The High Priestess Never Marries: Between Prose and Poetry

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The book and the filter coffee were consumed on a languorous Sunday evening. ❤

All alone on a night like this — quite as confession and blackwidow blue. Oh what she would give, tonight or any night, for a lover’s mouth, for a lullaby, for a moon so low it could snag in the conspiracy of branches. And she sits there in the darkness and watches the silhouettes of trees against the city sky blanched with artificial effulgence, and admires the silver rings on her toes, and thinks of how a good reading can unbraid everything. She blows a smokey cloudkiss to the Venus flytrap in the corner and even the Venus flytrap doesn’t bite back.

16298748_10212046600537278_7784908729883477375_nWhen I read Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in this One a few weeks ago, I made a secret wish. I wanted to read something as intense and feminist as her poetry collection, but I wanted the stories to be closer to me. I wanted the characters to drive on the roads I take. I wanted them to speak my tongue. I wanted them to know my gods and goddesses. I wanted them to lose themselves in the ocean where I seek solace.

Then Sharanya Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries happened to me.

As I finished every short story and postcard fiction, I kept asking myself, “Between prose and poetry, where does this writing lie?” I released the question religiously, only to realise that it was an exercise in futility.

Because the stories were just there.

Feral. Timid. Pregnant. Empty. Loud. Silent. Intimidating. Comforting.

The stories were just there.

If Haruki Murakami’s heroes kept making spaghetti in his books, Sharanya Manivannan’s characters were fond of bitter gourd. More specifically, bitter gourd tossed with jaggery.

Dark, bitter, and yet sweet. Quite like her stories.

“Bitter gourd that tastes of love and all its consequences. It is my simplest, most sincere dish: my heart on a platter.

‘This is an epiphany,’ she grins, her nose running, her back resting against the spice cabinet. I watch her for a few moments before reaching to serve myself.

With her clean hand, she grabs mine. ‘Thank you!’

‘Anytime, my love.’ I squeeze her hand, drop the spoon I reached for, and decided to wait. What a pleasure it is to give.

Sometimes a meal is a psalm. Sometimes it is a code, a consolation, a sense of an unbroken coast in a season of ravages. Always, it is an offering. Always, it is an embrace.”

The other motifs created the feminine, divine, resplendent atmosphere too. Toe rings. Mangoes. Neem trees. The colour red. Celestial beings. And of course… sea, sand, soil, and shores. There were myriad omens which made me feel feverish.

I love Sharanya Manivannan’s women. They did not demand my sympathy. They did not offer condescension either. They were beautifully vulnerable, incredibly human. They related their stories in a tone that was free of apologies. Their voices were laden with regrets, melancholy, and pain. But there was no pretense.

I love her women more because those are the ones who can listen to my story without judging me. Those are the ones who can say, “You fucked up? It’s fine. Let’s clear the mess together.” Those are the women who won’t ask me to stay strong. Those are the ones who would say, “Weep. Weep. Weep. It’s okay to be broken.” Those are the ones who understand the need to feel belonged, the need to love, and the need to be loved and cherished.

Those are the women who know what it is like to be a woman.

I wanted to unleash my love on two women particularly — Sarala Kali and Antara. (Oh! The names! There was a man called Mazhai.) Both the women taught me something that I have been meditating for a long while — allowing myself to feel.

I am tired of hearing phrases like, ‘You have always been brave. Continue to be brave.’ Or a patronising one like, ‘Snap out of that depression.’ Or a reduction like, ‘What you are feeling is a mere disappointment.’ So when I met Sarala Kali and Antara, I naturally warmed up to them more for they didn’t wage war against their emotions. They walked into the eye of the storms. They swayed to the tunes of gusty winds. They destroyed themselves. They re-birthed themselves. And when the cyclone had crossed, they were brave and authentic in the way they embraced their sentiments. How can I not love them!

It’s been a day since I finished the book. But I can’t capture one word as such and pin it down to explain how I feel about it. There is a lump in my throat. I want to hug somebody and cry for a little while. I want to take deep breaths. I want to reread some stories from the book. I am giving myself to the quicksand of thoughts. I am throwing a courageous glance at the bright clarity that has surfaced. I feel everything. I feel nothing. I am melancholic. I am contented.

Maybe, I am one of them. Maybe, we all are…

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The Curious Case of Anu Boo

20170126_145036The delivery boy from Amazon phones me when I am at work. “Ma’am, the tiny, brown dog in your house is furious. That one doesn’t stop barking. I am scared,” he pants. Although I assure him that Anu Boo would not attack him and that he can hand the books to Mother, he refuses to listen.

