Priya Balasubramanian

Physician and Writer

A Time of One's Own


I head outside my little neighborhood, past sidewalks empty of all but the most enthusiastic dog-walkers braving fog and rain this morning, to a busy street that is filled with early morning commuters. I suspect we’re all regulars—a well-behaved and mostly polite bunch who seem to just want to get to work with a minimum of fuss. Traffic hums along like some well-oiled automaton.

I’ve driven this route for the better part of ten years—and have enjoyed it more than most would. The first gem that my morning commute tosses up is a quick glimpse of a bridge that you can just barely spy here. Today from my car window, it towers majestic and solid, red-gold over a river that is carpeted dense and white with fog. It is beautiful, and perhaps the first of my everyday joys. And it seems, as always, an unlikely benediction—a portent of calm for the day to come.

Like most commutes, mine runs through mile upon mile of commercial enterprise, redeemed, perhaps unlike others, by gracious and towering trees. Neighborhoods as well—there’s a quirky one just next door that prizes its right to have chickens. Another, further along, has modest older homes, some with swing sets and slides and fruit-laden trees in backyards, and pick-up trucks parked in front. There’s a strawberry stand that I always mean to stop at and haven’t yet. A pale yellow craftsman home that advertises a psychic, and each day I wonder, what if today, I turned in to give her a try?

Somewhere along them all is a chiropractor’s office like any other, except it has a large sign outside that changes at random intervals. At the peak of flu season last year the sign advertised adjustments instead of the “poisons” in a flu vaccine. On New Year’s Day it said: “Your body is a temple. Does yours feel like a night club?” The day after, predictably, came an advertisement for a 21 day purification program. I allow myself to imagine the chiropractor. The fiction of him comes easy— he is slight and tall, with tiny birdlike steps despite the length of his legs. He opens doors for little old ladies, even as he simmers with unexpressed rage inside. I laugh aloud at this image, and it seems we’re finally even for the flu vaccine jab. I’ve never seen him, and I hope that in reality the office is owned by a gregarious and plump woman ready with tea and laughs. Perhaps she only outsources her advertising.

I tuck this gift of a new character away in some mental back drawer. I’ve no doubt he’ll emerge with the deliciousness of all his unexplored rage intact in some future story, somewhere. But by now, I’ve driven past a couple of parks, a fire station, a high school whose library tempts me daily with its large and sometimes open windows, and am almost at work. My time for frivolity has ended. I set aside all flights of fancy, grateful regardless for the fortification they’ve provided. Because medicine, my first love, waits, and she is an exacting taskmistress.

New Year 2019

elephant seal.jpg

On a short family vacation last week, we drove on Highway 1 along the miles of breathtaking coastline between Monterey and San Simeon. It was on one of the many beaches along the way that I came upon a certain elephant seal. He lay on his massive belly in his own small curve of beach, a little way off from a larger collection of his compatriots who were clustered together. And as we watched, he snorted or snored (we disagreed a bit on which it was, or if it was a belch) and then he lifted his flipper in a wave, before settling back into sleep. It felt like a moment of un-looked-for joy, and I can’t really explain why it would feel that way. But it feels apt to share it with you, unknown reader, who perhaps happened upon this page in similar serendipity.

It’s a New Year, and a chance to start over. The resolutions I considered were similar to years past: exercise daily, write consistently every day to an egg timer, clean out my closet or take up meditation. They are all absolutely things I need to do. But I’ve learned a bit from the graveyard of resolutions of years past, and the one I have settled on is simply this: to be more like my friend the elephant seal. To be as comfortable in my skin as that, and perhaps to bring a moment of joy to the people who cross my path. It seems liberating and joyful already, in contrast to all that I have set myself up to do in the past. So here’s my gift to you for 2019— a wish that you will be the best and most comfortable version of yourself, and that as you count the steps or run the mile, clean out closets, or cook healthier meals, or do any and all the things that you really should, you find joy, for yourself and for those around you.

(You’ll notice that I am no marine biologist, and have no real knowledge of elephant seals. I assume my friend is male, but I really have no idea. I also know the picture does not do him justice—but you can read all about elephant seals, if you are so inclined, here, where they have a treasure trove of better pictures.)