Meeting old friends for the first time.

Meeting old friends for the first time. In at least three dimensions. Sharing a physical space together, not just a bland rectangular screen. Actually holding hands.

“Gosh! You’re for real!”

The sparkling smiles of recognition mixed with disbelief. The hugs offering heart to heart resuscitation and healing. Sitting down side by side on the sofa, sharing stories, tea and cake.

A year ago, this could have been fiction but last weekend it was fact. While volunteering at a retreat for Bereaved parents hosted by The Compassionate Friends, we finally met people we’ve only ever seen on Zoom. It was held at the simple and serene Woodbrooke Centre, a Georgian manor house in Selly Oak, Birmingham with tall trees, beautiful flower beds and a family of geese perambulating the grounds, intermittently honking. It is a Quaker centre and has a poster in the main foyer which reads “Nameless helping the Nameless”.

The garden in front of the main house has a labyrinth mowed into it. Early on Saturday morning, birds were singing and the light was inviting me into the open. I decided to walk bare feet into the center of the labyrinth. I took my shoes and socks off at the edge of the circle. As soon as I started walking, it turned into an extremely mindful experience as the ground was littered with geese droppings.

The silence in that place was sweet and the views a treat. We talked about the importance of finding meaning. We shared the joys and challenges of taking the inward road. We watched a film and sang together. We wrote from our hearts and created pretty little candle holders for our kids from jam jars at the crafts table. We cried and laughed, reassured that in this company, it was completely acceptable to do both, sometimes simultaneously.

A pleasant exchange. Giving and receiving with compassion. Understanding. Belonging. Learning. Holding the utter magnificence of life in one hand and the absolute devastation in another. That’s what this game is all about, I guess.

Two suitcases, three homes.

Diwali at home with Mum and Dad – after ages!

Nineteen months passed before I could travel again. The uncertainty in the air for all this time meant no one knew when they would see their close family that lived in far-off countries. The news relayed the horrendousness of the situation in India and the 6700 kilometers between them and me made me feel utterly powerless. I would have flown to India at least thrice in this time but I waited for it to become possible.

Then, it did. Si booked my tickets and I felt like I was flying already but coming up to the date of travel, the extra layer of bureaucracy turned me into a tight knot of nerves. This test, that certificate, the other QR code, the timing of this, the reference number of that, one on-line form to be filled on the way out and another on the way back and so on and so forth. I had 2 close friends on speed dial, one in India and the other, a frequent flyer in the UK.

Yet, in the run up to the date of departure, my antacid consumption seriously shot up. In my awful dreams, the faceless uniforms looked at my paper work and shook their heads from side to side. They sent me back home from the airport. They told me I would have to quarantine at the other end in a seedy hotel for 10 days. That would eat up more than half my holiday. I woke up in a bath of sweat.

My two suitcases were mostly packed with chocolates, cheeses, cheese-crackers, sheep’s wool, woolly jumpers, bamboo socks and other such goodies for my folks. I got on the plane at Heathrow and landed at New Delhi safely, utterly grateful to be united with all my loved ones back home. How much I take for granted!

I immersed myself in the everyday life back home- boiling milk, making chapattis, creating rangolis at Diwali, indiscriminately consuming sweets dripping in desi ghee, singing, praying, chatting and overeating at every meal. I set aside my concerns about pending jobs, deadlines for writing assignments, hacked e-mail accounts, consciously locked them away in a clanking steel Godrej cup-board.  

Yes, there was pollution and poverty. There was religious and political bigotry. There was the Right and the Left and the Middle, the Farmer’s protest, the choked Press and the Covid dictats. There was my mind, noticing that Saagar was not physically present in the room. His cousins were messing about, grandma was cooking his favourite chicken curry, Olivia Rodrigo was singing ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ on the Bose speaker, his uncles and aunts were drinking beer and chomping on roasted, salted cashew nuts, talking about the joys of driving on the new highways network and the high price of petrol. We were celebrating our togetherness but he was not here.

