Below are the articles I have written for the Kathmandu Post. Click on the titles for the link to the original articles.

The Nourished Soul

It was Virginia Woolf who said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”, an idea that I’ve long consented to. After all, how can you sleep well if your stomach is grumbling with hunger? How can your brain operate to its fullest capacity if you haven’t had a satisfying meal? And how can your heart expand with love if you haven’t received enough bodily nourishment? Food has a higher function than sustaining your physical functions—it feeds the heart and soul. Food allows for dialogue to open between family members and

connections to flourish between generations. What does food represent in different cultures?

What does food represent to Nepali people, or to those in the West?

In Nepal, food is energy, food is love, food is a necessity, food is family and food is history. Cooking by candlelight during load-shedding hours, and the sharing of meals with friends and family—these have defined my culinary experiences here. Recipes are passed down and family specialties perfected with each generation. It wouldn’t be

exaggerating to say that Nepal has changed my perspective on food. The nuances of spices, the fresh, vibrant coloured vegetables and the joy of a simple meal are things I’ve come to

appreciate. My Nepali family treats the process of making and presenting a meal with respect, designed as I feel it is to honour the recipient. As a guest, I’m usually served first and my approval of that initial mouthful prompts others to begin eating with me. It is often strange for me to have someone serving me and watching me eat, but I have come to understand it as a welcoming gesture and have grown to appreciate it. 

My sweetest memories of childhood in America include waking up in the morning to the smell of muffins baking. My mom had always been a fantastic cook, eager to bring me into the kitchen with her. But the younger me was thoroughly disinterested in cooking; as a teenager in particular, having to be home to

have dinner with the family every night felt like a chore, something I dreaded. Today, it is one of the things I look back fondly on, and one of the things I miss the most about home while I’m away. But that realisation has also opened a dialogue between generations in my family; now when

I visit my mom, we connect through food, bonding over old stories while cooking together. And it is an added joy to be able to have my own recipes to share, to teach my loved ones in the US the tastes and flavours from my time in Nepal.

Regardless of which culture you might be referring to, meals are often the catalyst that brings people closer to one another. Here in this country, I’ve found that eating is a time for family stories and traditions to be passed on, particularly within joint families that make it a point to have meals together. Over a hearty meal of dal baat, a grandmother might share with her granddaughter a story from her childhood, and the child might have something to say about her day at school. Meals also mark special occasions and holidays, dishes transforming according to the event in question. I believe it is important for children to have these kinds of positive memories of mealtimes, to reinforce their feelings of having a loving support structure behind them.

Since moving to Nepal, cooking has become an essential part of my daily life. Strange considering the fact that even up until I was living in New York, right before I came here, I didn’t have the time or patience to cook. It was cheaper and easier to go out. My Nepali friends here, however, were persuasive enough to get me to try my hand at a few simple dishes, and to my own surprise, I actually liked it. I was soon out buying a mortar and pestle and all kinds of spices and spending a lot of time rifling through cookbooks. This wasn’t out of

necessity, but a desire to create something I could put my heart into and offer to the people I cared about. Cooking took a lot more time and effort than I’d thought, but it was also a lot more enjoyable than I’d assumed—practically therapeutic. I realised I had to be fully present in the moment in order to cook; to pay close attention to the crackling fenugreek seeds in the sunflower oil, the gravy bubbling away in another pot. I have come to savour the process of making achaar, the sweetness of onion cooking, and the smell of coriander after you chop it finely, among many, many other little joys. It is no longer a means to an end, it is about the process, about cooking to feed minds and souls, cooking for comfort and cooking to meditate on my life’s choices.

But what I’ve found to be the biggest pleasure in food are the memories that taste and smell have the capacity to evoke. It allows you to remember other meals you’ve cooked or have had cooked for you. My kitchen here in Nepal will always be associated with the incredible times I’ve spent in it with friends and other loved ones. I feel as though my immersion in the act of cooking has given me a chance to slow down, to open up my eyes more to the world around me. I never, for one, believed I had patience to peel six cloves of

garlic, or the patience to clean rice thoroughly. This patience has translated into other aspects of my life and a better appreciation for things I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I have learned, for instance, that my stepmom can cook anything that she tastes and that she makes the best tomato achaar I have ever eaten. No matter where I go next, I’m happy knowing that I’ll be able to take a little part of Nepali culture with me in the recipes that I’ve absorbed, and the memories of meals I’ve had here. Whether I find myself in a small New York apartment or my mom’s well-equipped kitchen, I will be able to hold on to Nepal as I recreate the dishes that nourished my soul.


Applying Theatre

I look down the long walkway leading to the classrooms at the SGCP (Self-Help Group for Cerebral Palsy) in Dhapakel and see one of our participants waving and smiling. It is the final day of the week-long applied theatre project conducted with my second year IB Theatre students from Ullens School and five members of the SCGP Centre. Applied theatre is theatre conducted with a unique group of individuals, generally to explore social issues and personal narratives specific to their own communities. The beauty of applied theatre is that over time, issues, narratives and stories tend to emerge naturally and the participants are able to take ownership of their own performance.

Two of our most energetic participants are waiting. The youngest is eager for the day’s session to begin, ready to play, to create, to participate—and to teach. He might not realise it yet, but what I have learned from him in this one week are things that are unique to applied theatre. Though unable to communicate verbally the way I am, he has already taught me many things. We oftentimes think that we know everything there is to know about ourselves once we reach adolescence and adulthood, something I myself have been guilty of, but working with teenagers and seeing my students come into their own—has reminded me that I have much to learn. 

