The Slow Train

I find myself a window seat and settle in for the long journey to come. This train stops at every station. People get on. People get off. Everyone is smiling. No one is in a hurry. There is plenty of time to move around the carriages, to enjoy the adventure, to be happy. I look out of the window and notice a lake that has frozen over. Two small figures glide across it, their scarves streaming behind them like a picture on a postcard. I inhale the musty scent of the carriage and examine the worn, faded seats. I imagine those who were here before me, and those who will come. I turn my gaze inward. I ask myself how I spent so many anxious hours over the years just waiting to get off the train, that I didn’t let myself notice, inhale, examine or imagine anything at all. But now I understand. Taking the slow train isn’t a waste of time. It allows you time.

Introspection makes my head spin, so I make my way to the buffet car. Perhaps I will meet a smiling person with whom I can strike up an unhurried conversation. I know I am almost there because a whiff of sausage rolls and hot chocolate hits my nostrils. The conductor is standing by the coffee machine, waiting for his cappuccino. He drums his fingers on the counter while the waitress is caught up in a flurry of coffee beans, milk jugs and an industrial-sized machine. Another passenger bounds over to the counter, pushes in front of me and demands an almond piccolo: “Make it quick. I’m in a rush,” he barks at the waitress. He does not make eye contact with me, although I am looking right at him. He is not smiling.

I glance out of the window. The scenery is changing faster than I expected. We are already at the next stop, and now the next. This is confusing. Why is everything moving so fast? Why do I not get the time to enjoy the view? Why isn’t anyone smiling?

“Excuse me, Sir,” I ask the conductor. “I thought this was the slow train? We seem to be going incredibly fast.” The conductor looks up. His eyes are piercing.

“You’re in the wrong carriage then, love.”
“I don’t understand,” I say, hypnotised by his gaze.
He puts his coffee cup to his lips, throws his head back and takes a big gulp.
“Slow carriages are on the other end of the train.”
I blink, then shake my head, hoping this will help me understand his explanation. It doesn’t.
“How can they be different, on the same train?”
The conductor picks up his ticket machine.

“We’re all on the same train,” he chuckles. “But the journey you take is up to you.” He calls over his shoulder as he walks away, “Choose your carriage wisely!”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, or actual events is purely coincidental but probably worth analysing. 🙂

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Running to stand still

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If your life was a U2 song, what song would it be?

I was on my way to a yoga class the other day. When I say ‘on my way’ I mean I was rushing from work to get there on time. Run-for-the-bus kind of rushing. When I got off the bus, I ran some more, cursed the traffic lights for operating to schedule, and didn’t make eye contact with anyone en route for fear it may impact my pace.

I bounded up the stairs to the yoga studio and presented my dishevelled self at the desk, 3 minutes before the class was scheduled to begin.

You made it,” my instructor observed. The calm of his voice, the smell of incense in the studio and the feeling of my bare feet on the floor suddenly felt like the blissful opposite of my chaotic mind.

And that’s when it struck me that my whole journey to yoga was counter-productive to yoga itself. I was frazzled, self-absorbed and irritated. It was most un-yogi-like behaviour. And it certainly was not cancelled out by then laying my hot-and-bothered body onto the mat and taking a few deep breaths.

I was, literally, running to stand still.

That U2 song, says Wikipedia, is about heroin addiction (so please forgive my interpretation) but the paradox is familiar. Race to yoga. Stress before Savasana. Manic before mindfulness.

Another instructor once suggested that yoga is not what you do on the mat – it is what you do all the time. It is in the breath, it is in the calm, it is in the pause. Yoga is aimed at developing harmony in the body, mind and environment.

Oh dear. Then I must be a terrible yogi.

Still, isn’t the alternative worse? Not going, not having that time on the mat, not giving myself the opportunity to breathe or pause, even if that time is sandwiched between the noise, the Rattle and Hum of everyday life?

You made it.” Perhaps that was all that mattered. I was there. I was present. I was doing the poses (some in Mysterious Ways), and I was observing the pauses. The off-the-mat practice will be an ongoing one. How to find internal calm, despite (or through) external chaos. But for now, in this moment, I’m ok.

