The Fullness of a Bare Winter Scene

The past few weeks in California have been a pluviophile’s heaven. The atmospheric rivers bringing moisture to a state hardened by drought is very welcome.

I spent hours listening to the music of the rain, enjoying the gurgle of the water-butts, and the suction-like sound of the rain waters receding into the drains. We made paper boats and watched them gently sway along with the waters, we released driftwood stuck near drains, we empathized with fauna and realized what fragile creatures we are. These are the images of a happy childhood, and they warmed my soul as I shared these pleasures with the son.

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Out on a walk in the pouring rain one day, I felt at peace with the Earth around me. There were scarcely any humans about, and this in itself was refreshing. Without the banter of words, the language of Earth was so soothing. 

The river near our home has a name that invites teasing given the amount of water that usually flows in there. It is called the Niles river.

When one nears its banks, there is a sign warning folks against swimming, diving and fishing in the river. Only for almost the entire time we have been acquainted with the river, it has hardly boasted a flow enough to sustain more than a few paddling ducks and geese. Mostly the deer graze inside the riverbed, and its bed is home to many creatures: foxes, raccoons, deer, cats, water rats, squirrels and of course a whole multitude of birds: geese, avocets, gulls, grebes, ducks, herons, egrets. The trees nearby are home to California bluejays, thrushes, blackbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, owls and turkey vultures. 

I love our gentle stream that calls itself a river. But the past few weeks thanks to an uncharacteristic atmospheric river that bears moisture into the dry state of California, it had swollen into a respectable river and I found myself standing and gazing longingly at the waters moving towards the bay. The ducks seem to be enjoying themselves getting in with the drifts and floating along swiftly and then flying back several feet just to be able to do it all over again.

The deer seemed to be having a tougher time of it all. They are the ones who enjoyed the river-bed the most, and the swollen waters meant that their natural feeding grounds were no longer available for them. That afternoon in the pouring rain, the deer were on the trail since the riverbed they usually take refuge in was filled with water, and my heart went out to them. Luckily for them, the trail that is usually filed with humans was near empty. Like the children say, not everyone is kook-enough to walk in this storm. Slowly, but purposefully, I gave them the space on the trail so they may go towards a patch of greens nearby. The pouring rains did not seem to bother the creatures as much as it bothered us humans. 

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All this musing brought back into sharp focus what nitpicking creatures we are. We are scared to step out without umbrellas, raincoats, shoes and socks. We need our body temperatures just within this particular narrow range (97 F (36.1 C) and 99 F (37.2 C) ). We need our food prepared just so, and our lives orchestrated just so, and in spite of it all, have managed to create lives that are just so-so. (It has been so long since I used this term) 

The trees around us with their bare branches (abscission as shedding leaves is known) still remind us that the wintering season is not over. This is still the time to rejuvenate ourselves and trim down our commitments so we may sprout forth in glory during spring. But human beings seem to march to a different rhythm – a rhythm driven by financial earnings reports, calendars, the vague baying drum of stock market indices that demand more, a sadistic and almost schadenfeudic clamoring for layoffs, incessant profits etc. 

A month into the new year, the world has marched on from one grim news to another.

My mind harked back to the statue in Athens. The busy man statue in Athens, created by artist Costas Varotsos , it is a fitting statue for our times.

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Our lives have become more like the running man depicted in Athens. Despite all the world philosophers practically giving the secret to happy living away for free (Buddha, Plato, Socrates) , we manage to avoid the difficult work of being at peace with ourselves and choose the easy world of busy work(including yours truly).

A rain droplet trickled on to my nose. I came back to the fullness of a bare winter surrounding me and I took in a deep gasp of air to savor these moments. 

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Αεροδρόμιο / Luchthaven / Airport

Though I do not remember much of the book now, I do remember having a revelation of sorts while reading the book Airport by Arthur Hailey decades ago. The book itself was written in the 1960’s, and I read it in the 1990’s probably. As a child I had never been to an airport. The rare times that we got to see a flight overhead, we all craned our necks with wonder. There was an awe to it all. I grew up in a place so small that it is hardly ever depicted in maps, nestled in the forests and hills – the nearest airport was a tiny functional but not busy one (then) over a 100 miles away) . So, we hardly saw flights overhead.  Even after all these years, there still is an awe when I see a flight overhead. Every now and then, when I have finished up the day’s work and I am able to sit outside gazing at the stars, I watch fascinated if a flight flies overhead. 

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I seem to have meandered into flights when I wanted to talk about airports. Anyway.