Other participants greet us with ‘good mornings’ and fight over who gets to help move the chairs and tables out of the small room. My student Hritesh, the lead student facilitator of the week, has donned a court jester hat to symbolise that he will be leading the first exercise. I am energised—I am ready to work and ready to watch my students take control. The wonderful thing about working with a group of intelligent and capable teenagers like this one is that I can watch them grow and learn and progress, as well as rely on them to run the workshop. I’d decided early on to take a backseat on this project; I wanted them to shine, and we had covered most of the basics about applied theatre and facilitation through the many workshops we’d conducted within class to prepare. Despite only having ten hours of actual work at the SGCP during the course of the project, we’d been extra cautious and prepared for over 25 hours, including going over some of the ethical questions that could arise out of this type of work. “What if we do something wrong?”, “what if we hurt them?”, “what if they fall?” These questions that came about during our discussions were a reminder of why it is that applied theatre is so successful and simultaneously so delicate. Having an ethical responsibility to a group of people that may be on the outside of society, oppressed, vulnerable or marginalised in some way is a significant weight and requires a lot of skill, understanding and preparation to live up to.

Our project was conducted for two hours a day for five consecutive days, and there was visible progress as we went on. We had small goals for each day. On the first, we wanted to establish trust and to become comfortable with the idea of theatre—and each other. On the second, we had learned their names and they had learned ours. Confidence was slowly being built—we talked about our hopes and fears and we had each told a story of when we were happy. This sharing was a significant exercise, and it gave us a feeling of intimacy. I learned that one participant liked games, and that one had a shy side, that another was meticulous with wooden blocks and markers, that one of the girls liked to sing and that another was an avid storyteller. It was also with great pride that I observed my own students and how they were adjusting, learning to be non-judgmental, to be compassionate and to use their communication skills the way they had been taught.

The direct benefits of applied theatre are difficult to substantiate, as much of it is in internal revelations within the facilitator and the participants, with a majority of the learning occurring after the project is over. For us, working with people with different communication skills than our own, with different needs than ours, opened our minds in a way nothing else has. I would wake up in the middle of the night that week thinking of a particular moment in the day that affected me, whether it was a certain smile or a certain look on a participant’s face. It meant that for at least one moment—I was understood. Of course, there were times during the project when I felt somewhat frustrated, but the kindness and openness showed to me by the participants snapped me back and I learned to be patient and to enjoy it. My students did exceedingly well; they were sharing their love of performance with a group of people that had never performed, and they did this with more grace than I could’ve asked for. Watching Bishesh and Priyash and Sansar lead a free-dance with our participants and hold hands with them to make sure they were steady, made me proud. What was even more touching was when the youngest boy came over without being prompted, sat on my lap, held my hand and smiled—something he wouldn’t have done earlier in the week. We walked out of there on the last day feeling like we had delivered what we had set out to—we had applied theatre.

The Grand Adventure

I have something big to tell you,” my best friend of 10 years said to me a month ago. “I’m pregnant.” My jaw dropped—something she obviously couldn’t see through the computer screen. With the time difference and the absence of easy long-distance calling we communicate frequently by chatting online. Announcing big news online is not optimal, but nevertheless I felt like I was right next to her as if her news made the miles between us disappear. I had not expected this type of news. I have never been pregnant, and as Americans are getting pregnant later and later, she is the first of my close friends to be. I am shocked. I am happy. I am terrified. I am ecstatic. I am nervous. I am not ready.

Pregnancy: what exactly does this mean and does this entail? She gave me the news at the beginning of the year, a time when we think about resolutions and new beginnings. In Nepal I am constantly asked why I am not married or why I don’t have kids yet. Creating a new life is not something I take lightly, and the casualness of the idea strikes me. I never seem to have the right answer for these questions—I don’t know if I will get married, I’m too young, I haven’t met the right person. None of these are the correct answers, they just warrant more questions.

In the US, having a baby without being married is barely an issue for most people of my generation though being married does allow for joint health insurance, tax breaks and other social benefits. Here in Nepal, the idea of having a baby before marriage, or instead of marriage doesn’t even register as an option. You get married and then have babies—that seems to be the logical progression. Not having children at all in Nepal is also not considered a viable option. It’s almost as if the primary reason for getting married is the children—not for the sake of love or for social benefits.

My friend is in love and is having a baby—the most wonderful combination anyone could ask for. But being pregnant in Nepal or the US is not an easy thing. It hasn’t been very long since Nepal started offering paid maternity leave in the workplace. According to the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), women are entitled to 52 days of maternity leave with full pay. That is up from the 45 days provided a few years ago. This is clearly a step in the right direction, but there are more things to consider than just allowing 52 days of maternity leave. Children need constant care, especially in their early years. And not allowing them to be with their mothers during these formative years can cause irreparable damage. More and more women are working all around the world. In America there are lots of companies that only allow four weeks after a baby is born before the mother has to return to work. And the economy is such in both places that it is to a couple’s benefit for both parents to be working.

Being pregnant is one of life’s miracles. My friend is going through so many changes—emotional, physical, and psychological. She is radiating, she has cravings, she has mood swings, and she is tired. Like I mentioned, none of my friends have ever been pregnant, so I have now immersed myself in research. What does the baby look like at 12 weeks? What will it look like at 14 weeks? Can it hear my voice if I talk to her stomach? Being pregnant is a miracle and appears to be the hardest thing a human being can go through—I cannot imagine having to work till the day your ankles swell and your back aches and you cannot sit down. Fifty-two days of maternity leave here in Nepal (if your workplace recognises this law) is a mere blip in the life of a child; it is not enough time. Children undoubtedly need their mothers and there are a host of problems that can arise if they do not get the appropriate support and attention from the get go. Bonding with your baby provides them with a sense of safety and gives them the roots for positive self-esteem and identity. This is essential in positive human development, but how can this happen if you need to go back to work 52 days after the baby’s birth?