In that thought, he became present to me. His essence appeared in the room, as me, my presence, my noticing, my love and my longing. It was subtle, only perceptible at a certain frequency that in now accessible to me. This nameless, formless realm that makes itself known when I pay attention. My real home. Its doors always open.

Before I knew it was time to come home. My two suitcases filled with silk and cotton fabrics, saris ‘borrowed’ from my mother, home-made carrot halwa, cashews and almonds and proper Darjeeling tea.

I am back home from back home now. Rested and reconnected. Refreshed and reassured.

All is well. All is well.

An immersive experience.

I have felt safe outside lakes, rivers and oceans as opposed to inside. Shoes and woolly socks keeping the feet warm and dry, a scarf wrapped around the neck, jeans and jackets keeping me secure. These water bodies are a source of calm but I am suspicious of their invisible currents, innocent iciness and deceptive cleanliness.

Ten days ago, we drove to a little self-catering rental cottage at Constantine Bay in Cornwall, 100 yards from the beach. After a quick cup of tea we took a walk on the windy sea-face, almost swept off our feet. Its playfulness hit my face like multiple mini-darts. It must have hit some obscure part of my brain that suddenly came to believe that it would be a great idea to have a soak in the sea. This was strange given I can’t swim. I splash my arms and legs enthusiastically without staying afloat or traveling any distance. My breath gets all confused and erratic. I choke and splutter and cough. I am clearly a creature of the air. Not water. But this had to be done.

The next day, high tide was at 1834. We took our wedding rings off and left them at home as they are known to slip off in cold water. The  winds were low. Air temperature 10 degrees Celsius. Water temperature same. Sun, in and out. No rain. We changed into our improvised swimsuits, got our towels and walked to a quiet lagoon at one end of the bay that we had spotted the day before. A steep set of steps led down to it. At the bottom, sloping slate-grey rocks lay dry. Welcoming. The force of the waves was dampened by an intervening row of irregular black rocks, making the water as still as possible, lapping gently to the beat of the sea. The salty air resting on my lips and in my chest. My heart preparing to be stopped.

With my eyes focused on the sharp horizontal line between the blues of the sea and the sky, I walked straight into the Atlantic. I wanted to be neck deep in an instant and I was. An involuntary squeal escaped my throat. Coming to myself I breathed slowly with my eyes wide open. Counting. Smiling. Shaking. Completely inside that stark moment. Everything else dissolved. All of me was covered in acupuncture needles. Every swish of the waters stole some more heat away, deepening those needles infusing energy. The shock of it. And the delight of being alive. Woohooo!

40 seconds… once… and again. Then 2 minutes and then longer… and longer every day.

(Ref: TIPP Skills to modulate emotions: https://www.manhattancbt.com/archives/1452/dbt-tipp-skills/)

Bubble of one.

They said you can travel within the UK. I did. Took a few days off and invited myself to a friend’s place in Aberarth, Wales. Excitedly booked a ticket from London Euston to Aberystwyth via Birmingham and back.

I’ve never had so much space travelling from anywhere to anywhere, ever. It was like moving from one fake film set to another. A story where nothing happens. No one meets anyone. Nothing is exchanged. No conversations are overheard. Even my tickets were not checked. I was truly in a bubble of one. The announcements were made by invisible human voices. Welcome to … but there was no one there. No shoulders brushed. No smiles. No queues at the solitary coffee shop at Euston.

Finding a window seat was no problem as there were at least 30 to pick from. As my train sped out of London, land and sky were revealed. Every now and then I got a glimpse of little streams of water holding a string of multi-coloured narrow boats along their edges. The sun glistened the patchwork of fields. The horizon was a long horizontal line interrupted only by thickets and vertical carpets of green.

