June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.
Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.
I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.
I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.
I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.
When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.
“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.
“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”
“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”
“This bacteria is life threatening.”
“This bacteria is hard to kill.”
I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.
I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.
This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.
“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”
I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”
Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.
I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.
Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.
But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.
We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.
When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.
Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.
I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!
I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.
Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.
The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.
Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.
I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.
But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.
April 27, 2017 § 4 Comments
I go to sleep in India, and in the morning I wake with my stomach roiling, the pain in my belly sharp and hot. I curl on my side, and sleep and sleep and sleep, the voices of my foreign roommates at the hostel in Varanasi close to my ear but far from my conscious. I sit up, nauseous, and curse the hostel for building its toilets three floors above on the hot roof beneath the relentless sun. I think, I’ve never been so violently ill in my entire life, and I wonder if I’ll be well enough to catch my overnight train that leaves in a few hours.
One bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, my scarf whapping wildly against the metal roof, my backpack balanced on one knee, we are at the train station. We are late, with five minutes until our train departs, and I run after Emma, my legs weak and my chest heaving and my belly tight. In that moment, I’ll admit it: I hate India.
But then we are on the train, and I am lying down with my cheek against the hard leather bed and a crisp off-white sheet laid upon me. Eighteen hours passes fast when you’re exhausted, and the next thing I know, I awake in a pool of sun to the low call of “Chai! Chai!” from an Indian man carrying a metal thermos up and down the aisle. I order two fried potato somosas wrapped in newspaper and manage to keep one down. Then, we pull into Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Suddenly, in the glow of my restored health, India blooms.
In the cool of an early morning, Emma and I catch a Tuk Tuk to a coffee shop in old Jaipur, where a waiter in a fabulous white and green turban with a stiff fabric plume serves us black coffee and French toast and eggs. Full at last and content, we walk at will through the bazaar, and the smells are so good: incense and sweet curd and hot red curry and so so so many flowers, soft red petals stacked in thick layers and strings of yellow marigolds and bunches of purple and orange and pink blooms. Women crowd stalls filled with sparkly bangles, trying them on in layers of six and seven colorful plastic rings jangling up their arms. They ooo and ah and tell me, “look at these, they’d look good on you,” and so I give myself over to the colors of India.
I buy cheap bangles with purple and green and gold rhinestones and peacocks painted on the sides. I buy a long pink and green and silver sequined skirt. I try on a white sari that shimmers like real marble. Emma and I drink Coca Cola in cold glass bottles with an Indian vendor in the shade of his quiet rooftop shop, where we sort through painted carved elephants and bright chunky turbans and slippery silk blouses. The city is painted pink, and I’m falling in love.
On the Tuk Tuk drive back to our hostel, we stop at a red light and a boy, maybe seven or eight, wraps his arms around the metal frame, holding out one open palm and miming the taking and eating of food. His hair is sandy from white dust and his eyes are dark brown. Our Tuk Tuk driver shoos him away and the light turns green.
India is enormous, and another twelve hour overnight train ride west takes us deep into the Rajasthani desert town of Jaisalmer. We arrive at 5 in the morning, when the desert is still dark and quiet and breezy. Manu, the young man who runs the hostel, greets us at the front door and whisks us up three floors to the open air rooftop, where we watch the orange sun rise over the 12th century brown stone fort on the hill. We eat buttered toast and omelettes and drink milky brown chai.
Below us, men and women sleep on flat roofs. They are cocooned lumps in thick mattresses and ratty blankets. Manu sees me staring at them and says, “India is incredible. You can see anything in India.” We stay up there until it gets too hot — which isn’t long once the sun is up — and then we fall into our air conditioned room and sleep off the sleepless night.
We’ve come to Jaisalmer for a camel safari. Emma and I first heard about these safaris when we were in Nepal, and immediately knew we had to go on one.
In the late afternoon, we climb into the back of Manu’s rusty jeep and head further west, into the desert. The sun is a hazy circle of fire in the sky, the air hot and dry, the gravel road bumpy. Manu gives us both cold water bottles, and I press mine against my bare belly, the side of my neck, roll it between my hands. We zip past cacti the size of trees and start seeing the camels, standing about listlessly in the sun, staring at us smugly from the side of the road, plucking the leaves from desert oaks, sleeping with their long necks folded into the sand. I get a quick thrill when Manu tells us we are an hour’s drive from Pakistan. Once again, we are far from home.
