Monday, June 12, 2017

A Collective Celebration

As I reflect on my past four years at Stanford, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. While I have put in some of the effort, the upcoming graduation a week from today is the collective accomplishment of the countless people and circumstances that have come together with Jeje’s blessings.

There are so many people who contributed to this milestone, some who I have met and many others who I have not met but who have made the opportunities that I have enjoyed possible. I am grateful to the indigenous communities to the places where I have lived for their careful stewardship and care for generations. I give thanks to the courageous civil rights and women’s rights activists who made it possible for women and people of color to get a good education in the US. I give thanks to the people who work so hard in the fields, factories, and stores around the world to give me food, clothing, and luxuries that I have grown up with. I give thanks to my ancestors in India who have passed down wisdom, values, and knowledge through generations that continue to guide me.

While there are hundreds of teachers, family members, mentors, acquaintances and friends that I give thanks to, most of all, I give thanks to my inspirational grandparents and parents for all of the sacrifices they have made with love so that I could have the best in life.

Sneha means friend in Telugu, and is a symbol of my parents’ deep friendship and love for each other. They model unconditional love every day through their patience, wisdom, and selfless devotion to our family. I give thanks to my Amma for her selfless devotion to creating a life of peace, opportunity, and learning for me. To quote an essay that I wrote in 2016:
Sneha thinks about her mother, a woman with five university degrees who could create detailed financial analysis of the real estate market, who had won the school’s parent volunteer award, who could know exactly what someone needed before they even knew they wanted it. She thought about her mother’s hands which would wash dishes, write daily inspiring text messages, plant bougainvillea plants, and turn pages of her favorite Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. She thought about her mother who would cook three meals for every meal: one for her in-laws, one for her and Prabu, and one for the kids. One with chili one without. One with cilantro and one without. She thought about her mother who would spend hours on the phone listening to the challenges of her friends and who would drop everything to help them. She thought of her mother who had sacrificed her career for her husband and her childrens’ success. She thought about her mother who she had never seen frowning or angry, of the woman who had never yelled even when Sneha had spilled milk on the table almost every day of kindergarten. She thought of the woman who had taught her to multiply and read, write, and speak two languages before the age of 4.

Figure 1: Amma and I at the Dallas Arboretum. Seeing her makes me feel peaceful and joyful

I give thanks for my Baba for being the joyful, adventurous, gentle, brilliant, and selflessly reliable human he is. He shifted careers and spent weeks traveling to give us a stable and comfortable life. While he has worked so hard to provide for us, he was always there for us, attending every school function, reading to us, and sending postcards. He infused me with his passion for learning and I am amazed by how he seems to know something about just about everything. I remember days coming home from the library with a heavy bag filled with too many books to comfortably carry. We would all on the floor of the living room as he held read aloud in a dramatic voice holding up the book with one hand while massaging my aching shoulders with the other.  He taught me that everyone is my family, and I internalized this to the point where I didn’t realize that everyone I met were not literally my uncle, aunt, grandparent, or sibling until I started school. He made it a priority to take me to travel whether we were crossing troll bridges in Grapevine Park or traveling thousands of miles, he prioritized experiences that filled me with joy, wonder, and connection. To quote 10-year-old Sneha:
Baba is so wonderful! He is so warmhearted, smart, funny, strong, caring, and way higher than an average dad. Out of a scale of 1-2, I would give him a 100100.

Figure 2: Baba is glowing as I give him a hug in one of my dorm rooms at Stanford.

Saroja comes my maternal grandmother, Sarojini Devi. Saroja is one of the many words for lotus, a symbol of strength, beauty, and purity. She approached her life with a patient and overflowing expression of love. As one of the first women lawyers in India, she led with grace and tenacity, advocating for women and minorities with compassion and strength. Thanks to her efforts and kindness, numerous families have gotten the opportunity to attend school. While I have only spent a few days in her presence many years ago, I remember her vividly. I remember the way her elegant hands guided mine across her violin bow, the way she would gently care for my grandfather, for the way she fussed over Raga when she got stung by a bee and got us enough ice cream for days. My grandfather was also a smart, charismatic, and funny person who encouraged my mother to study. To quote an essay I wrote in 2016:
The thin blue letter arrives in the mail. Lakshmi peels away the layers of papers gently. ప్రియమైన ప్రభు, లక్ష్మీ, స్నేహ, రాగా (Dear Prabu, Lakshmi, Sneha, Raga) the letter always starts. Lakshmi reads the letter aloud at dinner. Sarojini Devi has received the videotape of Sneha and Raga’s piano recital and their drawings and she has shown them to everyone who stopped by. She tells Prabu that he is a person of “extreme goodness” and Lakshmi that she is proud of her. She asks Lakshmi to put Raga in art classes and to ask Sneha to send her another story. Warmth resonates from those thin blue pages and she is in the room although she will never leave India.
Sneha looks at the letter, but she can’t read her Ammamma’s handwriting. Later that night, Lakshmi calls Sarojini Devi. After they talk briefly, she hands the phone to Sneha who knows by now to hold the phone a few inches from her ears.
“AMMAMMA LOVES YOU!” Sarojini Devi shouts.
“I love you too Ammamma,” Sneha says and then passes the phone back to Lakshmi as she runs off to play with Raga.
Ayyagari is my family name, and I think lovingly to my paternal grandparents. I had the privilege of living with my Bamma and Tata for most of my childhood, and their love and presence in my life shaped me in many ways. I followed Tata around the garden and learned from his love and care for living creatures. He would teach me about the plants and insects as we crouched over the vegetables. When I came home from school, I would look through his catalogues full of fruits and flowers and he would order some of the ones that I got excited about. I remember when we ordered Sally, our fruit salad tree, that according to the brochure was supposed to grow plums, apples, peaches, and pears on the same tree. While we would usually get only one of the fruits each year, I enjoyed getting to see how he cared for plants at all stage of life. He also has a love for learning, and his room was always full of stacks of books. Despite having to leave school to support his family, he has worked hard to continue to study throughout his life, and he will graduate soon with his PhD in Indian philosophy. I would grow up hearing his stories and I appreciate his wisdom. To quote an essay that I wrote earlier this year:
                        “Tata, tell us another story!”
My twin sister Raga and I sat on my grandfather’s knees, gazing into his wise and creased face. His serious demeanor always melted when he tried to satisfy our undying thirst for his stories.
“Have you heard the story of the squirrel who helped Rama pave the path to Lanka?”
We had heard the story many times before, but it was one of our favorites, so we listened with rapt attention to the story of the Indian squirrel who pushed sand into the ocean to help Rama build the bridge to Lanka to reach Ravana’s kingdom. In his gratitude, Rama had lovingly stroked the squirrel’s back with his fingers. This explains why Indian squirrels have stripes on their backs whereas other squirrels did not have this honor.
After he tired of telling us stories, my parents would often turn on one of our family’s favorite cassettes, Balamurali Krishna’s rendition of Thyagaraja’s famous compositions which described his incredible devotion to Rama. While he does not have stripes on his back like the squirrel in his story, my grandfather is a deeply spiritual person, and he shared his devotion with us by introducing us to Thyagaraja’s music.
Figure 3: Tata is telling Raga and me a story on day when we came home from high school