The past few months saw us lounging around airports more than we usually do. Strange as it is, airports are also the places of packed emotions, evoking longing and belonging in equal measure. Even 200 years ago, mankind could never have imagined a future in which air travel was not just possible, but also affordable for many. It is no wonder then that airports have always enthralled me. 

Every time, I peered out at the folks working behind the scenes so we could arrive and leave the places we were supposed to, when we were supposed to, I felt like sending them a little salute. The baggage tags, the runways, the meal preferences, the entertainment options while onboard, the staff ensuring that all that baggage is sent on its way, the technicians and airlines who ensure that the flights are properly staffed and functional, the immigration staff, the janitors, the software and machinery ensuring all of this works.

Looking around at the passengers, I noticed many who looked askance at the baggage carousel. But the whooshing sound when the carousel starts to spin and magically spewing passengers checked-in baggage is like an applause. For all the things that must’ve happened to make sure your baggage comes out where it supposed to. 

Where this sense of awe around airports flagged a bit was at the security check lines. The process seems to be getting lengthier, lengthier :This time, we had to take out all cosmetics and creams, and send then through separate security checks, apart from shoes, jackets, belts and all the regular paraphernalia. 

Which brings me to the topic of cosmetics.

As we walked past the brightly lit duty free shopping areas, I found myself having pedestrian thoughts, more than philosophical ones. I often feel that way in  commercial shopping areas. Why do this many companies seem to think that cosmetics are absolute essentials to buy before boarding that 16-hour flight?  Invariably by the time you land in your airport and are ready to face the immigration officer who points a golf ball sized camera at your face, I feel sorry for the officer who has to interact with us – grumpy frumpy curled up masses stretching their limbs while plodding in a line, trying to straightening their hair before heading to the immigration officer’s booth.

As I flew past the shops, my eyes often scoured for the one luxury that has become increasingly hard to find in our digital world – bookstores. Why do we dedicate so many shops and products to non-intellectual aspects of our personality, and so few to books? I reveled in the bookstores – taking pictures of books in all the different European languages and buying a book or two as my baggage could accommodate.

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I am not sure how airports evolved over the past 50 years, but the larger airports have made indoor marvels of these hubs of activity. The Amsterdam Schipol Airport had a clock that had us all looking at it open jawed as the man behind the mechanical marvel worked his way through the day showing us the time. We sat there wondering how they managed to do this. We came up with programmatic techniques, and other possibilities. We completely missed out the simplest one of somebody performing this 24 hour video that played on loop. 

Ha! Simple and elegant – the best designs always are.

The Doha airport in Qatar was spruced up for the World Cup no doubt, but still having an interior looking like an orchard in the middle of the dessert.

The Santorini airport in Greece was small and befitting a tiny island tucked away in the Aegean Sea. The Athens airport had some of the best books on Greek mythology (or maybe I had the most time in this airport to browse). 

As I descended in the San Francisco airport, I felt the flutter of welcome in my bones – welcome home! The baggage carousel whirred and our bags came tumbling out after traveling halfway around the world. I am glad we are able to feel  the gratitude of coming home.

I shall miss the bookstores, but relish home.

Perspectives in Art

We were on a long-ish hike from Fira to Oia in the island of Thera (now known as Santorini) 

It was not a very long one – a 7 mile hike spotted with fantastic views of the surrounding islands, sweeping views of the calm Aegean Sea and vista points of the island of Santorini itself. When done after a full continental breakfast, (the kind given by Santorini hotels), and with an interesting conversation on the side, it is easily done. Around the 3 mile mark, when we had left the busy white buildings on Santorini behind us and were walking gingerly up the slopes towards the narrow cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea, I asked the daughter her thoughts on art. I continue to be amazed by her artistic abilities, seeing …well how her parents draw. The previous evening, while we had all taken a hundred pictures of a gorgeous sunset, she had sat sketching the area while enjoying the sunset. 

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“So can you really identify the artist based on the stroke of the paintbrush or something like that?” I asked.

“I can identify a few of them – definitely not all of them obviously. “

“Well – yeah! People study art for years and entire lifetimes. “

“The thing is, with art, everybody starts off with learning the techniques of realism, but as they keep growing as artists, they also develop a unique style. That’s what I am working on – developing a style. I don’t yet know mine, but I am trying.” , she said.

I looked at her with a new perspective. This child always doodling in her room was working on developing a style. It humbled me to see that I had not even appreciated or seen most of her work. Sometimes, she showed us. Most times, she did not, for as she claims, she wasn’t proud if it. 

I could understand this, but did want to see more of her work and said so.

She shrugged with her brand of nonchalance , and I recognized the style. She laughed at this.