Townships appeared with colourful children’s play-areas crying out for children. Don’t know why I tried to log on to the Train Wi-Fi but they wanted me to agree to a multitude of things which was the perfect excuse to put the laptop away and simply enjoy the ride. Branches burgeoning with white, pink and yellowish-green life, embellished the pliable black skeletons of trees, dancing to the tune of spring. Spring, the upward thrust of sap through roots and trunks to the fulsome tips of cold branches.

Nowhere to buy a bottle of water at the normally chaotic Birmingham International Airport Station. No noise other than the oh-too-loud announcements. Toilets, the cleanest they’ve ever been, on and off the train. From one desolate platform to another, I changed to a country train with 2 carriages meandering through gentle hills and fields towards the sea, stopping at places I’d never heard of before – Y Trallwng, Drenewydd and so on. I felt my fists loosen to receive this new freshness.

The next 3 hours were a dream. Ewes tailed by their cute little lambs scattered on both sides of the rail track. Lamb ears sticking out of their heads at a jaunty angle and their tails wiggling with joy! Clear waters mirrored the dance of life all around. Green slopes rose and fell in a soft rhythm. And I was here. My eyes were dry and my heart open. I clearly witnessed the fresh air and bright sun work their magic.

A few years back I had believed the season would never change. It would forever be autumn. But it has changed. It really has.

Nowhere to go.

On the 9th of March, I reached Melbourne for the second leg of the Churchill Fellowship. I had been looking forward to it for ages and just couldn’t wait to get started. I had the taken the whole month off. Despite the long journey I didn’t feel any fatigue. My AirBnB was homely and comfortable. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for work.

The Beyond Blue Office was easy to find. After a brief introduction to the team, we all went out to get coffee together. I was already one of them and the coffee was great. The following days flew past with meetings, interviews, presentations and briefings. A trip to Headspace. Despite some background murmurings of a virus, I was having the best time, learning and exchanging thoughts and ideas. Then Australia closed its borders. Meetings and conferences started getting cancelled.

On the 16th, I took a return flight to London.  My trip shrank from 3 weeks down to one. I had to miss Sydney altogether. Now, I am back here with a blank diary for 2 weeks and I am loving it. I have volunteered myself to work and I am on standby.

I can now research and look up things I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I can clear out one cupboard every day and get rid of stuff I don’t need or use or get joy from. Unclutter and create space in my house and my head. I can go to bed without setting an alarm. That pile of unread books that’s been sitting atop my table, feeling ignored and giving me dirty looks, can now be tackled.

Part of me is rushing in to fill the time with a list of a hundred things to do but I am consciously slowing down. Having an easy routine. Fitting in things I love doing, like arranging flowers. Making time for friends. Cooking. Walking. Not getting hooked to the media but keeping an eye. Writing hand-written letters to loved ones. Sitting still. Enjoying our home. Truly appreciating the weirdness of our cat, Milkshake. Cherishing having breakfast, lunch and dinner with Si as he works from home.

Simplify. Make easy. Make plain.

The Way Back – supporting attempt survivors – an idea worth adopting.

One whole month

It wasn’t just a physical transportation but also an emotional one. For four weeks I was not an anaesthetist or a wife. I was just a traveling (Churchill) Fellow, curious to learn everything about ways of supporting vulnerable people through crises, advocacy for struggling families and attempt survivors, intentional and effective peer support, safe care-transitions and timely compassionate support for families, friends and communities affected by suicide.

Two contrasting towns with distinct landscapes. Concord in New Hampshire was a small, friendly town resplendent with autumnal beauty, a quiet serenity and a lot of ‘heart’. New York, a big blustering metropolis with clanking trains, crazy-ass driving (yes, worse than London), much honking and many high-level policy-makers. Hence, more like the ‘head’ of the suicide prevention community.

