Friday, June 27, 2008

For a friend

My friend C sent us a note today that made us reflect on the fragility of life, and reminded us to cherish who we have in our lives. Sharing part of her note with you.

"Thank you for helping the New York Out of the Darkness walk raise more than $1.7 million for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention!

In the early evening of June 7, nearly 1,200 walkers and more than 300 crew members gathered in Brooklyn for the start of the walk. Our wounds, generally hidden, were made public for one night by colored beaded necklaces. Those who had lost a child to suicide wore white beads. Survivor spouses wore red. Siblings, orange. Supporters, blue. I wore gold beads signifying the loss of a parent, purple for the loss of another relative or friend, and green as a sign of my personal struggles with depression.

I was surprised by the intense emotions I felt as I saw clusters of people wearing a single face or name on their matching t-shirts. The colors of their beads announcing that this walker was the mother, this the sister, this the husband, this the friend… The concentric circles of devastation wrought by just one suicide were made palpable by far too many different groups. Our grief, often shared only privately, was openly acknowledged and made visible. It was difficult to process it all.

In the twenty years since my father’s death, I have reached a certain understanding about that loss. But the walk made it clear to me that I haven’t begun to process the immeasurable pain and loss caused by the fact that every 16 minutes someone else dies by suicide. Every 16 minutes the miracle of life is extinguished. And every 16 minutes new circles, pulsating with grief and rage and what ifs, are formed around each of those deaths.

The tragedy is heightened as this suffering is largely unnecessary: Ninety percent of the people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric condition.

At the opening ceremonies, Bob Gebbia, the executive director of AFSP, highlighted that psychiatric illness must be recognized as a disease in order to prevent suicide: “We are walking tonight to state loud and clear that depression and other mental illnesses are just that – illnesses. Not weaknesses. Not character flaws. These illnesses of the brain are nothing to be ashamed of. And like so many other illnesses they can sometimes be fatal. Those suffering require – and deserve – understanding, treatment, and the same compassion as people afflicted with any other illness.”

We also heard from a mom who lost both of her twin sons to suicide. On the third anniversary of her eldest son’s death, she placed a memorial ad in her local newspaper. The tribute apparently included the cause of his death and some information about mood disorders and suicide. The next day a coworker who had known the mom and the sons for 20 years approached her and asked, “When are you going to stop doing this?” “Doing what?” “This whole suicide thing. When are you going to just get over it and move on?”

I’m not exactly sure how the mom responded to her coworker, but I imagine it was some form of what she told us: “I’ll stop when suicide stops. I’ll stop when no other parent, friend, spouse, or family member has to live my nightmare. I’ll stop doing this when there is mental health parity and anyone who needs it can get treatment for depression just like they can for any other illness.”

Her resolve buoyed us, and we filed out of Cadman Plaza, silent or speaking in hushed voices. The beauty of the Promenade and the Manhattan skyline at sunset felt surreal. Then we began the half-mile ascent to the crest of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Watchtower clock announced that at 8 PM, even with the breezes from the water, the temperature was 88 degrees. We were only at the beginning, and as we slogged upward through the thick air, the obstacles to a world without suicide seemed manifest.

I was grateful though for the demanding conditions that evening, thankful for the physical effort and discomforts. They served to balance the emotional aspects of the walk. I walked with a few women I had met earlier in my training. Among us we had lost a father, uncle, sister, brother, and two dear friends. Lizzie, pictured here with me, lost her brother to mental illness in November.

After walking around the tip of Manhattan (punctuated by a brief but impressive thunderstorm), up to Central Park, and back downtown again, my group crossed the Brooklyn Bridge for a second time. It was 4 AM, and the clock showed the walk’s lowest temperature: 78 degrees. As we entered Cadman Plaza we were greeted by the sight of a thousand luminaria leading the way to the stage. Before the event, each walker had been given a white bag on which to detail why they were walking. The bags were now filled with lights and bore the names and pictures of individuals lost to suicide, messages to loved ones, cries for an end to this tragedy, and prayers of hope for those struggling with mental illness.
As a result of my fundraising appeal, many of you shared with me that you and your families had also been touched by suicide and mood disorders. Your stories made very concrete the scope of this problem, and I was truly honored to pay tribute to your loved ones’ memories and to acknowledge their suffering by placing a luminaria for each of them and by wearing their names on the back of my shirt.

I walked to honor my dad, Norman Clark, and my uncle Brad. It was a balm for me to also walk in memory of the following:

Portia’s dad, Saint Elmo Cribbs
Jenny’s mom, Mary Ellen Gee
Jenny’s uncle, Justus Eddy
Joan Lakin
Adrian’s cousin, Robert Levy
Quentin’s dad, Glen Curtis
Pete’s dad
Kristi’s grandfather, George
Scott’s aunt and cousin
Nuria’s dad, Luis Pereira
Roberta’s mom
Stuart deProsse"

Thanks, dear C, for sharing your story, and your endeavor with us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pea Soup Swim

I swam in the Hudson River this Sunday afternoon, and actually enjoyed it. And yes, I jumped - wasn't pushed! It started as a bit of a lark, something I thought I would back out of once I had achieved my exercise goals. The quest to qualify was initially my goal (88 lengths in our pool!) ...and then I qualified. Once that was done, I couldn't let myself down. I had to do it!

Anyway, the first indication that something may be amiss was when I received an email and then a call from the organizers of the Park to Park swim that said that they'd changed the course of the race. No longer was it going to be with the direction of the current (from 144 to 166 street), but out from 166 to the center of the river, then downtown against the current and back to the starting point.

