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Archive for July, 2012

No trip to California can be complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park.  My last trip had fallen short in this regard, and I was determined that this time I was going to round off the circle.  So, topping  the list of  ‘family time together things-to-do’, was a few days in Yosemite.

Yosemite is not only fabled for its beauty and accessibility, it also has the distinction of being the oldest national park in the U.S., the first to be recognized as a protected natural environment through a declaration passed by the then President of the United States Abraham Lincoln.  First discovered by the naturalist John Muir, who worked tirelessly throughout his life for its recognition and protection, Yosemite has had the support of generations of dedicated nature lovers who have followed his trail to bring the park to its present stature.

Masses of information about Yosemite already exist; and  if one is planning a visit, the Park’s official website and the dozens of blogs by enthusiastic “Friends of Yosemite” and random visitors to the Park, offer enough about what to expect and what to see and do.  But it is only natural that the real import of Yosemite begins to come alive only when one actually gets there.

Every effort has been made to educate the visitor: through exhibits in the Park’s Museum,  films about Yosemite ‘s history,  detailed legends everywhere particularly in the Sequioa forests (among the largest and oldest trees in the world) and, indeed, excellently produced and illustrated informational leaflets and maps at hand, at every turn.   Not to speak of the knowledgeable Park guides.  All of this make even a brief trip to the Park very instructive and rewarding.   We learnt a great deal about the Park’s diverse natural landscapes, its ancient geological history, the story of the Indian tribes whose home it originally was and who learnt the deep secrets of living in harmony with the unique natural events that periodically unfolded in these forests, and the re-learning of Indian lore combined with the application of modern conservation techniques, that is at the heart of the current management of the Park.

We realised with regret that a first-time trip of just a few days did not give us the luxury of being able to explore the deep wilderness, for which we needed to have planned a longer and more strenuous hiking and camping trip.  Indeed, wherever we went on the beaten track ,we were surrounded by so many people that we couldn’t get away from the feeling of being mere tourists.  We despaired that we would perhaps leave Yosemite carrying the weight of an unfinished agenda.

But, just as we were leaving, something happened that touched our hearts and fired our minds with a sense of the eternal mystery of the earth’s making.  An experience that will forever symbolize for us the ‘spirit of Yosemite’.

We had gone to Glacier Point to witness the sunset, one of those “must-do” things at Yosemite.  We had lived for decades by the seashore along Mumbai’s western seaboard where, from the balcony of our flat overlooking the sea, we would enjoy spectacular sunsets every day, feeling a little like Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, who sat in his chair on his tiny planet and continuously witnessed sunset after beautiful sunset.  We were also  veterans of quite a few locational sightings – sunrise over Kanchenjunga, sunset over the ‘golden fort’ of Jaisalmer, etc. –  and as we rushed to Glacier Point with our eyes on the time, we wondered if we were being a tad too touristy ourselves.

It was with a sense of déjà vu that we found most of the vantage points overlooking the mountains ranged in front and the Valley deep below already taken, and a steady stream of people continuing  to arrive.  By the time the appointed hour approached, there wasn’t a free spot on busy Glacier Point.  A group that was apparently camping closeby had even arrived with all their cooking stuff, and soon spaghetti and an accompanying  sauce were simmering on a flat rock close to where we stood, amidst convivial banter.

As the sky turned pink and shadows began to move across the hills, the valley far below was the first to be swallowed up by the growing darkness that soon rose like a mist to where we stood high above.  Just the hill tops were still softly lit up by the setting sun.  Thinking that this was it, we slowly began to walk away, believing  that it might be wise to get away from what might become a virtual crush of people making for the car park, if we lingered for too long.

We were making our way towards the parking lot when we heard the gentle snapping of twigs underfoot among the fir trees around us.   We didn’t have to peer into the undergrowth.  Almost like gifting us with a darshan (vision),  a herd of small deer emerged to innocently give us the lookover.  They continued standing there, faces turned towards us enquiringly,  and we tried to be very still and take photographs.  We were totally unaware that everything around us was becoming  pitch dark, and it  was only when we were back home that we realized that our final photo had only registered the shining eyes of the lone deer that still lingered after the rest of the herd had melted away.  It seemed a fulfilling enough end to the day.  Just the deer, the silence and us.