My Bamma is an incredibly warm and intelligent person who expresses her love for her family in everything that she does. A gifted teacher and lover of language, she would teach me something every day. I remember flipping through the pages of the 3rd edition of Webster’s International Dictionary which weighed upwards of 10 pounds with her and poring over the tiny font with delight. She worked so hard and with so much joy throughout her life, balancing her job and family to provide the best for my dad and for Raga and I. Whether she is solving Sudoku puzzles or reading, she keeps her mind active, and I feel so grateful when she shares her words of wisdom with me.

Figure 4: This picture expresses more than an essay could. I love you Bamma!

I am so grateful that I get to share the day with my sister and best friend, Raga. It is a beautiful to have a person who has known me from the first moment of our existence, and I think that sometimes she knows me better than I know myself. She has been there for me countless times. This time last year I was recovering from a particularly physically taxing illness, and it hurt to look outside and even the thought of getting out of bed was exhausting. I would not have made it through without her constant support and care. Whether we are giggling about the ridiculous emails we wrote to each other in 2006, smiling at any dog we ever see, or talking about our deepest fears, I am so grateful for our friendship.
Figure 5: Raga and I are wearing Amma’s saris that were given to her by Ammamma and Bamma, our namesakes

June 18 is a day that will celebrate the many people who have supported me in ways that weave together the beautiful life that I have enjoyed so far. Thank you.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Repainting my shell

As I reflect on the many emotions that I feel as I approach graduation soon, I have been reading my old reflections, some of which resonate with my current thoughts. Here is a slightly edited version of a journal entry that I wrote in June 2015:

"Sometimes in this world of contradictions, I feel that I am a tortoise, lumbering slowly, lugging a large shell as the world whirls by. I am a million years old, my soul full of wisdom and pain that  extends beyond my own short twenty years of experience, but at the same time, I see the world through the eyes of a child, bright and idealistic. I look at how messy the world of politics and foreign policy is where no matter what is done, there can be no good outcomes. I look at people with good intentions causing more harm than good - who are paralyzed by their ideas and the constantly shifting immediacy of the world's problems. I see so much beauty and at the same time feel so much pain. My imagination spirals out of control, portraying hypotheticals and slippery slopes that lead to dark abysses. In all of that thought, a lot of energy is lost, and the shell grows thicker. 

Sometimes I lay on my back, exposing my belly to the world without a second thought, gazing at the sparkling dew on the spiderwebs in the green leaves that are caving slightly in the sunlight. I trust and let my guard down so completely, like a little child, that I forget that people like to collect shells and make tortoise soup. And suddenly, I flip back over and slide on my leathery legs, dragging my thick shell across the sand, my eyes fixed on the creases of the ground. 

How can I be trusting, but not naive? How can I decorate my shell and find the e/D * value that optimizes the flow of my breath and the essence of my life without leaving myself exposed or aching under the weight of my own fears, doubts, and worries?...

I want my shell to be simple and elegant. Light enough to carry and mold to my skin, but hard enough to repel predators gracefully. I want to give myself the freedom to make mistakes and embrace those ambiguities and uncertainties. I want to be the best friend and student of life that I can be. I want to be innocent but strong - exude strength and warmth and love. I want to inspire and be inspired. I want to make my shell a work of art - vibrant and beautiful - a mosaic of gratitude dappled with the gently jagged shapes of healed scars glittering in a veneer of fresh enthusiasm. I want to paint it green - alive, harmonious, and healthy. 

It would be gentle enough to dry a tear and strong enough to weather a tsunami. 

I am grateful for all of the loving people in my life and for all of the opportunities that I have to live and learn about myself and the world. I am grateful for this space to relieve the weight of my shoulders and coax the fatigue out of my eyes."

*e/D = pipe relative roughness factor (I was studying fluid mechanics at the time)