March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
In the morning, we wake in the Hotel Yellow-Top, a tea house owned by a 26-year-old climbing Sherpa who summitted Everest last year and will walk to base camp to prepare for another summit in just five days. He carries around his 13-month son, laughing and rocking the boy and coaxing him to place his palms together and tell us, “Namaste.” The little boy is shy, though, and he hides his face in his father’s down jacket, the father only too glad to hold his son a moment longer before he leaves for the ascent.
We ask our host how long it will take to walk from his lodge in Bupsa to our day’s destination, Lukla. He looks at us, thinks about it.
“Seven hours for you,” he says.
We don’t ask how long it would take him; we know it’s much shorter.
The path takes us up and down a forest of red and pink and white rhododendrons blooming in clusters as big as both my fists. Above us, the mountains are cloudy and dark. Emma and I see a Nepali man hanging from a towering, twisting tree over an open cliff, chopping away with a dull machete at leafy green branches which glide to the forest floor. We see a white-faced monkey swing from another tall conifer, seeming to fly from limb to limb until his small grey body disappears in the thick foliage.
We stop for Sherpa stew and hot ginger tea and, yes, a can of Pringles at a lodge owned by a friend of the climbing Sherpa. In the golden sun, with the hot stew and hot tea to warm our hands and bellies, we are content.
The trouble begins in the late afternoon, when we reach the last ascent to Lukla. It is a series of stone stairs cut straight into the side of the mountain, described in my Lonely Planet guide book as “brutal steps!” The sun has already begun to set, and the mountains are a haze of blues and greys. We stop to snap photos. We readjust our packs. We dream of the hot shower and Internet connection and pizza that awaits us several hundred meters above.
We are so close to Lukla, that larger village in the Himalayas where most trekkers headed to Everest Base Camp begin their trek by flying into the shortest runway in the world. But we are not close enough to outwalk the sun, and when the last of the light begins to fall, we dig through our packs to find our torches.
What a difference hiking in the dark makes. The forest, only moments before awash in soft blue light, is suddenly sinister. We climb, and climb, and climb, nothing but the light from our torches upon the slick stone steps. I am hemmed in by darkness. I am one small person on the side of a mountain high above the rest of the world. Our German trekking companion is a formless shape before me, Emma I only sense at my back.
It begins to sleet. A crack of thunder roils across the black sky. Faint lights from shanties on the mountain appear on our right and left. People move about inside. I smell incense and curry cooking and hear the murmurs of men and women within, but they seem far away from me in the night.
We reach a fork in the path, and do not know which way to go. What at first felt like an adventure suddenly is pure terror. My mind flickers back to a news story I wrote several years ago about a hiker who died when he slipped on rocks much drier and less steep and more visible that the ones I’m on now.
We knock on the side of a nearby hut, asking for directions from a Nepali man who does not seem to understand English. Another crack of thunder and lightning splits the sky. A dog — shaggy and grey and more like a wolf than I would like — darts across the path before us.
“We need to get out of here,” says Emma, and I totally agree. I’m aware that we are exposed on a mountain during a storm — holding metal trekking poles in both hands.
The Nepali man finally gives us directions, and we continue up. My breath fogs the cold air before me. White flecks of snow pelt my eyes. I am aware of my friends, though I cannot see them. When I turn to check on Emma, my torch falls upon the red eyes of another dog. My heart is pounding and with every step I am alternating between the Jesus prayer and the Psalms; “you hem me in, behind and before.”
When Emma and I were back in our warm, luxurious hotel in Kathmandu, we commented to each other about trekking during Lent. “It’s a very penitential thing to do,” said Emma, and I agreed.
Now, hiking up the muddy slope, I wonder if we are witnessing a glimpse of the reality of Lent, which is really the reality of this world now: walking through the the cold and the wet, with others before us and others behind, so close we can see their breathe but so far that really, we are alone. I have a sense of the deep, mysterious shadow that Christ walked in and we walk in, and it fills me with fear and also an understanding that perhaps on this stony mountain, vulnerable and frightened as we are, we glimpse something true about the nature of the world.
Finally, we reach Lukla. But Lukla is a labyrinth of stony alleyways where Nepali families live behind flapping curtains embroidered with the geometric Tibetan knot. Where do we go for shelter? Where is our hot shower, our pizza, our Internet?
