Waste not, want not

I have lived in the US for more than 15 years now. Yet, every time I walk into a public school lunch cafeteria in the US, I experience culture shock all over again! This is because I have never witnessed food waste on such a large scale in my life.  Every time I witness this, it makes my heart ache, it upsets me so much that it ruins my entire day, and it stays with me for days afterward. This happened yet again today.

I was working with a kindergartener who received a special lunch because he is lactose intolerant. It was a plate with five small slices of pita bread, a cup of hummus, 5 cherry tomatoes, 3 pieces of broccoli, a bunch of carrot sticks, half an orange, and a carton of lactose-free milk. The boy picked up one piece of broccoli and nibbled it for a while. Ten minutes or so later, he got up and asked to be dismissed because he was “done” with his lunch. He then walked up to the waste station (yes, I call it the waste station – it has a huge garbage bin for general garbage and three separate containers for organic waste, liquids, and recyclable products) and one of the staff members took his lunch from him. Here comes the culture shock – the lady then proceeded to dump the unopened carton of milk and the entire contents of his untouched plate, including the unopened tub of hummus into the garbage! But, she sorted the garbage accordingly into the organic waste and recyclables. The unopened carton of milk went into the general garbage because … it was unopened (so she couldn’t tip the milk into the 10-gallon container that is set up there for the leftover milk waste!

I know that children waste food. They are picky eaters and I am sure that most moderately well-off children from all over the world waste food. My kids waste food too (and get severely punished). But, what shocks me about the food waste in schools is that adults waste food without a second thought. Food waste at these schools is an adult-endorsed, school-sanctioned everyday activity! No one bats an eye! Teachers and grown-ups in educational institutions (where they should be educating the kids on the value of food and the morality and ethics of wasting it) don’t even think that anything wrong is going on here. I will never get used to this.

I work as a substitute teacher in a populous public school district in Washington state. My work takes me to a different school every day and over the course of this year, I have worked at about 90% of the schools here. I work with all grade levels from elementary schools to high schools. I have noticed that the elementary schools waste way more food than middle and high schools. By the time the kids are in middle school, they have more control over what they choose for their lunch. They are more likely to choose the junk they actually want to eat and avoid getting stuff they don’t. Elementary school students don’t have much of a choice and get the standard school lunch that has been meticulously balanced to include proper servings of protein, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. This is an effort by the community to instill good eating habits in children at a young age. But, it totally defeats the purpose because all they do is throw it away. They just grow up and then continue eating the unhealthy stuff.

The flexibility of my job allows me to choose my assignments. Early this school year, I substituted for a staff member who worked as a cafeteria monitor and the experience left me so traumatized that I stayed away from elementary school assignments for a while! Most schools here have a small seating area and so, the lunch-times are scheduled based on grade level. This school, like a lot of the other elementary schools, has a waste station with a 10-gallon bucket for milk and other liquid waste. This container fills up and is emptied after each grade finishes eating lunch! That’s roughly 60 gallons of milk (mostly) that is wasted every day in each of the 21 elementary schools in this district alone! I am willing to wager that more than half of the milk that was served that day was wasted. Working in the cafeteria that day, all I could think about were the thousands of cows that are boxed into tiny spaces and made to lactate all their lives so that these people can throw out the food that rightfully belongs to the calves.

I come from a country that has many starving people. I know Indians who struggle to feed their family 3 meals a day. In my culture, asking if you have eaten is a common way of greeting people.  One day, I ran into the 12-year-old daughter of one of my father’s employees. She saw me, greeted me, and asked me if I have eaten. I said yes and returned the greeting and enquired if she had eaten. Because she was a child, she didn’t tactfully lie, she told me the truth. She hadn’t eaten that day. I about died when I realized she hadn’t eaten because they had no food at home and no money to buy food. I got her something to eat and bought whatever I could send home with her.

I was blessed to be born in a privileged family, but I have never taken food for granted. My mother used to tell me about her grandparents who struggled for food and brought us up with a deep appreciation for our blessings. At the age of 21, I found myself in Australia was working part-time on campus when I was in graduate school. The funding for my job ended and I ran out of savings. I knew my family in India was also going through some financial difficulties at that time and I didn’t want to burden my parents with this information. For about 4 months, I had very little money for food and would end up eating 1 banana and a cup of chamomile tea for dinner. This is an experience I have never revealed to anyone except to my husband. My parents would be beside themselves if they ever found out about it. With this background and experience, I find it so hard to just stand by and watch them throw food away like dirt. There have been times when I have brought it up as tactfully as I could to the teachers around me. The teachers always tell me that it’s a safety issue! That’s when I want to roll my eyes and give them my opinion on the issue as a food microbiologist! (I have a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, and my area of expertise is food safety.)

The US probably has the safest food system in the world. Yet, Americans and unbelievably paranoid about the safety of their food. There are people dying of hunger around the world and these people have the luxury to throw out perfectly good food because it “may” be dangerous. The irony is that it’s not just other parts of the world! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table” even as “40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten”. Initially, I worried that we are currently raising a generation of Americans who have no respect for food. But as I watch the teachers and staff do nothing, I realize that these kids are not the first generation of Americans who take their food for granted.

As a Hindu, I find food waste downright sinful. A few years ago, I sat my daughter down and showed her youtube videos of starving children to make her understand why I get so upset when she wastes food. If you are reading this, please take a moment to ponder this problem. Next time, you see a child wasting food, at least comment on it so they can think about what they are actually doing. When reminded of starving people in the world, most American kids reply condescendingly that “we can mail this food to them”. Don’t let your kids get away with that retort. Make an effort to install empathy in your children for the underprivileged. Tell them to think about how much effort and resources went into putting that vegetable/fruit/glass of milk on your table. Remind them of the toil of all the farm workers and the environmental toll it’s taking on our planet to both produce and waste that food. Take a moment to count your blessings and make a commitment to do whatever you can to prevent such waste.

