The Tree Next Door

For as long as I can remember, I have always lived next to a tree. Growing up in Kathmandu, our ancient house had a courtyard with only one tree. The tree grew on a raised brick rectangular mound along with some other small plants. The tree was thin and windy and acted like a green umbrella providing shade to the small plants and an ancient well situated next to the rectangular mound. I learned later that this was the night flowering jasmine tree or parijaat flower tree in Nepali.

As kids, we spent countless hours playing on this courtyard under the shade of the parijaat tree. Every once in a while the green moss on the yard would be speckled with the white and yellow of the parijaat flowers. Our grandmother, the matriarch of the household would immediately dispatch someone to carefully collect these flowers to offer to the household deities next morning.

In this house, I shared a room with my sister and my parents, a long rectangular room that was divided into two. My parents slept and entertained on the outside room. My sister and I slept on the inside room and later used it as a study and for storage, napping, and any time we needed some space. There was a low bedding on the floor right next to a wall to wall window that looked out to the tree.

I spent countless hours on this low bedding finishing my homework from schools or preparing for multiple exams. My mother, my sister, and I, all three would congregate on this bedding in the evenings talking, sharing, laughing, crying, and sometimes just working silently. Some of our most joyful and most difficult times happened here, overlooking the courtyard and the stoic and silent tree.

I did not realize this until recently but the tree was our silent, green, and reassuring companion that stayed with us and listened to all of our challenges, heartbreak, joys, and wishes. Fast forward a decade, the house and the courtyard are empty and falling apart slowly but my mother tells me that the parijaat tree is still alive and sprinkles the yard with flowers from time to time. My heart aches for this tree like it would for a long lost friend. I cannot help but think she was our guardian who was sent to watch over us.

I left Nepal and moved to the US and eventually to an east coast city for a job. I lived in an old brick house and my room looked into yet another courtyard with trees. The courtyard belonged to a church. I spent hours sitting on the window hunched over my books and computer, all the time aware, that the green of the trees was there waiting for me to feast my eyes upon. Alone in this city, navigating the ups and downs of professional and personal life, I often turned to those green friends when I needed to feel the compatible silence of a dear friend. No judgement, no advice- just the green earthy and soothing presence that immediately calmed my mind and warmed my heart.

Now I live in yet another US city with a family of my own. Our neighborhood is green and situated right next to a trail. When the weather allows, I find myself automatically gravitated toward this trail. The tall green trees invite me take a walk, luxuriate in the silence, and feast my eyes and calm my mind. Days and times when I feel like the walls are closing down on me and I feel stress and despair in me rising, I make myself a tall mug of tea and hike through this trail. I let my mind wander and come into a silent commune with my friends and most of the time I feel a sense of quiet and reassurance.

I have a daughter now. She spends far too much time on electronic devices. As one of our first adventures together, we are trying to complete this trail- my husband and I and the toddler. We are halfway through the trail. Every weekend when we have a little bit of time to spare we jump into our car and dash off to the trail, eager to finish off even small bit. The rain, the sun, and my growing pregnancy has hampered our effort, but we are in no rush and enjoying our little adventure together. I am hoping that my daughter will also find a connection with these silent green friends like I did.

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A Bakedjoint- my new favorite place to hang out in DC

This was another one of my husband’s find. A friend of his recently came to visit from Nepal and he wanted her to experience DC. This restaurant to me brings together everything that I love about DC so much. You walk into- what looks like a large store front on the ground floor with large glass windows and no nonsense outdoor seating.

For 11 am Sunday morning, the line around the counter was stretched across the width of the restaurant. A large space with open counter for bakeries and stacked goods and coffee machined was installed on one side of the enormous space. The other side was fitted with chairs and tables of all shapes and sizes.

Long and thin stand up tables, where you can stand and finish your coffee or meal if you are short on time; large sold wooden communal tables where people of all shapes and sizes were eating together; and small and round chairs and tables scattered behind. There were what looked like indoor stadium type wooden planks where I saw one or two person stretched out with their laptops.

A few steps up and there is a cozy seating available with two large plush sofas and several large comfortable settees organized around each other. We quickly grabbed the large plush white sofa- for a 16 month old this was probably the most comfortable seating space one can find in DC.

Amazing no reservation required- first come first serve basis. We sat there for close to two hours and no one came to push us out. We made space for other large groups as they milled in and out. You have to order at the counter and pick up your food at the counter. I saw several cute and homely wooden trays and round wooden platters being passed around.