When I got home, my 5-year-old asked if I’d been to yoga.
“Yes,” I said, wondering if my face was exuding the glow of calm and harmony.
“Did you win?” He is used to the footballers and netballer of the family coming home from matches declaring scores and results. I had to smile at his question.
“Yes!” I decided. “In yoga, everyone wins.”

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Lessons from my Grandmother

This article was published in The Star Malaysia’s Heart and Soul column on 1 July.
My grandmother, the original Wonder Woman, who gave the best Dunlopillo hugs. 

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*****
“My grandmother didn’t tell me how to live. She lived, and let me watch her do it.”

I am paraphrasing a quote by American writer Bud Kelland, but it is so apt that I had to borrow it.

My grandmother glided through life effortlessly – and always with a smile that radiated from her heart and twinkled out of her eyes. She faced every challenge with strength. She embraced every moment with love. And her chicken curry was legendary.

These are some of the lessons I learned through watching her:

Always maintain a sense of humour. Laugh often, and loudly. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. Your smile can spread through oceans of despair, over mountains of troubles, and soften even the hardest heart. Get on with it. Complaining is a waste of precious time. If you have a job to do, do it with grace and courage. Be grateful for your responsibilities – not everyone is so lucky.

Chill out. Getting angry or upset is hazardous to your health. A calm approach based on compassion and common sense will do everyone good, especially yourself. As will a hot cup of chaaya tea.

Hugs are underrated. Never underestimate the power of a genuine, warm embrace. It can melt away fear, tension and sadness in the young, the old, and everyone in between. Hold close the people you love. Hold them until you feel their pain evaporating. Don’t be the first to break away. If a child tells you, mid-hug, that you are as soft as a pillow, take it as a compliment.

Stay curious. You’re never too old to learn something new, be it a language, a card game, a skill or an idea. In an ever-changing world, adapting your mindset without compromising your values shows self-awareness and self-preservation. Also, being interested makes you interesting.

Get stuck in! Your appetite for food mirrors your appetite for life. Savour every moment. Lick your fingers. When you cook for others, cook with love in your heart, for this is the secret ingredient, in food and in life.

Rest in Peace, Muthashi.

(Sarada Menon passed away peacefully on April 11, at the age of 95.)

*****

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

National Bikini Day?

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July 5th is ‘National Bikini Day’. I only know this because I get a lot of junk mail. Scanning through my inbox, I find a swimsuit company (Australian) proudly declaring this special day via email. There is even a hashtag: #nationalbikiniday. They aren’t just imparting useful information, of course, they are also sneakily trying to sell me swimwear.

But as I read this email, while wearing thermal pyjamas and drinking hot tea out of a thermo-flask, I sense it isn’t National Bikini Day in Australia, where July is the coldest month of the year.

So, as any curious writer would do, I Google it. And here’s what I find:

  • The bikini was first revealed on 5 July 1946 in Paris by French mechanical engineer turned fashion designer, Louis Réard
  • Réard wanted the name of his new swimsuit to be shocking, and for the launch to be ‘explosive’, so he named the garment after the Bikini Atoll, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean where the atomic bomb was being tested in 1946.
  • Bikini Day is observed on 1 March in Japan, to commemorate the Japanese fishermen who became accidental victims of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll.

But while we’re talking about shocking swimwear, I feel the need to discuss the new micro swimwear trends that have bombarded the internet recently. Buckles instead of straps, bikinis that look like they’ve been put on the wrong way round for the lack of coverage, and swimsuit bottoms cut so high they reach your armpits.

Exhibit A. Swimwear I don’t understand from an online retailer that I love. bikini-day.png

A few observations:
1. I am not surprised this is on ‘Final Sale’ – must be hard to shift. Out of your crevices.

2. ‘This product cannot be returned or exchanged unless faulty.’ Well. Seems there is already a fundamental fault in the product, i.e. it would be tricky to swim in it.

3. The discount, because I had to check, works out at 66.6%. The greatest trick this ‘one-piece’ ever pulled was convincing you it is a swimsuit.

4. $29.71 (plus postage) is not the final price you will pay. What about the additional considerations of waxing, tanning, chafing, and then the cost of another swimsuit for actual swimming.