Thank you,

-AB

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Morning Pages

Yesterday, I came across this habit called writing “morning pages.” It is something I have been doing for a while, but I didn’t know that it had a name to it. Morning pages is the habit of writing at least three pages every morning. There are some rules attached to it. Firstly, the writing must be done by putting pen to paper- none of this digital stuff. Secondly, the writing must be just stream-of-consciousness. This means, no careful planning, no wilful narrating, and of course, no editing. It is just the act of penning down whatever it is that is currently going through your mind. Thirdly, it has to be honest. No self-editing for political correctness and such. The purpose is to just transfer one’s thoughts into paper in an effort to clear the clutter in your mind. It is also recommended that this activity be done in the morning. It is supposed to help one be more creative during the day, when done in the morning. Lastly, the pages must be kept private, that is, they are not meant to be read at all… by anybody. That includes you the writer! If you do want to read what you wrote, it is recommended that you wait a long time before you do so. The logic behind this rule is that you don’t want the junk back in your head. You are writing to get rid of it.

I started doing just this about a month ago. One morning, I woke up at 4 AM and could not go back to sleep. I gave up trying to fall asleep after an hour and decided to just get up and do something else. I had all these thoughts running around in my head and it felt chaotic. So I grabbed a notebook and wrote it all down, as and when it came to me. I found that it really helped clear my head. Since then, I have done this a couple more times and yesterday I found that there is name for it. (Just like I found out that my system of rapid logging lists in a notebook also has a name for it – a bullet journal and the doodling artwork that I have done since I was a kid is a “zentangle”. I guess I am just not enterprising enough to market my ideas!)

So yesterday, I decided to try and make this a regular habit. I woke up today and wrote four pages. I am amazed at how much it helped clear my head. Then again, it makes sense. I have always found writing to calm me down in some way. But, so far I have only used it to write publically in a blog or a facebook post or something. The drawback of that is that I sometimes go through a phase when I am depressed or disturbed and I don’t feel like divulging my thoughts to anyone. I feel vulnerable and I want to withdraw from the world. This then leads to long absences from writing (such as in this blog for nearly seven months or so), while I wait to come out of the funk. I think I now found a way to circumvent that with this morning pages ritual.

Initially, I wondered if writing the morning pages meant that I would run out of things to say and won’t be able to keep this blog going. Instead, it inspired me to write this. I wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I kept a personal diary for about ten years from the age of 10-20. One day, I dug into my old diaries and read some of it. It all felt to inane and stupid that I just completely gave up on keeping a diary. Then, I started an “open diary” online. It was initially great but as annonymity gave way to a social network of sorts, I stopped writing in that. (Also the site closed up, I think). Now I realize that I have always had a real need to put down my private thoughts somewhere. Its not that my private thoughts are so horrible, its just that I am inherently a very private person.

Later, I got into the habit of keeping a journal each year. I do that even now, but I only write down appointments, reminders, or something important that happened. Now I have finally found a solution with the morning pages. I love the act of actually putting pen to paper. I always have. It makes me think better. I was always the student who made copious notes. The only drawback with morning pages is keeping it secret from nosy relatives (read nosy kids). I think the solution lies in periodically destroying the pages. It will take some practice for me to figure out how often that can be done.

So, to all my writer friends out there, have a go at morning pages. It might help you like it helped me.

-AB

P.S. What is the difference between a diary and a journal? I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer for that.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

It has been a good ten months since I stopped taking my sleeping pills. I have used sleeping pills to fall asleep on and off for a good 10 years – almost constantly really, except for the time I was pregnant with my son. I have tried to get off them several times over the last five years, but I was never successful. Now that it is almost a year since I stopped, I cautiously hope that I finally kicked the habit.

It has not been an easy journey. In the past, my only motivation to quit the sleeping pill was a vague belief of “chronic use of sleeping pills is bad for you.” But this time, I knew for sure that the pill was messing with my memory. My memory skills are very important to me. It is one of my strengths and something that I am proud of. The threat of losing my memory and my mind was a strong motivator in this quest to conquer sleep. Sometime ago, my doctor wrote me a prescription for a different sleeping pill assuring me that it was safe. I was hesitant about it and so she just shrugged and told me that I could use it if I want. I got the prescription filled but I have not used it at all. Every time I am tempted, I recall the feeling of intense embarrassment that I felt every time I couldn’t remember what happened the night before.

I have now come to see my chronic insomnia to be a disorder akin to alcoholism. I don’t think I will every be rid of it, but I can take steps to control it. I believe that using a sleeping pill even for one night will lure me back into the addiction. So, how do I control this beast that I have to live with? The answer lies in learning a few new tricks and following them diligently. Over the summer, I read a whole bunch of books on insomnia – from the helpful to the ridiculous. The first solution that is commonly recommended is the disciplined practice of sleep hygiene. Now, this is something that I have read so many times on various websites that I could probably recite it all in my sleep.

  1. Avoid or limit naps.
  2. Avoid stimulants like caffeine, especially after 3 PM.
  3. Do not eat too close to bedtime.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Stop using screens with blue light for several hours before bedtime.
  6. Expose yourself to more natural light in the morning.
  7. Establish a regular sleep routine or ritual.
  8. Associate your bed with sleep – no watching tv or reading in bed.
  9. Ensure that the bed environment is ideal, not too hot or loud or bright.
  10. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, including the weekends.

