No Infertility Story is Created Equal

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As the taboo against talking about infertility slowly begins to lift, I sincerely want to honor every woman who has shared her struggle with this disease that has such a profound impact on every level of the self. While we can thankfully draw on each other’s experiences for support and comfort, it’s important to remember that no two stories can be exactly alike. We might not understand the decisions someone else makes, but we know the struggle, the fears, and the pain behind them. We know the importance of empathy and kindness over judgment, every time.

I believe remembering this is especially important because infertility is still such a new area for open – and raw, and frank and honest – discussion, and we want to have safe spaces where we can feel free and unafraid to share our story, in hopes of adding diversity to the discussion about infertility and childlessness in its many forms.

This is the first time I’m writing about this part of my life, and it’s scary, but here we go, and thank you for hearing me.

The plain and simple, honest truth is that my body doesn’t want to make babies on its own, and I’ve never quite gotten to the point of going to any lengths to have them.

I also struggle with wondering why I want them, but won’t do anything it takes to have them, and with why I’m still sitting on this fence at my decidedly un-tender age of 44.

On the one hand, I’ve grown very used to life without children after four and a half decades on Earth. I also feel that I could be a great mom, and that it would be almost unimaginably rewarding to bring up a little being in this scary, yes, but crazy beautiful world.

I love kids. I’ve always gotten along with them. I love how they know exactly where all the great hidden portals are, to the wild, natural, unfettered, pure and genius side of our universe, and how readily they invite us along for the ride, if we’re willing to follow them. There is a boundless quality of energy involved in everything related to children that I connect with, adore and cherish.

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I look at children and I see hope, innocence and a purity I want to protect forever. I want to learn from kids about believing in things, having passion, and thriving in the world of imagination, and I want to introduce them to this world that badly needs the wisdom of children, with their kindness and openness to discovery. I want to help facilitate their brightening and healing of our world. I want to feed and care for them, and really listen to their questions. I want to see the future through their eyes. I want to break down the walls of my mind and heart and dance with them in the rain and splash with them in the mud, as I work the best I can to nurture, protect and teach them so that they can grow up to be the kind of adults that can turn the mess we’ve made of the world around.

I truly love kids. I feel like I have to say this over and over because one perception people have of people who don’t have children is that they don’t really care for them, or think about them all that much. And the judgment behind this perception is that there is something wrong with people who don’t love and want kids. It makes me sad that not being a mom automatically puts me in a defensive position, that I’m some form of less than, and that I’m complicit in these judgmental attitudes by feeling the need to advertise how much I truly love kids.

One interesting thing I’ve observed about my ambivalence surrounding having them is that my ambivalence does not rule out my desire for kids, and my desire for kids does not rule out my ambivalence.

This is just how it is, the reality of my situation. My head knows it, but my heart is trying really hard to accept that humans can be full of contradictions and mixed emotions coupled with an endless array of unforeseen circumstances, and that this is not a failing. That it does not make me a failure.

As I swim in this sea of conflicting desires and emotions, I become acutely aware, of course, of time passing by. There are people my age welcoming grandchildren into the world. I could be a grandmother. I could also just be an over-40 mother, but this vision seems somehow harder to imagine than the one of me being a grandmother. This is how it’s always been for me, leaning toward the impossible instead of the quite viable possibilities when it comes to having kids.

There’s a solid chance, if I’m not dipping too seriously into science here, that I might have something like 1 egg left, swimming around haphazardly in a treacherous, weakened ecosystem, and I still can’t determine if I am absolutely sure I want to turn this maybe-one egg into a baby.

Sometimes I want it this baby more than anything, but then I start to panic.

As I mentioned, I’m 44. I can’t help mentioning it, repeatedly, because … I’m 44! I feel shame that this one-ish lonesome egg is sitting around, restless, bored and probably highly annoyed with me, bags packed for its next adventure, having given up on the ever-waffling self that has been harboring it. I feel embarrassed for feeling shame in an era that has women rallying the cries of empowerment and breaking down barriers I didn’t even know were boxing me in growing up. I feel embarrassed that I can’t own my uncertainty when I laud other women who choose to remain childfree, or who are uncertain themselves.