It is unfortunate that the ends aren’t meeting like they should these days and that

mothers are having an increasingly difficult time providing for their children. But we need to remember that getting pregnant and having babies is a choice—a choice that all women and families have. If you are not ready, there is no need to get pregnant, not yet. It is always a choice to become pregnant, whether a woman is in Nepal or the US. You are creating a new life and you want to be able to give that new life the best beginning possible. I have no doubt that my best friend is going to give her child the best beginning that she can. As Winnie the Pooh says, “A grand adventure is about to begin”.


The Gift of Theatre

The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means ‘the seeing place’. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation,” Stella Adler acting teacher and theatre practitioner once said. Theatre is a medium unlike any other. It is performed in front of a live audience, and each performance is inevitably different.

Theatre can happen in a huge amphitheatre or can occur on a piece of dirt in the middle of a field. It can happen spontaneously, or it can be planned and rehearsed for years. Theatre can be used to teach, to entertain, to explain, to express, to develop and to empower. It can include men, women, black, white, young, old and any other variety of people that you can imagine. Theatre is honest; it expresses our own personal truths and our social situations.

The social circumstances in which each culture and era have found itself can be explained through the theatre of the time. We had Ancient Greek tragedy delving deeply into mythological stories and Greek comedies satirising the political situation between Athens and Sparta. The Greeks cried and laughed, all at their own social situation. At any given time in our history, we have had theatre. Robert Edmond Jones, the writer of the seminal theatre text The Dramatic Imagination says “Life moves and changes and the theatre moves and changes with it.” This fits with Stella Adler’s quote: “While our life changes, the theatre changes and tells different aspects of our truth. Inevitably while our life and culture changes, so does the way we express it. So does theatre.”

Having been lucky enough and driven enough, I have witnessed and participated in magnificent and life-changing theatre. From the halls of my 1,200-seat, 100-year-old high school auditorium to the cramped black box salon theatres Off-Broadway to prison classrooms, I have seen my personal truth expressed on a stage. Theatre is a raw medium used to show people the ugly side of life as well as the beautiful—and its immediacy can be threatening and empowering. From the glorious desperation with which I wrote my first play, I have been honest and delved deeply through the skeletons that rattled in my closet. I wanted the world to see how I personally viewed our social situation. For what is art, but not an individual’s opinion on how they see the world? Theatre provides an opportunity for everyone to have a voice, an opinion and a right answer.

I attended several theatrical performances at the Kathmandu Theatre Festival in Gurukul a couple months ago and was pleased and astonished that works of such caliber and variety came to Nepal. As someone who has done theatre in New York and other parts of the world, I was in awe of the size and diversity of the audience. If these types of plays were to be produced in New York, every performance would not have been sold out. Additionally, there would not have been such diversity in age, ethnicity, class, gender and educational background among the audience members. I was happy to see that as many people as possible were squashed onto the benches and on the floor in front of the stage. The viewers disregarded the uncomfortable seating arrangement because of what they had come to see. In every performance I saw a different facet of the human situation revealed. Whether it be in a prison in South America or in a anonymous living room or in an alternate reality in Norway via India—I witnessed commentary on the human condition. And the audience was there taking in every word, every breath, every silence.

Theatre has the power to change us, to transform us and to make us aware of other perspectives in life. During this theatre festival, I spoke to people that had never seen a play before. There were people with babies, foreigners, teenagers, elderly people and more.

Nepalis, Americans, Spaniards, French, Dutch and the list continues. We came together to watch a piece of theatre from the perspective of someone who was not ourselves. We heard the personal truths of others, we learned about the human condition while standing in someone else’s shoes. We were entertained, we were empowered, we learned, we laughed, we cried—all in the name of theatre, and all in the name of theatre here in Nepal. To me, that is a gift.

Robert Jones says that “[i]n the theatre, as in life, we try first of all to free ourselves, as far as we can, from our own limitations.” And in the theatre, we are all free. We are free to think how we want, act how we want and be who we want. The space and acceptance of a theatre provides this to us. Theatre’s power lies in that freedom, in its own willingness to let go of  limitations and to celebrate what liberty means. Theatre allows our personal truths to be spoken: it allows us the audience, us the playwrights, us the directors, us the actors, us the people of Nepal or anywhere to relate to someone else. Theatre gives us freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of being and the freedom to tell and see the truth. To me, that is the greatest gift I could ever receive.


Transformation

‘Another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us the most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature,” M. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Travelled. His writing focuses on ways we can face our difficulties, suffer through changes and transform ourselves to have a higher level of understanding. Peck highlights change and transformation as a positive aspect of human nature. I miss the autumn leaves changing colour in the US: nature’s way of changing and transforming itself. The subtle differences that can be seen day-to-day in the leaves and on the trees are witness to the magic tricks nature performs. Do the leaves realise they are changing, transforming before our very eyes? Are they suffering through these changes? Are they attempting and failing to suppress their colour change? Or is it an open, welcome annual leaf change?

I don’t like change and I don’t like it when things seemingly change without my awareness or control. But this autumn, despite not being able to see the leaves change colour and fall from the very branch they were born from, I have ‘done the unnatural’ and subsequently changed. Change is one of the things humans fear most. We love things that we know and are unchangeable: we write about what we know, we eat comfort food, there are films that we watch over and over, we have favourite bands and best friends who know us better than anyone. We dislike it when rules or menus change, and we want our children to remain children forever. But this unchanging does not bring about transformation. We cannot resist change if we want “to transcend and hence transform our own nature”. We cannot suppress the urge and human tendency to change. A synonym of change is transform.