I have always shrugged off these suggestions because I believed that I was either already following most of them, or that some of them were impossible to follow. But after my research all summer, I wanted to give it a real try. Some things I was already doing – like no caffeine after 3pm, no screens for several hours before bedtime, somewhat regular exercise, morning sunlight exposure (as much as that is possible in the state of Washington!), and no tv in bed. I have always been against tv in bed. We have never had a tv in our bedroom. But I would always watch tv for an hour or so in the family room before bed,  (when kids are in bed and peace and quiet prevail) especially the shows that are not kid-friendly.

The first thing I did was start sleeping in a quieter room (aka no snoring from hubby). Then, I started turning down the lights at least two hours before bedtime. I stopped eating anything except for a small snack (to keep my blood sugars stable at night). Next, I started limiting or avoiding naps as much as possible. This was a bit of a challenge because I had to nap whenever I had a bad night’s sleep. I then tackled establishing a regular sleep routine. For this, I tried several things like a warm shower before bed, milk, or chamomile tea before bed and such. Nothing really caught on, so instead I settled for brushing my teeth, filling my water bottle, setting my phone to charge, and tucking the kids in bed. One change that made a huge difference was setting my phone on airplane mode during the night time. No more waking up because of notifications for every little thing! As my Fitbit vibrates for a silent alarm in the morning, I also made sure that I put the phone far away from the bed.

There were two suggestions on the list that were very hard for me. The biggest of them was sleeping and waking up at around the same time every day. As a night owl, this would be easier if I could go to sleep at 2 AM every night and wake up at 10 AM everyday. Alas, that is not possible in our world! So, I sacrificed the tv time that I used to enjoy after the kids went to bed and started going to bed pretty soon after the kids were asleep. This helped me establish a somewhat regular bedtime because I strictly enforce a regular bedtime on my children. Although it was difficult, I even managed to reduce the gap in bedtime on the weekends, to something more reasonable than four hours. But, even with all this, there was one more piece to the puzzle.

I resisted this last change the most because I never believed that not reading in bed would really make a difference . Reading in bed was my bedtime routine for years. In fact, that was how I realized that my sleeping pills were messing with my memory. I would have to go back and read the same section every night. My Kindle has a built-in light so I can read at night without disturbing others. Also, Kindles do not emit the blue night found in backlit screens, like phones and tablets. So, I believed reading in bed was okay and never made any effort to change that habit. However, over the past month or so, I have come to recognize my sleep window (that time just before falling asleep when your mind quiets and readies itself for sleep). I only learned to recognize this because of my regular bedtime. My sleep window is so small, such a light dip, that I would overcome it with the slightest stimulus (even reading). I never even realized that I had a sleep window before! But now that I knew I had one, I started waiting for it when I got into bed and give it a chance to develop before picking up my kindle to read. As weeks went by, I found myself avoiding the ritual of reading in bed and suddenly it all made sense. It was true – even reading in bed is disruptive to sleep (at least for someone like me). I really need to reserve my bed only for sleep. It just means that I will have to carve out some other time for reading. But, because reading is important to me so I am sure I will work that out.

Nowadays, I am falling asleep much faster than ever before. I picked out other small bits of advice, from books and websites, that have also helped. I keep a pad and pen near my bed to write down things that I want to remember the next day. That way I can let go of it in my mind. I surround my bed with everything I need. A full bottle of water, the pad and the pen, some headache meds and/or pain balm etc, all within a hand’s reach. To make my sleep “den” even more conducive to sleep, I set my thermostat a little lower than optimum. Did you know that one of the processes involved in falling asleep is a fall in your core body temperature? That’s why a warm shower before bed or a colder bedroom works. It makes your body temperature drop faster.

So, with all these lifestyle changes, I have made my insomnia bearable. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and have trouble falling asleep again, but I am miles away from how bad it used to be. I still go to bed each day having no idea if I am going to get a good night’s sleep or not, but I am more hopeful. As each strategy brought me closer to my goal, I became more motivated to add more lifestyle changes to see if they will help. The downside of this type of management is the inherent fragility of it. Deviating from my sleep routine even for one day ripples into bad sleep for the next few days.

It helps to have a family that supports you. My family members, even my children,  know to never wake me up unless it is an emergency. My mother instilled in me a respect for sleep during my childhood. If I fell asleep before dinner (when I was a kid), she would rather let me sleep than wake me up to make sure I ate. She always said that missing that sleep would be more disruptive to my body than missing dinner. This is a unique attitude in an Indian mother (so many of them are obsessed with feeding their kids)! This family habit of “never wake a person who is sleeping” has even cost me a friendship. Just after college graduation, one of my best friend’s father arrived at my house to invite us all to his daughter’s wedding. I was out and my mother was napping and my 11-year-old brother refused to wake my mother and told him to come back some other time (as he was instructed to do with most people). He did not realize that it was an incredibly rude thing to do in this situation. Even after I apologized profusely on this behalf, my friend and her family took serious offense. Although I went to her wedding, she never spoke to me after that. Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said in the Hindu culture that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. Whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (and many babies do), my mother always said that the baby is smiling because God is playing with the child in his sleep!

Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said, in the Hindu culture, that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. My mother always says that whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (a lot of babies do), it is because God is playing with the child during sleep! I doubt most people think or write about sleep this much. But, for me, sleep is sacred. This morning, I tiptoed past the bird cage, because one of the birds was fast asleep! As I did that, it occurred to me that is an indication of how much I respect sleep. Its what prompted me to write this post.

So, please don’t wake a sleeping person unless you have a good reason. Here’s wishing everyone peaceful sleep.

-AB

 

My deepest sorrow

I am writing this blog post as part of the Chennai Bloggers Club’s March contest titled “I suffered but overcame”.