But that email isn’t just a marketing ploy. Sources confirm 5 July is indeed, Bikini Day. Other notable days this month include:
10th July: Piña Colada day
13th July: International Rock Day
16th July: Guinea Pig Appreciation Day
31st July: Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate July by sitting on a rock, Piña Colada in hand and preparing to play the comb & tissue paper. Until the sun comes out, I’ll be accessorising my bikini with a full-length puffer jacket and Ugg boots.
#bikiniday? #i♥guineapigs

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Rhyme Time

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I thought writing poetry was easy,
the word count is more frugal;
and rhyming isn’t all that hard
especially with Google.

But one can be deluded
by one’s assumed poetic art
and think other people care about
the content of one’s heart.

In truth, the poet bleeds
her words upon the page
and hopes that this solidifies
her sadness, or her rage.

But alas, it may not happen,
the bloodshed is futile
and all her rhyming feelings
end up in the Reject pile.

For look at all the poems
that the world wants her to write:
words s  c  a  t  t  e  r  e  d,            gaps,
con-FU-sion
and not a rhyme in sight.

Where are all the sonnets?
The couplets partnered two-by-two?
Bring back rhyming poems!
They have valid feelings too.

Still, I remain hopeful
that my efforts aren’t in vain
and someone out there notices
these bloody lines of pain.

Worst case, as it may happen
is that no one blinks an eye
and the pile of Reject feelings
starts ascending to the sky.

But writing is a game you play
for pleasure, not to win
and emotions, like some other things,
are better out than in.

So write your heart, and write your soul,
these words don’t need a stage;
As long as you feel something, then
keep bleeding on the page.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Simplify and Spark Joy

Marie Kondo introduced to the world the idea that when it comes to decluttering, a positive attitude will serve you well. Keep only the things that bring you joy, she says, and you will be able to successfully simplify and organise your home, and thereby, your life.

She advises all of us messy, disorganised hoarders to focus on the physical items that we love, and it will naturally follow that the items we don’t love should be discarded (after thanking them respectfully). This positive spin on decluttering means we are not looking for things to throw out. We’re looking for things to keep. So our focus, and our energy, shifts to the happiness-generators and therefore creates more happiness in our lives. Good vibes only.

The art of simplifying is beneficial not just for our kitchen drawers or our linen closets. There are parallels to be drawn (so I will try….) in other aspects of our world, such as in writing, in art, and in life.

Simplifying writing
During a wonderful Creative Writing course I took last year, we were taught to simplify our writing by removing excessive adjectives and adverbs. This was not an easy lesson to learn, and I still struggle with (and sometimes ignore) it. We were also guided towards making our writing tight and compact, so that what’s left on the page holds more impact.

“Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter, defines the ability to simplify in terms of removing the non-essentials to allow the essentials to shine.

But to do this, first we need to know what exactly is essential. In writing, what is your message, what is your tone, where is your impact? Keep the powerful words; keep the slam-dunk sentences; keep the necessary frills. And then, perhaps, most of what is left is excess and can be eliminated.

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Hans Hofmann, 1963

Simplifying art
Hofmann painted this piece titled Enigma in 1963, and it was sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a cool 2.4 million USD. Maybe Hofmann had five more colours on his artist’s palette that he could have used. Perhaps he almost used circles as well as rectangles. But he didn’t. He chose the thing he deemed necessary and allowed it to speak. And it spoke to someone who thought it was worth that much money. Hofmann believed that abstract art was a path to discovering reality. He found truth not despite the chaos, but through it.

Simplifying life in the 19th century
Mindfulness has now become a buzzword but it is not a new concept. The poet Henry David Thoreau famously undertook an experiment in simple living in 1845, because he wanted to ‘live deliberately’ and to encounter ‘only the essential facts of life.’ Thoreau lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts for two years, to experience a simple, purposeful life. During this time, he wrote a book on life in the woods, in which he says:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” – H.D. Thoreau

Thoreau wished for people to be more self-aware and to value personal growth over material wealth. He explained that outward progress did not necessarily mean inner contentment, and criticised the ‘busy’ mentality of society, advising instead to: “let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

In simple words: cut down, cut back, cut loose. Thoreau found his joy in nature and made that his ‘necessary’ – thereby eliminating the aspects of society he did not like, such as materialism and consumerism.