My husband picked up our food in several small plates of white with blue border. There was a quiche, a biscuit with egg, savory oatmeal, and yogurt with fruit and Granola. And two large cups of beautifully prepared latte and one glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The food was fresh, rich, and creamy. We savored every last bite of it. Later, I saw some other dishes that I have noted for the next round of brunch here. A large plate of waffle piled with bacon and fruits and bread with all toppings that you can imagine.

The place itself is minimalist at its best- the décor is light but trendy and cozy. There are no signs for restrooms but letters crawled with a white chalk on the side and the ceilings are exposed. The people were of all types and from all walks of lives- young, old, athletes, workaholics, late night party goers, students, friends, families, coworkers, young and old parents with babies and kids. This was truly DC for me offering space for all kinds- trendy yet simple and practical.

A Baked joint, 440 K St NW, Washington, DC 20001

 

The Pines of Rome- an old neighborhood gem

For my birthday dinner this year (turned 35 by the way), my husband did some research and picked an old Italian restaurant in Bethesda. When I put Bethesda and Italian food together, I thought ‘fancy’, so I put on my dress and high heels. We parked at a garage, and walked for few minutes, two street lights later, we were standing in front of a non-descript wooden door with a white front and ordinary windows. There was a wooden bench parked in the front with lingering smell of smoke.

Few steps up, and we walked into a little cabin with blue tiles on one side and a door on the other. The door opened to a spacious lobby with rooms on both sides and a kitchen hidden behind a small cashier’s desk. A busy looking, spindly man, was hovering over the cash register, he looked up quickly when we arrived and swiftly took us to our table. I quickly hung my coat on one of the walls and followed my husband, instantly feeling out of place in my high heels and dress.

The walls of the restaurant were painted dark maroon red, an odd color or a restaurant ( I thought), the ceiling were white blocks with fans and hanging lights. There was an eclectic assortment of art on the wall, a picture of a grim looking woman, positively ancient, starting down at us, and three plates of different sizes with splashes of color arranged on the other wall. We were seated against one of the walls, two chairs and a small table, the chairs instead of facing each other were slightly open toward the room, as if we were getting ready to watch a show. And that is how it turned out to be, a show.

A large family of ten plus people with children were seated on the back wall, all happily slopping their spaghetti sauce with pieces of pizza. They were unpretentious and loud and having a good family time and not at all apologetic about it. For a moment, I felt like I was in their dining room, a fly on the wall. The table in front of us filled up with what looked like a rag tag mix of elderly, and from the way they commanded their way into the chairs and talked to the waiter, I felt that they had been frequenting this place long before their hair started turning grey.

As I looked around the room, I saw families and friends, tourists and locals, all talking, all eating, and laughing- and it felt like one big family dining room, all of us, strangers, friends, and family together. And even before I tasted the food, I knew that I will be coming back here just for the ambience even if the food proved to be mediocre.

A strong looking burly no nonsense waiter with a small goatee, came to take our orders. The menu like the rest of the décor looked ancient dressed in bright lipstick red with sparkling gold letters. Inside, the listing was two pages long. I scanned through the prices, not too bad. Since this was my birthday and husband was paying, I decided to go all out and ordered a glass of prosecco, that came with a big basket of thick crusty bread and a cold dish of butter. The bread was alright sopped with a dip of the olive oil set on each table.

Melon wrapped with prosciutto was next, three sheets of prosciutto unceremoniously plopped over a large green slice of melon, nothing fancy. The sweetness of the melon was a perfect backdrop to the saltiness of the prosciutto . A plate of hot fried calamari with a large steam bowl of white bean soup was next. Followed by a plate of white Fontina pizza sliced in uneven shapes and sizes. The pizza was delicious. To finish, we shared a cannoli, the crust was thick crunchy yet soft and the white cream was heavy and slightly sweet. It was a perfect ending to a lovely meal. I stared longingly at the plates of spaghetti at the other tables but I those will have to wait until the next time. On the way out we lingered at the lobby looking at framed awards and reviews, there were several, there was one dating back to the 1970s. We knew that we had discovered an old gem and we will be back for more.

Pines of Rome, 4709 Hampden Ln, Bethesda, MD 20814

 

 

Coming Back

Coming back to Karachi after a one year gap felt like rediscovering an old friend. I had never thought I would go to Karachi, let alone live there for a year. Due to work life circumstances, I found myself in Karachi in 2014. I would talk to myself every day and prepare myself for the shift. It was one of those decisions where you more or less close your eyes and jump – not knowing whether you would come back intact. One of my most comforting thoughts was if the population of 27 million can survive in Karachi, so can I.