I have said before that we need to embrace each and every day as we do not get another try with this life, and similarly I believe that we need to embrace these transformations that we suffer (willingly or unwillingly) through. Working with teenagers, I get to see the joys of adolescent transformation. They may be unaware of some of the subtle things that change inside them, but mostly they are accepting of these teenage transformations—getting a deeper voice, being taken more seriously by their elders, or growing taller. These works of art, these mouldable and changeable young adults, relish in the transformation of their lives into adulthood. They may believe they are suffering more greatly than they really are throughout this process, but they still welcome it. We, as adults, stunt this transformative process and we get stuck in our own ways. We resist the natural or unnatural transformations that occur in adulthood instead of welcoming them. What happens between adolescence and adulthood that suppresses our desire and need and openness for transformation?

Suppression is a dangerous word: to subdue, to keep from being revealed, to inhibit the expression of, to put an end to forcibly, to prohibit the activities of. This is not to say that teenagers do not inhibit their expressive qualities or keep things from being revealed, but they do hold ownership over their own mind and bodily transformations. I have watched the shyest teenagers blossom into confident young adults. Adults suppress anger and other emotions. We prohibit the activity of change; we need to, as Peck says, ‘do the unnatural’, which means not suppressing any feelings, acting completely the opposite of how we normally would and opening our hearts to our own truths. If we are suppressing something, we are stagnant; we are not capable of change. When we open our hearts, change is possible. We can transform the path of our lives, the current anxieties and the issues that we are facing.

I have transformed my own nature this autumn. I have given up my propensity towards stagnancy and suppression of my truth. I have eliminated the negativity in my life, and I have embraced the opportunities that the universe has presented to me. I have watched the teenagers I work with blossom and grow and change, and I have followed their lead. And despite not being in the US this autumn, my own leaves have changed colours. I have suffered through these changes, but still transcended and transformed giving a perfect tribute to the wonderful autumn leaves. It is through this suffering and that we learn as M. Scott Peck says, “it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers” and truly embrace the unnatural and transform.


The Power Within

‘I awakened to the cry/that the people have the power,” sings Patti Smith. The concept of power pervades every aspect of our lives: work, home, government, schools. In our friendships, someone takes control of the relationship—there is always a dominant person. At our jobs, there is always a boss who is in a position of authority. In our homes, there is one family member who controls the rest of the household. How do we handle this power? Or more importantly, how do we react to it? And where does it come from. We don’t recognise how much power we hold in our lives. We control our own destinies; we make the decision of what are our own truths. The power over our lives comes from within. It is hard to remember how much power we do indeed hold in our own hands, and how to make sure to use it positively.

Handling our power is one of the difficulties human beings face. We are made up of so many qualities: power, patience, enthusiasm, kindness, greed, etc. Knowing what to do with our power proves difficult; especially when power coincides with greed or confidence or apathy. When power collides with greed, corruption occurs. It has been said that all power falls under two categories: aggressive (forceful) and manipulative (persuasion). Is that true? What exactly does it mean in terms of how we handle our own power? Smith says that we (the people) “can turn the world around/ we can turn the earth’s revolution.” Does this mean that we only have aggressive or manipulative powers, as has been said, or can our power be used for the greater good? I believe that despite the manipulative and aggressive qualities that can overtake our inner power, our power can be used for the greater good and to better our fellow humans.

With the prime minister still unknown and our government under no one individual, Nepal’s citizens feel as if they cannot control anything. Someone else is manipulating our marionette strings. But what is a country if not made up of its individual citizens, and inside each of those citizens are ideas unique only to them. Inside these individuals lies power with

distinctive energy; the power to do something different than anyone else has done before. I believe that the power inside us is not only negative, and that it can be used to make a difference in the world. We have to embrace and share this distinctive energy with the world in order to make good things happen. As writer and spiritual guide Joseph Ghabi says, “Power does not bring growth unless we understand the essence of sharing that power.”

With the government in Nepal being stuck between a rock and a hard place, we need to remember to share power. Nepal cannot grow unless we understand the essence of sharing the power that naturally exists. Those who dominate and showcase their power over others do not grow, Ghabi proselytizes. For example, someone who gains control over another through abuse and manipulation does not learn as much from that situation as the abused or manipulated. That is not making light or condoning abuse, just simply stating that we learn about ourselves from even the most terrible of circumstances. As we have understood, power pervades every relationship and human interaction. And one of our great human struggles is figuring out

how we can control our own lives through positively using our influence on and with the world.

How do we turn our power into something that the world can benefit and use: “the power to dream/ to rule/ to wrestle the world from fools”? Smith, in her view-changing lyrics, reiterates that we indeed can change the world, and that we the people, do have the power within. I ask first that we acknowledge that we hold this power and control it. We have the authority to change the

course of our destinies. How often have you thought how unfortunate it was that something happened the way it did, or wished that you had been able to control an outcome of a relationship? You can by embracing what you have inside. You have the power to change. And with that power comes responsibility. We have to use the control we have responsibly and without negative effect. In order to move forward and to grow, we have to acknowledge the power inside of us. We need to make sure not to confuse learning and growing with forceful and misguided decisions stemming from this power. As Baltasar Gracian wrote in 1647, “the sole advantage of power is that you can do more good.”

The Power of Reading

The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read” Abraham Lincoln, one of US’ greatest presidents, said. I want to read every book ever written, every book “I ain’t read”. I would go even further and say that books are my best friends. No, I am not crazy or lonely; I have just experienced some of the greatest things life has to give through books. Through Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, I learned the ritual of bedtime and the importance of saying goodnight to the things around you. Through The Runaway Bunny also by Brown, I understood the power of a mother’s love. Through Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man I traveled to another time: New York City during the time of Prohibition, gangsters and private detectives with top hats. I devour books; I read them with the open eyes of a child and yearn for more. There was a period here when I was reading one every day, sitting on the roof of my flat in the hot Nepal sun.

