It is said that the Universe teaches us the same lessons over and over again until we have truly learnt them. Patterns keep repeating in our lives, and the same kind of people and incidents keep showing up unless we face the unavoidable truths they're forcing us to see.
One thing I've noticed in the past few years is not only my tendency to forget these oft-repeated lessons but the fact that it is often little D who shows me the truth when life brings me to my knees.
A couple of weeks ago, we were holidaying in Vancouver, a place that KrA and I had first visited seven years ago and had the opportunity to revisit this summer with little D. I couldn't wait to show D how impossibly huge mountains could be, how beautiful the strait is that leads to the Pacific Ocean, invisible beyond the horizon.
(Even as I write this, I can't help but laugh at my own arrogant naïveté, as I am only all too aware of the events that followed.)
We arrived in Vancouver on Monday evening. When we went to pick up our rental car, an unexpected surprise was in store for us. While we had only booked a sedan, when we arrived at the counter, the agent offered us a Tesla at a marginal additional cost, an offer we accepted promptly. He had made the offer to another gentleman ahead of us in the line who had declined it. In fact, when we were waiting in line, KrA was mulling aloud that it would have been fun to rent a Tesla had the rates not been exorbitant. The agent informed us that he had offered the car to several other people who had baulked at driving a Tesla for the first time. I am by no means a tech enthusiast but KrA more than makes up for my deficiency in that department, and both of us love driving. So it was a no-brainer that we'd jump at the opportunity to drive the car. The Tesla was meant to come to us.
When we got into the car, we realized it was a brand new vehicle. It hadn't even been driven for more than 50 km or so. It took KrA a while to figure out the display and the controls, and then we were off.
We reached the hotel to find that our room was gloriously spacious. I find that space is always an uncertain factor when travelling. Photos on websites are rarely able to convey how large a room truly is. We were delighted with what we found, and with how our vacation had started on a great note.
In our long-ago trip to British Columbia, it was in the beautiful land of Squamish that I had left a piece of my heart, and so my sole objective for this visit was to head back there.
With one eye on the weather forecast, we decided to make our way up to Squamish the very next day as the forecast predicted rain for the rest of the week thereafter.
For reasons I don't recollect now, I got into a nasty spat with KrA that morning and it was with a heavy heart that we set out to Squamish. I had looked forward to the drive on the sea-to-sky highway for months, but as we crossed the mountains that rose from the Strait of Georgia, I tried to lay my heavy heart at their feet but to no avail. The sights that I had wanted to show D passed us by as the child fell asleep during the drive, no doubt jet-lagged and exhausted from the previous day's flight.
It is often said that a walk in nature can help soothe our distress and anxiety but that morning even the mountains of British Columbia seemed unable to help me. It got me wondering if I had fallen so deep down the dark hole of depression that there was possibly no way out for me anymore.
Even back at home in Burlington, long walks to the lake or the beach don't always have the power to nudge me out of the doldrums. I have often returned from walks by the beach with the saddening realization that happiness is not in the waterfront.
Ahead of the trip, I had held out hope that I'd be able to tell a different story from the lap of the mountains. Finding that happiness eluded me in the mountains too only caused my spirits to sink lower as we made our way to the place I had yearned to revisit over the past seven years.
We went up to the summit and spent a few uneventful hours there, doing all the touristy stuff, including going on a trail that was especially designed for kids, and impressively so.
When I crossed the suspension bridge that led to the view seen in the image on the right, I had a sense of déjà vu. I had seen this before, I knew, and later I was able to comb through the countless photos on my phone and come up with an almost identical one taken seven years ago.
So little has changed in the mountains in these past seven years whereas I'm sure I wouldn't even recognize 2015-me if she were to turn up at my doorstep. I remember that in the summer of 2015 I was in the midst of my MBA program and I was curious about my future. I wondered where I'd be in the summer of 2016. Where would I be working? Where would we be living? Not in my wildest imaginations would I have envisioned reality as it actually unfolded the following year, us in Australia with little D on the way and the dark, dark nights of the lost soul that were to follow.
At the top of the mountain, I was sad. Sad that I had come all the way here hoping to find some sort of salve, some sort of relief that I believed existed in the lap of nature, only to find myself lost and confused all over again. If even being in the midst of such natural beauty could not soothe me, what hope was left? Where else could I go to find relief in the midst of despair?
On the way back, I decided to drive the Tesla. A few moments on the road and that's all it took for me to steer the beauty down the gorgeous highway with those breathtaking views.
And the happiness that had eluded me so far that day began to seep back into my heart. I love being behind the wheel. It is an almost meditative experience and more often than not, I prefer to drive in silence rather than switch on the radio or Spotify. It is also in the silence of the car that D and I continue to have our many interesting conversations with no other distractions.