Raju and Doola, our camels, are waiting for us at the camel point, a small sandstone village where camels with ropes around their front feet drink muddy water from a stone tank and chew cud with the mangy dogs running circles around their long legs. They are gangly, all knobby knees and fuzzy humps and skinny necks and floppy lips. When I climb onto Raju’s back, he lets out a primordial growl that reminds me of a dinosaur. These creatures are ugly and temperamental; they are also resilient and strong. They carry us in the triple digit heat out onto the sand dunes. The eight-year-old me who always thought camels were cute squeals with joy on the inside even though the ride is hot and uncomfortable, and soon my legs are sore.
The desert is pleasant once the sun sets. We drink chai from tin mugs off a platter on the dunes, watching the sun fall. In the distance, I hear the sound of Doola’s bell clanging as she chews her cud. Below us, a camel man and a camel boy cook curry and rice over a fire. Stray dogs lie on the sand, watching and waiting for a chance to steal our dinner.
Manu sits with Emma and me in silence as the desert grows dark and the first stars appear. There, shining bright is Jupiter. And there, so comforting because I can always see it at home, is Orion’s Belt. We sit on a coarse blanket by the fire in the dark and eat our meal as the fat black beetles scramble across the sand.
Manu and the camel man set up cots padded with thick mattresses up high on the dunes. We drink ice cold Kingfisher beers as he and the camel man serenade us with Rajasthani renditions of “Barbie Girl” and “Buffalo Soldier” and a sad song about an Indian woman who is getting married and must leave her family for good. We ask Manu questions about life in India, and he tells us there is no dating here, which is very hard. “When women don’t have power, men don’t have power,” he says. He tells us he will marry a foreign girl. He tells us he wants to travel, but Jaisalmer is as far as he’s ever been from his village of three hundred people near the Pakistani border. He wants to see the beaches of Goa, maybe, or the mountains of Nepal. Now that he’s no longer a camel man, but works for the hostel, he can save up money. He tells us all this in perfect English, which he began learning only two years ago.
That night, I count six shooting stars and send my wishes up to God. I see lightning flash along the horizon. I feel the cool breeze off the dunes and bury myself in my blanket. I fall asleep, and when I wake a few hours later, the Milky Way is a white river flowing above me. I feel so close to the sky, the dome above, it doesn’t seem real. When the sun rises, the birds chirp and an eagle soars right above us. Far out in the flat desert below the dunes, I see Raju and Doola sleeping with their heads up to the sky.
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.
March 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
I was prepared for many dangers, mishaps, illnesses, mistakes. In my pack is Diamox for the altitude, antibiotics for infections, Tylenol for headaches, Imodium for — well, you name it, I’ve got it. But I was not prepared for this.
On the fourth day, we leave the hovel owned by the old Nepali couple and ascend the mountain in the snow. We have slept intermittently the night before, but we are glad to be hiking, glad to have the white wall of the Gaurishankur Mountain Range towering brilliantly against the blue sky to our left.
A Nepali sheep dog tags along with us as we climb through the ankle deep snow. He is friendly, and we name him Norgay after the Sherpa who first climbed Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
The snow is deeper the farther we climb, and soon, we leave Norgay behind to ascend a steep ridge in knee deep snow toward the Lamajura Pass at around 12,000 feet. We come across deserted lodges, silent on the mountainside. Occasionally, a helicopter from the nearby airport of Lukla soars overheard. Otherwise, it is quiet but for our labored breathing and the click clank of our trekking poles against the stone.
When we reach the pass, dark swirling snow clouds swarm the sky and a harsh sharp wind blasts against us. The pass is a V between two mountains, nothing but two dead trees with scraggly limbs strung with tattered prayer flags slapping madly in the wild wind. It is frigid. Later, my friend Emma will call it apocalyptic. We cross the pass and we all say it is the most intense thing we have ever done. We think we have completed the hard part, but now we must descend the mountain, and this is when my knees begin to pound.
Four hours later, we are still hiking, now through thick, squishy slush. I am delirious from lack of sleep. I move so slow, placing one labored foot on the stone after another. A Nepali family comes skipping down the mountain in nothing but tennis shoes calling out, “Namaste!” before running past a crumbling mani wall. When we finally reach the town of Junbesi, I collapse into the first lodge we find.
The little four year old daughter of our host wants to play with Emma and me. She climbs up onto the seat beside us and points at our blonde hair and pats our puffy jackets, but all I can do is smile at her rosy cheeks and sad cough and sip my tea in exhaustion.
