Why is the universe is the way it is?

Stephen Hawking explored this in “A Brief History of Time.” Today I finished the book, a Christmas gift from my husband.

About halfway through Hawking’s explanation of why black holes appear to emit particles even though nothing can escape them, my brain hit its comprehension boundary. Hawking marched onward, positing that the universe exists in a “no-boundary” condition that contains no beginning or end:

“Space-time would be like the surface of the earth, only with two more dimensions. The surface of the earth is finite in extent, but it doesn’t have a boundary or edge: if you sail off into the sunset, you don’t fall off the edge…”

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The explanation of how such a universe would operate involved imaginary time, a measure of time that uses the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers. My brain accepted its limits and marveled at the human capability to develop such knowledge.

When I was younger, I lamented the fact that while so much knowledge exists in the world, no one person could know it all. As recently as Newton’s time, Hawking wrote, “it was possible for an educated person to have a grasp of the whole of human knowledge, at least in outline.” Now, such a task is “impossible.”

Nevertheless, Hawking believes humans are approaching a unified theory that explains the universe, and that one day scientists and laypeople will discuss its implications.

Optimism prevails, even in the face of boundaries.

(Embracing) Housework

I used to resent housework. Any hit of pleasure I derived from crossing “laundry” or “vacuuming” off my weekly to-do list was neutralized when I remembered the same item would reappear on next week’s list.

But as my husband and I settled into married life this year, I’ve grown to appreciate the mindless productivity and instant gratification that comes with doing housework.

I may have spent a Sunday folding four loads of laundry and scrubbing the bathroom tub, but those alone are accomplishments that make the day worthwhile. My restless mind enjoyed a break, and my body reminded me that it too can be productive.

Beyond instilling satisfaction, housework also produces immediately visible results. A pile of clothes transforms into neat folded stacks. Wrinkles are ironed into oblivion. Remnants of food disappear from dishes. Dust bunnies abandon their favorite corners.

By Roosh Inf3ktion/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

One day this spring, after my husband and I let the bathroom tub languish for far too long, I finally got on my knees and began scrubbing. At first, nothing happened. Slowly though, black spots of grime and orange spots of who-knows-what began fading. My resolve doubled, and I scrubbed harder, my elbows now resting on the tub floor. Nearly two hours later, after my right pinkie had gone numb, the tub’s floor shone bright white.

Months later, the grime has returned. But the sense of achievement I felt that day still brings out a little “Hell yeah,” in my head.

(Evening) Greetings

Weary from a day of work, my mind craves decompression on the way home. Often, a “Hello” or “Have a great night” from the front desk staff ushers that process, making me smile and pushing any lingering distractions, if only momentarily, from my mind. Over time, the greetings evolve into small talk and ultimately, connection.

A friendly, motherly woman whose name I never caught staffed the front desk of my old apartment building on weekend evenings. Her compliments on my outfits and encouragement to enjoy the night added an extra bounce to my step on the way out. An affable young woman named Crystal welcomed residents on weekday evenings, and I’d often hear about the shenanigans her kids got into earlier that day. When Crystal was expecting another child, several residents gathered in the foyer to shower her with gifts.

By East Midtown/Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0
By East Midtown/Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Most recently, Frank watched over the front desk at my office building, and the world will end before that man greets anyone with a frown. Several weeks ago my office moved, and I teared up when I broke the news to him. A religious man, Frank said he’d keep me and my family in his prayers. The staff in the new building are just as nice, but we haven’t graduated to small talk yet.

As offices close for the holidays, I hope front desk staff everywhere, especially Frank, can relax with their families knowing they bring moments of joy to so many people throughout the year.

(Tinging) Bangles

My cousin recently gave me a gift of three bangles. Two thin gold rings sandwich a thicker gold band lined with cubic zirconia. A bit big, they fall as low as my knuckles and sit as high as my bicep. But their playful clanging brings a smile to my face and reminds me to pause and appreciate the small pleasures.

One of my favorite things to do when visiting India is pore through the offerings at a choodi shop. The explosion of colors and the continuous tinkle of glass and metal bangles sliding up and down ladies’ arms delightfully overwhelms my senses. The shopkeepers seem to maintain an encyclopedic memory of their inventory. Show one a sliver of fabric from a sari or the blouse of a lengha, and he’ll pull boxes from all corners of the shop to assemble a perfectly matching choodi set.