As we neared the car park, a bus drew up and disgorged a full load of tourists, all rushing  to reach Glacier Point.  Our exit seemed not a minute too early.  It was very dark but we managed to find the road that would take us back to the Park gates, and as we cautiously negotiated the initial hairpin bends we encountered a few more cars speeding past us for Glacier Point.

Ours was the lone car as we steadily drove downhill.  The silence and darkness of the forests all around us dipping  down to the valley somewhere far below crept into the car, and enveloped us comfortingly in that special way that mountains have.     It was going to be a long drive back  to our hotel near the Park gates several miles below, but we were in no hurry to turn on the music; each of us was  lost in our own thoughts.

Suddenly we became aware of something surreal going on outside.  Time, and the world itself, seemed to have come to a stop.  From end to end on our right, the sky was ablaze  –  rich blue above, flaming yellow-red-orange along the middle, and pitch black at the bottom – in a drama that was larger than anything else at that moment.  We felt compelled, like all the other life forms around us – the silent fir trees, the still wind – to stop and simply witness.  Pulling up at the nearest kerb, we stepped out and stood for what seemed like an eternity.  It was like witnessing  the beginning of life on the planet, when the fires had stopped raging and the waters had stopped cooling, and all was silence and peace and beauty.

Perhaps it would have been just as beautiful a scene had we stayed on at Glacier Point.  But what we saw before us was far more than what our eyes – or camera – could take in.  As we filled our hearts with that unforgettable moment, we were grateful for the solitude. The ‘spirit of Yosemite’ had indeed given us a precious gift.  There was no unfinished agenda anymore.  Just gratitude.

Sunset at Yosemite

Sunset at Yosemite

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Stanford University Commencement, June 2012

Condoleezza Rice in her book (Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of a
Family) quotes a line from the Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford movie
The Way We Were, where Barbara Streisand says, “Commencement. What a funny thing to call the end”. 

The quote is in the context of Rice’s experience of her own college
graduation.  Rice recalls that while she enjoyed the graduation ceremony,
what was uppermost in her mind all through it was the thought of all that now lay ahead of her.

“Commencement” – the name in the U.S. for the college/university graduation
ceremony  – is truly a well-chosen description for what is, in essence, the
beginning of life as an adult.   And what the spirit of Commencement
stresses, even while it celebrates the achievements of the present, is a
vision of  life as an endeavour  of  constant learning and passionate
engagement.  It is significant that the distinguished speaker invited to
grace a Commencement ceremony almost always dwells, not on the education he or she received, but the lessons for life that he/she learnt while putting that education into practice.

Witnessing Stanford University’s  Commencement exercises this June was a
heartwarming experience for us as parents.  As much for the fact that it
marked our son’s – and his fellow graduates’-  transition into  life as fully
grown and responsible adults, as for the stirring  address given by the
speaker of the day Cory Booker.   One of the key themes of Booker’s address was the importance of embracing discomfort, if one intended to live a meaningful  life.  And he recounted many stories from his own life to illustrate what he meant  (he also said a lot more that was interesting and thought provoking but I won’t repeat it all here).

We never expected that the echoes of boundrylessness, transition and change that we came away with at the end of that morning, would be enhanced by an apparently commonplace sight in the skies that afternoon.  Lying on the grass in our son’s garden and lazily staring  up at the clear blue California sky over the Los Altos Hills, we had  the privilege to witness what seemed like  another “commencement”.  High above the hills,  a fellow creature of the planet was conducting her own  “commencement” exercises for her child – a golden eagle teaching her chick to fly, in an exercise that went on through the afternoon.  Even as we watched, and  gasped every time the sun lit up her broad golden wings making her look even more magnificent, she rose, dropped and swooped, relentlessly putting her chick through its paces, and never letting it rest even when it seemed eager to return to nestle under her wings.  Each time, she would wait for it to catch up and then gently and lovingly demonstrate  yet another turn or manoevre.  She, too, was teaching it to embrace discomfort if it wanted to roam the high skies.  What a  wonderful opportunity for us to tune in to the rest of the universe, and to be reminded that young fellow beings everywhere were engaged in the same passionate quest for meaning to their lives, supported by those who cared for them.

The sky over Los Altos Hills

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