This past month, Amazon.com, the online book and media seller has sold 180 ebooks for every 100 hardcover books. This breaks my heart as books have been such a huge part of my upbringing, my childhood and my adulthood. My mother was one of the founding members of a community library in our town. After we moved to Wisconsin, she joined the Library Board in our town for nearly a decade. She fought religiously for the rights of every citizen to have access to books, knowing the importance of reading for a human being’s development. My childhood was focused around books. The Easter Bunny brought books, the Tooth Fairy left books in exchange for teeth, and my evening ritual included at least one book being read to me. Being read to is an unparalleled pleasure I have enjoyed into my adulthood. I learned to read on my own at the age of three. The world opened from that moment and has continued to open wider and wider with each book I have read, each unknown place I have experienced. There wasn’t a television in the house until I was almost a teenager.

This idea of ebooks is a concept that is foreign to me, and thus, unwanted. I love holding, smelling and touching books. There is something important about creating my own reality through ink stamped on a piece of a tree. The reward of enlarging my imagination can be seen in the art and theatre I have created, the situations I have braved instinctually despite never going through them and in my ability to still be able to play. Reading a book on a digital screen holds no appeal to me. All of us spend enough time on the computer these days, whether at work or at home. Our eyes need a break from the digital blur they see daily. I want to spend my leisure time with a book, a physical book. Books are like old friends; each time you read you learn something new, you smile and you cry. Unfortunately, whether on a screen or not, a lot of Nepal’s children do not know how to read, and therefore cannot have that friend in a book.

Nepal’s literacy is listed anywhere between 48 percent and 84 percent, but I suspect it is closer to the lower figure. A literacy rate of 84 percent is quite optimistic as the rate for women’s literacy rate in the early part of the 2000’s was around 28 percent. I have seen most literacy rates listed at 55 percent. That means much of Nepal’s population doesn’t have the option to escape to a new place, to witness situations they wouldn’t be able to, or to use their imagination to its full capacity through books. I was lucky to be taught and encouraged to read from an early age. Yet, here in Nepal, for a lot of people there are many more important things than wasting time reading, as there is work to do. But I believe a right of every child is to read, and a majority of these children here in Nepal aren’t granted that right. Even with work to do, they are children and should be granted the right to read and to educate themselves through books. In the US, the literacy rate is around 99 percent, but we have worked hard to achieve that rate.

Nepal faces large discrepancies between the rich and poor and the urban and rural in regards to literacy, making it harder and less accessible for certain populations to be able to read. We shouldn’t give up on our children so easily here, children that drop out after grade one surely won’t have the literacy skills to make them successful adults in this contemporary world. We need to work to provide for the children of Nepal, to provide them with the tools to better themselves and to encourage them to have an imagination. And we can do that through books. Giving children the knowledge and tools to read, we also provide them with a lifelong outlet, a lifelong asset and even a friend. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”


Mind Over Matter

‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind,” says poet and writer William Blake. Change is something that humans resist. Change represents the unknown, the wide open space of imagination. With the prospect of change comes admittance that something may be wrong, and the inevitable question of ‘what comes next’. Change is about commitment, a commitment to making said change and the subsequent acceptance of that decision. I don’t like it when things change by surprise; I then become resistant and act out. This human reaction to change, this resistance may find its root in the stem of the brain where these instinctual feelings arise.

Change has come my way in these past few weeks, peeking its head around corners, lurking in the shadows and showing up at the most inopportune moments. Moving apartments, starting a new job and altering my daily routine are just some of the changes happening in this month of July. Not to mention the outside changes, or the environmental ones. But all these things happening in the past few weeks have given me an altered perspective on the principle of change. Why do humans resist change? Do people resist change because it is a threat to their safety or security? I don’t want to move because I am comfortable where I am now, and the security of my new home is unclear. Not only the literal security of my new home is unclear, but the internal, emotional security as well. Or do we resist it because of something deeper, a baser, primal instinct that exists in our brain which resists change?

At the base of the skull near the spinal column is what scientists call our ‘reptilian brain’, what scientist Paul MacLean of the National Institute of Mental Health said in 1973 was one of the three parts of ‘triune brain’. This part of the brain works on instinct and is focused on fundamental survival needs. The reptilian brain focuses on our bodily functions such as breathing, reproducing, digesting and general physical maintaining of the body. Potential threats or the concept called ‘fight or flight’ is also controlled by this part of our brains. It is the animalistic side in us. This brainstem was developed hundreds of million years ago and has not really evolved since; it is similar to the entire brain of today’s reptiles.

Because of the lack of language in this section of the brain, it works entirely on instinct and ritual. For instance, when the level of anxiety is high our reptilian brain is at work as we respond to anxiety in the way an antelope would to an approaching cheetah. When I think about moving, I become anxious and my basic instinct for survival kicks in. I respond with my reptilian brain. According to the renowned psychologist Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, “When you are suffering from high anxiety—by definition—your activation level is high and the reptilian brain is controlling too much of how you will respond to events in your life.” You are thinking without acting and responding intuitively. I am guilty of this way of thinking, we all are; it is built into our system. The reptilian brain is constantly at work, working on preservation of the self and thinking about issues involving fear and anger. Even while we are sleeping, this part of the brain doesn’t switch off, which I think causes us to dream with these emotions and ideas. I have often felt that I ‘think with my heart’ or I have just reacted without thinking, which is my reptilian brain at work. I am not a student of science, but I wonder why I haven’t been made more aware of this part of my brain. And if I had, maybe I would be able to control some of these outbursts, or strong feelings of anxiety.