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Their uncertainty feels understandable for me. My own fills me with shame. And that’s on top of the shame I feel over not really fitting in to the infertility community because of the myriad reasons that have prevented me from seeing a doctor even once about it, as though years of failing to conceive month after month don’t already qualify me as infertile.

I find myself obsessively reading about women who don’t have children, who are childless or childfree, by choice or by circumstance. I read about a theory that those of us who don’t have a zinger of a mothering instinct may be the result of a genetic mutation that has survived as long as it has because until recently, women were all but forced – and sometimes actually forced, by convention or rape – to bear children. Now that women in some parts of the world who don’t want children aren’t having them, our breed will die out, and the “normal” state of affairs, in which all women desire to bear fruit, will resume.

So according to this theory, women who do not want kids, or who don’t know if they want them, are by definition mutants.

Even though the world is over-populated. Even though we are eating and consuming the planet into a state of … well, not a good state and sometimes I feel that bringing another being into the world now is downright socially irresponsible.

I can relate to this mutant theory, though.

Obviously I only have a lineage because people in my family were bearing little ones, but I’m lucky enough to have a large enough extended family to include several women who never had children. I remember them as the ancient spinsters of my childhood, and I don’t know why they didn’t have kids, just that they didn’t. I have always felt an affinity with them, despite hardly knowing them, and despite having no solid evidence as a young adult that having children might not be possible for me.

Our image of spinsters is largely fed to us by the media: they are homely, less than conventionally attractive, gaunt (because of course more voluptuous women are not only fertile, but of a jolly enough disposition to attract men), and can be either shy and plain, or eccentric and/or ferociously intelligent (too intelligent, of course, to attract a man who could remain un-threatened enough by her intelligence to stick around and plant his seed).

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These images, horrifyingly misguided as they are, also serve to entirely swipe out portrayals of so-called “average” (cringe) women who do not have the distinction of being exceptional in a homely, brainy or eccentric way, and who are without child by early-to-late middle-age for reasons that are already so excavated as to be well-trodden tropes: we have been career-focused; we have had spotty relationship histories; we are daring to try to first work through our crap in a world that is telling us women can have it all without offering support for the emotional fallout of over-extending, or providing an environment that encourages us to figure out how to both live and parent (or not) in a conscious, mindful way.

It makes me sad that there are no mirrors for women like us. Without this mirror, we are made to feel that we either have to have children, or be seriously productive in other areas to compensate for the fact that we haven’t. A child or … a masterful artwork. A Nobel Prize. A life-saving medical breakthrough. An Eat Pray Love (the book everyone who hears a summary of my life compares it to). Then it’s okay. At least we’ve made something of ourselves.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t carry the weight of this perceived expectation with me every day. It could be that most people don’t know this. I might appear to be relatively carefree. Some people in the social circles I’ve had over the years admire what they see as my freedom or sense of abandon, and for living such an unconventional lifestyle. But this view does not match how I feel. At all! I was in school, more or less, from nursery school until I had trouble finishing my Master’s degree, at which point I deviated from what was “supposed to do” for the first time in my life (unless you count the time my dad stopped speaking to me for awhile when I chose creative writing over physics in high school).

I called a time out, more out of desperation than an enlightened sense that I needed change. My boyfriend at the time and I latched onto the idea of teaching English abroad. We contemplated Whitehorse and Brazil (!?) before a friend mentioned that Thailand might be fun and they always needed teachers there. Somehow that one stuck, and we ended up there for year. I fell in love with Asia; he didn’t. We came home, and eventually, very amicably, parted ways. I finished my Masters’ degree after my year away inspired the discovery that the weight of the world did not rest on my thesis. I started to work in the film industry and began my Phd part-time, and … was still trying to figure out if growing up was actually a thing while also feeling ancient. I was now in my early thirties.