“See? With writing or language, almost everybody comes with a style. That’s why it is easy to spot plagiarism. Everyone’s perspective is unique. The way we see the world, the way we use our words, the way we laugh, almost all of that has a unique perspective, but it isn’t that easy to develop your unique style in art.” , said she.

I made some agreeable noises at this, but demurred. Was language really that easy to find a style to? “I felt like I had spent years trying to ‘develop my voice’ as famous writers say, and it is still evolving, which is why it is interesting too. For it makes the development of the craft enjoyable. But I don’t think we are each ‘born’ with a style.”

 “True True – Writing does get better with practice and work. “ she said. 

“But okay – let’s try this: we were in Delphi yesterday. If you were to write about your trip to Delphi, what would you write about?”

I thought about the glorious day at Delphi. Nestled in the Parnassus mountains, the home of the muses, this was where the Temple of Apollo was built. Apollo was the Greek God for light, poetry, and the patron of the arts. It was also the place the ancient Greeks went to, in order to have their futures prophesied to them. The Oracles of Delphi spotted literature the world over (Sybil Trelawny of Harry Potter Divination fame was named after a Pythia of Delphi called Sybill). Almost every story from the ancient times had a prophesy to run the show. As our bus left the city of Athens behind and ascended the Parnassus mountains, I wondered whether I would like to know my future. What if I did not like what was foretold in my future? Many did not. But their destinies were met even as they tried hard to fight it. Would I like to be guided by some vague prophesy even if I’d like to know how everything will turn out alright in the end? And what if it didn’t turn out alright? I don’t think I’d want to be miserable about it all. 

“Hmm…many many ways in which I could write it. But I think I would like to go at it from the perspective of how we got to visit the Temple of the God of Light on the winter solstice, on the shortest day of the year. Think about it: It was forecasted to be an intensely cold and rainy day high up in the mountains with limited visibility. I was worried we would not be able to able to enjoy the place as much it is was that cold and rainy. Indoor museums are alright, but high up in the mountains? And yet, it turned out to be a glorious day with ample sunshine. We got to enjoy the Parnassus mountains where the Oracles of Delphi gave out predictions and prophesies in directly opposite conditions from what was predicted. I loved the irony of that. So may be we are lucky and the trip to Delphi itself was a blessing in a way. “

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“Okay see – that’s what I mean.We went to the same place, had the same tour guide explain stuff to us, and enjoyed the same day. But if I write about it, I would write from the perspective of seeing the cats at Delphi. How they roamed among the tourists, came to some of us, and how it all felt magical. There was that woman who made me mad – because she shoo-ed away the cat from me, and then ordered me to take a picture of her. If it were unto me, I would have taken the picture of the cat instead! “ 

I laughed. “Did you take a picture of the cat?” She is entirely capable of that. 

“No! “ she said with some regret, “But, just imagine how it must be from a cat’s point of view seeing so many people.”

“What about you truffle bumps? How would you write about Delphi?” She said pulling her brother into conversation. He was trudging along ahead of us in the mountain path.

I’d write a story about how I was fighting some bad guys who were coming at me. They were there: hidden in the ruins of Delphi, and how I defeated them with the myths of Apollo to help me.”, said the son flexing his arm where there were supposed to be muscles. 

“He and his super villains. Huh Hmm. But do you see what I mean? We already have a unique perspective with our almost identical experiences. So, yes, writing is unique to most people. But since art starts off with classical realism as the basis, we need to work harder at developing that style and perspective I suppose.” 

We were 2/3rd of the way done and we turned around to see the distance covered. This hike is unique that way – it shows us the meandering coastline and the beautiful buildings we passed on the way – all in one panoramic view. We took a few pictures here and the daughter peered out to see how much farther we had to go.

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“Gosh – this is so far away, I left this piece of the jutting island out when I was sketching yesterday!”

“Lighten up! We can have a good coffee and a wonderful meal once we get back.” 

“I wonder what the myths of Santorini are.” I said to break them out of brooding over the remaining distance, and we passed the time discussing myths instead. 

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Philhellenism – the love of Greek culture

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) , I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing.

So, it was that we boarded our flight to Athens. Athens, the weather app promised us ,would be warmer, but still cold. It was expected to be between 40F & 65F (a difference of almost 15 degrees).

It was like every mile added not just warmth, but a different tinge to the culture. We had no idea on what to expect in Greece. It was our first time. A destination chosen by popular vote since the children are great fans of greek myths and have devoured all the books by Rick Riordan multiple times over. The husband had even booked a mythological tour to surprise them. But apart from this, our idea of Greece was based on A Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greek Myths by DeLaurailes, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Farther Afield by Miss Read, and all the different tidbits we knew about Greek philosophers, and mathematicians through the ages. 