I have been resisting change instead of embracing it, because I have reacted instinctively and without rational thought. My fear and anxiety wrapped around the idea of change like a blanket, and has inhibited my choices. There are triggers that affect our behaviour, causing us to bypass the logical brain and to react out of the R-Complex, or reptilian brain. Things involving power, sex or food for example are all triggers. My lack of power in the situation of moving or in altering my daily routines causes anxiousness. How can I fight this? And how can I allow the idea of change to wash over me, to soothe me instead of aggravating me? Giving myself time to think before making a decision provides a calmer, more reasonable, reaction than acting from desperation or anger. Using meditative and breathing techniques can allow for the mind to be freer and to react more logically than simply acting out of survival need and aggression. I am trying to be more open to the idea of change, especially when it comes to changing my behaviour. William Blake was right, either I could chose stagnancy and allow the reptiles of my mind (or my reptilian mind) to breed, or I could embrace fluidity and welcome the upcoming changes with open arms.


Cycle of Violence

         I thought of Patti Smith’s lyric, “He spared the child and spoiled the rod,” and wished Nepal would heed that advice more. I see someone committing an act of violence against another every day. Behind my house just yesterday, a woman was hitting her son so hard with a rod that it smashed on his head and broke into two pieces. He was cowering on the ground, sobbing, defenseless. His mother was most likely beaten up by her own parents or other loved ones. And she passes this cruelty on to her son. He then passes it on to other children and animals, even treating his personal possessions with brutality.

This cycle of violence is passed on; it is said to be part of the tradition, the culture and the parenting style of Nepal. This violence and aggression against those that are defenseless only breeds more violence and aggression. “Children who are treated with great harshness by parents or others and are also taught to use violence in their defence may learn that only violence will give them security, a feeling of control, a positive identity,” psychologist and author Ervin Staub says. Therefore, children become bullies and learn to use violence as their only coping mechanism.

We need to provide our children with a non-violent and creative upbringing, teaching them positive coping mechanisms and giving them outlets through which to express themselves and to grow. 

Author, inventor and thinker Edward de Bono says, “There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.” Forever repeating the same patterns: aggression, violence, and abuse. If creativity is the most important (and free) human resource of all, why aren’t we allowing our children and fellow citizens to reap its benefits? Creativity allows children to have imagination, to make something even if they have nothing. Creating something provides a release, an outlet where we can freely express our thoughts and ideas. Violence stifles creativity. Creativity is the antithesis to violence. They cancel each other out, and the effects of each are null.

Staub further states, “Neglect, hostility, harsh treatment or abuse by parents and peers, and lack of structure and guidance contribute to aggression.” This can be shown in the bus attendant that hits the school children on the head when they enter the school bus. Schools are another place where children should feel safe from the threat of violence. That is not the case here—violence is prevalent in educational settings as well. The bus attendant was probably neglected and treated harshly by his own parents, and is now passing on this violence to other children that are not even his own. This aggression is deemed to be permissible. Brutality towards children has lasting effects, such as a predisposition to depression and mental health issues, hostile attitudes and the inability to cope with challenges, among many other effects.

 The conflict in Nepal ended only in 2006, a recent enough time for school-aged children to remember the nationwide fighting and violence. But despite this, the violence within their homes have not ceased. Violence within homes causes the most sacred place in a child’s life to be put in peril and for them to feel unsafe there. Here, in Nepal, lots of parents have the added difficulties of trying to meet their children’s most basic needs. Parents can act impulsively and aggressively when they are not able to provide food, clothing and shelter to their families. But when children’s basic needs are indeed met, “they may be less attracted to destructive ideological visions and less likely to join potentially destructive avenues to fulfill needs frustrated by social conditions,” Staub states. Just because there are frustrations associated with fulfilling these basic human needs does not excuse or condone violent behaviour, especially towards children who are defenseless against an adult’s fist or harsh words.

It is a simple idea: love creates loving children, violence creates aggressive children. There seems to be a misconception that hitting children, yelling at them and being tough on them in general prepares them for the hard adult life that awaits them. Verbally and physically abusing them does not prepare them for an effective adult life; it prepares them for a life of aggressive, destructive and even criminal behaviour. Most prisoners I have done creative and rehabilitative arts work with have said repeatedly that if they had been provided with the tools to express themselves and become creative early on in life, they could have prevented their violent and criminal actions. Expressing themselves through art, dance, writing, theatre and music are just some of the ways that they can channel that aggression left over from their difficult beginnings of life in which the rod was spared, and the beautiful, innocent child was spoiled.


Breath of Life

I take in a deep breath through the nose and exhale “the breath that sustains life itself”, as my yoga teacher says. During yoga we focus on our breathing as much as we focus on body postures. Our breath is how we live. Without proper understanding of the way we ‘sustain life’, our quality of life suffers. We breathe subconsciously, easily, freely: unthinking. We breathe without knowing, without considering the hidden miracles beneath our skin. Each breath ensures our survival and our continuation of life. I was a witness to the cessation of breath this past month, the halting of a life. My grandfather took his last life-sustaining breath this past month. His breathed his last with a picture of his wife, my grandmother, pressed under his right hand.

My grandfather spent his early adulthood in the Marines, actively serving in the Second World War. He smoked; he breathed grenade dust and drew in contaminated South Pacific air into his body. He fought, represented his country and saw countless people die. He was sustaining his life without thinking; breathing without thinking. He became injured and met his wife-to-be (who was his nurse) in a military hospital. She gave him back life sustaining breath through her care and attention.

