Category Archives: Life

‘A Bookshop In Berlin’ Francoise Frenkel

Book #9

Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.

Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.

The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.

She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.

“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”

Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.

“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”

Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.

It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.

“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”

‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.

All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.

These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.

“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

 

 

‘Notes To Self,’ Emilie Pine

Book#5

 

Journaling as a means of coming to terms with her father’s illness and her relationship with her father is what started it all, says Emilie Pine, an Associate Professor Of Drama at the University Of Dublin. An alcoholic father who could never be relied upon, needing his daughters when he is almost on his deathbed. How does one deal with it? The author tries to be as honest as possible, including her dilemma on whether to be even there for him or not. This sense of absolute truth sets the tone for the rest of the essays.

The pain of infertility, the stigma of menstrual bleeding, the difficulty in speaking about separation especially that of your parents, the wild years of her youth, alcoholism, sexual assaults that she experienced and finally on being female in a world that is still predominantly male, she doesn’t spare herself even a bit. To paraphrase her own words, “I wrote a book that I needed to read.”

What does another memoir do? Why read something so visceral? Why was I not able to put it down? What made my heart race through certain pages? As a dear friend once told me, we need to tell our stories so that others don’t feel lonely. That they realize there are others who have gone through the same. And came out strong. That the ones that seem to have it all are the ones that were once beaten up by life. That each of us have a million stories among us. Telling it aloud builds us, as one and as many.

Each page, every word in here is our story. Our thoughts, our angst. We are not alone.

‘A Woman Is No Man’

Four women, three generations. Fardeen, Isra, Sarah and Deya. The first two, immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. Sarah and Deya, two generations of women born and brought up in Arab Brooklyn, forced to conform, waiting to break free.

At seventeen, Deya is forced to ‘sit with suitors.’ College is not for well brought up girls of Palestinian origin. She is torn apart between duty to her grandparents on one side and the urge to break free and be her own person on the other. She and her three younger sisters have only faint memories of their parents, who ‘died in a car accident.’ She seem to be on the brink of falling into a repeating pattern. Her mother, Isra was married off to a man almost twice her age and had to move to the land of dreams, America, almost overnight. All that Deya remembers is a mother who was almost always sad. She has some happy memories though, mostly of her mother reading aloud to her.

Isra had already followed the path of most Palestinian women, she was handed over a dose of reality by her mother before the wedding,

“Isra cleared her throat. “But Mama, what about love?”
Mama glared at her through the steam. “What about it?”
“I’ve always wanted to fall in love.”
“Fall in love? What are you saying? Did I raise a sharmouta?”
“No . . . no . . .” Isra hesitated. “But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”
“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”
Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”

“Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”

All that Fardeen, her mother in law wants from her is a set of grandsons. Her only respite is Sarah, her twelve year old sister in law. The spark of rebellious fire in Sarah is what sustains Isra through the few years of marriage and four daughters.

As Deya goes through the process of being shown to a prospective groom, she is also struggling to come to terms with questions that has haunted her throughout. As she is succumbing to pressure, a mysterious woman appears at their door step and drops a letter for her. What follows forces her to finally confront the truth about her parents and her own choices.

In the background is the story of women almost everywhere. Of being there for their men, cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, toiling till the end of their lives. Especially of Arab women irrespective of where in the world they are. Being beaten up is taken in their stride. Most of them who are brought up in traditional manner cannot even find anything wrong with it. The conditioning is to believe that they must have done something to welcome it. For a man can never be wrong. And a woman can never question him because ‘a woman is no man.’

The author, Etaf Rum is Palestinian American. Having grown up in Brooklyn herself, what she must have seen around her must have been something very similar. In her interview here, she mentions how she had to write about the abuse in spite of the knowledge that she might be opening up a can of worms among her community. She was married after high school, had her daughter at eighteen and a son two years later. Maybe it is autobiographical in nature in that the feelings, the angst, the inner struggles of each woman is brought out so poignantly, at times it is gut wrenching. Our hearts go out to each of them, even Fardeena. What she has gone through is what makes her behave so, and she doesn’t even for a moment believe that this is a cycle that can be broken.

The most beautiful part of the story is the love for books shared by Isra, Sarah and then Deya. ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bell Jar,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ even ‘Dr.Seuss,’ gives them joy, solace, an escape from reality, and maybe redemption itself. The choice is theirs to make and each of them do it in their own way.

The women / girls are sure to tug at the string of your hearts which in all probability might still be roaming around between the kitchen and basement of that Brooklyn apartment.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice cream to the Sun (Book#2, 2020)

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The only resolution at the beginning of the year was to keep a tab on the books that I read in 2020. Let’s say I’ve accepted the meaninglessness of making up my mind to do something from the first of a particular year, when you could actually do that any time of the year. Reading, or keeping count of the books you read is however different. You need a timeframe and when else but the start of an year to do so. No targets, though. Will read when I feel like it and what fancies my mood and my mind.

The first one was  ‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea’ by Dina Nayeri. Of growing up in Iran post the coup. Of a lost twin and a disappeared mother, of love, friendship, sisterhood, motherhood. Of patriarchy, betrayal , survival.

The second one came through Twitter. The place has become a treasure trove of book recommendations of all kinds. The author, Sarah Ladipo Manyika seem to have transferred her nostalgia and longing for Lagos and Jos where she grew up, into her protagonist, Dr. Morayo.

Nigerian by birth, having lived in several places across the world with her once husband, who was a diplomat, she is soon turning seventy five. After separation, she had lived her life as an English professor and she currently resides in her rent controlled apartment in San Francisco.   She lives life on her own terms which means totally uncharacteristic of a woman of her age, or as the world would expect her to. A characteristic pirouette in the bathroom results in a broken hip and she finds herself in a rehabilitation home.

More of a novella, than a novel, the story introduces us to some of the people who walks in and out of her life. You might feel nothing much happens, but in very few words, the author takes us through the lives of a number of characters. And that exactly is the charm of this short read. Each character stays with you, who they are is brought out in very few words. And the thread that runs through each of them is the doctor who influences their life one way or the other. No one can escape her charm and no one can stop her from what she wants to do.

A thoroughly captivating read, and a character that I would love to evolve into, in real life.

‘The Weekend’ Bernhard Schlink

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A terrorist, freed from prison after almost thirty years. His sister, who has been a mother to him gathering a group of his friends from thirty years ago. A weekend in the country. In the hope that at least one of them can help him, guide him back to life.

They were an angst filled generation. Fired with anger against establishment, fascism, inequalities, injustice. Today, they are a motley group. A journalist, a vicar, a lawyer, a businessman, a teacher, having lived, loved, lost, gained. And Jorg, the terrorist.

As the weekend unfolds, questions are asked, more to themselves than others. Some secrets unveiled, some still hidden. The futility of ‘what others think,’ for some of them realize that others might not have been  thinking anything at all. That all they were afraid of all this time was maybe fear itself. Only that.

Some existential questions, and some beautiful answers from unexpected sources. A son, trying to find answers from a father that had given just given him up, forgotten him? All through this, how relationships make and break, how one’s truth could be another’s lie. Of betrayals and guilt.

Why terrorism, who is a terrorist and why, how should they be treated and what becomes of them if they are not killed in youth, would they have dreams like others, what of their family.

Also, how the realism of life overwhelms the idealism of youth, how the cycle repeats itself. How much is in our control, how much from our genes and circumstances, and whether we have any right to all to judge the other for the paths they chose, even question them.

Finally, the freedom. The peace that comes from knowing that all you can and should do is let it be.

It took me less than half a weekend. Pick it up if life, people , their thoughts, questions, relationships, expectations and conversations excite you.

And peace be with you 🙏

‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait Of the Writer as a Young Wife,’ Meena Kandasamy

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“Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.”

Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful family saga, doesn’t it? Well, as in many an experience, first impression can be deceivingly false. But then, you already know what is coming. A book and an author who has been discussed to death. Her memoir of a marriage that was all of four months long came out two years ago, surrounded by controversies.

A writer, and a ‘feminist’ at that, putting up with an abusive husband, not walking out immediately? How could she, why didn’t she, the accusations are aplenty. But we all know, not a thing in life is as simple as that.

She writes about her search for that ‘one perfect love,’ how she almost found it in a Kerala politician, and married a professor almost twenty years her senior on the rebound. What she thought and dreamed of, from a pre marital distance was strikingly different from the reality of being a ‘married woman.’

The trauma that she went through in four months is so unbelievable that it can only be facts. For reality is always stranger than fiction. The descriptions are graphic. As to the question of why an educated, thinking girl did not walk out, that is what her story answers. And mind you, she had to face this trial by fire even if she did leave him after four months.

“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation.
Why did she not run away?
Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape?
Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims?
How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Let me tell you a story. Not mine, this time around.
It is the story of a girl we call after the place of her birth, lacking the integrity to even utter her name. The Suryanelli Girl.
Forty-two men rape this girl, over a period of forty days.
She is sixteen years old.
The police do not investigate her case. The high court questions her character. The highest court in the land asks the inevitable. Why did she not run away? Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape? Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims? How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape.
The shaming is in being asked to stand to judgment.”

There are questions aplenty. Would she have walked out if the abuse was not so intensely physical? Would she have continued in hope if it was more subtle and not so visceral? And I guess we all know the answers to that.

You may or may not agree with her choices, her way of life before and after. Maybe she could have handled things differently. There is one thing that remains unquestionable. The beauty of her language, the power of her thoughts and how it seems to flow so effortlessly into words that read like a poem that speaks directly to your heart, catch you by the the throat and shake you to the core.

The life of a ‘feminist,’ a woman who thinks, who dares to have her own opinions, who has the courage to question, is not so easy, you see. As for love, no one seems to believe that even she can yearn for it.

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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An 18 year old Australian girl goes to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange program, hears of an execution which incidentally is the last one there, then spends ten years in research and converts it into a spellbinding story – that is Hannah Kent and her debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for you.

Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend. The story is set in early 19th century. The execution is to happen in the area where it happened, but there are no prisons there. Jon Jonson, a regional official is forced to take her into his household for safekeeping until the deed is done. His wife Margaret and their two daughters have mixed reactions to Agnes being with them. The story unfolds mostly through Agnes narrating it to Toti, the young priest who is assigned to make her repent before her death.

Margaret has heard bits and pieces of Agnes’s story and she is rightly uncomfortable with having to put up with a murderess in her life that is already fraught with enough pain and challenges. But her innate goodness comes through right from the beginning. The background that is set is already stark with the unbearable cold and the dilapidated, grimy state of their surroundings. Even that seems mild in comparison to the state that Agnes is in. Margaret cannot ignore it even though she had decided not to have too much to do with the fallen woman.

Agnes slowly settles herself into the household silently, and she turns into a support that Margaret desperately needed. The two daughters are a contrast in characters and the way they treat Agnes. As her story unfolds, along with the reader, the family also comes to know of the why and how of what happened that night.

The maturity of the writing and the understanding of the psyche of the characters is truly commendable. What held my attention was the nuances of the underlying emotions between the women. The connect that only women seem to have, the subtle ways in which Margaret shows her support for someone who has no one else in the world and how she defends Agnes against her nosy neighbours tugs at your heart.

Agnes, like any other woman longs for stability and validation that has been denied her right from childhood when her mother leaves her when she was six. The manner in which her life turns out shows us how circumstances and people’s opinions can make or mar us. It underlines how nothing ever is stark black or white, and it is in the gray areas that we live and love.

The characters are drawn out so well that we can almost touch and feel them. It is as though you are lying in one of the beds in the room and listening to Agnes pouring her heart out to the young priest. You cry for her as she refuses to taint anyone, especially the baby that she saved the life of. And the despair and futility of it all, when finally the inevitable happens.

I don’t know why we are so amazed reading a brilliant debut novel, especially by someone young. How can one write about such emotions without going through something similar, we wonder. Then you realize, that is what brilliance is all about. That one can write so deeply about something they might not have experienced.

A must read, I would say. And totally deserving all the awards that it garnered.

 

 

The latest from my favorite author

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Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.

The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’   the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’

We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability  after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.

There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark.  The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.

What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.

The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.

And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going  on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.

The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.

 

Of kids, books and magic

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I paid a fortune for this set, 12 years ago. In fact, it was in about fifteen months of installments that the payment was done. By far, the best investment in money till date.

There was a set of 10 step by step ‘ learning to read ‘ books that came long with this. Both the kids started their affair with the written word with those. Have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it out to both of them. The first word that they could read, the wonder filled joy on their faces, is still the most priceless feeling in the world.

People ask how do you make kids read? The only way I know, read out to them, day after day, the same pages again and again. With the first born, there was more time, I have to admit with a twinge of guilt. We would read diligently, morning after morning. That was the easiest way to wake him up, “get up, let’s read.” We would lean on the temple wall, waiting for the school bus, reading whatever he picked up for the day. At random, continued from the previous day, or something that piqued his interest. There was no method, nor any plan, we just read.

He was on to serious reading by the time he turned eight. Enid Blyton never interested him, to my chagrin. Thank God, I was sensible enough to stop pushing after a couple of Famous Fives.  Hardy Boys met with the same fate, he couldn’t complete even one. A pattern emerged slowly and surely. Biorgraphies and sports. Don’t take me wrong, he was still a boy, thankfully. Greg Heffley* was his constant companion. That ‘Wimpy Kid’ was with him as he ate meal after meal was devoured with that skinny kid by his side, the boy even fed the kid. The almost adult still devours the series. As I shout at him for bringing it to the dining table the fiftieth time, he retaliates, “but it was you bought me the first one. I never asked for it.”

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Then came life. He took to Lance Armstrong like a Kuttanadan to duck. Between school and play, he finished the autobiography in two days flat. Barely a week later, the news broke. Of  cheating, there is no other word to describe it. I will never forget the disbelief in my boy’s eyes and the catch in his throats as he said, “it wouldn’t be true, alle Amma?”

The next round belonged to a contraption I hate with all my heart – the X-box.  The day it came into our lives, sounded like the death knell of books. The silly thing never knew the power of a miffed mother, though. As the addiction grew, so did my resolve to fight back. We reached a compromise , Monday to Thursday turned to no screen days. Voila, the lovers were back together, again. Life is like the tides now. It ebbs and flows, when the son’s eyes turn red, the mother’s decibel levels rise. But we’ve learned to live together, the books, a few screens, the son and his mother. For, now I know he has a friend for life. When he seems lost, I can see his hands stretching out to his bedside table and a light shining under the door long after the midnight clock has struck twelve. He is in safe hands.

Now, the daughter is another story by herself. She lives in another universe altogether. Of elves and fairies and all things bright and shiny. Having escaped the world of making night into a work day, I started reading to her while making her sleep. “One more page” was like music except on some days that was particularly exhausting. But again, read we did. Whenever and wherever we could. To my utter horror again, she followed her brother’s footsteps. No Enid Blyton! How could my very own turn traitors? By then, I was too old and weary to fight losing battles. I should have known where she was headed the moment she started picking up fairy tales. The Pottermaniac is growing up I know when I see her stacking up Archie’s during our monthly ritual of visiting Blossoms. Her books are filled with colours, just like her soul – Thea Stilton, Tinkle, Archie’s, Fairy Tales and of course, Harry Potter.

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That first set of English reading books went to my nephew an year ago. While on a cleaning spree today, I realize it’s time. For the next set to find a new home. To entice another little one to the magical world that words are.

Dear Ouseph, it’s not mere books that are coming your way. It’s the keys to magical kingdom, that was guarded lovingly by your chettan and Chechi , protected fiercely by your ammai and looked upon with indulgence by your uncle. Drink from it, satiate your hunger for knowledge and guard it with your life. Until you pass it on to your little brother.

And I send you this wish, “May the word be your legacy!”

But then I know it cannot be otherwise, for it is your grandfather that took a young girl by her hands and led her to the bright and enticing world that was hiding behind the dark shelves of the long forgotten ‘The English Bookhouse’ .

Being Vulnerable

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“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”

Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.

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I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.

Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”

Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.