As a middle-aged person, I had my pick of struggles from my life to choose for this post. Financial crisis, health problems, relationship problems, career stumbles, educational challenges, emotional struggles, crisis of faith – I could probably come up with a post on each of these topics. I took some time to think about what I wanted to pick to write about for this. Almost immediately something stood out. The one experience that went deeper than rock bottom. As soon as it came to my mind, I dismissed it. It was too personal and after my last post, I was not ready to make myself feel vulnerable on social media just yet. Besides, how could I reduce that experience to just a post for a contest? But the thought wouldn’t leave my mind and as I thought more about it, I came up with some convincing reasons to write about it. Firstly, the spirit of this contest: Its not about winning a contest, it is about getting to know one another in our bloggers club, to appreciate each person’s struggles, and hopefully write something that might inspire or as in my case- heal. Secondly, I process my emotions by writing and I know writing this will be incredibly cathartic. Finally, I considered the cost vs benefits of writing it and decided that if it brought comfort to even one single person out there it was worth it. So, here I go.

I have heard that little girls dream about the day they get married and plan it down to the last detail. I never did that. But I always dreamed about the day I would be a mother. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have three children. So, April 22, 2004 was one of the happiest days of my life. I found out that I was pregnant for the first time. I had taken three pregnancy tests (all positive) while I impatiently waited for the doctor’s office to confirm the news. I wanted to call India and tell my parents that they were going to be grandparents before they went to bed. The doctor called me on at lunch and I left my sandwich uneaten (and my dog stole it off the table) as I called my mother with much excitement. Some weeks later, on June 18, 2004, my husband and I went to our second prenatal appointment. I was down with a horrible cold and almost cancelled the appointment. At the appointment, the doctor used a Doppler device to listen to the heartbeat of the baby. But there was no heartbeat. Shortly afterwards, an ultrasound confirmed our worst fear. My new baby had passed away in-utero. I’ felt absolutely helpless. I wanted to scream at the doctor to do something, to somehow save my baby. But, nothing could be done. My husband and I exited the clinic in shock. I called and cancelled the lunch that I was supposed to have with my adviser and lab-mates to celebrate my upcoming Master’s graduation and went home. Do you know that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in a miscarriage? I was 9 weeks pregnant when I miscarried.

Once home, I sat on the stairs and called my parents. When I heard my father’s voice, I broke down and told him the news. To this day, my father won’t answer a phone call from me if he can help it because of that call. He always hopes and waits for someone else to answer it. The following week was a blur. On June 25th, 2004, I underwent a D&C surgery to remove my baby because my uterus was showing no signs of letting it go. Over the next three months, I struggled through every day. Everyone knows that the worst thing in anyone’s life is losing a child. But the worst thing about miscarriage is that no one ever acknowledges this loss – simply because the baby wasn’t born. My baby wasn’t even a fetus (a zygote is considered to be a fetus only after the gestational age of 10 weeks). It didn’t matter that in the few weeks that I knew of my baby’s existence, I had dreamed a whole life for her. It didn’t matter that I had felt the changes my body was going through to prepare for her. It didn’t matter that I had seen her heart beat on the ultrasound at my first prenatal appointment. I had no child to hold or cremate/bury and so no one could understand that my grief was a real thing.

Here are a list of things that you should NEVER say to someone who has lost a child in-utero (even if some of the things may be true):

  1. It’s all God’s plan.
  2. It is probably for the better, there was something obviously wrong with the baby and you were spared later suffering.
  3. It would have been worse if you had been further along in your pregnancy, at least it was first-trimester loss.
  4. You can have other children.
  5. You shouldn’t have announced your pregnancy so soon.
  6. It’s not really like losing a child.
  7. It is so common, it’s happened to so many people I know. They are all fine and you will be too.
  8. Once you have an other child, you will forget all about this.
  9. Time will heal.
  10. Practically everyone has experienced it; 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Yes, people actually told me all the things on this list! When I went back to my OB-GYN for a post-D&C check up, I asked her why this happened and what can be done to prevent this in the future. She replied, “if this happens a few more times, we will worry about it”. Needless to say, I never went back to her.

What you can say instead:

  1. I can’t imagine what you are going through.
  2. I am here for you.
  3. If you need to talk, I will just listen.
  4. If you need to cry, I will just hold you.
  5. I am so sorry this happened to you.
  6. If you have personally experienced this loss, share your story without talking about how time will heal it all.

For it is true; unless you have experienced it, you cannot imagine what it feels like. This also goes for the pain people feel when they experience infertility or stillbirth or have a child who is sick or has special needs or have lost a child – no matter at what age. The pain felt in all these situations are all deep and different. It is simply wrong to compare one to an another and try to rank them in order of magnitude. Parents simply do not expect to outlive their children; that is not natural and no one is prepared for it.

Over the next few months, there were endless nights when I sneaked into another room at night so that my sobs would not wake my husband. So many nights I just clutched a pillow tight to somehow fill the emptiness in my heart and body. Like many women in this situation, I wondered if I had caused it somehow – had I done something wrong? or not done something right? was I too active? had I not eaten right? The hardest thing for me was to try and visualize this child. I needed to do that but I couldn’t. My husband is Caucasian with straight brown hair and green eyes and I am Asian Indian with brown skin, dark curly hair and dark eyes. I wondered how this child would have looked. I remember cutting out a picture of a mixed-race child (with curly hair like mine) from a magazine and putting it next to the one ultrasound picture that we had of the baby. Some weeks after my D&C the lab called to tell me that they had confirmed the “products of conception” (meaning my baby). They told me that my child was a girl and had a chromosomal disorder that was a fairly common but random occurrence. It gave me some closure; we were able to give her a name.