They married and raised two children in the American Midwest. My grandfather spent his days at the General Motors plant and nights as a volunteer policeman and security guard. When the kids left, they moved to Florida. They lived in Florida for a part of their marriage, and the beginning parts of mine and my cousin’s lives. We weren’t close then; my grandmother and grandfather enjoyed their palm tree and humid lifestyle. My grandfather moved to Florida for the heat and so that he could wear flowery shirts. In his retirement he turned back to one of his early loves: Hollywood. He worked at a movie theatre taking tickets, dressing up in costumes and generally putting a smile on people’s faces. His breath during this time was deep and full of life.

They moved back to the Midwest when they became frailer, and when it became more difficult to breathe. He talked of things he wished he would’ve done, stories he didn’t get a chance to write down. His life breath had slowed. His brain became confused and he started the decline into Alzheimer’s disease. Over the better part of the past decade, his life became a series of short paragraphs: quips from an earlier time. True or not, we will never know. Alzheimer’s rids the mind of the short-term memory first, causing the sufferer to be able to remember a date in 1947, but not what he had for breakfast. It slowly causes the brain to deteriorate; over time allowing the sufferer to do less and less for himself. My grandfather told us stories from the time he was in Hollywood as an actor, when he was given a horse by a Native American and how our ancestors were from Sicily. And who were we to tell him that his life didn’t happen like that? Memory is a funny thing; the truth of the past is subjective.

He may have been confused these past several years, but he was having a good time. He wore a cowboy outfit on Fridays and ate shrimp and ice cream for lunch at the memory care facility he lived in. He didn’t know what day it was, but every day was a new day. My grandfather loved to play cards and he valued creativity in us granddaughters. He encouraged us to follow our creative pursuits and dreams. He was a writer and had dabbled in the theatre; he loved reading and enjoyed looking at a nice painting. It isn’t a coincidence that I am an avid reader who spends my free time writing and painting. And I have spent my adult life creating and witnessing theatre. He was slowly passing his sustaining life breath on to us.

When he took his last breath, he had been married to my grandmother for almost 64 years. While in the hospital, his breathing had become shallow, strained and audible. It was becoming too hard for him to continue living; too hard to maintain his life through his breath. He wasn’t able to speak but he gave me one of his signature winks one day before my aunt and I left. I knew that this was his way of saying it was going to be okay; that this was as much his decision as it was a greater cosmic decision. As he was taking his last life-sustaining breaths that Friday in May, I was thinking of all the things that he would pass to me and the rest of our family. I know that with every breath I take, his spirit lives on through us.


TIME

‘Time is making fools of us again,” J.K. Rowling writes. Time is a constant pressure. Between the fast approaching May 28 constitution deadline, the start of a new school year and the beginning of 2067 BS, Nepal is currently highly concerned about time. What exactly is time? Does it affect us negatively or positively? How do we make the most of our time?

Nepali time is slow and leisurely. Nepali time ambles on like a grazing horse, nibbling each plant and smelling each flower along the way. I have grown accustomed to this way of treating time, though its pace has affected the way that I live my current life. With indefinite electricity hours, lots of work at home, and families to provide for, Nepal wakes up with the sun. This early rising gives way to morning work and early bedtimes. Author Robin Sharma suggests that we wake up earlier and join the ‘five o’clock club’. More so than anywhere I have lived, people here in Nepal are a part of the five o’clock club. Our personal relationship to time is manifested in various ways depending on where we live.

My friends Nicole and Justin just went back to the U.S. after spending 10 months in Nepal. The year went quickly, but the hours had another quality to them. They had different hours of productivity, different hours in which to shower, to eat and to entertain. The way in which Nicole and Justin lived their lives completely changed in Nepal. They had lived in New York before coming to Kathmandu, and were used to things moving faster and stores opening late. New York is a city that is open 24 hours a day, a city in which insomniacs can find normalcy. People stay out until the time that people in Nepal wake up. If time’s definition and expression is variable for various people, how can we define it?

Time is a continuum; it continues without a break from the past to the future. In this world, we do not have a minute when time does not affect us. We cannot turn the clock back; even if the clock stops, time does not. Nor can we go back in time to change decisions, to alter outcomes, or to lengthen our earthly life. No matter how strongly we wish for it, time does not stop.

Our relationship to time can cripple and paralyse us. We can allow ourselves to be run by the clock, to count the minutes and the seconds. We can obsess over how one moment affected all of our subsequent ones. One of the most difficult aspects of life is figuring out how to make the best use of our time. What things deserve us spending our finite minutes of life on them? And how can we have an effective relationship with time?

Time management is always something that I have excelled at, but only when I am extremely busy. Here in Nepal, with a less structured schedule, I find myself being lax about managing the 1,440 minutes that constitute each day. Before, each minute was planned and organised: each minute equalled commuting time or gym time or work time. I wrote on the subway; I ate lunch walking to work; I ate dinner weekly on the Metro North train to run my class at Sing Sing. There was never enough time. Every minute of those 1,440 minutes in each day were scheduled, accounted for and cherished.

Here in Nepal, I still cherish each minute, though I have the luxury of not scheduling every single one. But still, I try to use the unscheduled time productively. Time is finite, and we should make a more positive use of our time.

Using time effectively can be a process of refinement, a conscious decision on what is or is not important to dedicate our hard-earned minutes to. We can spend our leisure time doing more important tasks and executing creative ventures. We can do more things with our families and we can get off the computer and pick up a book. When we waste time we waste our brainpower. If we control our own time, then time will not control us.

Making lists is a wonderful way to help control our own time; they provide a way for us to get small things accomplished in between our larger tasks. With time we grow. And as we grow, we should continue to learn. This learning includes learning what things are worthy of spending our time on. It doesn’t matter if you are living in Nepal or in the U.S.; time is not an infinite resource. We will do ourselves a disservice if we waste time, and while looking back on our lives, wishing we would’ve planned our minutes, hours, and days differently. Do not let time make a fool of you.


