising from their mouths. “#*?! ”  they shouted.  On my right calf muscle I drew a large red X.

Hope:  I drew myself sitting up in bed and my husband Jon next to me.  I drew a brown-skinned woman smiling nearby.  I drew a river flowing out from between my legs and a small brown baby floating atop.  In the air above the baby, I drew a star.

A few weeks later:  I sat up on a delivery room bed at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago and  pushed.  The room was bright.   I closed my eyes and went inside myself.  I sensed the people in the room: my husband, my blond nurse, and my friend Sandhya.  My right leg spasmed and I shouted incoherent commands to this team of supporters. “You!”  I pointed frantically towards no one with my eyes closed. “Rub my leg! Up! No, down!  Left. More left.  No. Outside!!”  I felt hands on my leg, easing the cramp into a dull ache.

The nurse’s voice warned me of the next coming wave.  “Focus on your bottom!” Words you only hear in a delivery room or at the gym.  I breathed in deeply, standing somewhere inside myself in the dark, wondering who this child would be. “Do you want to feel the head?”  I reached down between my legs and felt a patch of hard skull covered by soft hair no bigger than a quarter. I wondered why my baby’s head was so very tiny.  I imagined I was pushing out a small doll. It seemed very doable.

The doctor appeared between my legs.  “Hi Aarati, I am Dr. Starr. Your baby is almost here.  Let’s get another good push.” I pushed my soul against hers, willing her into the world. I felt a sudden gush, a rush, and thrust myself against myself. “Wow! That’s a lot of water! Here she comes!”

Asha. Hope.  Kimberly. From the meadow of the royal forest.  The hope from the meadow of the royal forest was born.  All hail brown-skinned, all hail pink-skinned.  Born on water and under a star.  She is here, she is here, she is here!

 

 

Worm Catcher

I wake up early.  My parents are snoring in their bedroom. I peep in. Daddy curled over on his side, shirtless.  Deep belly breathing.  Mommy sleeps with one eye open. Doctors on call always do. She lies flat on her back. Her hands are clasped together as if holding a phone. She is ready to spring up, but doesn’t.  No calls came tonight.

Early morning light paints the hallway yellow-orange.  I pee with the door open because I am alone but don’t want to be.  I crawl back into my bed and close my eyes.  I wish I could still be asleep, but I am not.  My stuffed bunny and I talk about breakfast and what’s on tv.  We get up and stand at the top of the stairs.

I am scared of those stairs.  I am not sure what I am scared of.  Downstairs is tv, and food.  Upstairs the comfort of warm, breathing parents nearby. The stairs creak.  The stairs are steep.  The stairs are dark and the wood is smooth, almost slippery.  Peril. Danger. The front door to the house sits at the foot of the stairs.  Warm light pours in through the small square windows. But I cannot see the couch, the carpet, the living room from here.

What if it’s not there? What if this is a dream?  What if they hear me and wake up?  I want their company, but it’s 5am, they need their sleep, and I want this time.  To watch The Great Space Coaster, to eat cinnamon and sugar toast, to sing my own silly songs.

I clutch my bunny to me and take a breath. I sit on the top step. Today I will slide down even though I am six and can walk down the stairs like a big girl. This way I can be safe. I can be quiet. I can watch the light change. I can peer through the slats of the rail into the silence of the living room.  I can watch for the signs.  It’s what I do every morning. I am the early bird.  I am the worm catcher.

 

Naturalized.

Born in New Delhi, capital city

of the largest democracy

in the world.

Raised in Delaware, first state

to ratify the constitution

of the USA.

Chose to become, U. S citizen

on my 21st birthday.

Relinquished allegiance

Pledged allegiance

Listened to the speaker

U.S. war veteran

telling us all

to speak English only

from now on.

Wondered why

I had chosen

a land of one language

over the land of 100 tongues.

Posed for pictures.

Voted for change.

Watched towers burn.

Mourned with my countrymen

but feared persecution

by the Real Americans.

All the while

lyrics swim in my head

from the dozen fireworks displays

of my youth.