My fragile mind struggled with my faith in God. I was so angry at God. I could not figure out what I had done to deserve this. Then I remembered that several years ago, I had helped my Chinese roommate by accompanying her to have an abortion because she wasn’t comfortable in English and wanted someone to act as a translator. I was convinced that my participation in that event was why this had happened to me. My views changed from pro-choice to pro-life.  During this time, my sister-in-law gave birth to a beautiful girl. Jealousy knifed my heart. It took everything for me not to break down when I met the baby. But all in all, I was blessed. I conceived again in three months. I always wonder what would have happened to my sanity if I had not. Maybe God really does not give us things that we cannot handle. I could not have made it through that time without the support I had from my husband, my in-laws, and my parents.

My new pregnancy did not wipe everything away. Instead, the innocent excitement that I had felt with my first pregnancy was all gone. I was filled with terror; every prenatal appointment was a huge emotional trial. I could barely look at my husband’s face when we went in for the Doppler appointment. He was just as traumatized as me. I lived that pregnancy one day at a time. It was considered a high-risk pregnancy due to my earlier miscarriage and my insulin-resistance. I faithfully checked my blood sugar 9 times every day. I ate every 2 hours making sure to consume at least 1 egg or 2 egg-whites a day (even though I hate eggs). I could not understand women who complained about not being able to drink/smoke/eat what they want during their pregnancy. I envied those women who were blissfully and happily pregnant, because I could never relax. I could never take it for granted. After 33 weeks, I counted my child’s movement twice a day and in my 36th week I called the doctor in panic when she hadn’t moved 20 times in an hour. He had me admitted right away and after 19 hours of labor, I gave birth to my daughter (my second daughter) three weeks before her due date . She was only 4 lbs 10 oz – that’s less than 2 kgs! She had to pass a car seat test before we could take her home. She developed jaundice on the day of my discharge and the doctors suggested that I leave her in the hospital to be cared for while I was discharged (because my insurance will not pay to extend my stay). I refused; I told them I am not leaving a hospital again without my baby. We would pay what it cost for home care. When we put her in the car seat and drove home, she slept so soundly that I was afraid that she wasn’t breathing. Only when she was about 3 months old, I started relaxing and that was when the healing finally began.

I was a lot more relaxed for my third pregnancy. Today my daughter is ten and my son is seven. They both know about their elder sister who died in my womb. We talk about her often and they ask lots of questions about her. Time fills the void, but the scars remain. Since this experience I end every day with prayer; prayer for a safe pregnancy for anyone that I know is pregnant, prayer for success for anyone who is trying to get pregnant, and prayer for strength for anyone who has an ill child.

A few years ago, I was working as a public relations manager at a firm. Over the course of my time there, some HR duties were added to my job description. I was asked to talk to and discipline a young woman whose performance had fallen. I was surprised when I had a look at her file, which showed her as a hard worker whose work had deteriorated suddenly. I asked her to a private meeting and went with my instincts. I asked her if something was going on in her life that was affecting her work. I told her to think of me as a friend and talk to me. After much hesitation, she confided that she had just suffered her second miscarriage. That was all it took to bring it all back. I let her cry and told her that I understood and narrated my story. I advised her to take time out for herself and to ignore the pressure from her family. I told her that I will pray for her and made her promise me that she would let me know when she finally gave birth. I haven’t heard good news from her yet, and I haven’t stopped praying for her either.

So, this is the tale of my deepest sorrow. I struggled and I don’t know if I overcame, but I did survive. I allow myself to think of my first daughter on April 22nd, June 18th and December 31st (her due date) of each year. I hope this post brings comfort to those who have had a similar experience, sensitivity and understanding to those who haven’t, and hope to those who (unfortunately) might experience it in the future. I ended up having three children like I wanted; two of them live with me in this life. They share the space in my heart where the other one lives forever.

-AB

 

 

 

 

 

The importance of respect

Raising your children in a different culture is a challenge in so many ways. As Indian immigrants living in the US, many of us struggle to teach our kids to speak our language, learn about religious practices and cultural values. For me, this challenge is amplified because my kids were not only born in the US, but they are also biologically half-American. As my husband is American (of European descent), Indian culture is only half their heritage. In some ways, it makes it easier for my kids because my husband and I understand that their identity is half-Indian, half-American. First-generation Indian Americans probably have a tougher time convincing their fully Indian parents that the American culture is also their heritage because they were born here.

Of all the things that we teach our kids in India, the one that is close to my heart is Respect. Growing up in India, I was taught to respect so many things around me. Firstly, to respect our parents for all that they do for us. Hinduism equates parents with God itself. Then to respect those elder to us, because wisdom comes with age. Yes, even those only a year or two older in India are addressed with respect. Everyone calls older people anna or akka (elder brother or sister) or auntie or uncle. No one older to you is ever addressed by their first name. We are also taught that special respect is due to teachers who go beyond their call of duty to teach us everything. Gurus or teachers are placed even higher than parents. Besides these, we were also taught to respect inanimate things like food, books, gadgets, the environment and pretty much everything around us for its contribution to our life. We are not allowed to waste food, touch our books with our feet, and once a year we worship during Auydha pooja – we worship all the inanimate objects (from cars to computers) that help us in our every day life.

The differences stemming from the collectivist philosophies of the East and the more individualistic ones of the West means that the emphasis for respect in the US is the individual. Here, children are taught to respect individuals no matter how big or small. Although completely commendable, this practice seems to have diluted to mean respecting just oneself. In the quest to teach children to respect everyone equally, the special respects due to a person because of their age, education, or experience is lost.  Of course, inanimate things are never considered deserving of respect in this culture.

When I was a graduate student here, I had to work with a physiotherapist to help ease my heel pain. The young man grabbed a couple of tall books (maybe they were phone books like the yellow pages) and asked me to stand on top of it. I was appalled! To me books, paper etc = knowledge = God. You do not touch them with your feet, let alone step on it! When I hesitated, the physiotherapist was confused. He had no idea what my problem was and I had to launch into a long explanation about it.