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I was a late bloomer in almost every sense you can think of, and now, I was finally starting to come into my own, as a woman and as a person. I was really enjoying the social and creative aspects of my work, and learning more about myself through my intimate encounters with men. I was learning, for the first time in my life, what I liked, wanted and needed. I was starting to see myself as something other than someone’s daughter, a good student, that bright person full of potential – doesn’t that word, “potential” sound like more of a cage the older we get? I was starting to wrest free from all of this, and like many others floating in the waters of freedom, I found myself adrift, and not necessarily always doing what was best for me.

By the time I was 35, I managed to pull off one of my goals, to publish a photography book, and also to alienate my new boss and fall in love with an unavailable man – definitely not two of my goals. They ended up being blessings in disguise, as many aspects of my life were unraveling in that sure but subtle way that I almost certainly would have ignored if I wasn’t forced off the proverbial cliff. Getting fired (technically, my position was made “redundant”, but let’s be real) and heartbroken gave me that boost.

I got rid of and donated a lot of my stuff, brought the rest of it to my parents’ basement (it’s still there – thank you!), and went back to Thailand; I also traveled through Indonesia and Laos. I melted in hammocks, found a staggering book about how to integrate our many aspects of self by Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, and spent 3 months inspired by it, writing journal entries dissecting every facet of my personality. It was grueling, exhausting, and immensely valuable.

I turned 36 while on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand close to the Burmese border. This was my first experience with meditation. I projected every last one of my insecurities onto the meditation hall, even becoming convinced that the teacher – who was not present, but teaching via video and audio recordings – hated me, and that basically, I was a completely unworthy meditator and human. This was just some of the stuff that came up for me during this incredibly difficult experience. But it was a beginning, a really good beginning that taught me how much we tend to stand in the way of our own happiness.

Then I left there, and met my now-husband, from Japan, about three weeks later.

 

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Our love story is best left for another time, but to bring it back to babies … I was 36 when we met, and he was 32. We knew pretty quickly that this was going to be a long-haul sort of relationship, and that we wanted to roam the Eastern part of the Earth for awhile. We married in a private commitment ceremony a year later, on a deserted Thai island.

Again, this all sounds very carefree, if not downright hippy-ish. And in some ways, it was. But neither of us are hippies. Seekers, yes. Avid, curious citizens of the world, yes. But laissez faire? No. Certainly not the “me” part of “we”.

A superficial glance at us frolicking across Asia glosses over moments like me, at 37, collapsing in a heap of tears and anxiety on a rickety bed in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in a half-complete, still-under-construction guesthouse (anything for a discount!), sobbing that I was as ancient as the ruins in our midst, and that I would never be able to have kids even if we wanted them. Half of this panic attack was my genuine distress at the years passing me by, and the other half morbid terror that my new husband didn’t realize he’d married an extremely aging womb.

He was amazing, and said that if and when we wanted them, we’d try. If we couldn’t and still wanted them, we’d adopt. It was basically the perfect answer, and I was mollified.

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Maybe too much so. We eventually moved to Japan – I was now 39 – and we decided to stop trying not to have kids. I’d also decided that I didn’t want medical intervention, that I’d rather adopt if I couldn’t conceive naturally. This just felt right to me. The only lingering fear in my mind was that our lives were not settled – we didn’t yet know where, or how we would live, making adoption seem like a far-fetched fantasy.

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And here we are, over five years later. Still in the East, about to move to Canada, and we still don’t know where we’ll settle, or exactly what we’ll be doing. I’m 44 (as you know), and adoption still feels like something adults do, people who have been living in one home for years with one stable job, and everything you picture a good candidate for adoption to be.

I think we are good candidates – really good candidates, even. But … is the life I’ve really, truly been gearing myself up for? What are the parameters of “the kind of life” that leads to adoption and/or child-rearing? Why am I finding it so hard to access my innermost, deepest desires when it comes to having children?

I remember, and my closest friend growing up also remembers, believing from an early age that I wouldn’t be able to have kids. My sister remembers telling her that I wanted to marry a Japanese man and have half-Japanese children, believe it or not. I don’t remember why I came to have this instinct that there would be no kids in my future, or how this “knowledge” made me feel, which disturbs me quite a bit. I don’t remember feeling traumatized by this notion I had. It just seemed like a fact.