The next day, the hike should be easy, and it is a short, beautiful hike toward the first view of Everest. She seems so small to me, but really, it’s amazing that we can still see her behind several other large mountain ranges. When the clouds clear and she appears, the Nepali man who serves us hot lemon tea points to her and we all cheer. We stay there and drink tea and eat Snickers and marvel: we have now seen Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
It should be an easy hike to our next tea house in the small village of Ringmu, but an intense throbbing begins in my knees and I must descend slowly, leaning heavily onto my trekking poles as I go. When we reach the lodge, I peel back my wool leggings and gasp: my knees are swollen, red, and sore. The left knee feels as if it will shoot out to the side whenever I walk on it. Of course, our host gives us a room upstairs.
I spend the night drifting in and out of fitfull dreams, wondering, praying that my knees will heal in the morning. How isolated I feel, several days walk from the nearest pharmacy. How guilty I know I will feel if we cannot go on tomorrow or the next day because of my knees.
In the morning, I am moderately relieved. The knees are less swollen, and we make the decision: with bandages wrapping my knees tight and menthol patches to keep them cool, we will go on, slowly.
As Emma wraps my knees with the bandages from hers and our German friend Niels’ first aid kits, I tell her about my dreams in the night. I tell her that now, I am 25 and healthy, and I have reason to hope my knees will heal tomorrow or the next day. I am also a Westerner, so if my knees do not heal tomorrow or the next day, someone will come for me, I can return to the U.S. and get the advanced medical treatment I need.
But what about the time, years from now, when my knees do not heal tomorrow or the next day? What about my Nepali host downstairs who relies on her knees for her work, and does not have advanced medical treatment to heal them should they be injured tomorrow or the next day? There is always a limit to our physical prowess; we in the West simply extend it the best we can. I think about Jesus who said, now you walk where you wish, but a day will come when others will lead you, and maybe where you do not want to go.
“My knees are making me face my own mortality!” I laugh. “That’s so morbid!”
“It is morbid!” Emma agrees.
That day, we walk to the town of Nunthala, where Niels runs ahead to order us vegetable chow mein, beer, and Snickers at a yellow and blue painted lodge on the side of a cliff. The next day, my knees are less swollen. Two days later, I buy knee braces at a pharmacy in Lukla, wonder if I need them at all, and we walk on.
March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Why are you going?”
It is a question I should expect from my friend. After all, she is the kind of friend who wants to know the Why’s, not just the Who’s, What’s, When’s, and Where’s. She wants to know the meanings underneath it all. She wants to know the deeper truths.
But I don’t know. When she asks, “Why are you going?” I don’t have an answer. Or at least, I don’t have the kind of answer I usually have for an international trip — I’ve always dreamed of seeing such-and-such place; I’m volunteering for such-and-such charity; I’m writing about it for such-and-such publication. I tell my friend, “Well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and of course, it is.
When the opportunity to travel with another friend you haven’t seen in years to a country that’s far far away, a remote country that happens to be the home of Mount Everest, the home of those giants the Himalayas, of course you go. You hesitate long enough to make sure you have enough money in your bank account, and then you reply with a resounding, “I’m in.”
But when you are on a plane flying between Singapore and Kathmandu, when you are exhausted from two full days of travel, when you are wondering what Nepal will be like and feeling a little bit scared of it all, your mind wanders back to your other friend’s question, which you could not answer adequately four weeks ago, and you ask yourself again, “Why are you going?”
Nepal is 25 percent Buddhist, according to the Nepalese driver who picks me up at the airport and ferries me to my hotel through the smog-filled streets of Kathmandu. In fact, the Buddha himself was born in Nepal in a region called Lumbini. My driver has a silver Buddhist prayer wheel fixed to the dashboard of his van. He points to it and tells me, unlike the large prayer wheels in the city and up on the mountains, his silver model does not spin.
I knew about the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal and so, in preparation for the trip, I brushed up on this ancient religion. While reading, I came across the term Bardo. It is a Tibetan word which means “intermediate state”, and, according to Buddhist teaching, it refers to the state of existence between one’s death and one’s rebirth, a time supposed to be especially ripe for spiritual transformation. Some also use the term loosely to refer to other spiritually ripe periods in life, such as when one is suffering from an illness or spending time deep in meditation. All these are moments when a person experiences something shocking and new, which can teach him something about the truth of the world, transform his mind, or move him from one way of thinking into another, clearer way.
Now, I certainly don’t want to be that naive Westerner hijacking the serious Buddhist phrase, but I will say this: the term struck me. I wonder if the idea of a Bardo — a transitional time in one’s life that opens a space for realization — might be akin to travel, especially travel to a country quite different from one’s own. Couldn’t travel be a kind of “Bardo”, a kind of transformationally potent moment?
