Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Reflections - 1

We are driving around the massive parking lot, the size of two football fields, and still do not find single spot. There are a few others like us. We look like vultures circling a carcass as we wait to drive into one that frees up. Then our car is blocked by one guy as he stakes his claim on a potential opening. We exchange a few curse words and hand gestures with him. Yes, we are reduced to surfacing the nasty in us. I mentally step back for a moment and examine the scene that I am in the midst of. A car park full of SUVs carrying gallons of gas driving around fat cat drivers like us - while we store all the food that we have eaten as body fat, our limbs protesting to take even a few extra steps from parking a little further away. I see myself as a protagonist in one of those futuristic movies that portray the demise of the universe that is North America. Have you seen "Wally", for eg? Clearly, I am equally to blame aiding and abetting an unsustainable lifestyle. We eventually park, horror of horror, more than 50 feet away and trudge the distance mumbling our displeasure over the Chinese malls, and their overflowing parking lots. Obviously we, like the rest, were there because there were interesting deals to be had and great food to be eaten at the hawker centres. I take photos for my citizenship renewal, feast on spring rolls, mee goreng and tom yam soup and return to the car, smug and contented as a Cheshire cat, all those noble thoughts about sustainability forgotten in the temporary amnesia brought on by the wonderful food.

Then I wake up this morning to a winter wonderland. I don my warm clothes and take a walk. The beauty of this gentle land simply takes my breath away. I even forget that my socks are not warm enough. My daughter is on the phone from chilly London saying "we are going out for dim sum". I know there is no Chinese eatery close to her so there will be lots of walking and public transit involved in getting her to her destination. And I suddenly turn melancholy. I cannot get to a dim sum place by walk or reasonable transit. Correction: I am not incented to. You could turn around and ask "why the hell do you not live closer to public transit and why the big house?" Because I love living among trees (a Canadian luxury) and, more to the point, I am not punished for sustaining my current lifestyle. The leaders of this nation had great foresight when they built our Trans Canada railway line. But they stopped with that. They gave in to an aggressive automobile lobby. Or else they would have incorporated trains as an essential component of zoning - just as they have zoned for hospitals and schools? Then as cities grew so would the railway lines have, aka London. Then we would all be milling about active, communing, experiencing this great land as it should be? Why, at the risk of being somewhat simplistic, we would not be pouring that money into the black hole that is our healthcare system, treating disease, if we had more active, fit people and cleaner air? The car lobby really had nothing to fear and we could have placated them with impassioned homilies about the vastness of our nation and places to discover by car? When driving is for pleasure, we would probably have planned more road trips and taken fewer plane rides?

At the end of the day, we all have to start somewhere and need to collectively reflect on where and how. We have the attention of our residents, who see examples of sustainable living when they travel overseas. Is it any surprise that Citibike, that bike-share program in New York City, fully sponsored by Citigroup, even has "Occupy Wall Street" member subscribers? Policy makers and politicians cannot dither anymore and must take the bull by the horns. Short of changes to the law, I don't see ways to bring about changes in our collective behaviour! Ok, ok I will begin to modify mine!!

I have decided to introduce common themes for my blogs so this is the first of my Sunday morning reflections - usually the time when I am inspired to write - after my morning yoga!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blog before leaving India

Today I attended the evening Aarthi at the Ramakrishna Mutt after lighting ghee lamps, earlier in the afternoon, before goddess Durga at an ancient temple near by. They were both enchanting but contrasting experiences. They brought out some deep- seated emotions.