Or self-fulfilling prophecy? Month after month, we go about doing what couples do to make a baby. But I’m not going to lie: despite buying ovulation kits and pregnancy tests, I never used any of them. Not once. I haven’t used any apps to track my ovulation, though I did briefly consider using one. I have been extremely casual about my efforts to conceive. I don’t know if this is telling me something about what I really want, or if I’m really just okay with any outcome.

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What should my factors in deciding be? What my gut tells me (it tells me different things on different days, so far)? If I’m satisfied with my life or not (can’t I be satisfied with my life, and still want a baby)? What I feel I have to offer a child (I might have a lot to offer a child, but does this mean I should have one)? The environmental impact of over-population? (Will one more child really hurt if governments aren’t doing anything to solve our problems?) Future regrets I might have if I don’t have them (how can I possibly know)?

Which of these counts the most?

Does it count that not long ago, for the first time, I burst into tears passing by the baby clothes section of H&M on a trip to the mall in Nagoya?

Does it count that one month my period was late and I went into complete panic at the thought that there might be an actual baby at the end of this, refused to take a pregnancy test, and lived on pins and needles until my period finally came, at which point I was equally relieved and devastated?

From what I hear, many people have these kinds of fears and doubts, but as soon as the baby comes, it all disappears and they can no longer imagine life without a baby.

What if that’s how I would feel? Then all my fears and ambivalence are irrelevant, the signs of an immature, pre-motherhood “phase”? Can 25 odd years of my life be considered a phase?

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My friends very rarely ask me about my plans regarding kids. My parents don’t ask. Most assume, I think, that I don’t want them, or that I can’t have them and have “moved on.” All I know is that we’ve been trying, and have been talking about adoption or fostering more and more, but life has also been getting lived, and feelings about kids haven’t become all that more clear. I don’t know if this means my childless life is half a life or not allowing myself to really understand or process how full of a life I’ve been living.

Why is “childless” the first label we are given, that we give ourselves, as women in our forties who are so many other things? Not just “other things”, implying that childless is one of them. Why am I childless, as though being a mother is a given, and this is something I lack? Am I similarly considered boatless, mansionless or timeshareless (all three words, by the way, trigger spell check, whereas childless is a bona fide word). Why am I childless, as though this is something I have done or failed to do, when all I’ve done is live my life up to now, filling it with myriad other positive experiences?

The hard truth is that there might be some of us who will never know for sure if we want kids or not, and before long, the choice will be made for us. Ideally, we want to make that choice for ourselves. I know we do, but it’s not laziness that prevents us from making it. It’s probably many things, not least of which is the incredibly confusing social system in which we have no real place to be heard, understood, supported and embraced.

Sometimes I feel like the world is not my playground to play in (because I don’t have a child to bring me there), that there’s still something monumental I have to accomplish before I’m ready to assume my place in the world. I know I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember – there was always another degree, a better job that stood between me and “full maturity” – and not having children of my own, against whom to cast myself as the adult, has no doubt played a role, and continues to play one.

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I think what confuses and saddens me the most is that we are still living with a very rigidly structured set of rules as to what it means to be a mother. We are either without child, or with child. Why haven’t we moved on to consider alternative ways of living in which the roles of mothering and nurturing become more fluid? In which we live in community (read: not commune, but community), so that we are all mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons? A place where everyone has a role to play as a vital member of the community, so that we can all find our place, and feel useful, and feel fulfilled in whatever way suits everyone best?

There are a thousand ways to be a woman. There are also a thousand different ways to be human. We have arrived here, and I believe we are at a juncture. Systems are failing. The environment is failing. We are failing each other, and our careers are failing us, and there is a lot of failing going on. We are in crisis mode. Women are finally finding a space in which to come forward against the oppression of the patriarchy, and I would love to think that we are on the brink of a whole new world.