But life is nothing if not unpredictable. About a quarter-hour of driving bliss later, D announced that he needed to use the restroom. To p**p. (It's funny how I wouldn't have minded writing the f word but hesitate to spell out the big p word!) In that remote drive, there were no exits nearby that could have led us to a coffee shop or any other such place where D could have done his business. The nearest Starbucks was by an exit about 20 minutes away, and we started heading that way.
But little D was in a hurry. I was tearing down the sinuous mountain road way beyond the speed limit than I ought to confess, prompted by D's sense of urgency. The child's whines only grew louder and more frequent. He started to complain of a headache, and we kept telling him to not look at the gigantic display screen in the car but to look outside instead to prevent motion sickness.
"Look at those mountains outside, honey," I urged him. "They are so beautiful."
And darling D, that precious, precious child, said to me with the patience of a wise old man, "I know the mountains are beautiful, Mama, but not when I'm getting urgent p**p."
There was nothing for me to say after that. What good is a majestic mountain when the body and mind are completely in the chokehold of an unavoidable urgency to execute an essential bodily function?!
I continued to speed towards that Starbucks oasis and a few minutes later, D made a strange sound and said, "I vomited." And he continued to throw up as I found a spot to pull into and park.
We spent the next half an hour first cleaning up the precious child, and then cleaning up that brand-new Tesla whose backseat was now covered in my little one's puke. We cleaned it enough to be able to drive back to the hotel, and later that evening, KrA spent another good hour cleaning all the nooks and crevices with anti-bacterial wipes.
Later when I recalled the incident, I couldn't help but burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. What I had deemed essential for my sanity – a retreat into the mountains – had in fact shown me that it too was not an indispensable determinant of my happiness.
I've often seen the meme that goes something like this: Money can't buy happiness but I'd much rather cry in a Ferrari.
While I understand that notion, I'm beginning to see more and more clearly that the car you are in simply does not matter. I have plunged often enough and deep enough into the dark depths of soul-unhappiness to attest to this.
Because when we are floundering in the depths of despair, no amount of external opulence and beauty around us can give our hearts and souls the salve they so desperately need.
Instead, we sit there wondering how on earth we could possibly be so anxious and unhappy even in the midst of all that luxury. And very quickly that question turns into self-blame, a conviction that soemthing must be so horribly wrong with us that we're unable to enjoy the pleasures of life.
That is not to say that we must live a life devoid of beauty and pleasures. But perhaps the important question to ask is this: is this object of beauty something I longed for because it spoke to me? Or did I want it because I had hoped it would transform me in some fashion, make me more likeable to myself in some magical way?
And I must confess, among many other things, my initial longing for travelling too was mired in this desperate search for a new way of being. Travelling would make me a new person, I thought, a wiser, kinder, more mature person. It would transform me into something I aspired to be, into something I was not.
All my friends who had travelled seemed to be fearless, more worldy-wise. Brave in a way I wasn't. Adventurous in a way I thought I'd never be. Full of stories to recount. They knew things I hadn't ever heard of, stuff I wouldn't have conjured up in my wildest dreams. As if the Universe had opened up to them somewhere in their travels and revealed to them the very secrets of life.
But we all know how the story goes. We only become more of ourselves as we go through the experiences life hurls at us. And so in this quest for a better version of myself, I went from place to place, naïvely believing that I could shed my old skin and discard it in the place I was leaving so that somehow I'd arrive at my new destination, transformed, metamorphosed. And to be honest, it would indeed feel that way in the initial euphoria of change. In a new place, I'd feel like a new me that had nothing to do with the old me. But after a few days of lying dormant, the old me would resurface with renewed vigour, demanding attention and acknowledgment, demanding the liberty to express itself fully. The old anxieties would resurface, only garbed in different disguises.
Perhaps the only time I've travelled without any agenda, so to speak, is when I left my job in London and returned to India with little clue as to what I'd do next in my life. My parents had planned to go to Rameswaram, and I tagged along, wanting to be anywhere other than at home and with myself and my dark, desperate thoughts.
My parents had the entire itinerary planned out. Visits to a few temples. Religious ceremonies to be performed. I literally had nothing to do except go along for the ride.
It wasn't a trip that I went on to enhance my identity or pursue growth in some way. Instagram wasn't even a thing back then, although Orkut and perhaps even Facebook was, but those were the times when posts inevitably invited follow-up questions from relatives and we were sparing and sneaky in what we posted.