By MizzD/Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

During my wedding, I followed the Punjabi tradition of wearing a special set of red and white bangles called choora. My family and friends put them on my arms during a ceremony on the morning of the wedding, and my husband removed them at a small ceremony six weeks later.

Those bangles eased me into marriage, accustomed me to the idea of commitment. Their clatter was often enjoyable but occasionally irritating. I found them exciting at first, but eventually their novelty faded. Every so often though, an unexpected jingle brought a moment of joy.


About 10 people stood outside the locked studio door, rolled mats in tow. Once 9:30 came and went, the slender blonde teacher said she’d be happy to lead class in a nearby park. Most of the group followed her three blocks to a grassy patch under a large tree, bordered by footpaths and a playground. The students unrolled their mats in a semicircle and began breathing deeply, setting their intentions amid the buzzing of cicadas and a whisper of a summer breeze.

“Reach your hands up toward the ceiling,” the teacher said. “Er, sky.”

This is how yoga was meant to be practiced, I thought as I stretched. My lungs absorbed slightly more fresh air; my mind calmed more easily amid the birdsong. But true bliss arrived during shavasana, the ritual end-of-class exercise where we lay supine, eyes closed, body melting into the ground.

The sun beams through trees.
By Priya Kumar

Sun rays shone through a gap in the leaves, blanketing my face. The sensation of skin absorbing the sun’s warmth is among the most sublime, but other instances pale in comparison to what I felt this morning. The sun’s heat bathed the canvas of my eyes in color. Fiery orange crept out of the upper left, while vibrant gold and yellow filled the rest. Black dots danced around, eventually fading into gray flourishes.

When I opened my eyes, the cerulean sky and verdant leaves glowed with an electric brightness I had only seen in photographs. It was the perfect start to a summer weekend.

(Optical) Illusions

Last Thursday evening, one seemingly simple question swept the Web. What color is this dress?


What’s the big deal? I thought when I first saw it. White and gold. I casually showed the post to my husband.

“It’s brown and blue,” he said.

Excuse me, what?

I asked him again.

“Brown and blue.”

For some, #TheDress epitomized Internet culture’s habit of devoting time and energy to banal tidbits of information at the expense of Important Things. But this time, neuroscience and human fallibility leaped out of textbooks and collided with pop culture to turn a poorly lit image into the perfect reminder that humans can see one thing and believe another.

“No!” I exclaimed. “I see white.” I knew optical illusions exist, and I also knew people observe colors differently. But this wasn’t an experiment in a lab or a lecture in class. The snapshot wasn’t meant to elicit starkly differing conclusions. It was an accidental illusion.

Slate’s Amanda Hess called this “the perfect meme.” It was easy to determine where you stood, and it “instantly begged for a more traditional kind of human connection.” The meme resonated with me because my husband, someone I respect and whose opinion I value, could in no way see what I saw.

He isolated a portion of the image in Photoshop. White, when zoomed in, appeared blue. “I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say,” I told him. “I know what you’re saying is true, but I refuse to believe it.”

(Human) Fragility

Five hours into a seven-hour layover, I sat on a black plastic chair at the gate, willing the minutes to pass.

A man in his early sixties, clad in a black tee, jeans, and sneakers, sat next to me and asked where I was headed. I told him about my business trip. “What about you?” I asked. “Going on vacation?”

Vincent van Gogh's "Sorrowing old man ('At Eternity's Gate.')" Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
Vincent van Gogh’s “Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate.’)” Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

“You’re never going to believe me, but my wife died yesterday.” he said. “Her funeral is tomorrow.”

I thought he was joking until I saw his face. Heavy eyes behind tear-stained glasses looked utterly lost.

“I’m so sorry.” I said. My brain searched for the right next thing to say. Meanwhile, he gave me tips to stay safe in Rio de Janeiro. Eventually conversation stumbled toward Maria. Kidney failure. 26 years of marriage.