Rail-trail from Concord to Franklin

Since Saagar’s passing, I have not been on my own for that length of time. Especially as his 5th anniversary fell right in the middle of it. It was not easy living fully immersed in the world of Suicide prevention (SP) almost every day for a month. Sometimes it was overwhelming and ‘too much’. It turned out that I was not alone. I was met with much warmth, kindness and understanding. Some old friends made time to catch up with me and some new friends emerged.

One sunny autumn day I had the pleasure of riding a 3-person- tandem bike with an amazing couple who have cycled thousands of miles in tandem all over the world for the past 27 years. On the 16th Ann (an excellent SP trainer) and I went for a nice long walk in the woods in Derry with Dr Indiana Jones, her Border Collie. This was followed by a much needed brunch at a classic American ‘Red Arrow’ Diner where I had the best ever Tuna melt sandwich.

Polly’s pan-cakes was our destination one afternoon as we set off towards the north – Elaine, Pauline and I. We spoilt ourselves with a rich variety of pancakes before taking a walk along the river and visiting ‘The Basin’.

On my return to the UK, I joined the 50th anniversary celebrations weekend retreat of an amazing charity that supports bereaved parents and their families. It’s called ‘The Compassionate Friends’. The film below captures many aspects of the experiences as bereaved parents/siblings. Changed forever.

“Say their name”

I am happy to be back home and back at work. My life greatly enriched, I hope to share the learning and bring about changes for the better, working with various charities, the NHS and the Mayor’s office as effectively as I can. Right now I am assimilating it all, bit by bit by bit.

Emergency Numbers

Earlier this year, at a Medical school in North India I spoke to staff and students about the stigma and ignorance around Mental Health. At the end of the lecture one of the senior faculty members asked me a question, “Is it helpful for people with a mental illness to be a part of a religious community?”

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Most certainly. Just like it is helpful for someone with Diabetes to be part of a religious community. It might also be a good idea for them to see a doctor.’

Earlier that day Si and I had taken a walk around the hospital and found this list of ‘Emergency Numbers’ prominently displayed on a notice board in the medical library for medical students, nursing students, dentists and doctors.

Need I say any more?  

PS: It is important for every student in every educational organisation to have ready access to reliable and knowledgeable resources if they feel the need to discuss their thoughts and feelings or are concerned about a friend.

Come October

3/10/2019. 6 am: I am excited. At the airport, waiting to board my flight to Washington Dulles. Change to another flight to Manchester and then a taxi ride to Concord, New Hampshire. This is the first leg of my travels as a Churchill Fellow. I have checked in and am having a cup of tea. I have just come across this post from a young woman on Facebook:

“According to my local crisis team, I was ‘too articulate’ to be feeling suicidal.
As a writer, and someone who works in languages, I am a naturally very articulate person. Because I could speak so clearly about my thoughts and feelings, I was discharged from the crisis team as I didn’t fit the bill of someone suicidal, or indeed, of being mentally unwell enough to need their support despite evidence to the contrary.

The Papyrus text line allowed me to articulate how I felt (you don’t have any choice really when you’re using the text service, you have to ‘say’ it how it is!!), and that was delved into so much deeper with thoughtful questions, suggestions and recommendations that allowed me to get through a real low point and see that there was hope. At no stage did they reply with ‘sorry, you’re too articulate to be feeling the way you claim’.

Non-judgemental, kind, compassionate, a REAL life saver, especially in the current climate of NHS mental health cuts.”

Judgement. The ultimate wall. Even a positive judgement can be harmful. A missed opportunity. A lost life. Who fills the gaping holes created by ‘unfit for purpose’ services, NHS cuts and ignored carers?

Charities. Families. Friends.

The needs of young people are different. They need an active, positive and creative interaction to make sense of how they feel. They need to be heard and understood. They need to know in their hearts that they are deeply loved and cared for just the way they are. They need to know that things get better. Educating families is crucial.

4/10/2019

Today’s gem: Mayo Clinic video for parents. All parents of adolescents should see this.

A traveling ‘Fellow’ am I.