“I am proud to be an American,

where at least I know I am free…

and I’ll gladly stand up, next to you.”

But sometimes I still wonder,

will you stand up next to me?

 

 

Jai Meerabai

Something about her captivated me.  Her waist was so narrow I thought it could fit between my thumb and pointer. Her eyes were wide and earnest and far away.  She was enraptured, tortured, swimming in the deep waters of pain and love. Her soul married Krishna, a Hindu God, butter thief, lover of women, and consultant to Kings, when she was five years old.  Her parents later married her body to a powerful lord, but she remained faithful to Krishna in her heart.

Her love for Krishna over family led to her being ostracized and attacked by her powerful in-laws.  Krishna protected her from these assaults.  He turned poison to ambrosia. He  transformed a bed of nails into a bed of roses.  Venomous snakes became garlands of flowers. She fled her in laws home and traveled the country, composing hundreds of song in praise of Lord Krishna. She became famous for her beautiful songs and the purity and strength of her devotion.  She grew old but did not die. She spent her last moments on earth performing rapturously in front of a crowd of hundreds, collapsed at the feet of a statue of Lord Krishna and vanished.

Meerabai. Poet- saint. Chanteuse.  Her Raags are still performed today.

I met her in a comic book when I was 8 or so. She was a beautiful illustration of a woman in love, a persecuted soul,  a spiritual leader.  I fantasized myself into those pages. My long eyelashes drooped sorrowfully and a playful half smile formed on my lips. I held my veena to my body, caressing the strings with a passion that I could detect but did not yet understand. I would name my daughter Meera in hopes that she would follow in the footsteps of this tragically mortal woman immortalized in pastels and word blocks. She was more beautiful than Cinderella, braver than Snow White, and more tortured than Belle. She was my fairy-tale princess. She was better than a fairy-tale princess. She was a real person.

In my 20s I worked as a rape crisis counselor and prevention educator.  As a counselor, I was surrounded by women in love, persecuted, and tortured. Their lives were not romantic, beautiful tradegies.  Life was painful, complicated, and real. As an educator, I spoke to hundreds of teenage boys and girls.  I talked about the power of stories and the messages in fairy tales. I wanted them to know that love did not have to equal pain and abuse. During those years, I thought often of Meerabai. Her story glorified pain and suffering. I would not name a daughter after her. I did not even know if I wanted children anymore. Comic books and fairy tales were fantasies concocted for and by men.  For a time, I let Meerabai go.

She has been calling to me lately again.  There is an itch inside of me. A  place in my mind that flashes her picture.  A small voice in my head trying to remind me of this one thing – Meerabai was no fairytale. She was a real woman.

She was born in 1498AD.  She wrote hundreds of songs that are still sung today.  She refused to join her husband on the funeral pyre. She left her family to wander the country. She sang to crowds of hundreds. She challenged the priests of the day with her devotion and piety. She did not heed the words of men because Krishna was the only true man.  These are the things we know about her. How much more is there that we do not know?

I want to know the herstory of Meerabai.  I do not want to be her, or name my daughter for her. I do not want to fetishize her or idolize her. I do not want to know the comic book version of her.  I want to know her pain, and her resilience, and her conviction and her insanity woman to woman. That is the story I can learn from. That is a story I can tell my children. Meerabai lived.

I am the Child of Music

“Sing. Sing a song.  Sing out loud. Sing out strong.  Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear.  Just sing. Sing a song. “ – Sesame Street

I am the Music Hour Lady.  One hour of the day, one day a month, for the last two years I have led babies, toddlers, and other stay at home moms in song.  “Stomp your feet. Clap your hands. Everybody ready for a barnyard dance.” I talk to the children in a cheerful sing song voice.  I belt out nonsense lyrics at the top of my voice, with my son tucked on my hip. “I like to oat, oat, oat, opples and banonos.” I row my pretend boat around the room, going faster, and faster, and faster. I feel like I am 6 years old again, older than the babies, but still little enough to truly love this moment. But I am not 6 years old.  I am the Music Hour Lady.