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I would love to think that we are not merely looking for a patched-up version of the old world, but rather, a place where we radically reconsider what the norms are and should be, what it means to have partnerships, intimate relationships, what it means to identify as a man or a woman, mother or father, and what kind of world we want children to be raised in.

I beg – let’s find a real, authentic place for all of us, with acceptance and love. Let us honor people’s decisions and also honor the undecided, the confused, the ones still wondering but not wanting to be left behind. Let’s offer people the space to be and to find out who they are, so we can form real, healthy decisions about identity and the needs of self and society. Let judgments become tolerance, so that people feel safe to find and make the most honest, best decisions as the truest versions of themselves, along with those they love and trust the most, for the betterment of every last one of us sharing this planet.

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A Letter to My Loved One.

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Many years ago, I did my first university degree in Journalism, and while I loved the program and learned so much, I never had the instinct that I was going to become a journalist. I loved writing and communicating, without a doubt. But something was nagging at me – I always felt like I wanted to go deeper into knowing people’s stories, delving into the infinite layers of what makes things what/who they are. Eventually, I chose to go to film school, where I studied theory and thoroughly loved diving into the world(s) of meaning and beauty through film analysis. Now, all these years down the road, I am embracing a huge aspect of myself: as a writer and poet. I also, for the first time, see my words appear in The Guardian (which would have made my younger self gasp in awe!), not as a journalist, but as a person engaging in storytelling from the heart. It’s amazing how far our journeys take us in life, and how we also find ourselves always in a state of coming home … I wrote this anonymously, but wanted to share it with the few dear souls who check out my page! (p.s. they also changed the title. I actually feel understood by others too …

You can find the article in the Guardian, here. I’d love to know what you think!

A Winter Solstice Experience.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

It’s mid-afternoon, sunny and cold, and perfect.

It’s winter solstice, and in under two hours the sun will have set but this feels impossible right now.

Somehow I haven’t fully registered what day it is, but I was compelled to venture outside into the cold to soak in the sun’s magic on this shortest day.

I’m at a park sitting on a bench. I just picked up an ant with my pen, mesmerized by its bright, almost neon-yellow colour and overwhelmed by gratitude for the privilege of being alive with such a vast array of gorgeous beings. As I lowered the tiny ant back to the ground, I flicked the pen ever so slightly and the ant stopped moving.

Tears that had been welling up inside for hours now, maybe days, came pouring out. I sat under a great, big tree and wailed, knowing with my whole heart that the violence involved in ending this yellow ant’s life was beyond my comprehension and ability to forgive.

The air was sharp and cold and I felt like I was swallowing daggers. The untimely death of this one sentient creature was without a doubt going to spiral the universe down a chaotic path the outcome of which I couldn’t fathom and which terrified me, or even this: that the very nature of the universe is inevitably chaos, to so comfortably accommodate a death that wasn’t supposed to happen this way, right now, that was the total opposite of sensible or okay.

I looked up at the sky right into the blinding sun, looking for a sign that chaos wasn’t going to reign, but I didn’t find anything.

I didn’t want to think about things like the Butterfly Effect or Things Are As They Need to Be or Karma or the Cosmic Order of All Things. I was too busy crying about accidentally killing an ant and about a multitude of confusions that had been threatening to consume me.

Then the ant started to move.

I giggled and then bellowed with laughter and cried at the same time.

Now, a father and daughter have arrived at the park, and the father starts teaching the girl how to ride a bike. She’s reticent. He loses his patience and forces her off the bike, wordlessly threatening to end the session.

She protests and he lets her back on. He pushes her from behind to get her going, and she pedals a few times before losing faith in herself and bringing one foot to the ground.

They try again. This time he doesn’t let go, but encourages her to keep pedaling, which she does. He says go go go go! But she halts in fear every time he’s about to send her off on her own.

Again he takes the bike from her and walks it away from her. She trails behind, protesting and crying.
He walks away from me toward the far end of the park. She runs after him, and they turn, and disappear from my view. I hear her wailing, and soon there’s no trace of them.

How many times in a life do we put the wheels in motion, and become paralyzed with doubt and fear, and come to a dead stop before there’s any hope of reaching the goal? How many times do we bow before the horrible things we have done or the good things we cannot do, and have no clue where to go from there?