Not one of the 227 swimmers who gather that Sunday morning seems fazed by this change - some were clearly biatheletes, people who had done these swims many times before and there to win, and others were like me, just in it for fun. For me, the question was, would I actually dive in. I did (see youtube video of the start)! Not just that, I survived and valiantly battled the currents for 25 minutes, at which point I flipped on my back and tried the back stroke (from pure exhaustion) and was shocked when an NYPD motor boat passed by and one of the guys said - "you're going backwards...you all are!" I grabbed a nearby Kayak and looked around - and saw swimmers being ferried back to shore. I had put off giving up, since I didn't want to be the first one giving up, or have my kids see my give up. Now that I knew that completing the swim was a futile exercise, I was ok with being rescued! The cheery kayak'er (who struggled mightily with the currents himself) and the lovely NYPD blokes got me and a bunch of others back to the rocks and we clambered back.

Apart from my family posse (dad, mom, hubby and kids), some of our friends came to cheer me on. I'm not sure what they thought - that I was demented, possibly, but maybe also kinda brave...? Either way, they proved their mettle by actually hugging and kissing me, Hudson water and all. The parents deserve special mention, since they had trekked out to umpteen rifle shooting competitions before in my avatar as rifle champ, but this was the first time they saw me in a new, and dangerous, element. Mamma slept a couple of hours that evening, as she worked out her stress and the exhaustion of the long walk through Washinton Sqare park! And of course, a special thanks (and many Hudson-smelling hugs) to the extremely supportive guy by my side!!

So, you ask, what's with the title of this post? Just 'cause I remember thinking as I dived into the river that it looked and felt a little like Pea Soup! The resemblance ends there - I drank a couple of quarts of the stuff as I swam across the current and kept getting hit in the face by the swells as I came up for air. Boy, was I happy I got all those shots (Hep A, Typhoid and Tetanus, in case you're wondering.) Still, I'm sharing a Pea Soup recipe that I've played with in the past, since a recipe or food reference is the price of entry on this blog!!

Pea Soup a la Hudson!

One and a half cups of green peas (split peas soak and hence cook faster)
Four cups chicken (or veggie) broth
Half a small onion, diced
One medium carrot, diced
Quarter teaspoon lime juice
One garlic clove
Half a stalk of celery
Salt and pepper to taste
A pinch of turmeric and garam masala for the extra punch

  • Soak the peas in the broth overnight (in the fridge, or the broth will turn)
  • Cook the peas and broth till the peas start to show they are cooking, which should take around 20 minutes
  • Toss in the diced garlic, onion, carrot and celery and cook with the turmeric and garam masala
  • Pick out some of the vegetable pieces when they get tender, to add some character to the soup at the end
  • Puree the cooked peas and vegetables to a smooth consistency (you may need to add some broth, in case it gets too thick)
  • Mix in the reserved vegetables and serve
  • Optional: Dribble some cream to decorate the soup as you serve in bowls. You can also add in cubed ham with the vegetables, which is quite conventional. You might also garnish with a sprig of mint, if you want to mix it up a bit!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

My debts to Oxford... and they're not the ones you're thinking of

My years in Oxford were quite life-changing - the thought-provoking tutorials, the plethora of inspiring, forgotten books in the Indian Institute section of the Bodleian library, graduate life.

But the element that's most relevant to this blog? Oxford is where I was forced to learn that essential life-skill -- cooking! My recent visit back there for the Rhodes Women's Reunion (celebrating 30 years of women Rhodes scholars) underscored that the essentials don't really change at Oxford. The food at hall was still weird enough to ensure that scholars will either learn to live on crisps and Coke or start/renew their culinary journeys.

On the first evening at Oxford, Jen, our lovely hostess, walked a group of us over to Balliol College, my nurturing alma mater. The smiling porter, the gorgeous green quad, the leafy promenade, the pleasant undergrads all reminded me of my time there 13 years ago. We walked into hall (think the dining hall of Harry Potter's school) and my mind flashed back to memories of long chats about the nature of death, the meaning of life, the newest Bond movie...and remembered why I tended to wear jeans a lot those days (the cost of laundry, but also the long benches meant that you have to swivel over them very inelegantly -- the frock I was wearing made the whole effort quite bothersome!)

They were serving a vegetable dish of corn and peppers with turkey cordon bleu. I opted for this combination and received a huge mound of the slightly flavored vegetables and the breaded white meat with cheese in the center. Not the best meal I've had, but adequate. I saw why I went out at the end of the first week and bought myself an inexpensive set of cooking pots, pans and ladles at Argos. A daily dose of this stuff would have killed of some part of me....
I wasn't surprised when I saw that they had closed the dining hall at Holywell Manor - our cerebral and welcoming graduate accomadations, where I learned so much from fellow-students and extremely philosophical porters (so great to see Terry and Ken there again)

I also remembered why I would save for formal hall (more dressy dinners in cap and gown with a small price tag attached). I was at high table at the Rhodes House dinner the next evening, and the elegance and delicate flavors of the meal that evening were such a great contrast to normal hall. Even the asparagus in the salad had a distinct flavor that set it apart from even the best NYC restaurant. Then came a superior chicken with potatoes au gratin. The mousse with berries hidden in it was sinful, and probably cost me two 45-minute sets on the elliptical machine. The well-chosen wines (I wish I had taken notes) rounded it all off beautifully.

So, thank you Oxford for an inimitable educational experience, but also for making me learn the basics of good cooking (I'll share my first experiments with you some time soon -- a good dal, tossed tuna, vegetable noodles, sambar...), some skill for a well-organized sit down dinner, and an appreciation of good wine (and an occasional port).

(The pix on this page: our group being led by a bagpiper from the keynote lecture by Bonnie St. John at the Sheldonian to Rhodes House; the head of the Rhodes Trust speaking to us at the Rhodes House dinner; and one of me speaking at the opening panel).