I am the Hot Guitar Playing Indian Chick.  I sit in the stairwell of my dorm with my guitar.  I am learning to play my favorites – Dar Williams, Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin.  Sometimes I sing at the open mic night on campus.  I know I am not the best singer or guitar player.  My friends who play are serious and I’m pretty sure that they will keep Doing Music for the rest of their lives. My songs are for me.  “I fell in love with the man in the moon. And that man can ride a dragon.”    They are there for me when I need them.  I write songs when the mood strikes. “Turn around and your standing there, stalking me.”  but I forget to write them down. “Grandma wears bangles. Gold on paper skin.” They are just for now, just for here. 

I am the Drum Major.  “We’re not #5, not #4, #3, #2.  We’re #1. CHS!”   The football team is not doing so well this season, but it doesn’t matter.  The band will be there to cheer them on. I raise my arms up in the air. “Horns up!” Let’s give the crowd something to cheer about.  At halftime we march onto the field.  I step up on the podium.  I feel the eyes of a hundred musicians on me.  When I move, the dance begins. Bodies swirl across the field, and music pours into the stadium.  We are the screensaver for the game. We maintain the energy and enthusiasm of the fans until the second half.  We are the Concord high school marching band.

I am the Child of Music. It is late at night, but I am still awake. It is the summer after 1st grade. I am in an apartment in Madras in India. The air is heavy like a thick wet blanket. The room is open with very little furniture.  My head is resting on my mother’s lap. My father sits on the floor across from us, a guitar in his hands. There are a dozen or so others in the room,  women in colorful saris and salwar kameez, men in pants and short sleeve button down shirts.  Everyone’s feet are bare. Everyone sits on the floor. Some clutch knees to their bodies. Others legs splay out at their sides. Some sit cross legged and upright.  I am sleepy.  The room has been filled with music all night. My father finished singing and playing a moment ago. “I am just a poor boy though my story is seldom told. ”  Now it is my mother’s turn.  She clears her throat first like she always does.  She rubs my head gently. She closes her eyes as she sings.  “Mere ghar aye ek naan paare.”  It is a lullabye of sorts, my favorite. She sings of a beautiful fairy who appears at her window.  Everyone around her sighs.  I nestle my head into the space between her waist and her thigh and fall asleep. The night of music has just begun.

Soul Searchings

Image

SOUL SEARCHINGS
 
My sister was born with a tooth in her mouth and a chip on her shoulder.  She was spoiling for a fight from the first.  She eyed us suspiciously. She lashed out at us mistrustfully.  She was born on the defensive.  I was 9 when she was born. It was then that I began to  think seriously about the possibility of reincarnation.  Maybe, something bad happened to my sister in her past life, maybe right before she died.  My parents and I loved the fight out of my sister. It took patience, and time, and a Fred Flinstone punching bag.  She remained angry through her preteens, and then she mellowed. Whatever had happened to her before, she seemed to have moved on.
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While in college, I traveled through Austria and Germany with the chamber singers. We performed hymns in old cathedrals.  In each of those spaces, as we began to sing, I felt myself disappear. My voice blended with those of my fellow singers. We became an instrument played inside a space that no longer existed in time.  We could have been singing a thousand years ago or on another planet.
During that same trip, we visited the concentration camps at Dachau.  I saw the ovens where hundreds of thousands of Jews were burned.  As I walked in that space, I was swallowed by the silent voices of a thousand screams.  I wept continuously. I could not see where I was, or where I was going. My friends took me back to our hotel.  While others went out to the local beerhaus, I sat in my room in silence. I wept. I slept. I awoke again, and was just me.
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After my second miscarriage, I had a dream.  I was in an empty room. At one end of the room, there was a small rectangular pool of water sunken into the ground. A little girl sat on the edge of the pool, dangling her feet in the water. She was plump, with dark curly hair, and tan skin. She saw me, and slid into the pool until she was completely covered by water. I stayed at my end of the room. After a few minutes, she pulled herself out the pool. I went over to her, but she turned away from me. She crossed her arms across her chest angrily. She was mad at me for making her wait. She was ready to be born.

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