Today, I struggle to teach these concepts of respect to my American children. Living in India for a few years made a big difference because I had societal support in India. Everywhere they went in India, they were expected to address elders with respect. Everyone told them not to waste food and to respect their books and other things.  But, now that we are back here, I am alone in my efforts again and I worry that my children will forget those ways.

The hardest of these to teach American children is to not waste food. America is filled with an excess of food. Processed food is cheap and plentiful.  Kids in America do not think twice about wasting food. A few months ago, I saw a family get out of their car and throw half-eaten fast food into the trash nearby. There was a little boy, about 10 years old, who opened a bottle of “Simply Orange” orange juice, took a sip, replaced the cap and then threw it in the trash. One sip was all he took of the nearly 20 oz bottle! No matter how much I teach them otherwise, my children are constantly exposed to this culture of waste. Most American kids cannot wrap their heads around the fact that there are people in developing countries who do not get three square meals a day. Wasting food really upsets me because I myself have experienced what it feels like to not be able to afford food.

In the end, all I can do is to keep telling my kids about these things and hope that it will seep into their minds over time. My husband tells me that things were not so bad when he was young and that these values were also a part of the American culture some time ago. I believe that is true because of the compliments that I get from other American parents on the respectful behavior of my kids. Every time I go to a parent-teacher conference, the teachers never forget to tell me that both my kids are extremely respectful. It gives me hope and makes me proud. I guess we (my husband and I) must be doing something right after all.

“Show respect even to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character but as a reflection of yours.” – Dave Willis

-AB

 

 

Keep calm and live life

Nearly a year ago, I downloaded a meditation app on my phone called “Calm”. I used the free version off and on for most of last year. It had nature sounds, scenes, and a series of guided meditation sessions called “7 days of calm”. The sessions introduced different practices of mindfulness meditation; from body scans to progressive relaxation for sleep. Around that time, I also downloaded several other meditation and relaxation apps mainly with the goal of controlling stress and helping me sleep better. But I eventually deleted all of them except Calm. A big plus point with Calm is the voice of the narrator who guides the meditation. The woman has an incredibly calm voice that is instantly relaxing and has done a great job narrating the guided sessions at a slow and even pace. I have deleted some of the other apps just because I couldn’t stand the voice that was used! The narration is also very intuitive and provides just enough instruction so you know what to do.

In January of this year, I decided that meditating regularly was going to be my resolution for this year. One afternoon on a whim I paid the subscription for the full app for the whole year ($40). It is more than I would have liked to spend but because it is a subscription, new content is added every month.

Now a month later, I feel that the $40 per year investment for my mental health was totally worth it. The daily sessions last between 10-12 minutes and that’s all it takes to significantly lower my stress levels. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that it was helping me. Then I noted an increase in stress, irritation, and anger on the days I didn’t meditate. It became worse if I missed sessions for a couple of days in a row. I believe that a person can change only when they decide that they are going to change. For change to occur you need a trigger. If I didn’t benefit by the meditation, I wouldn’t have started to consciously make time for it. Initially, I would remember to meditate only after the kids get home from school (my guess is that’s when I need that extra patience and calm). But I found it so much harder to meditate for even 10 minutes when the kids are at home. Even if I told them that I was going to meditate and would like not to be disturbed for 10 minutes, they would decide that something was too urgent to wait 8 more minutes and would always interrupt me. So it took me a few days to realize that I needed to move my meditation time to earlier in the day – before the kids came home.

Nowadays, meditation is the first thing I do after the kids leave for school. Today, I celebrate 10 continuous days of meditation! So far, its biggest impact on me has been from the sessions that focus on “non-reactivity”. Increasingly, I find myself capable of realizing it when something upsets me and stepping away from it. I am learning to not react to such situations and instead, take the time to think about it and realize its not such a big deal after all. I am willing to wager that my cortisol levels are lower than they used to be. I can just feel calmness flood over me whenever I am able to do that.

There has been a wonderful side affect to this app. Back when I was meditating at the end of the day, I would sit and do it with my kids lying nearby reading. Soon, they became drawn to it and started meditating with me. I noticed that sometimes my son would be listening to it and fall asleep much faster than usual. My daughter says that it helps her to shut down at the end of the day and fall asleep. So, now I share my app with her. She takes it to bed with her (there are special sessions that guide you to sleep) and falls asleep listening to it.

If you are interested in really getting into meditation, I highly recommend “Calm”. Their website features also some freebies that are worth checking out. So, keep calm and live life.

-AB

 

The to-do list: a small piece of paper that weighs a ton

It has been a long break since my last post. I have fallen victim to the fast-paced American lifestyle. Of the three countries that I have lived in during my lifetime (India, Australia, and USA), America has the fastest pace. It is one of the things I don’t like about living here. When I am here, twenty-four hours is never enough in a day. There is always something to be done. The laundry, the dishes, cleaning, outside errands to the grocery store, the post office, doctor’s/dentist/vet appointments, homework, cooking and it goes on and on. My life is a never ending list of things to do. Honestly, I don’t know how mothers that work outside the home do it. I can barely hold it all together while working from home.

I am always multitasking, even though I know that multitasking doesn’t really get help in getting anything accomplished faster. A couple of days ago, when I sat down to help the kids with their homework, I quickly looked around to see what else I can do while helping them. It made me realize what a chronic multitasker I have become. I never watch TV just to watch TV. If I am not folding laundry or chopping vegetables while I am watching TV, I feel like I am wasting time. Sometimes I combine watching TV with my meditative coloring, as if that will help me wind down more in half the time! Lately I have been pulling out some kind of work to do while waiting at places (doctor’s offices and such) instead of my kindle to just read. In fact, I haven’t read a book since the start of the year and that made me realize that I really need to do something to slow down the hectic pace of my life.