I smile. Clandestinely.

Because when I adopted this tiny, brown dog on 26-January-2014, I didn’t know she can roar. I didn’t know she can breathe fear into strangers. Above all, I didn’t know she would begin to enjoy her life with us.

20170126_144543We rescued Anu Boo in January 2014. She was weak, diffident, and anxious. For the first three months of her life, she had never seen a human. When all her siblings succumbed to hunger in an abandoned house, this little survivor thrived on her brother’s carcass.

As soon as Mother threw a flimsy net on the puppy and dropped her in a jute bag, I kissed her mouth. It smelled of a corpse.

The vet who administered her first vaccinations was amused when I related Anu Boo’s story. He guffawed. But he was certain that she had to be quarantined for two weeks. “This puppy seems way too curious,” he observed. Anu Boo fixed her gaze on another canine client.

I knew then that her battered soul had already begun to heal.

20170126_144525My first dog Calvin was 10 then. We fostered Anu Boo with Calvin as our reluctant aide. He played her nanny, for Anu Boo could trust him. Only him. Perhaps, in their language, Calvin and Anu Boo discussed their family, established hierarchy, and composed clauses.

After fostering her for about two weeks, we realised that nobody wanted to adopt her only because she was a mongrel, she was too tiny, and she suffered from a chronic skin condition.

Maybe, that’s when I believed in the cliche that one’s loss is another one’s gain. We adopted Anu Boo. Officially.

So what if nobody needed her? She was already a member of our pack. She was always ours. It just took a little while for the epiphany to dawn on us.

From that day (26-January-2014), I basked in observing my favourite duo — Calvin and Anu Boo.

He was calm. She was a storm. He was snobbish. She was silly. He was social. She was aloof.

He was a resigned cat. She was a happy puppy.

Life could have been unfair to me then in a million ways. But it never seemed that unbearable. Many thanks to these furry friends.

“That’s a good dog you’ve got there,” he said, tickling Beau’s head. Beau’s tail thumped against the seat. “Yeah. He is a good one.”

“Everybody oughta have a dog,” he said thoughtfully, his hand still scratching Beau. “Dogs teach you love and kindness. They remind you what’s important.” He nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “A life ain’t much of a life without a dog in it, s’what I always said.”

“Yeah.” I let my forehead drop against the cool of the window. All the thoughts I’d had walking had followed me inside. Like ghosts, haunting me. “But dogs die,” I said quietly, almost to myself. “Sure. Course they do. But their dying don’t make their livin’ worth any less.”

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

Three years later…

20170126_145020Calvin has become Sirius. Anu Boo doesn’t share her riches with another animal. As I write this, Mother peels a banana for her. Father employs all his favourite terms of endearment and promises her lifetime supply of bananas.

Anu Boo is sprawled in the divan. Every once in a while, she looks out the window to ensure if that squirrel is still there. She places her head on a heap of cushions and slips into a peaceful slumber.

A sense of accomplishment washes over me.

The Sweetness of Dogs

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up into
my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

— Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Her ears dance gently to the tunes of January’s zephyr. She moves her legs as though she is chasing something in her dreams.

In that zennish moment, I allow a question to surface.

Who rescued whom?

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In A New, More Fractured Light

20170118_013754I hate Krithika Ramesh. I hate my only sibling Krithika Ramesh because she is brutally honest, punctual, overbearing, and too perfect.

I love Krithika Ramesh. I love my only sibling Krithika Ramesh because she is brutally honest, punctual, overbearing, and too perfect.

I hate her. I love her. Hate. Love. Love. Hate. That’s our ever-oscillating relationship for you.

What is constant in our relationship though is that she loves me even when she wants to hate me. 😉 I admit that sometimes she wants to chop me up, fry me in an enormous oil pan, and feed me to sharks, because of my self-obsession. However, she is one of my favourite angels. If I ever murder somebody and seek asylum in her house, perhaps she would wail like a banshee when I break the news to her. But she would protect her little sister come what may.

I can always, always trust her; she is a badass that way. *Deepika swallows her ego* 😉

20170118_013637My dearest sister turns 35 tomorrow (January 19). As she has now become an Instagram celebrity, I expressed my desire to interview her for my blog. She agreed. Quite generously. 🙂 Do you follow her Instagram account? If you are a foodie, you must. (Krithi, you love me now, don’t you?)

Since I am a fan of Proust Questionnaire, I have employed it to know more about my sister whom I have known for 29 years.