Is there somebody encouraging us, or acting as a negative force?

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to matter.

It’s our journey to take.

The scene that was just in front of me: it was just a girl and her dad, two people in the park on a cold sunny day, this very first of winter. There was also an ant who sort of almost died, regardless of its knowledge of me or my feelings about it. We are all dancing our little-yet-powerful dances on the same proverbial stage, so clearly on our own, so clearly not.

But here I am, feeling melancholic and bedazzled at the overbearing momentousness of everything, so instead of an ant and a girl and her dad, I have jumped right into a living parable.

I’m watching my own self reach the rubbly edge of a cliff, that place where one life ends and something unnameable begins, wholly determined to fly.

Then I screech to a halt so dramatically that I almost break my ankles as I lurch back in terror, both saved from a fall totally paralyzed by what I have failed to do.

How far back to these fears go, that even in my visions, I cannot leap into the air?

How many times did the little girl inside of me tell herself—maybe she was told and maybe she wasn’t—that it cannot be other than this, that there was nowhere else to go, to be satisfied with the parameters of success dictated by a world she didn’t even know how to navigate yet?

She was wrong. It’s always and is always becoming other than it is. This is the law of nature. But we cling to the fears, the lingering doubts, until they become our ground and our sky, the whole story of us.

The girl and her father return. I don’t know what’s transpired between them, but this time, on the first try, she can do it. She’s riding by herself. The fear is gone.

Yes yes yes yes! says the father.

There are no more tears, or even cries of excitement. I imagine the girl is awed into silence, not only for what she’s found herself able to do, but by how easy it was to get there, even when it was impossible.

When she was failing, the failing must have felt eternal. I know it’s been this way for me. Then comes success, and suddenly, it’s like we are born and made to thrive, that it can’t be any other way.

Until it changes again.

There is so much to learn at every single moment in life, before it passes and all that’s left are memories, those very pliable seeds for future interpretations and narrative-making.

I look down at the yellow ant, which I have not let out of my sight, and watch it crawling around to its own rhythms.

The little girl is biking, stopping, and starting again.

The sun is lowering over the trees, and tomorrow, it will be around for a tiny bit longer before darkness comes. And it will come, and we need to let it be what it is so that we can learn.

I will the girl – and the little girl inside of me—to remember this shining, sun-lit moment forever, and this way: as the moment that flying became possible.

I ask both of them them to turn this seamless launch into one of the defining moments of their lives.

 

*also published in elephant journal, here.

 

The Little Would-Be Doctor in Ooty.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

The Little Would-Be Doctor in Ooty

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It was frigid in Ooty, all night and well into mid-morning. We arrived to this mountainous hill station on a toy train train, a five hour ride in one of four cars that stopped periodically at chai and snack stands nestled in lush green, rolling hills. I watched a little girl whose parents were lovingly trying to feed her chapatti and chutney. She refused, relented, refused again. Her father was so patient, but at the next pit stop he inexplicably switched to another car and we never saw him again.

Shortly after we arrived, stunned at the clarity of the cool air, we found a room with two heavy blankets, hot water from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. and cable TV. TV! We watched NatGeo Adventure most of the time while recovering from the latest stomach ailment – we were often in some state of needing recovery, and there were no pressing engagements that needed our attention. The very idea of the mountains all around us was enough travel for me at this point.

While watching a show about a guy walking the Carmino del Santiago, I had this strange sensation knowing that at this very moment, there were people all over the world, at the exact same time, finding their way among the lands of others, motivated by any number of passions. It felt so warm (the cozy blankets didn’t hurt either) to finally feel a sense of community in this strange and gargantuan universal space we’ve been inhabiting, with almost no awareness of the outside world.

I didn’t realize how cut off I’d been feeling, though a sense of removal was palpable. Somehow, I needed to watch other people delight in the world’s offerings to remember how lucky I am to be nestled in a hill station under blankets, drinking tea and wondering what India will end up like for us this third time around.