It has been six months since I moved to the US and things have finally settled down enough for me to bring some order into my life with a proper routine. So I sat down yesterday to break down my day-to-day work into easier chunks. After assigning the first half of the day to writing work and the second half to household chores, I found that the hardest thing for me to schedule was “me” time. I need 90 minutes of me time everyday for my physical and mental health: 40 minutes for exercise, 20 minutes for meditation and 30 minutes for winding down. I wish I could set aside another 30 minutes everyday to read but unfortunately, I have to alternate reading, watching TV, and art during my winding down time.

Even as I write this, I feel the weight of the dozen other things that I have to do today. But, I have decided to challenge myself by trying to write 500 words everyday and I shall start that today, here.

Sample to-do list:

  1. Exercise
  2. Meditation
  3. Writing
  4. Cooking
  5. Studying & reading with the kids
  6. Household chores
  7. Outside errands
  8. Winding down

This is the bare-bones list. It gets heavier but never really lighter unless I don’t have outside errands. But at the end of the day there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than a fully crossed out to-do list!

-AB

 

 

 

The pissing evil

Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with insulin resistance. Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes.

The word “diabetes” has always struck terror in my heart. When I was growing up, my mother would always talk about how her grandfather died of it. To her, it was always a big demon. When I was 20, my mother was diagnosed with it. She was 42. Although, she always thought of it as a horrible disease, she didn’t really foresee that she would get it. Both her parents didn’t have it. For her it was a total shock, it just came out of the blue and knocked her off her feet. It took her more than a year to come to terms with the diagnosis. Witnessing her struggle with the diagnosis, it became this huge enemy in my mind. Since then I started to read and learn everything about the disease- knowledge is power after all.

Even with good control, my mother became insulin-dependent after several years. Ten years ago, at the age of 60, my dad became a diabetic. He took his diagnosis in stride, with his never die attitude. Still, as years marched on, the disease wore down his body as well as his optimism and sometimes overpowered him. He is not insulin-dependent, although he had to take insulin for a couple of months when some medication had the side effect of high blood sugar. Currently, both my parents have their blood sugars under control and continue to battle this demon.

When I was pregnant with my first child, the doctors worried that I would get gestational diabetes because I was already insulin resistant. I followed a very strict diet and checked my sugars seven times a day. I managed to deliver my daughter without succumbing to gestational diabetes.  When I became pregnant with my son, I went on a similar diet. In the last trimester, even with the strict diet, I saw the sugars climb up. It got to a point where I just couldn’t eat any differently to get it under control. I had to take insulin injections during the last three weeks of my pregnancy. Research shows that those who get gestational diabetes almost always develop type II diabetes within five years of the pregnancy. I was determined that I would not become part of that statistic. I lasted six and a half years.

The trouble with such research statistics is that numbers are black and white, while biology isn’t. Those numbers are not hard facts; they are just estimates. Like the estimate that if both your parents are diabetic, you have a one in two chance of becoming one yourself. But when they say a one in two chance, it isn’t like a flip of a coin. It is not mean that if my parents had eight kids, four of them will become diabetic. In reality all eight kids probably get various amounts of susceptibility, some more than others. With the decks stacked against me genetically, I could only exercise control over my lifestyle to delay the inevitable onset.

Every other Indian is diabetic these days. Chennai is the diabetic capital of the world. With all this background, there must have been some part of me that KNEW that I too will be a diabetic some day. I just hoped it will be after 60 like my dad. It is incredibly upsetting to me that even with monitoring my health for so many years, the demon caught up to be even before he caught my mother. I never expected to be diagnosed at 39. My mother’s parents were both diagnosed last year. My grandmother is 78 and my grandfather was 84. I am the youngest in my family to be diagnosed with this disease.

Coming to terms with a diagnosis that changes your lifestyle completely is very much like grief. I grieve for the life I lived before when I didn’t have to worry overly about what I ate and when. That life is now gone. The five stages of grief are denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. My mother went through a lot of denial because she was had no inkling of her health status. I thought that I didn’t waste much time in denial, but it must have been there because I did not want to admit to anyone that I was now diabetic. I was overwhelmed with isolation and depression. It didn’t help that I already felt isolated because of my move to the US. But mostly I felt guilty. So much guilt that I had let this happen. So much shame and anger, mostly directed inward. Then I wallowed in self-pity. One night, I was overwhelmed with fear; fear of eating. I felt panicky that no matter what I ate, I would not be able to control this. I wanted to release my emotions by writing a post about it, but I was not ready then. I did not want anyone to know my failure to prevent this. At this stage, I started reading more about emotional responses to the diagnosis. Website after website told me to let go of the guilt and the fear. I prayed for help to do just that.

Yesterday, I forgot to put my protein bar in my purse on my way out. When I started feeling hypoglycemic and searched for the bar, it wasn’t there. I know the dangers of hypoglycemia. Besides, the danger, it leaves me tired, makes me binge eat and sometimes leaves behind a headache. Thankfully, I had emergency glucose tablets. I have never had those before but they did an incredible job of rescuing me. I then bought a box of peanuts and couldn’t stop myself from eating three servings instead of one. Later, when I was waiting to pick up my kids at the bus stop, I admitted to a new friend that I am a diabetic. I didn’t plan on it. It just happened. I guess I was starting to come to terms with it.

Today, something happened that pushed me over the line into acceptance. I found out that my daughter’s new best friend, a fellow fifth-grader, is a type I diabetic. It shocked me when the child chose a single slice of brown bread as an after-school snack because “it was the only thing in the house that was below 5 carbs.” Now I feel ashamed again, but this time for all the drama, the self-pity and the depression. How incredibly blessed I am that I got to live till 39 years without this disease! That child is only ten.