My dear reader, here is Krithika Ramesh:

1. Your idea of happiness
Adding value to my loved ones’ lives. If they come to me, seeking my help, I try to give my best to make them happy. It could be as simple as helping them with a tiny idea or organising a party for them. Lighting up their lives makes me happy.

2. Your idea of misery
Change. Change in any form. Change of place. Change in people’s attitude. It’s difficult for me to go with the flow. It makes me depressed and I understand that it’s my fault to feel stuck. I have to learn to let go and embrace changes.

3. Where would you like to live?
Wherever my loved ones are. Although I live in the USA, I strongly reckon that I don’t belong here. I feel like I am living in a hotel. I want to live in Mylapore or anywhere in Chennai. That’s my home. I belong there.

4. What is your greatest fear?
Loneliness.

20170118_0136185. What is the principal aspect of your personality?
Bossy. Of course, in a positive way. I am told that I can lead wherever I go. For instance, when I host an event, I can make my audience, laugh, talk, and play along with me. When something is not organised, I can gather resources effortlessly to put things in order.

6. What do you hate the most?
Insincerity. If I am not comfortable with somebody, I tell that person that I am not okay. I expect the other person to be honest with me too. Be who you are.

7. If not yourself, who would you be?
Somebody who is cooler than me. Somebody who is less emotional than me.

8. What is your present state of mind?
I am looking forward to celebrating my birthday, my wedding anniversary, and visiting India. I am always looking forward to celebrating something.

9. How would you like to die?
With no regrets. I dread waking up with regrets. So if I am going to die, I want to die with the content that I did all that I could for my family and friends.

20170118_01373810. What is your favourite motto?
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. Even if I watch a movie with my son Shravan, I show a lot of enthusiasm by dressing up well, reaching the theatre on time, enjoying the movie with him, and making efforts to create memories. If I choose a present for my favourite people, I enter their heads. I think about what can bring bright smiles to their faces. When they finally receive their presents, they are naturally thrilled. In that unassuming moment lies my life’s purpose.

*****

Krithi, thank you for granting this interview. 😉 I am sure you will make a lot of beautiful memories this year. And I am super sure that you will send me more presents. Yaaay!

20170118_013712Also, Be more silly, Krithi. Have more fun. Be more creative. Be more kind. Be more effusive. Above all, be yourself. Unapologetically yourself!

“The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light. Look hard. Risk that.”

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

PS: I love you! And I am always grateful to you for seeing me in a new, more fractured light. Thank you for looking hard and risking that. ❤

‘Reading is An Act of Courage’

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

I love this passage from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Whenever life throws tantrums, I always tell myself that it will rearrange itself. But there was an irrepressible question; it didn’t allow me to cement my conviction in the profound, beautiful quote from the book. Jude St. Francis, whose life the tome follows, seals a young student’s faith in life by making him believe that every loss is compensated. However, Jude didn’t seem to place his trust in that thought. I wanted Jude to live by it. But he didn’t. When he wanted a young boy to trust that life would rearrange itself, why did Jude not believe in it? The question taunted me and I posed it when Yanagihara was in Chennai for The Hindu’s Literary Festival, Lit For Life.

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Hanya Yanagihara at the festival. Image Courtesy: The Hindu

The moment I released the question, Yanagihara assured, “Jude believed in it.” I sighed. It’s a fascinating moment to get into Jude’s head. “But…” Yanagihara continued, “There is a difference between thinking you believe in it and truly believing in it.” I knew then why Jude was Jude; I love him more now.

A Little Life was a difficult read. It was as difficult as seeing a loved one living a life that’s refusing to be fair. I wanted to comfort Jude. But as much as I was helpless, he was impermeable to support. That made me more depressed. At one point in time, I lost the faculty to differentiate my darkness from the book’s. It was a singular darkness. A darkness that was bizarrely beautiful. A darkness that lingered on for so long that reconnecting with the reality was like walking out of the house and facing the blindingly bright sun after being in a dark room for days and days. Even that warmth couldn’t restore the equilibrium. Yanagihara was right when she observed that the book is so much like a relationship. “Intimate and claustrophobic.”

After I read the book, I didn’t know how to cope with the grief. I wanted to talk a lot about the book. I read this passage over and over again and washed my Kindle with my torrential tears.

(There are some spoilers in this passage.)

“It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate. Or maybe he is closer still: maybe he is that gray cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbor’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbor’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

I asked Yanagihara to help her readers recover from the trauma. She guffawed. Her laughter proved that she empathised. She suggested that I visit A Little Life’s Instagram account where she had shared the titles of books that a devastated soul can read after A Little Life.

