My Life in Themes

I experience my life in Themes… coexisting… sometimes seemingly contradictory, each also seemingly with a life and direction of its own. Periodically they converge, and then it seems as if all roads had been leading to this place and time.


*I am a mother.

Souls sang to her heart
The winds taking them afar
Her nestlings blossomed.

My nestlings blossomed, now fly on their own, forever bound to me and each other by love.  So, I went in search of the others, their souls still singing to my heart.  Today I mother thirteen orphan girls in Kolkata.  The four youngest are severely handicapped.  I hadn’t planned on handicapped children, but then who does? One day I had said to the Indian government, “Today I will take any children you give me.”  I love the children.  I am very happy.  To make a new nest I had to form a charitable society which we named Childlife Preserve: Shishur Sevay.  As a foreigner I couldnot be part of the Governing Body or even a member of the Society.  This is difficult.  Our nest is known as Shishur Sevay. 

* I am a white lady.

I am a rorshach, no single answer, but a projection by others of what my white skin means.  My white skin, for which i am not at all responsible, evokes admiration, jealousy, fear, anger, competitveness, mystery.. the unachievable, even with the skin lightening creams and lotions that flood the market.  My girls want to be white, like I am… but so do the women buying the whitening creams.  Lighter is better, a concept ingrained in everyday speech.  Now there is even a baby oil to make skin “glow” which in the illustrations means lighter and lighter each week of use.

* I am a doctor

I had wanted to be a doctor for as long as I could remember.  I also wanted to be a mother.  it seemed to me that doctoring was a form of mothering; that nurturing and healing came from the same energies, from the same center of my self that wanted to mother.”       From “A Woman in Residence” Random House 1982

I wrote “A Woman in Residence” when I was a single mother, and the first part-time resident in obstetrics and gynecology in the US.  I have worn many hats as a doctor.  I think about the mind, body, mothers and babies, cancer, fate, skills.  i think about capillaries and energy fields.

*I am a boss

I live at the home.  I employ caretakers, teachers, and other professionals to work with the children.  I do not enjoy being a boss.  I prefer people just do what i want without my having to act like a boss.  But that’s not how life is.  I am a tough boss, but I pay well. 

*I am a Spirit

The invitation
Offered a new assignment,
Move Heaven and Earth.

I am not sure what that means.  I am flesh and blood.  I cry.  But I take assignments from a God I talk with often.  I’m here in Kolkata “on assignment.”  I try to manage the assignment as I managed many of the jobs i have held, but for this I especially call on my learning in the corporate world.  I’m a Spirit with skills and experience in building infrastructure, marketing, and communication.  Some things I am able to achieve by sheer will (actually stubbornness).  Sometimes I fail, and grow stronger.

*I am a writer.

To create ideas
Clear the brush, and build the nests,
The Herons will sing.

It’s what I do.  As I think, I imagine the words written, and i hear them being read. When words do not come, I write about how to find them.  Souls sing to my heart, Herons sing from their nests, and crying children call to me in the night.

Gibi – Our Shared Dream

Shishur Sevay is a shared dream.  Gibi, aka Mrs. Jasvinder Kaur, will one day talk about her life, but for now I’ll say simply that she is a woman who retained her humanity through some terrible circumstances.  Gibi is committed to the care of orphans.  For several years she urged me to "do something of our own" but I was not ready.  And we had not defined what to do, whom to take care of, how to do it.  Over the last seven years, with her help, i had been sponsoring children in many schools around Kolkata.  I was here when Kolkata was Calcutta.  We also worked with orphanages which were really hostels, places where poor families put their children for education.

We are committed to the care of orphans because they have no spokespersons, no advocates.  They have lost their ties to family and community.  No one claims them as "mine."  They are mostly invisible.  Girls become absorbed into families as child servants.  Orphans who are found by police go into government institutions.  Younger children are adopted.  Our girls talk about being lined up so families could look at them for adoption.  "No one wanted us because we were too old.  They only take the young ones."  Well, Shishur Sevay takes the older ones, older being over five or six.  These girls are between about 7-12.  We don’t really know because the girls come without papers, histories — only what they remember, and those memories don’t include landmarks of age.

Gibi and her family live a few buildings away.  I used to stay with them until we opened.  We chose this home because it was so close.  From our roof I can see into the room where i used to stay.  I am mother to Gibi.  I am grandmother to her children, and i am mother in law to her husband, which is a very important role here.  We are all close.

At Shishur Sevay we are two mothers, "choto ma" (little mother) and "bhoro ma" big mother.   She is my succession planning.  She will run this place one day.  She loves the children, as i do.  In our different ways we understand their lives, their pain, their hopes, their rebellion, their losses, their mistrust, and their gratitude.  One of our "founding principles" is to have fun with our children, and we do.

If God (any God or Gods) were to appoint someone to make sure everyone in the world had food to eat, they should put Gibi in charge.  She cannot bear to see anyone hungry. 

Here Gibi serves as Vice-President of Childlife Preserve, and Superintendent of Shishur Sevay. Our children, and our staff, eat well.



Practicing winter
Does not blunt the icy shards,
Mother’s heart is pierced.