I know that this epiphany does not mean that the struggle is over or that I will always be fine with it. I have seen how my parents still have days when they just want to surrender to it all. I know I will have my down days. But for now, I have made my peace with it. And I write this to remind me on those black days to count my blessings and be grateful.

By the way if you are wondering about the title of this post, it refers to the etymology of the word “diabetes”. It is an old common name for diabetes, derived from the symptom of excessive urination.

-AB

Life = Change

I haven’t blogged in about six weeks. In those six weeks, I relocated from India to northwest USA.

I unboxed more than a dozen boxes and nine suitcases of items and put them away. During this process I tidied up and re-tidied up every room in my apartment at least 3 times, maybe more. I built up an entire kitchen from a couple of pans and plates to a fully stocked one with a toaster, a rice cooker, a mixer, an electric kettle, several pots and pans, cutlery, Tupperware, a cutting board, and knives. I bought a dozen jars and filled them with dhals, rice, nuts, and spices and turned it into a workable Indian kitchen. Also, I bought several pieces of furniture on craigslist and at Ikea and furnished our apartment.

I made appointments with doctors and got my children up-to-date on their vaccinations. I had them enrolled in school. I shopped for all their school supplies. I searched and found the perfect owl backpack that my daughter wanted and convinced my son to go with a dinosaur backpack instead of a puppy one that wasn’t available. I bought them warmer clothes, socks and shoes. I went through aisles of clothing to find a jacket for my daughter that wasn’t pink. Along with my husband, we got the children on a schedule of chores and laid down rules about screen-free Mondays and Wednesdays. We took the kids to the playground, the pool, and the library. As promised, we bought a hand-tamed parakeet for my daughter and a puppy for my son.

About two weeks after my move, I organized and conducted a Seemantham (religious ceremony akin to a baby shower) for my sister-in-law and my brother. It was a pain to shop for, even though my mother had bought most of the items and packed them for me. I cooked about six dishes for it and still have leftovers from it! I once again experienced the pain of separation as my brother and his wife left for the east coast.

I had my immigration physical and spent an hour with my doctor discussing my health. He mentioned that I seemed to have a lot on my plate. No kidding! I had five vials of blood drawn for various tests. I had a chest x-ray taken to prove that I don’t have tuberculosis.

I reacquainted myself with driving on the right side of the road. I got into the habit of checking the weather forecast before choosing what to wear for the day. I started wearing socks all the time while at home. I am re-training myself to shop for a whole week of groceries without forgetting something, to go to the correct side of the car, and to walk on the right side of corridors and pavements. It will take me more time to guess the time of the evening without a watch (the sun sets around 6 pm in India and only at 9 pm here).

I did all this under a cloud of jet lag, insomnia, and depression. The jet lag was gone within a week. The depression just got worse. Sometimes I miss India so much that it feels like a physical ache in my heart. I hate shopping and the overdose of shopping has not helped with my mood. I am now slowly working my way out of that depression back to my normal self by telling myself that I will accept life as Lord Krishna gives it to me.

My home office is finally set up. I have a large, sturdy desk in front of a window, with a nice view of the street outside and a comfortable chair. Now, I can get back to writing.

-AB

Keep Calm and Relocate

I am relocating to another residence for the 19th time in my life. Apparently, this is way higher than average  (the average American moves 11.7 times in their lifetime). Of these 19 times, this is my fifth international move. I moved to Australia when I was 20. In my first year there I moved five times before I found my home away from home in an international dorm. It was a good thing that I was literally living out of my suitcase at that time. It made the actual moves easier. A year into my Master’s degree in Australia, I suffered from a bout of major depression. It was the most crippling time in my life and it mad me “grow up” in a matter of months.

One day at 4 am (it was also the start of my sleeping problems), my self-preservation instincts kicked in and I made up my mind to reach out for help. At 8 am, I went to the student medical center at the university and sought professional help. I was referred to young female counselor, probably in her late 20s or early 30s. For the sake of this post, I will call her Anna.

Anna changed my life. She pulled me out from a deep pit of depression and taught me coping skills and strategies that I still use today. I remember a counseling session with Anna: me sitting on a comfortable rocking recliner, hugging a sofa cushion to my chest, and struggling not to breakdown into tears. I was filled with self-loathing and told her how much I hated myself for not being mentally strong enough to cope with life. She looked shocked and told me that I was being too hard on myself. She pointed out that I had moved five times in the past year and how that alone was enough stress to break most people down. Add to that I was only 20 and in a foreign country where I did not know anyone. She pulled out a fancy psychology textbook and showed me that the stress of moving is really high up in the list of stressful life events. Some studies say that the only life stressors that are worse are death of a loved one or a divorce. She gave me the book and asked me to read it and use the self-evaluation tool at the end of the book to calculate for myself how much stress I might be under. I remain eternally indebted to Anna, for if not for her I would not have finished my degree in Australia. With her help, I learned to recognize how I am when I am stressed and to give myself a break.

The stress of the forthcoming move has somewhat paralyzed me over the last month. It’s the reason for the big gap in my blog entries. With this move, I also worry about making the transition smooth and easy for my children. I spend a little time every other day talking to them about understanding their anxiety, preparing them for an inevitable culture shock, reiterating that I am there for them to talk, and to help them to cope with it. It helped that we watched “Inside Out” and my daughter told me that she read somewhere that “moving makes you grow up fast”. I was astonished but happy that she realized that a lot earlier in life than I did.

I leave for the US in two weeks time and most of the things on my to do list are crossed off. I find myself racking my brain for anything that I might have missed. I realized that at moments of stress like this, I withdraw into myself and become very non-sociable. So if you feel like I have disappeared off the face of this earth, know that it is just me bracing myself for this next big change in my life.

-AB