Yanagihara’s answers seemed honest. When she was told that a lot of readers had to abandon the book owing to the graphic depiction of violence, she said that the book belongs to the reader once it’s published. I noticed no trace of arrogance or regret in her tone. The remark was just that.

A reader is always judged. I often field remarks like, “Do not slip into a book to escape reality. Just face it.” Or a rude comment like, “Why do you waste so much time and money on books?” Although I have stopped explaining why I read so much, the remarks still make me livid. But Yanagihara made me feel special when she said, “Reading is an act of courage, an act of surrender.”

Of course, you have to be brave to walk headfirst into a book despite knowing that it will leave its hands into your heart, pull it out as blood drips all around you, and make you feel empty… yet full.

The Statue Man

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Sister and I pose in front of The Statue Man

“He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t move. He is as stationary as a statue,” observed Father, when I asked him about the ‘statue man’. We were at VGP Golden Beach, Chennai’s first amusement park. I was 7.

The Statue Man stood on a dais all day long. With his bloodshot eyes, handlebar mustache, expressionless face, and loud clothes, he looked like a warrior to me. But for a lot of mischievous boys, The Statue Man was a clown. They would be rewarded if they bring an emotion to his face. He was bullied, insulted. They called him names. However, The Statue Man stood there as though he was blind and deaf. He stood there as though only his body was there and his mind had travelled miles away from him.

Father explained more about The Statue Man and how nobody could break his determination. He threw another quick glance at him before moving to the next exhibit. But Sister and I took a minute more. We looked at the boys who basked in hurling insults at him. We looked at The Statue Man who seemed impervious to all the hatred. While we were too young to meditate on the The Statue Man’s predicament, everything about that moment seemed wrong.

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20140102_165232-1I carry myriad memories from that day. I remember riding a boat. I saw Sister riding a giant wheel and thought she was the bravest. I saw Father buying the Maharaja Dosa for us and reckoned he was the kindest. I saw Mother motivating me to go on more rides and becoming a wee bit crestfallen when I succumbed to my irrational fears. I lost my tooth while hogging the Maharaja Dosa and sulked at my inability to give a decent burial to my dear tooth. I remember bright smiles. Boisterous laughter. Terror married with excitement. And a dusk that seemed the longest.

22 years after that day, I remember The Statue Man. I wonder if his slumber was filled with nightmares. Did the boys laugh at him in his dreams? Did they throw stones at him? Did his knees wail in pain? Did he curse his employer? Or did he smile in his dreams? At least, in his dreams?

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

— The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Dandelion Has It

2015 stole my smile. It put me in a labyrinth with my eyes blinded. I heard voices. Scary voices. Voices of fear. Voices of nightmares. Voices of guilt. Voices of regrets. Voices of self-loathing. Voices of destruction. Voices that muted me. I wanted to turn deaf to those voices, lose myself in the maze, and let its thorny walls swallow me.

But I found myself in 2016. Unscathed.

Just like the kind, friendly ocean that always put Moana back on her tiny boat, life carried me into 2016. While I continued to lick my wounds, it threw its gentle light on all things warm and positive. It nudged me to stop chasing my own tail and pay heed to moments which would fill me with gratitude and hope.

I surrendered. The voices faded. I began collecting my smiles.

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From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quite a few dandelions began flying into my life. When they entered, I was like an ostrich with her head buried in the sand. But the dandelions surfaced way too often. It was impossible to not catch them. In time, they were everywhere.

While words can come to my rescue to show the dandelions in my life, for the first time, I am taking refuge in pictures. As you see my dandelions, don’t forget to tell me what kept your smile safe this year.

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After having been inspired by my dearest friend Kirthi, I embraced Zen Doodling. It was cathartic to wield the pen and pour my heart out.

The USA beckoned in June. I surprised myself there by doing things which I thought I would never do even if I were drugged. A blog here.

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Clicked this picture at Chicago’s beloved bookstore — Women and Children First

Almost every book that happened to me in 2016 had to happen to me. A snapshot from Goodreads.

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The unassumingly beautiful places in Tamil Nadu summoned; I travelled with my best friend for the first time. (I love you, Chunky!)

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Although I was told that I am awful at reading signs, I chose to acknowledge one significant sign that Universe placed on my path. The Orange Butterflies.

“I welcome all butterflies into my heart because that feeling is a constant reminder of how alive and full of love I truly am.”

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I travelled for the first time with whom I fondly call My Home. I am loving Tamil Nadu more these days.