Rani is about five.  I remember the government officer asking, “You mean you will take Rani too?”  I’m still not sure why he asked, but she is different from the others.  She used to spin around and around, and bang her head, and wave her arms — and she didn’t seem too aware of what was going on around her.  And she had some pretty disgusting habits, which is probably why her family could not keep her.  But she is a sweet child, and her spinning stopped, and she only hits her head if she feels she is being seriously ignored.  She learned not to pull off my glasses because I yelled really loud!  Instead she reaches and pulls my head down so she can kiss me.  Rani loves Barney songs, and will watch a DVD for hours, waving her hands.  she has rhythm and sometimes i enjoy tapping with her. She has no understandable language.

Last week Rani had a seizure that did not stop, and she was in the pediatric intensive care unit at Calcutta Hospital for two days.  One of her caretakers was always with her.  The emergency room took her immediately, and the hospital care was excellent.  Since we had no history we decided to do some investigation, thus the icy shards.

I’m a doctor but in these situations I’m more mother than doctor.  I know this child has no language, little understanding, can’t walk because she has little control over her limbs, and can’t talk.  She can feed herself finger food, but cannot take care of any other of her needs.  someone once referred to her as retarded and i was so angry.  I remember thinking, “how dare he call her retarded!’  To repeat, I lose my clinical objectivity with my kids, and these children have become My kids.”

Then i read the EEG report… slow background waves, encephalopathy.  This is very bad.  How could I not have been prepared?  Knowing, seeing, cutting through levels of denial, the things we tell ourselves.  I wrote to a friend that sometimes I think Rani will just snap out of her state and talk to me.  This will not happen, I tell myself.

How do I look at her now?  I’m sad.  I want her life to be as good as it can be.  I wonder what happened to her — probably post measles and/or chickenpox.  And today I found myself wondering about spirit.  Where is spirit?  Is it affected by brain injury, encephalopathy?  She is sweet.  She is innocent.  Whatever her life is, I’m glad she is here.  She is a part of our family; she is one of us.

Why Blog?

I blog in my head all day long.  I mean, I am telling the story as i live it, playing with words and images to paint the pictures of the thoughts and feelings as they happen or as they have just happened.  These days I want to blog about happiness. 

There have been bad moments, many of them, and there will be more, but I tend to forget bad times, like forgetting labor.  I live much in the moment.  It hasn’t been easy starting an orphanage in Kolkata.  It’s still not easy, but when I’m with the children, or when the community gives us the support I’d hoped for, the hard times fade.  I feel blessed to be living this life.

The morning is always special.  I sleep on the floor with the four little ones.  For Ganga, I am the center of her universe.  If I’m not next to her when she wakes she lets out a howl, and i, helpless to resist, come running to soothe her.  Then she looks at me and smiles.  Her world is good.   She is about three years old.  We have no records on any of the children.  She has cerebral palsy.  Her arms and legs don’t work very well.  She chatters and chatters, trying to form words.  We are beginning to understand.  But she is also a force.  She does her best to organize us to meet her needs.  I am her number one need.  But there are certain situations when she leaves me willingly:

to eat, if she is hungry enough

to go upstairs to the classroom and sit in while the older children have class

to watch a good Bengali movie or Charlie Chaplin. 

She is serious.  She doesn’t really care for kid stuff.  Her favorite movie is Damu, about a father who searches for an elephant for his daughter.  She talks to the movie, waves her hand, seems to worry, and tells me a long story when the movie is over.  I wrote a story about a flying elephant.  It’s a connection on this strange journey of mine.

I am happy walking the children to school, the ducklings I’ve described.  I am happy when they crowd around the vegetable cart and argue about which vegetables we will buy this day.  I was surprised the first time, the" girls leaning over the cart and calling out, "saag, saag, Mummy, saag."  Saag is spinach!

Finding time to write is hard, but years ago I had a fantasy of being here and writing while children went to school.  That was a lifetime away.

Twenty three years ago i adopted a baby from Kolkata.  I had a ten year old "stomach baby" as they call it here, and wanted another child — a long story but here i am now, and two of the women who took care of my daughter 23 years ago now work for me here.  In those years after adoption I kept wondering about the women who worked at the orphanage — what happened to their children as they cared for the ones heading for foreign countries.  I worried about them, about their children.  They were in my mind.  Now they are in my life.

As I write I am interrupted by a teacher calling for help with one of the girls.  She won’t do her work.  She has put her head on her desk.  Some days she is like this, and some days she is really good, in behavior and work.  She is smart.  But she pushes limits and frustrates teachers… and likes to see them call me upstairs.  By the time I get there she is behaving.  I make a fierce face and wave my arms and pretend to yell.  She grins.

My laptop and office area are in the small living room, reception room, and often the girls are here too, preferring to study, play, talk nearby.  But today they started talking a bit about their earlier lives.  Several lived in rail stations or along tracks.  Today they were comparing TV screens at different stations…. then they talked about siblings they lost, and parents, one mother died while pregnant; another was murdered; a grandmother was hit by a train; a father was beaten by police.  But interspersed are also stories of celebrations, food, happy times in their families.  And always they are sad when they talk about younger siblings.

I’ve always loved being a mother.

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July 2007
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