I remember going to the Pakistani embassy in Kuwait, the place was filled with men. Men of all sizes and shapes in salwar kurta and some in western attire. There were very few women and I quickly gravitated toward them. The visa officer after going through some paperwork and websites told me that with my Nepali passport, I would not need a visa for Pakistan.

I remember very little of my first plane ride to Karachi except families clumped together at the boarding gate. Women in colorful salwar kurta and their men with three to four children in tow. There were a few single travelers, women foreign returnees in their tight pants and long tops.

I found myself at the Marriott in Karachi for the duration of my stay. At 4 am in the morning, I checked into the hotel, the hotel lobby was still very lively, a group of qawwali singers, entertaining the few guests that were lingering by. I would for the rest of my time be plagued by thoughts of doom and gloom, hotels being one of the easier targets.

For the first few weeks, I immersed myself in work. Hotel to work, work to hotel, with a break of 40 minutes on the treadmill in the all women gym. Slowly, I made friends at work. A bunch of girls took me out for lunch, my first outing in Karachi. It was a bakery café, cute and cozy, familiar food of nacho and sandwiches, and walls lined with books. I was instantly at home. Another outing, a fancy French restaurant, beautiful menu, and delicious dishes, and an ambience that can quickly make you forget that you are in Karachi.

Slowly, I began to explore Karachi one restaurant at a time. There were malls and there were movie theatres. And there was alliance francaise, the French school, where I took private lessons once a week to brush up on my French. There were pot luck lunches on Saturday where the expats came and you could get wine and whisky and indulge in the company of distinguished appointees at the various embassies. We would talk politics, travel, security, and food.

The food consisted of mostly homemade fare- the Egyptian meat dishes prepared with much thought and fanfare, the simple Italian delicacies, the sizzling Pakistani slightly tempered for the foreign palate, the exotic Russian platter, and the very familiar and homely American baked goodies.

I saw life mostly through my expat bubble. From my screened, AC car windows and cozy hotel rooms, I saw people on the street, families and children trying to piece together a daily meal. Security threats would filter in from time to time, death- kidnapping- suicide attacks, but despite all of this life continued in Karachi.

There is poverty, chaos, pollution, and crumbling yet beautiful infrastructure telling stories of the glorious past. And there are shiny malls, and million dollar houses and cars, and designer wares. Like any other mega metropolitan Karachi carries both ends of life with a quiet dignity.

What I found most endearing about this city were the inhabitants, the karachites, who despite the various stressors of life, know how to enjoy life. The sizzling, spicy and lavish food that makes you come alive; the women who despite the restrictions somehow come out looking like fashonistas; the quick warm and open gestures; the searing heat; the love for life and the good bad and ugly; the deeply entrenched history and stories that people have- are what make Karachi my favorite destination in the world. Every time I go back, it feels like I am home.

 

 

P for Pigeon- evolving in an asana on the mat and in life

My body used to love the pigeon pose. Usually practiced toward the end of yoga classes after repeated downward dogs and upward dogs, lying down on the mat with one leg stretched out and the other folded and tucked under your upper body, was relaxing. This was before I put on 20 Kgs and had a baby. Following the birth of my daughter, this pose has become a challenge, my body has evolved to dislike this pose.

The only explanation that I can come up with is the hips that have changed. This hips that has borne the brunt of my pregnancy and child birth and the weight of my one year old has caused them to revolt. As soon as I stretch myself into the pigeon pose, I feel borderline pain searing outward from my hip. My body speaks to me of memories and patterns locked into those hips- those of pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood and of increased responsibilities. Despite the pain, I still go into the pigeon stretches. “You cannot always do what you like- you have to also explore what makes you uncomfortable” the voice of my yoga teacher finds me on my mat from time to time, pushing and prodding.

There is another aspect of my life that has changed since my daughter which is travel. Getting away from it all for short work trips used to be a very attractive alternative. Hop on the plane, forget yourself in series of movies and people watching binges, arrive at your work destination, meet with colleagues and finish your assigned task. No house to clean, no dinners to cook, no mail to check, and no commute. I become a hotel hermit. I work and I sit and soak up the silence.

But travelling is no longer what it used to be. It comes with healthy dose of guilt and loud pangs of separation from my beautiful delicious chubbiness of a daughter. As I write this, I am on my first work trip post baby and I am missing her desperately- her smell, her tantrums, her curls, and her voice. It feels like I have left a part of me behind and I am no longer a whole person.