“I’m so sorry.” I echoed. I gave him some tissues and put my hand on his shoulder. Another woman enveloped him in a hug so tender I thought they knew each other. Her husband, who lived in the same city as the widower, knelt down and said they would help in any way they could.

“26 years,” he said.

I looked at my left hand and thought of my husband, our marriage only months old. I willed the days to pass so I could run home and squeeze him tight.

“I just don’t understand,” the man sobbed, his face falling into his hands. “One day, everything is fine. The next day, everything crumbles.”

(Drinking) Chai

People drink coffee to energize themselves, to awaken their catatonic bodies in the morning or push themselves through an arduous day. I drink chai before and after work not for the energy, but for the comfort. When arriving home from a vacation, my family’s first task is always to boil water for chai. No matter the time of day or temperature outside, a cup of tea soothes like nothing else. Its soft flavor, rich with milk, slips through the body like a warm hug.

By Priya Kumar
By Priya Kumar

My chai ritual: Grind a green cardamom seed with a mortar and pestle. (In a pinch, use your built-in grinders – back teeth – though not if making tea for someone besides yourself). Toss into a Pyrex measuring cup and fill with one cup of water. Heat for two-and-a-half minutes. Drop a Brooke Bond Red Label Orange Pekoe teabag into the cup and dunk a few times. Watch as amber tendrils curl through the translucent water, transforming it into a deep ochre. Heat for another 30 seconds. Add milk and watch the water change again, a wave of white thickening the brew from the bottom up and rendering it a warm tawny. Heat for a final 30 seconds. Remove the teabag and cardamom husk and pour into a mug that has one teaspoon of sugar. Stir, sit down, and relax. You’re home.

Update: June 22. Tweak the ingredients slightly and marvel at the difference. I’m drinking a cup right now with no cardamom, a touch more sugar, and a dash of extra milk. It resembles nothing I’ve had before. The chai tastes weighty with a note of citrus. I’ve been drinking orange pekoe tea for more than a decade, and this is the first cup I’ve drunk that evokes its name.

(Leaving) Home

Packing is the annoying part, but leaving home is the hard part. The melancholy stems not from lack of excitement of what’s to come. It’s wistfulness for what was. Leaving home marks the beginning of a new chapter but also acknowledges the ephemerality of what feels routine. We grow up and life changes. All exciting, to be sure, but that moment of goodbye renders only nostalgia.

By MissMessie/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
By MissMessie/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

This feeling first slammed into my chest when I moved to college. Hours after my family departed, I sat in the dorm lounge on the phone with Mom, tears flowing. It’s not that I wanted to go home, but that the weight of the uncharted path finally sank in. Tears returned two-and-a-half years later when I sat in a peoplemover at the airport, about to leave for five months to study abroad nearly 4,000 miles away from everything I knew. Last summer I moved away for graduate school. Before leaving, I hugged Mike tightly and fought back tears. Papa drove the nine-hour journey and moved me in. I held tears in again when he dropped me off to campus for orientation. And today, I left home for a summer internship. So far, a dry face.

(Packing) Suitcases

Traveling excites me, except for one element. Packing suitcases elicits dread. Packing forces a value judgment: Do I need to take this? Will I actually wear it? The “what-if” demon whispers seductively as I stare from the closet to the suitcase. What if a freak cold snap descends? What if we go to a fancy dinner? Sneakers are practical, but sandals look so much better. A semester of living (and traveling) abroad plus the even more dreadful thought of paying to check a bag has thankfully trained me to beat back that voice. But the aversion to packing lingers.

Two suitcases
By Priya Kumar

Six years ago, my family and I traveled to India for a cousin’s wedding. We deposited our bags at the airport counter and people asked us, half-jokingly, “Are you moving to India?” For the three-week trip, we packed two suitcase and two carry-on bags. Per person. After landing in India, my grandmother, uncle, and two cousins greeted us. I glanced between our sixteen bags and their minivan. If we loaded all the bags in, no space would remain for people. So, onto the roof went the bags. As we weaved through Delhi’s traffic, occasionally slamming on the brakes, I made peace with the fact that some luggage wouldn’t make it. Somehow, the bags stuck to the roof. Of course, our apartment was on the second floor and the stairs were twice as steep as the ones at home. The journey wasn’t over yet.