The Mutt had been my refugee some 26 years ago, when, following the birth of my child, I had experienced a spiritual crisis triggered by post partum depression. I knew then that spiritual awareness and the sensation of falling into an abyss, are two sides to a coin. At that time, nothing worldly could lift my spirits and I needed to find the meaning and purpose of my existence. I chanted feverishly, meditated and prayed to lighten my dark mood. I had often found myself sobbing at the altar of Ramakrishna in that quiet temple located smack in the middle of a bustling Mylapore. The Aarthi has always been performed to the same soothing verses everyday and in the same hushed monotone, it's cadence familiar and other worldly. So many years ago I had envied the lives of the orange clad monks - for having resolved their conflicts and surrendered to some higher calling. Today as I listened to those very same verses, I felt a sense of triumph for having climbed out of dark tunnel through years of mindfulness practice. I am now present in all my experiences.

At the Durga temple earlier in the afternoon the experience was much more visceral. The ancient Vallieaswarar temple is right next to its more famous compatriot the Kapali temple. Lesser known but over a 1000 years old, it shows marked signs of overuse and neglect. However, the word that came to mind as I stepped in was "authenticity". During the auspicious 90 minute period on Tuesdays between 3 and 4:30 p.m. Goddess Durga is said to bestow her munificence on women young and old who light ghee lamps made from lime peel cups. I purchased four freshly made lamps filled to the brim with ghee and lit them before the altar. The dark sooty walls glowed from the light of a thousand lamps that symbolized the collective aspirations of all of us women gathered there.

These wonderful contrasts reinforce for me the diversity and span of the Indian experience. As another stay here draws to a close, I pray for the well being of my elders who have set such a shining example in my life with their caring, generosity and unconditional love of us all. I look up to them awe, for their spirit to celebrate every milestone with great pomp, notwithstanding chronic pain in their limbs. I promise myself that I will be such a light to those who follow me, fostering in each the ability to experience the joy of being present in every moment.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Facing language barriers

It's wonderful to have a daughter who is a Management Consultant and something of a world traveller! I arrived in London and was pretty relaxed about my Berlin sojourn, where I am presenting at a conference, when she rattled off 10 questions to all of which my answer was an embarrassing "no". Have you checked in? Have you printed your boarding pass? Have you booked a cab to pick you up? Have you confirmed your hotel reservation?, etc. I then received a primer on travelling budget in Europe, where everything is automated and where language barriers can still be pretty daunting. I followed her instructions but still had to resort to hand and foot gestures when directing the cabbie to my hotel in Berlin, based on a prior knowledge of my route with an iMaps download on my phone (per her advice), and when paying the right fare.

We live in a global world and in Berlin, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, I had faced head-on the frightening prospect of not being understood. I have faith in their law and order here and yet felt utterly vulnerable. Nothing I knew or had learned, mattered given my inability to express myself to the cab driver at that late hour.

Interestingly, our staff team is currently working on a proposal to help homeless limited English speakers access City Shelters in Canada supported by language interpreters. The importance of this proposal and the desperate plight of homeless experiencing language barriers has dawned on me with even greater poignancy now. I am determined more than ever to convey my deep concern that the City not fail them given its preoccupation with cost savings based on utilitarian theories! Even one homeless person is one too many. Fresh from my trip to India where the numbers of marginalized and homeless are mounting with rising housing costs, I simply cannot bury my head in the sand anymore.

But I digress. Language barriers are real and helping people overcome them is pretty exciting work. My presentation at InDialog, which is part of the larger Expo Lingua global conference for language schools, is along the theme of John Kotter's "Our Iceberg is Melting". It explores how disruptive technologies and the digitisation of all professions, including language professions, is making our world increasingly complex and presenting both challenges and opportunities. The immense potential of technology became evident in one session yesterday, where a deaf presenter signed in German, the Sign Language Interpreter verbalized in English and his topic was on the use of two geography agnostic services to overcome all language barriers, Video Remote Interpreting and Video Relay Service. The deaf person and interpreter just happened to be in the same room but could have been communing from different parts of the globe.

Now if only someone can help me read! To get to the airport in London, I boarded the first class compartment of the Gatwick Express, with an economy ticket. What a relief I could explain to her that I had been incredibly stupid! Imagine if that had happened in Berlin. I would have just played dumb! Not much different, I guess!