We come across a group of men building some kind of stone wall in the rain. I ask them, “Do you know where we can find a lodge?” And one of the men, dressed in flip flops and a puffy jacket over nothing but thin rags, not only points the way, but leaves his task to lead us through the narrow alleys, up and down slick steps, past dogs and coughing children eating dinner on damp front porches until we reach the warmth of the Alpine Lodge.
There, at last, are beds with thick blankets and a hot shower and down the street — a pub! We order pizzas and burgers and fries and beer and inhale it all while disappearing into our phones where, for the first time all week, we have Internet.
I have never been happier to be warm and safe and sheltered. I am glad our penitential walk — at least this part of it — like all penitential journeys, has come to an end. I fall asleep in a cocoon of down, a hot water bottle warming my feet.
February 25, 2016 § 3 Comments
“It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.”
For the first time in a long time, I’m participating in Lent. Really participating. Not like that one time in high school when I gave up sweets because one of my friends thought it would be fun to do it together. Or last year, when I attended Maundy Thursday but missed every other Lenten service, including its pinnacle: Easter. Or all the other years when I halfheartedly thought about giving something up but in the end knew I just wasn’t into it. No, this year, I’m really pressing into the images and meanings of Lent, and it has already been sweet beyond imagine.
I borrowed this lovely book from the library, which couples a reading from Scripture with an exegesis, a prayer, and a complementary work of art. I’ve refrained from checking any social media (except for Facebook messages; such is the difficulty of disconnecting in the Reign of the Internet). And I’ve begun to consider the image of life in a desert and the possibility that the god whom I’ve lately felt distant from, whom I’ve recently felt embarrassed to talk about, is there; I’m beginning to look for manna actualizing itself in my small sphere of existence.
This last bit is what I’m loving most about the Lenten season. Lent is a time when we’re allowed to pause and say, you know, sometimes this life feels quite barren. Sometimes, I’m tired or lonely or mournful or anxious or fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever’s-hounding-you-today. It’s a time when we don’t have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, but instead, can recognize that sometimes, this life is kind of hard. Maybe it’s really hard, depending on your situation. And then, we can remember that the springs and the dry beds, the sun and the moon, the summer and the winter, in every season, lush or barren, there is the hand of God.
When I lived in Southern California, it was easy for me to see God everywhere. Not only was the sunset over the Pacific Ocean sublime every evening, literally declaring the glory of God, so was the purple sunlight on the mountains, the palm trees in the breeze, the painted tiles ornately decorating city buildings downtown. One of my dearest friends and I often talk about how the aesthetics of a place affects our mood, and in that lovely place, how could I not feel close to the beautiful one himself, the form of the form, Jesus, son of God?
But I live in Dallas now, and this city is a different beast. It is angry highways cutting through downtown, bill boards ten feet tall, sprawling suburbs, construction zones, a flat horizon for miles. Growing up, I used to want to live in a big city – I even talked about living in Dallas one day. Now, Dallas is my very own desert, a desert I’m always trying to escape by planning trips to the West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest, and basically anywhere else I can afford. I need God more than anything in this place, and yet everywhere my eyes fall I feel as if he’s forsaken me.
Which is why I’m loving this Lenten season so much. I didn’t expect to love it, but I do. I love it because in Lent we acknowledge our desert-ness, and then we look for God in the midst of it. We acknowledge the ways we’ve fallen short. We acknowledge the ways our lives our broken. We acknowledge the ways we feel lost, tired, anxious, depressed, angry, unsatisfied, anxious for no reason, anxious for a lot of obvious reasons, bitter, envious, prideful, crushed. We acknowledge that we’re buried by sin and circumstance, and then we reach out of that pit of trash to find God there, ready to grab our hand. He pulls us up, wipes us off, and gives us a cracker of manna.
For me, that manna is the answered prayer for provision. It’s the completion of a writing project I’ve held in my heart for so long. It’s a community of new friends. It’s the continual deepening of old friendships and familial ties. It’s reading in coffee shops and walking the dog. It’s signing up for a library card and devouring short story after short story.
These are mercies from a loving God. This is manna in the desert. This is the Lenten season.
A friend recently introduced me to the music of Audrey Assad. I’ve been wrapping myself in her words all day, and I think discovering her music may be another Lenten mercy. Perhaps you already know about her; I am often late to discovering musicians. Even so, here is one of her songs I’ve particularly enjoyed: