Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Four days in a blue box and then suddenly, huge windows overlooking fields of gold, a giant chessboard and the brief sounds of children playing.

I have been admitted again. For the third time this year - and the manyth fever spike. The Mystery of the Origin of Sepsis continues to baffle. Is it Infection or is it The Lupus? The awful perennial question. For the doctors it is a problem that must be solved to avoid over treatment. For me, although I have an equally honed detective instinct, the clues all occur in the same body. The same mind must control the same fears and maintain a ninja like balance.

In the blue box with no windows - let us call it MDU or Medical Decisions Unit - lives Rosie. Rosie's husband Dave was brought into hospital and since he is her carer, Rosie was admitted at the same time. For much of each day and each night, Rosie keeps her coat on and her handbag tucked neatly into the crook of her elbow, ready to leave. Not a word in her strings of sentences makes relevant sense, but must surely make perfect sense in the world she inhabits all by herself. T'was quite alarming having Rosie peer round my curtains like a friendly bat looking for her mate. It was only on the last night when another patient with dementia arrived, one with a particularly nasty tongue, that Rosie's comparative sweetness shone through. A lost little bat, in the entirely wrong cave.

And then I was wheeled away to be transferred here to Hepatology. I waved royally to my fellow inmates as Greg The Porter deftly manoeuvred my bed past them - you lucky duck, said Brenda, turning green, thinking I was heading home (although how I could leave, bed et al...). It was my opposite neighbour's 78th birthday and she was teary hugging me goodbye. We make friends fast in the blue boxes...

Margaret wasn't allowed flowers in MDU, not even birthday roses... but here in Hepatology, my cousin Imran, dressed in an excellently cut suit jacket, brought me Chicky Chocky Speckled Eggs and a delicate bouquet of pink and white posies. They'll have to wrestle the posies away from me...

Thursday, 16 March 2017


If you were to ask me
What my favourite colour is
I would have to say blue;
Even though blue is the colour
Of the plastic curtain my elbow keeps brushing
As I type this poem
Leaning towards the closed hospital window.

They've painted the edges of the buildings outside
The shade of my first bedroom in England -
The Blue Room, I called it, not inventively.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
My niece Eva says, 'Chicken.'
And we all marvel.

Which came first, the blue paper curtains,
This long marriage with hospital,
Or my love of blue?

Hard to tell.

The sun is up. The kind of torch light bright
That hurts your eyes but does its job
Matter of factly. Some nurses are like that.
Others make room for hugs and jokes; jokes
That are a nimbus around a heart of compassion;
A beady eyed watchfulness for when things
May suddenly turn serious and need an
Oxygen mask, an ECG, and more of those curtains
Whisked around quickly.

The quietly fainting patient must be revived
At all costs. They save lives in here.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Claude Monet 'Impression: soleil levant'

This week, impressionism is being celebrated over at Dverse Poets - my father's favourite art movement - the one that influenced him the most. And the one that comes closest to describing what anyone with myopia or glaucoma or cataracts sees - brush strokes of colour, if you're lucky. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


There is a nun in South Korea
Who walked up the side of a mountain
To Baekyangsa temple, when she was
Seventeen, and her mother had just died.

You have come here to live,
Said the nun who opened the door,
Not asking a question. Just telling
A truth that had yet to manifest.

Jeong Kwan unpins her freshly
Laundered robes and whispers them
Around her shoulders. How old is she?
Only the mountain knows.

But the taengja tree outside her window
Is 500 years old. Hardy orange, it still
Bears fruit, and Kwan uses the sour juice
In her cooking.

She pickles lotus root three different ways,
Then checks on jars of kimchi. She never
Uses garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks.
Too distracting for a monk.

But soy?
Soy excites her.

Sometimes I agree with the world
That to be a mother is everything. Is the key
And the lock. Jeong Kwan vowed at seventeen
To not burden her children with the pain of her death.

There is something in that,
For me.

We can't all choose to opt out or the world
Would stop spinning
Around humans. Bees might take over. Or
Rats. Or better still, dust motes of light. Or dark.

Jeong Kwan unfurls petal after petal
Of the lotus flower, soaking the skirt
In water. Later, she will pour the water
Into a pot and you will want to gulp the tea

As though you are parched. You are parched
And this is the tea of enlightenment. The tea
That rings the bell of truth - life can be this
Way. An art. A craft. A discipline. A dance.

Three slices of lotus root, pickled
In an heirloom of soy sauce.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Jeong Kwan is considered one of the finest chefs of this world by the finest chefs of this world, who are almost exclusively male. Life can be this way. Women can be this way. Happy Women's Day today and every day to all my friends and sisters, my mentors and teachers and heroes. We can be anything. We can do everything. Certainly, we can.

(Poem linked to Dverse Poets for Open Link Night) 

Saturday, 28 January 2017


There is a mystery that lies at the heart of Aunty Shai. It baffles and befuddles. Why, oh why, does Aunty Shai of the non-stop games and stories, stay awake at night and sleep for hours in the day? What a waste! What a shame! Think of the lost games! The nonsensical rhymes...

Last December, in Singapore, my niece Bella could be heard puzzling this out, just beyond my bedroom door, 'Why Aunty Shai always sleeping, sleeping?' And this Christmas, my niece Eva: 'Shy-star, why do you wake up in the night and sleep in the day? Why wake up at night and sleep in the morning? Why Granma, Papa, Mummy, Daddy, Ellie and Eva wake up in the morning and sleep in the night but Shy-star doesn't?'

This is what I cannot tell my nieces, but what I hope they will read one day when they pick up their aunt's memoir:

What does it mean, having lupus? It means spending more of your life in bed than out of it, not asleep, or even resting, but engaged in invisible battle with the monster under your bed who slimed up over the covers, ate part of you very quickly and then paused, mid gorge, panting, contemplating where to devour next. His paws are resting on your belly while he uses your ribs to pick his upper incisors clean.
What does it feel like? It feels like fiction.

The only one of the children who doesn't ask these questions is Raf, because he had the mystery solved for him a long time ago. The answer was no less of a head scratcher. Apparently there was a wolf out to get his aunt. A wolf called lupus. Very odd business, but this part he comprehends: Aunty Shai is sick, and he needs to take care of her, watch over her. At four, he was encouraging me up steep hills ('You can do it, Aunty Shai! Just believe you can do it') and holding my hand in the dark, or on steps slippery with swimming pool puddles.

Of course he'd much rather that the lupus would simply take a hike up those steep Portuguese hills and  leave us all alone for good, but so far the only way I truly let him down is by not being ever-present. If only I could reside in a small cosy hut outside his house. We could walk to school together. We could catch Pokémon together - he could finally bring my paltry level 11 up to a respectable 22. 

It is January of the new year. I am more wolf-bound than ever. But like Peter Pan or Tinker Bell, determined to believe that something intangibly permanent will persist. Hope, I think we call it, on a good day. Meanwhile, since it is Chinese New Year...
Gong xi fa cai!

And here is a beautiful little tale by artist Jeanne-ming...
'On the Threshold of Something New' by Jeanne-ming Brantingham Hayes

Beautiful Grace sat in the doorway of the Door of Hope Girl's Home waiting for something to happen. She had made a careful list of all the wonderful small blessings that might follow her to this threshold. By night fall, when she was called to come in for dinner, Mei En was convinced that none of her dreams would hatch, at least not tonight. But tomorrow was a new day.

Saturday, 31 December 2016


Dear Aunt Alice,

Somewhere, in other worldly places, you must surely know that I have inherited your perfect signet ring. Initials AJ carved in pretty curving script. I have been wearing your ring from the moment I received it from your niece Mary, because she thinks I am an aunt worthy enough to be in your mould. I thought of taking it off before a jaunt into London to keep it safe, but decided I wanted to take you with me since I suspect the last time you tripped around London as a young woman was, perhaps, a hundred years ago.

Liverpool Station was freezing cold, but once we were in London proper - Oxford Street proper - I warmed up. No snow to offer you this Christmas, but the lights! An assortment of charities paid towards these giant leaping angel figures. Beautiful for the crush of humans below to behold.

Shopping commenced. I'm not sure you would have approved of my purchases, but they were safe enough - a cosy camel turtle neck sweater, a leather bag and a pair of sunglasses. All on sale! Mind you, the prices, even on sale, would probably shock you. To ease the shock, my sister Angelina ordered cronuts and hot chocolate from a famous bakery called Dominique Ansel. Now this would have impressed you - a marshmallow cut like a crown was dropped into steaming hot chocolate, instantly blooming into a flower...

Later, on Great Marlborough Street, we stood outside Liberty and admired the Tudor Revival frontage. Did you know the timber was built from the ship HMS Hindustan? Or that in 1885, Liberty brought forty two villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans? These handy facts are available from an extraordinary web of information us global villagers dive in and out of 'online'. I wonder what you would have made of Wikipedia? Here is something Wikipedia doesn't know: my father had three of his watercolours exhibited and sold by Liberty in the 1970s. Wikipedia you may have been on the fence about, but my father you would have loved.

I did feel a trifle faint in Liberty - so many people! - so was glad first to plop onto an inviting bed in Anthropologie, and then to mesh our way from Carnaby and Kingly Streets towards a Japanese restaurant, which also served my favourite Korean dishes, and to my delight, a delicious plum wine. For a nineteenth century Englishwoman, I suspect your gastronomic tastes possibly didn't stretch to the Orient, but maybe Mary will surprise me and tell me you loved experimenting with the new!

I got muttered at by a stranger for temporarily blocking the entrance to the tube - did I mention this was the day of the human crush? At these moments I am very much the hokey local from a tiny Cambridge village. By the time our train was hurrying us home, we were shattered and ready to slide, submerge and otherwise disappear into sleep. I hope you enjoyed the day out. Today is the last day of the year 2016. Soon 2017 will be upon us. 2016 has been a truly difficult year, for most of us, not least your beloved Mary. If you possess any magic, wield away. We need some magic. I can only be sure of one thing in the new year - I will continue to be the most loving and creative aunt it is possible to be. Keep your spirit beside me!

With love,
Your new friend-in-auntyhood across the century,

Photos courtesy Debra Edward

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


Sleep has always been a shy, mysterious, elusive sheep for me - rarely does she come when I call.
But lately, sleep is more fractured than ever.

I read in a piece by Mary Karr, poet and memoirist, that during this year's American election, doctors suddenly had a rush of patients ringing in or reporting as emergencies, cases of false tachycardia. My own persistent tachycardia this year may be rooted in more determinedly medical background, but now I wonder if I too am experiencing a world wide case of shared disturbance of the heart.

These are troubled times. More so than ever before? I think not, on our personal levels. But on a global level, I believe we may be experiencing a seismic shift in our comprehension of the state of things. 

A thing I think: human beings are extraordinarily clever at denial. In our bones, we know we must die. But we also know we must live in the face of such irrefutable knowing. To live as though you are not dying is the art and craft we develop innately, from our first squall. 

And yet, here I am, awake in the middle of the night; and yet, here we all are, anxious for what is to come. 

Buddha would say, 'What has come to be', meaning what has come, has come to be, because of all things past leading to this present. Not inevitability as fate, rather a collective gathering of historical human action and consequence has brought us to this pass. 'This is because that is'. We cannot unlink ourselves from each other. Frederick Douglass believed America to be wilfully blind in 1862 ('We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.' from his speech 'The Reasons for our Troubles') and wilfully blind she continues to be. 

But here we are, on the eve of a new leadership, which will implicate us all, wide awake, hungry for comfort, with very little comfort to be had. 

Last evening before I fell asleep for a while, I attended a paper on Vietnamese-American writer lê thi diem thúy, author of the acclaimed novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and later went to a theatre performance of A Room with a View starring Felicity Kendal. While watching E. M. Forster's novel turned to play, I was making all sorts of connections between modernism and post war immigrant diaspora writings, until Kendal spoke this line: 'Novels aren't silly. Literature can influence things, sometimes.' She was speaking as Charlotte Bartlett, but it was Forster asserting himself, for all time, with that dictum.

It was a clear bell reminding me of the more recent affirmations of Toni Morrison and Atul Gawande, Mary Karr and Junot Diaz - the arts matter now more than ever. Our individual voices, thoughts, small decisions, matter. Resistance looks like protest marches, but true resistance begins with just one person choosing to think or behave in more awareness of themselves and one other. Look a little closer at the fellow human being beside you. Perhaps he is crouched outside the theatre, soaked in his black garments, because it rained while you were inside the warmth of the theatre, and he was outside making his sign (PLEASE HELP), awaiting the richest of the town folk to bring his coin collection up to the figure necessary to enable a night in the hostel. 

Perhaps you saw him and crouched down beside him and emptied your pockets of notes and coins. You put your hand on his shoulder and he said, 'God bless you.' Perhaps you walked by, not seeing him at all, heading to your car, your home, your family. Perhaps you saw and walked quickly past anyway. 
Be sure he saw it all.

Illustration by Nino Novellino via Read What Rosie Wrote

Saturday, 5 November 2016


My favourite piece by Georgia O'Keeffe turned out to be one of the first works I saw in the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, Mum immediately said, 'I think this is it.' She meant, dolefully, that we had scurried across London, reliving the same bus journey twice, hopped up and down the Tate Modern's escalators twice (we forgot to pick up our tickets at the booth the first time), only to find the O'Keeffe retrospective was contained in a single room. Happily, Mum couldn't have been more wrong. We were rabbits in a warren, the two of us, along with the hundreds of other Londoners who had also decided that the last days of O'Keeffe were not to be missed.
O'Keeffe began in 1916 with charcoal and wash on paper, determined not to 'use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white'. But while she was painting lines, curves, shells, abstraction, her husband Alfred Stieglitz was busy photographing her hands, breasts, limbs, so that when colour finally exploded onto her canvas, he was ready to have it labelled erotica.

This painting, titled 'Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow' is a perfect example of O'Keeffe naming her painting abstract, but the viewer being directed to think otherwise. With her flower series, this labelling became more pronounced. There is something voluptuous, sensual and anatomically vivid about certain flowers, the tongues of canna lilies, blowsy skirts of opening petals, but the painter faithfully representing them may be doing just that. These 'Oriental Poppies', I think, look just as they should.

O'Keeffe addressed her viewers: 'you hung all your associations with flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as if I think and see what you think and see of the flowers - and I don't.' Meanwhile, Salvador Dali painted a rose and was dubbed king of surrealism. When O'Keeffe painted bones and skulls, and meant bones and skulls, they called it surrealism. 'The bones do not symbolise death to me,' O'Keeffe made clear. 'They are very lively.'

Pretty too, I think...

The biggest surprise for most people with the range displayed at the Tate Modern was probably O'Keeffe's architectural paintings. 

She was homey, and settled into her places and spaces with the kind of certainty bones have when they settle into earth. She painted doorways over and over again, and explored the adobe dwellings of Taos Pueblo - here Mum found her favourite painting among the longest continually inhabited dwellings on earth.

On the bus to Georgia, I mentioned to Mum that someday I wanted to paint my own version of reality  as I see it through my highly compromised vision. It would look something like an impressionist's painting, I told her, with bits missing or smudged out. A few hours later, I stood in front of Cottonwoods, 1952.

There was nothing O'Keeffe did not attempt - from my own myopic world to worlds of synaesthesia and chromothesia - translating sounds such as cattle lowing and music, into something for the eye. In the last years of her life, there were clouds, vast expanses of blue, calling to mind Joni Mitchell's lyrics, 'It's clouds illusions I recall'...

Monday, 31 October 2016


Trying to get my mother to leave her Cambridge nest and my father (in no particular order), is a nearly impossible feat. But I managed it yesterday. I would like to say I whisked her off to London, but there was very little whisking, and a lot of cluelessness. Mum and I were two rubes on a bus. 
We managed the part from Cambridge station to Kings Cross just fine. Well, apart from missing our train by a whisker, and then having to wait for the next - but it was fine. We bought lunch and ate companionably as rural life turned to city scape. At St Pancras we managed to locate the right bus, thanks entirely to my mobile phone (it is not called a smart phone for nothing!), hopped on, whipped out our coins... only to discover this is not the way things are done in Big Cities. No more coins. You need cards - oysters or credit. My wallet, as usual, was tucked into the deepest recesses of my bag. The bus driver waited, patiently. We need to get to the Tate Modern, we chirped. Blackfriars Station? Oh yes, he said, after the bridge. Will you let us know? I'll let you know, he sez. We settle in, picturing something like this:

Cue an interminable number of stops later... Mum and I have been hawkishly watching the signs change above our heads, but not actually knowing where Blackfriars is in relation to anywhere else - Peckham Library, Bird in Bush Road, Bricklayer's Arms - not the most romantic or pretty scenic route - we were waiting for a bridge. Finally, I tilt my way to the driver's seat. Er... I begin. Oh no! he looks horrified, and proceeds to apologise so profusely and with such sincerity that Mum and I instantly forgive him and prepare for an unstable journey back to the village. 
Fortunately (yes, there can be good fortune even in a crummy situation like this), we had left it so late to ask advice, that we had reached the end of the bus route 44 stops away from Kings Cross - and the bus driver promised to restore us back to Blackfriars - he had to retrace his steps anyway, but there would be a switch to a new driver. Not to worry, he promised to explain our 'situation' to the new driver. He did. And they both laughed. Grrrrreat. Mum and I are now the laughing stock of the London Bus Company. 
We count out 20 stops before I start to get nervous - Mum, who had pointed out various landmarks now pointed them out again. Oh! it's that tree again! - and I tilt my way back to the head office. He gives me two options - both involve walking, turning left and then left, or right and then right. We tumble off, vowing to take a taxi for the homeward journey. Neither of us can face the bus in London darkness.

In case you've been wondering why Blackfriars - our destination was the Tate Modern, the most visited art museum in the world - 5.7 million visitors last year. (How did they find their way to the Tate?) I had read about the Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective and discovered that October 30th was the last day. So I was determined to go - and knowing O'Keeffe is an artistic inspiration for Mum, really wanted her to accompany me. The four hours it took us to reach her work were worth it. The retrospective was breathtaking, and beyond my mother's expectations. She and I had visited an O'Keeffe exhibition in 2003, in Vancouver, but unlike I, who fell instantly in love with O'Keeffe's later Taos paintings of cow and horse skulls in the desert, Mum had become disillusioned. O'Keeffe had been paired with Frida Kahlo (another reason I was instantly smitten) and neither had been given full scope. Mum and I have different reasons for loving O'Keeffe, which I think is a comment on her extraordinary range over the 98 years of her life.

I scribbled copious notes on the back of an envelope, and on a bright pink post-it as I roamed from room to room, but I shall save those for another day, another post. For now, here we are, on the upper balcony of the Tate Modern, exhausted but satisfied. My mother and I.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


For some years I stopped actively seeking out music. I'm not sure why. Music is memory, and not all memory is happy or sad; some memories are layered with depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness. Lately though, thanks to Desert Island Discs, I have found myself returning to music. I love the unexpected choices. I find myself delving deeper into the archives, particularly glad when I discover philanthropists like Sigrid Rausing and humanitarian activists like David Nott, vascular war surgeon. My favourite episode is with Aung San Suu Kyi - I think it is the only occasion when the interview takes place not in the BBC studio, but in Burma, in Daw Suu's home.

These days I am inspired by Amal Clooney, international human rights lawyer, currently attorney to a young 23 year old Yazidi girl, Nadia Murad, who managed to escape her captors and be smuggled out of Mosul to Stuttgart. She has recently been named a UN Goodwill Ambassador, but of course this involves her telling and retelling the tales of crime that were committed upon her person, and the bodies of thousands of women still remaining in the camps.

A friend of mine asked if I wanted to be part of a new book club; the first book we read was Hanya Yanigahara's A Little Life - a book that divided readers last year. Some thought it relentless in its portrayal of the suffering of its central character, Jude. And others, like myself, though no less fatigued by such a detailed rendition of a broken life, found truth in a narrative that does not see its way to an easy resolution. Nadia Murad may have escaped ISIS, but she will never be able to forget. We, in our lives of comfort, safety and daily entertainment, may find it a little too easy to imagine that suffering can be papered over. Especially the suffering of girls, of women.

And so to remind us to shore each other up, and stay alert and conscious to the ever present denigration of girls and women, we have our big sister Michelle Obama, a truly admirable mentor, to speak for us. She reminds us we are right to hold our boys and men to a higher standard than those among them who enslave, assault and abuse with impunity. Some of us, Michelle and myself included, and hopefully you too, reader, know men with integrity, refined intelligence, kindness and a strong sense of justice. To them we turn and hold out our hands. In the fight for human rights, we need each other. We have always needed each other.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


It is silly for the wave
to long to be merged
with the big ocean
and the wide open sea.
She is the ocean.
She is the sea.
           Does that mean
           she can never be free
           of their tumults
           and their authority?
           Where, in all of 'their',
           is she?

Best to evaporate

           and nestle, a raindrop,
           on an old oak tree,
           sheltered from storms,
           cupped by leaf love,
           a sweet, refreshing

© Shaista Tayabali, 2016

Today is Thich Nhat Hanh's 90th birthday. I am remembering my week at Plum Village in the Dordogne, when I was part of a wonderful dharma group - here I am tucked under the wing of Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace), an African-American nun who left Washington's mayoral office to actively work for peace and change. We need to concentrate on our change makers and our peace workers so we can remember the best of who we are. Thây has always been that for us. Happy Continuation Day to our beloved gentle monk!