Back in the US, when I was thinking about this travel, I was looking forward to some quiet time. I was thinking about all I could get done; focus on my personal projects; my yoga my meditation my business my writing. I saw myself sitting in my hotel room drinking cups and cups of warm green tea and relaxing. Well, I am here, but I am not able to enjoy myself or relax completely. I wonder what she will think of me for leaving her, if she will be able to make sense of what is going on around her and why she is seeing her mommy only on the screen.

I may continue to travel for work and welcome short breaks from home but my expectation of these trips has toned down. I have changed. Motherhood has changed me. While there may be moments of quiet and uninterrupted time for work and catching up on personal projects; the longing for that small part of me that I have left behind will be forever a part of me.

 

Breath and Silence- Lifelong companions

It struck me while I was sitting cross legged on the floor ready for my meditation session that breathing is the first and the last act of life. It is by no means a novel thought but the realization was loud and clear. And breathing is also the only consistent companion that we have. When everything and everyone else in life including oneself is changing, it is comforting to know that breath will take us through to the end.

The breath that is gentle and full when we are sound asleep and the breath that is shallow and quick with a burning tinge when we are anxious. This breath is an indication of our wellbeing and happiness. We can send this breath to the different parts our body as a messenger of goodwill. I like to send it to my scalp to get a mild tingling buzz and to my stomach to calm the angry juices of anxiety and to the tips of my toes to see how far it can go.

The breath also brings us closer to people and heal troubled relationships. Immersed in my own drama and my pettiness; the few breaths before I go to sleep or when I wake up; is the only time I have to think of a dear family member suffering from cancer; or a friend who is struggling to find the right direction; or strangers who are living in war ravaged zones. With one breath in I attempt to take away their pain and with one breath out I send you my love and happiness. This is the time and space that my breath allows me to acknowledge that there is a larger circle that is beyond me and mine, a larger cosmic connection beyond the everyday.

Then there are troubled relationships- a rift between minds and hearts that seem at times insurmountable; there is jealousy and anger; and there is that perception of ‘you did me wrong’. I think of these faces and personalities and keep them close to my heart as I breathe in and breathe out realizing that while we have our differences now, in the grand scheme of things we are all characters playing out our part and going through our struggle.

And there is silence, my good old friend, that comes and finds me in early mornings or late nights when the house is asleep; in the middle of chaotic traffic in between red lights; and in the middle of a large family reunion; and wraps me deep inside its fold like a loving mother. When I find silence, I also find breath there, waiting for me. And for a few minutes, the silence and the breath become my world and everything else dissolves and I feel myself go back to the beginning that zero that one point where we all came from.

 

Finding Space in Everyday Life

The last few weeks of my life has been practice on slowing down; finding space to breathe; and just being. Life happened one thing after the other. Deadlines at work; back to back family events; financial worries; computer crises- are just a few. Yet I know that I have so much to be grateful for- especially a healthy and a beautiful daughter to come home to.

Life- this tour de force is churning around me leaving monuments and debris on its wake. It feels like sitting in the eye of the tornado and watching things around us swirl and change. Friends and families going through changes in their lives- a close family member battling cancer; a friend seeing her one year old son battling cancer; a couple trying to find ways to live together; a family going through unemployment and financial woes; friends struggling with work pressures; friends trying to find significant others; and a new acquaintance going through separation. And on a more positive note- weddings, births, promotions, healing, travels and other opportunities.

While the lives around me is changing, my own is moving at a very fast pace. Most days I feel like I am being passed through several ringers and by the end of the day I am drained and washed out. My levels of problems are what you may call the Cadillac versions of the problem world. My week looks like- some job dissatisfaction, a hacked computer and lost access to all my data, work commute woes, child care expenses, family demands and tussles, pressures of starting a business- these are the new normal of my new life. My work also looks like – toothless and heart aching grins from my daughter; peace and quiet of precious alone times; debut of my small business; the assignment that went well; and baby steps getting back into driving; and the slowness of Sunday mornings.

Finding the space to put every day into perspective by being mindful of what is around me and inside me, keeps me sane. For examples work deadlines have their own place in my new life list and it is definitely not at the top. This new realization allows me to live a more or less normal and stable life- if it is not a life threatening factor- I know I will eventually get by.

Finding that space and perspective has everything to do with finding space in the day to day to be in touch with myself. This may translate into quiet time on the mat, a fifteen minute journaling before I go to bed, a quick walk, an extended yoga practice, or sometimes just a few mindful breaths before I go to bed. And staying open enough to connect with people- family and strangers alike. Making time to spend a few minutes with the newly returned from Family medical leave coworker; listening to the life story of that uber driver who is going through death, separation, and job loss with a heavy but pure heart; and rearranging the schedule to connect to a friend from ten life times ago.