State of Gratitude

‘Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realise you. Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it—every, every minute?” says the main character Emily in Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town. She speaks to the important force of the earth and the way many of us take it for granted, looking back after her life has reached its inevitable conclusion.

I spent much of my twenties wondering when my life would go according to my well-imagined plan, and how I would get there. I never fully realised life while I lived it; I just moved along at the speed of a freight train. Admittedly, I was given more to wondering what was going wrong instead of what was going right. I never looked at the sunset and smiled; I was too busy jumping on the subway from work, or preparing graduate school applications, or trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I wasn’t grateful for what I had in my life at the time. I wanted what I couldn’t have, not realising what I already had.  

We focus more on what we don’t have, what we need more of, why money is tight, or why our lives are so difficult. We live ungratefully instead of gratefully. Instead of ‘realising life’ as Emily wishes she would have in Our Town, we live too quickly and too violently, with our heads down. Living here in Nepal I have seen how I took for granted so many things in the U.S.: 24 hours electricity every day; drinking water out of the faucet; ovens in every home; supermarkets with a plethora of food choices; central heating; and all the books I could ever read.

Gratitude is defined as a state of thankfulness: the state being something we can choose to be in. My life here is much simpler, and maybe because of that, I am in a state of gratitude. 

Our Town, a classic 1938 play, provides many life lessons, including being thankful for our lives. Wilder wants us to be grateful for every moment, as we don’t know how many moments we have on this earth. These essential truths all work together: living life to the fullest, having gratitude for simple things, not spending undue time on things that do not matter in the long run. Being thankful for things that everyone bypasses is an important thing, something that is seemingly lost in our new technologically fuelled age. My cousin Abbey said, while discussing Our Town, “You think of how progressive people feel they need to be, but it is truly simple things that make life worth living.” We need to turn off the computers and be thankful for the sound of the birds. There is always a simple thing that can transport us to a state of gratitude amid the quick pace of our contemporary lifestyles.

Being grateful for something every single day is something I learned while working at a men’s prison. I worked with a small group of men writing plays from their imagination and life experiences. After my first night in class, one of the men responded with ‘get home safe’ and instinctually I replied, ‘you too.’ Realising the error of my statement, I felt embarrassed and attempted an apology but the man only responded with ‘We will one day’. In the confines of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, I realised that I had an incredible amount to be grateful for, things that I would have taken for granted before. These inmates are told when to shower, when to eat, and when they can leave. I was able to go home that evening, thankful for my freedom.

When one’s freedom is compromised, then all else seems inconsequential. Despite that, the men in my class would thank me for giving my time to them, appreciating even the smaller gestures with gratitude. Their gratitude could be expressed as a way for them to feel alive, a way of combating the deadening atmosphere of prison. As Thornton Wilder says, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”


Morning Question

The early morning sun washes over me as I water my blooming, pink Azalea plant and the smell of coffee wafts in from the kitchen. I feel so blessed with the continuous sunshine here in Nepal that it makes everyday a gift. It gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. I never was a morning person before moving here, but the gloriousness of waking with the birds and the sun has altered my previous habits. I have begun to appreciate the mornings as well as the hold I have over the rest of my day. I try to chronicle these gifts of mornings and days by journaling, a habit encouraged by self-help author Robin Sharma. Sharma cites five ‘Morning Questions’ in which to answer at the start of the day in one’s journal. ‘How would I live out this day if I knew it was my last’ is the first ‘Morning Question’ Sharma asks in his book, The Saint, the Surfer and the CEO. This simple yet important question forces me ask myself, would I be living differently? Furthermore, would I regret any of my past choices?

I think of this question as I look down on the street from my roof and wave to some of the children going off to school. How would I live today if I knew it was my last? This question confronts me with the idea of death, a thought that I try to avoid thinking about on a daily basis. But without thinking about dying, living becomes obsolete. Most of us do not know which day will be our last, but if we did, we would live without worry or regret. Many people live as if on autopilot, living our lives in a haze, planning much of our ‘living’ for after we retire or in our later years. We want to wait until we have more time, more money and fewer responsibilities. With both eyes to the future, how can we keep an eye on the present? Our lives are happening now. This is not a rehearsal or a practice run for the future, this is it. If we do not live life to the fullest now, when will we?

We have power over how we live our lives. We do not know what the future holds but we hold this present moment in the palm of our hands. We alone decide what to do with it. I used to wonder when my ‘real life’ would start, when I would start to feel like an adult and when I would begin to be satisfied. When I came to Nepal I realised this is it, I was living, I was an adult. I realised that satisfaction with my life will come when I started living in the here and now. If I continually worried about which direction my life was going, I would never make it across the street. This was the life I was so anxious to begin, and I wanted to experience the beauty of it before it was ending.

I haven’t ridden a horse through Casa Blanca, or been in the rainforests of South America yet, but I have begun to take responsibility for my own life choices and my life path up until now. Things don’t happen to me, I have made things happen for myself. I try to savour every part of the day and react positively to what each day brings. This keeps me in the present moment. Staying present allows me to appreciate the small things in life. And what are the big things in life, if not made up of all those wonderful small things?

Life is unpredictable, one never knows if this day will be the last. If we knew it was our last, many of us would try to rush around the world saying goodbye to everyone we loved. Instead, we should make sure all the people we love know we love them every single day. We should be as present as possible in the place where we are, as we can only live in one place at one time. We should react with gratitude towards the universe for whatever it brings, accepting the challenge, the learning experience, the pleasure and the pain. This is not the dress rehearsal for our grand performance of life; this is the one and only performance of it. Try to live each and every day as if it could be your last, not regretting anything and not leaving anything to chance. As Sharma says, “it’s pretty incredible to know that every new day brings with it the opportunity to begin a whole new life.”

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