Simplifying life today
So how do we adopt the advice of a decluttering expert, an artist and a writer in our lives today? To do it Kondo-style, focus on the positive, identify the essential parts of our lives that bring us joy, and respectfully remove the excess. To be an Enigma like Hof, decide on what is necessary, eliminate everything else, and continue your quest to search for what is real. And finally, like Thoreau, make deliberate choices to keep things simple, dig deep through the layers of unnecessary detail to find inner joy, and focus on the things that matter.

Simplify, simplify. Then what is left will be the powerful stuff that’s worth holding on to.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Furious Fiction: Brilliant Disguise

This time last year, a short story I wrote was one of six shortlisted entries in the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction competition. Each month you are given a different set of story prompts and just 55 hours to submit your 500-word story. Since then, I have entered the competition every single month. This sometimes meant hitting the submit button at 11.55 on a Sunday night, 5 minutes before the deadline. Most of my stories would have benefited from another day of editing, and some of them would have remained average even with another month of re-writing, but I submitted them anyway. The challenge makes me focus my writing, forces me to be creative, gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment at the start of every month, and then nervous anticipation for the announcement about 3 weeks later. (Living on the edge stuff, right here.)

So, 11 submitted short stories later, we got to May 2019. This was the criteria:

  • The story had to include the words MAYBE, MAYHEM, DISMAY, MAYOR and MAYONNAISE.
  • The story’s first word had to be an 11-letter word.
  • The story, at some point, had to include someone or something RUNNING.

The force must have been with me, this May as well, because my Bruce Springsteen-inspired story made it to the shortlist! Here it is….

boss

“Springsteen? Yeah, I know his music.” He took a sip of water and glanced around the restaurant.

She was relieved. A good start. She raised her wine glass to her lips and tasted the Pinot Noir. It was smooth, like Springsteen’s voice in I’m on Fire.

“He is a bit miserable though, isn’t he?” He shot her a quick look. “All those songs about struggle and loss?”

The Pinot caught in her throat and she coughed. He looked up from his menu with raised eyebrows.

“You disagree?”

She did not like his tone. It was too nonchalant. This was a highly important topic. A non-negotiable.

“Well,” she began, carefully. “He sings about the hardships of everyday life. And about his dismay at the contrast between dreams and reality. But he…”

“Like I said. Miserable.”

She bit her lip. This was not going well. Still, she would persevere. After all, Bruce had been telling her for years to look for that human touch, that two hearts are better than one, and most importantly, that faith will be rewarded. She would have faith. This one even looked like him. In the dim lighting of the restaurant. If she squinted.

The waiter arrived. They ordered the seafood platter for two.

“Hold the garlic mayonnaise though,” he said, with a wink that she deliberately ignored.

“I don’t think you understand,” she frowned. “Springsteen…his music helps us escape the misery and the mayhem of this complex world we live in. He believes in a better future, in the real possibility of happiness!”

He looked at her, bemused. “You’re a proper fan then?”

“I am his biggest fan,” she emphasised, realising with every passing moment that, once again, her suitor was unsuitable.

This one was also oblivious. “I know they bestowed upon him a title of some sort. What was it? The King?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “That was Elvis.”

“Oh, right. Was he a Sir, then?” He seemed to be chuckling to himself and she wondered how someone so ignorant could also be so arrogant.

“You’re thinking of Elton John.” You idiot, she wanted to add.

“Mayor, perhaps?” He would not give up. She was running out of patience. Time to put herself out of this misery.

“Boss. He was The Boss.”

“Ah, right. Silly name.”

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she thought. The rest of their dinner was peppered with small talk. She was already planning her escape. As they stepped outside into the cool autumn air, she held out her hand to avoid any human touch beyond a handshake.

“Thank you for tonight,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”

“That’s cool,” he said, squeezing her palm. “If there’s no spark, there’s not much you can do.”

She was about to nod in agreement when she caught the glint in his eye as he continued.

“My dad always said you can’t start a fire without it.”

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:

This was a fun first date scene that manages to do what many fail at – find a good balance between the external action and internal dialogue. Well-paced and sprinkled with humour, it saves a little in the tank for an ending that delivers a dose of intrigue. Simple storytelling, effective in bringing this tale of hungry hearts to life.