Somewhere in the middle of last year, a friend, Angela Samata ( of ‘Life after Suicide’ fame) recommended I look up Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I did. They had a catchy strap line – “Travel to learn – return to inspire”. I checked out their application form. Form-filling is a formidable process but this one wasn’t too bad. I touched base with a couple of people from Australia and the USA who had stayed in my memory from various conferences. I asked them if they would have me visit their organisations, observe their work with the aim of learning and exchanging ideas. They were happy. I filled out the form. Got shortlisted and invited for an interview.

While preparing for the interview I knew I’d be asked to say something about Churchill. I researched and found some relevant facts. He’d coined the term ‘black dog’ to describe depression. That was clever. Also, he had something in common with me. He had survived the loss of a child.

This February I was awarded a traveling Fellowship by WCMT to go to USA and Australia for 3 weeks each to bring back ideas on preventing suicides and supporting families looking after someone with a mental illness. Ideas we can implement in our communities. It was an honour but also quite daunting. I have never done anything like this before. But here I am with 10 days to go, before I leave for the first leg of my travels to Concord in New Hampshire which is home to National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI. I have put my name down for their community walk on Sunday, the 6th of October aimed at stamping out stigma. I reckon that’s the best way to get to know people and get involved. Also, autumn in New Hampshire is meant to be spectacular. Deb and Elaine from NAMI have been very welcoming and I feel their warmth in their e-mails.

Yes. I am excited. With minor trepidation in my heart. And Saagar. Away from home, from Milkshake and Si for 27 days. Haven’t done that in a very long time. But it’s time and I am ready.

[PS: We’ve reached 82% of our fund-raising goal. I am deeply touched by the generosity of all the 151 backers and am grateful to everyone’s positive vibes. Thank you! To find the campaign link, search ‘1000 days’ and ‘indiegogo’]

Constantine Bay

The entire coastline covered in Sea Pinks, bunched together in shapes resembling piglets. They could easily be called Sea Pigs. Poor soil – no problem. Lashing winds – no problem. Salt laden air and water – lovely! These little pink flowers are hardy as hell. Unperishable. Their leaves stay green all year round – sun or rain.

A week in Cornwall, the perfect escape from the Big Smoke.

From the white sands, rock pools and sand dunes of the bay, we could see a classic white light-house standing tall. A beacon of hope for hundreds of years for hundreds of people, lost at sea.

Lovely long walks along the headlands, fresh sea-breeze and delicious sea food. And, lots of exceptional cream-teas- especially the one at Bedruthan steps. Wowwie!!! It was indeed, like a dream. Our Scrabble travelled with us. In London we don’t get time to play it. So, here was our chance.

After dinner on Wednesday, I opened the green cardboard box. We were with friends who were half willing to play. We agreed to form 2 teams of two each so we would be able to consult and won’t have to wait too long between goes. As I unpacked the box, I found some old score sheets in there. They had 2 columns of scores – one for Saagar and one for me.

My heart lurched up to my throat and my eyes stung and burnt. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and smoothened out the contortions of my face. I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone. A good game is had by all and we are off to bed by 11 pm.

“I am in a strange building in a strange sandy seaside town. I am wearing strange flowing green garments. Someone says three people are waiting to see me outside. After a while I walk out to see these people. 3 young men are seated on comfy cane sofas in a shaded balcony. As I walk towards them, one pair of eyes glints back at me bathed in recognition. A knowing smile flashes across his handsome olive face.

I freeze and stare. His hair has grown. He has blonde highlights, like he did when he was 15. He is wearing a big tan jacket and looking so good! He stands up and steps gently toward me. I look at him is disbelief. He holds me in his trademark big bear hug.

“You know how much I’ve cried.” I whisper.

“I know.” He whispers in his sweet young-man voice.

I hang on to him, never to let him go.”

Then the flood gates of my conscience are flung open and once again I am staring at a gaping hole. Another day … love … longing … The sea pinks … endure. The light house … hope …