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Thanjavur
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Pulicat
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Kumbakonam
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The Big Temple Buddha

If I couldn’t find peace in nature in 2015, she was everything in 2016. With some dandelions by my side, I watched sunrise, moonrise, and gazed at stars and oceans. Many a time this year.

Myriad things transpired in 2016. Friendships were made. Friendships were broken. Promises were broken. Promises were made. I was bitchy. I was considerate. But mostly, I was unapologetically myself.

My backpack travelled miles and miles. More books were read. Barrels of coffee were downed. Hundreds of deep breaths were taken. And, millions of smiles and hugs were exchanged. (Okay! I exaggerated a wee bit now.) 😉

Perhaps, it is now safe to say that 2016 has been the kindest year ever. Like EVER. And I am brimming with gratitude.

May our 2017 be filled with love, light, and peace. Sending all of it toward you! ❤

PS: This is how I envisage my 2017. 🙂

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The Butterfly Effect

13497856_10209915592183401_9119251199433427537_oI am sitting in a cab that rushes at 80 kms an hour. My gaze is fixed on the clear azure sky, but my mind is muddy; the noise in my head is deafening. The driver sings along to a retro song that is on the radio. On any other day, I would have smiled the moment the driver started crooning. I would have discussed his favourite songs and flaunted my love for Tamil songs. Today is not such a day. I feel numb. Exhausted. Soulless. Dark. I am too tired to search for my smile.

Through the window behind me, an orange butterfly glides in, flutters by my side as though politely demanding my attention. I drop my phone to say hello to the tiny, beautiful attention-seeker. The fellow-traveller lands on my shoe, continues to flap s. l. o. w. l. y.

I am desperate to take a picture of the guest who is lounging on my shoe. The car shakes violently; I swallow the urge to ask the driver to take it easy. The idea to click a picture of the cheerful visitor is dismissed.

There are other people in the cab. But the orange butterfly and I share a private moment. The little one is not perturbed. I begin to feel content for I am trusted.

My new friend keeps waving and in that rhythm, I feel my heartbeat, I find my smile again. In those orange wings, I find my… peace.

As I take a deep breath, the butterfly takes off from my shoe, exits the car through the other window. For the first time, I suspend my disbelief. I don’t cram my head with questions about the moment that brought me back to now, and the butterfly’s disappearance doesn’t make me sad.

After ages, I appreciate the beauty of transient moments. Pure presence.

“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”

— Charles de Lint

From that day, I spot an orange butterfly every day. Sometimes, more than one. Sometimes, even virtually.

While having lunch at work, I look down at the garden only to find an orange butterfly or a group of white ones whizzing around a young tree. If I am lucky, I would spot a black beauty too.

For a long time, I wanted to keep my mysterious rendezvous with butterflies a secret; a possession that belonged only to me. Maybe, I didn’t want its essence to be diluted with cynicism. But I realised that the world has to be filled with thoughts which have the potential to make one smile. I told my friend, and on the same day, she spotted an orange butterfly. Why was I surprised at all!

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

— Mary Oliver

These days, I look forward to running into one butterfly every morning. While it’s unfair to become crestfallen when I can’t spot one, I can’t help myself much. On days when I can’t find real butterflies, they come to me in unexpected forms:

A colleague shows her new ring which is an enormous golden butterfly.
A friend shares pictures clicked by her mother in their garden. A massive moth. (Forgive the antennae please.)
A special person stops me on a busy day because she can’t hold a thought — “Deepika! Do you believe in signs? I have been spotting white butterflies every day,” she says nonchalantly. But I lose my faculties when she relates her experience for she doesn’t know about my encounter with the butterflies.

I wore the Freudian hat to figure out why I see butterflies. The Internet threw my favourite phrases — transformation, a sign of things going right, and… peace.

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Of course, I had to doodle one to honour the moments. 🙂

It dawned on me that it’s just not enough to spot them but seize the moment to heal myself. (Many thanks to the Zen master Thích Nhat Hạnh!). When I see a butterfly these days, I take a deep breath and release a thought — a thought for all the times I hurt my family, a thought for a friend whom I abandoned, a thought that says I forgive myself, a thought that says I am thankful for the moment, a thought that is a vow to continue basking in the little things in life, and a thought that floats out as a wish for the world to be filled with love and peace.

I stumbled upon a post on Facebook that read, “Synchronicity is universe’s way of winking at you.” My little darlings, the universe’s messengers, wink at me, unload my baggage, and make me feel as light as themselves.

In those fleeting moments, I am free. I take flight using their wings.

“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green