I don't think I even have any photos from the trip, nor do I remember a whole lot of it, except for a long walk with my parents and a priest along a long, deserted stretch of beach, in an abandoned town called Dhanushkodi, where the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean collided into and mingled with each other. Perhaps it is only my imagination, but I vividly remember two distinct stretches of water in stark contrast with each other in their colour and hue. One turquoise, the other teal. One of a lighter hue, the other richer than the vast blue sky above.
And amid the ruins of that ghost town that had long been destroyed by a cyclone and deemed unfit for living, I found a peace I hadn't even been looking for at that point. I had sunk so far deep into despair that I had given up hope of any future salve. And it was when I stopped thinking of relief as something to be attained in the future, that my eyes could open to its presence right there, all around me.
When we move from the closed confines of the walls of our homes, no matter how beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, to the vast expanse of space, I feel that the Universe is large enough to hold all my fears and desires, my worries and hopes.
In my room, where I take up a lot of space, all that my mind makes up forms a bubble around me, which grows and grows and pushes against the walls. And becuase it can't go beyond the walls, it pushes back against me, constricting my chest, squeezing the last drop of breath out of me. If I can, I run out of the house to a place where I can see the skies and draw breaths from the very core of its infinite blueness. If I can't, I go to the window and look at leaf-dance in the sunlight and the patch of sky that I can see from this vantage point, and try to settle in the knowledge that slowly this worry-bubble around me will ebb away and dissipate into the ether.
And so it came as a surprise when the sight of those mountains on the road to Squamish did little at first to soothe me. But it wasn't the first time that I had been unable to find a salve in nature. On a few occasions last summer, I had been to the local beach, and I vividly remember coming back with the thought that happiness is not in the waterfront.
The only thing that seems to help is the passage of time. In our inability to wait for the anxiety to ebb, we fill our time with things or experiences that we believe would heal us. Like cooking or travel. And we mistakenly believe that those activities and experiences have the power to heal us the next time we find ourselves in the doldrums. Inevitably there comes a time when these too fail to soothe us, and we are left with the realization that happiness is always, always an inside job.
The next day we went for a bike ride on the seawall around Stanley Park. The rich scent of pine enveloped me, and reminded me of a long-ago trip to the hills of Kodaikannal in Tamil Nadu that I went on with my friends from university. It was a short, crazy trip, and among other things I recollect the bunch of us sleeping on the floor in a gas station because the driver of our van was too sleepy to take us back to the hostel that night. I also remember the rich scent of eucalyptus, and eventually coming back to the hostel to find that news of an accident had been making its rounds and those who hadn't come on the trip with us had believed that we had met our maker on that trip.
Travel wasn't a loaded word back then. We had just wanted to go on a trip, friends making the most of the time we had remaining with each other. We weren't travelling with an intention to step out of our comfort zone or to broaden our horizons or to explore a new culture or to expand our identity. It was simply driven by a desire to do something fun.
That is how it is for D right now. A trip is not a getaway as travel brochures so blatantly advertise. He's not looking to escape anything. But there are lots of fun elements he associates with travel now. Getting to stay in a hotel and eating cereals for breakfast and watching TV in the room, going to see new places from which he draws inspiration to build new LEGO models.
Despite the events in the Tesla on the first day, he grew to enjoy the other aspects of the car, especially the gigantic screen that provided a real-time display of traffic around you. It even showed people walking and crossing the street or riding their bikes. It showed a pickup truck distinct from a bus. It even showed traffic lights. Discovering all this was quite fascinating for him and us too.
D couldn't bear the new car smell though, so for the remainder of our trip, we mostly drove with the windows rolled down, which was a no-brainer in Vancouver for everytime we drove through Stanley Park, the rich scent of pine elevated our senses and rejuvenated us. It reminded me of my own childhood when Dad would want the car windows rolled up and the air-conditioning turned on, but that would almost always make me puke, and I preferred the windows rolled down and the sweep of the wind over my face and hair. Made it easier for me to empathize with and help my little one in his time of need.
D is still of that innocent age where he does what he does for the joy it brings him. I am the grown-up one who assigns meanings and significance to this simple act of living, perhaps so that I too may claw my way back to what I fear I have lost.
But one thing I have learnt.
There is no prescription for a good life. No one can tell us what it means to live well.
Doing something, or conversely not doing something, is no guarantee of a desired future outcome.
We may have deluded ourselves otherwise but all we can truly do is live this moment the best we can, live this moment for its own sake, without seeking to make some reparation for a past folly or to recreate a past joy or holding on to the hope of warding off a future trouble or creating a desired future consequence.
Because life is simply too mysterious to be encapsulated into a universal formula or prescription for good living.