As you can see, we had no idea, which was marvelous, for we were thoroughly unprepared for what happened next. We fell in love! In love with the city of Athens, the country of Greece, and the Greeks themselves.

After the professional intellectualism of Paris, Athens was like walking into a theme park – here you can have philosophy, art, literature and all the little marvels of the mind, but only if you agree to lighten up, have fun, and stay curious. The gentle humor and warmth with which the Greeks speak to each other and to the tourists is to be seen to be believed. They are a fun-loving, smart, and kind people. It is no wonder that this small country tucked away in the Mediterranean Sea gave us so much of the foundations of Western philosophy and culture. If Democracy had not been chanced upon here, I doubt it would’ve survived or chanced upon at all. As it is, it has so many assaults on it, it is fragile enough that we protect it. Greece is like the Disneyland of Europe. It reminds you of life as it should be: ambitious and lofty in our goals, but reminding us at every turn with their jolly, vivacious myths, of our humanity, our sense of community, and the importance of humility. 

I hung out of the window in the chill morning peering at the Acropolis. Those buildings were from the 5th century BC. Athens (the Greek call their beloved city, Athina after the goddess Athena) has been continuously populated over the past 6000 years. This showed up in little things such as drainage systems, rebuilding efforts and such (we found to our surprise that toilet paper cannot be flushed in Greece, and water bidets are not installed everywhere either).

It is hard to not get up in the morning and think that you are but a butterfly in the passage of time. On the mythological tour, Denai (our mythological tour guide) was informative and thoroughly impressed with the son’s knowledge of the Greek myths. I strutted along ( a proud parent) and learning so much of the mythologies that helped shape our way of the world, that I must say the cold forgot to bother me.

Who cannot be awed by the story of the Temple of Zeus being destroyed multiple times in history and the latest one by lightning? If that was not a sign from Zeus – the god of lightning himself, the Greeks did not know what was.

Or that wonderful story about how the city of Athens got its name. Apparently, it was such a popular place that even the Gods fought for the place. So Zeus tired of this bickering asked Poseidon & Athena to decide via a popular vote. Each had to give a gift to the populace and the people could decide.

  1. Poseidon – the god of the oceans, gave them water, signifying naval power and thus prosperity as a port city. This gift appealed to the men of the land.
  • Athena – the goddess of wisdom and strategy, gave them the olive tree, signifying the change from hunter-gatherer mode to prosperity from the land. The women liked all the different uses from the olive tree (olives, light from the lamps lit using olive oil, the wood etc).

The citizens chose Athena’s gifts – for  according to myth, women outnumbered men at the time of the vote and Athena won. This made Poseidon angry and to mollify him, the temple of Poseidon overlooks the city of Athens, while Athena’s temple overlooks the oceans. It was also why women were not allowed to vote from then on (again a myth, since it was never obvious that women had the vote in Greece. According to wikipedia – women gained the vote in Greece as late as 1952. But it was a crafty way to deny women their voting rights and have a story around it.

In the parliament square, the temple of Athena stood alongside that of Hephaestus, signifying that intellectual work was just as important as physical work. This was the place the philosophers gathered alongside the farmers to decide, debate and vote on the important matters of the day. Both types of people had to be in harmony for a prosperous society.

Thus it went in Greece. Wherever you went, there was a little story, involving the mighty gods, and their follies, all narrated by the populace with gentle humor.

And yet. While the myths are everywhere, there is a surprising and thoroughly lovable lack of reverence to these gods. They are gods – sure. But they have flaws – big ones. Much bigger than our own flaws since they are so much more popular and powerful.

I think it has to do with the complete dissociation of religion from the mythology. Indian mythology is just as broad, diverse and intricate – but since it is intertwined with Hinduism, good luck trying to be flippant about any aspect of it no matter how justified.

“Next time we come to Europe, we must stay longer in Greece, so we can go to the countryside and visit the little villages that dot Greece, maybe visit the island of Crete and Corfu.”, I said at the end of the glorious day in which we had eaten far too much delicious food, enjoyed far too many myths, and been far too enamored by the music and language of the greeks.

“Twenty-four hours!”, said the husband exchanging knowing winks with the children. They all guffawed.

“Amma – you said – No more Europe! Africa calls, and Australia sings and all that, 24 hours ago!”

What was there to say?  That’s how people fall in love with a country. It is no wonder they have a word for it. Philhellenism – a love of Greek culture!

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