One day we went on what the local tourist map said was a 10 km rural walk around Ooty. It was gorgeous. Tiny hilltop churches and Hindu shrines commingled and everywhere there were vast, endless expanses of mountain, sky and sun. It was a small, leisurely walk and it was also as momentous as anything I could remember. We ate cheese spread sandwiches under a tree down from an abandoned construction project, and drank chai in a tiny shop served to us by a shy local girl.

We were trying to figure out which of two ways would take us to the next village when a little boy saw us and asked us where we were going. We told him, Kammandu, and he nodded his head and said, this way. We followed him straight up a mountain of small, sun-kissed tea leaves until we reached a small road and a pretty, large pink house. That way, he pointed. Then he ran inside.

Soon, his mother emerged. Come for chai, she said. We smiled and entered. The house was airy but grounded, like a transparent cocoon suspended on the very top of a tree. The chai was delicious, and we reveled in this nurturing mother’s warm embrace.

The son did the translating, and told us his father was a military doctor while his mother proudly showed us photos of the family taken at the Botanical Gardens in Ooty. We never found out how this wealthy family came to live in a house on a hill in the middle of a tea plantation. The little boy wants to be a doctor like his dad, and with his huge, soulful eyes and quiet, kind demeanor, I’m sure – and I told him so – that he would grow up to be the best.

Love is What You Make

My Grandmother and I

My Grandmother and I

Love is What You Make

 

Circa 1930s, a love story begins with a shy little girl who went to a local dance in a blue dress. Her mother thought she was too young to go but she insisted—a rare thing for her. She was so excited about the dress. Her father, a respected businessman in their hometown of Budapest, travelled a lot and brought it back for her one day. Her mother disapproved: it was shiny and elaborate, and where was Elsbeth going to wear it?
As my grandmother describes it to me in her broken English and rundown by early stages of Alzheimers, she did her hair “just so” (she beams as she touches her now thin grey hair), and went to the dance. She met a boy. She was too young to go on dates, so he would come over and bring books for her to read. They would talk about literature and small things, sitting on benches in the garden.
The sun is always shining in my grandmother’s youth. This is how I see it. These long, languid days, in the telling of the story, stretch into long moments, weeks into months. A relationship without word of a kiss, but with every promise of a future.
There was talk of marriage in living room chambers. My grandmother was the second oldest of three daughters. The eldest, Ergi (of the faded, soft-focused portrait I saw often on my grandmother’s wall), was married and had two baby daughters. One night news reached the family that Ergi was ill. And then, news of a terrible headache, Ergi was being taken to hospital. By morning, she was gone. Headaches one reads about in Victorian novels. The cancer of those times, unnamed, unknown.
According to custom, my grandmother was to marry Ergi’s husband but for her the priority was to care for the two baby girls (she still calls my elderly aunts ‘the children’ as she talks to me now). She didn’t want to marry, and neither did my grandfather, who loved his wife and was for a time inconsolable. My grandmother cared for the children while he suffered, and worked.
Her mournful reverie was either broken or contained when she saw her boyfriend soon after and told him that her future had been set, that without love, she would marry the father of her nieces.
The look in her eyes changes, becomes softer.
“I can still remember that blue dress …” my grandmother says.
“Bubby, what about your boyfriend? What happened to him?” He had left town, and they never saw each other again.
I’m almost afraid to ask. This whole story is new to me.
“Did you ever fall in love with Zayde?”
She looks surprised.
“Of course I did. He was a beautiful man, such a good man. We made your father together.”
“Love … “ She struggles with her words. “Love is big … it is what you make.”
______________________________-
* Note: This piece was first published on CBC’s Canada Writes website, as part of its Valentine’s week series, on February 13, 2014.

 

The Man of Haridwar Station. {Short story}

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

The Man of Haridwar Station

The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.

People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.

For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.

Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.

To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.

He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.

The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.

Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.

The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.

Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.

Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.

We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?

A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.

The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.

“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”

There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.

We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.

While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.

Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.

The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?

What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?

I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.

 

* This story was originally published in The Bactrian Room.