The sudden shift in environment; the new smells, the noises, the tastes; the different, indistinguishable languages; the motorcycles stacked with pallets of bananas; the rickshaws with their rickety, faded gold and green seats; the children laughing incoherently beneath their parents who cook momos, little brown dumplings, on the side of the road — all of it sharpens the senses, makes you more alert to yourselves, to others and, perhaps, to God.
Could this be a reason to travel? To simulate an experience similar to the Buddhist Bardo?
I am just beginning this journey, so I don’t know. I don’t know if waking this morning to the sounds of crows cawing and dogs barking and motorcycle horns blaring, to the smell of a faint whisp of smog and sweet incense smoke through my open window, I don’t know if that could stimulate a kind of Bardo, but I wonder if it might.
October 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
For me, the true horror of depression lies in its rootlessness.
The black tar of melancholy appears suddenly from some unseen place, seemingly causeless. One moment, your day is bright and shiny. The next, you’re awash in a wave of blue. Something sinister, sticky, and horribly familiar rises from the bottom of your gut, threatening to envelope you in an obsidian shadow, and as much as you try to articulate the overpowering sensation gradually swallowing you whole, you cannot.
When you get a bacterial infection in your thumb from a manicure gone wrong, you know that you should visit your doctor for some sound medical advice. And when that bacterial infection spreads to your pointer finger a week later, you know that it’s because you didn’t take your doctor’s advice to apply that topical anti-bacterial ointment three times daily. In fact, you didn’t even buy that topical anti-bacterial ointment because it cost $50 and wasn’t covered by your crummy insurance policy.
But with depression, it’s often different. With depression, you’re often unsure what’s causing the suffering, let alone how to handle it. Sure, there are medications, like Zoloft and Prozac, but these merely treat the symptoms, rebalancing the chemicals in your brain so that you feel better. They don’t address the root cause because the root cause is often entrenched deep in your mysterious self. It’s not easily isolated. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to exist at all. Moreover, medications are for severe forms of depression, not the milder forms which temporarily afflict high numbers of adolescents and adults today.
This milder, but nonetheless real, kind of depression has emerged in my life several times in different ways, like a creature always appearing in a new mask, taking me by surprise just as I think I’ve beaten him.
In high school, it took the form of long walks at night while the darkness wrestled like storm-tossed waters in my belly. It was crying in the middle of rehearsal for a play and my director looking at me confused. It was a record playing over and over in my head saying, I will never be happy, things will never be okay.
In college, it was standing gloveless on a snowy, silent, moonlit field, letting the frigid wind freeze my slender fingers. It was refusing party invitations, preferring my own unhappy company to the unbearable camaraderie of others. It was thinking about my future and seeing nothing but a black hole, ready to suck me into nonexistence.
In my early twenties (since I am 25 now, it feels like I can write about my early twenties), and on my bad days, I pictured depression as this black-clothed, red-eyed demon barreling like a tornado down the highway after me. I saw myself driving a red pickup, stepping on the gas, speeding away from him as fast as my little engine could. And with every puff of wind, every mile covered, the demon grew taller, stronger, and more insane. He became a swirling cloud of shadowy fire, and eventually, I knew I’d run out of gas.
For a long time, I felt ashamed of these periodic dark moods. After all, aren’t all high schoolers angsty? Doesn’t every college student feel sad from time to time? Isn’t life in your early twenties supposed to be challenging? I told myself my dark moods were nothing unusual. I told myself I was selfish. After all, I was white and upper middle class. Think of all the people less fortunate. I should be happy. Anything less, and I was ungrateful.
Of course, all that denial, all that dampening of my true feelings only made things worse.
I am now in a happy moment of my life, a time in which I don’t have to look for the silver lining — everywhere I look the world is aglow in silver and gold — which makes it strange to look back on difficult times and write about them. On the one hand, it is easier to write about them through the distance of time. On the other hand, it feels immensely vulnerable, and even weirdly dishonest, given my current equanimity. But I find myself wanting to write about my periodic bouts of depression anyway, because like all things that happen to us, they played an essential role in who I am and what I believe today, and I’m trying to understand what, exactly, that role is. Writing always helps me do that.
Most religious traditions claim that suffering, be it physical, emotional, existential, or what, can be a source of great spiritual transformation. For Buddhists, reaching enlightenment involves recognizing that suffering is merely a part of normal life. For Hindus, suffering is the result of karma, so if you want to be healthy and happy in your next life, you’d better act well in this one. In my own religious heritage, Protestant Christianity, suffering is the unfortunate result of sin, but the all-powerful, loving God uses this suffering to bring mankind closer to him.
For most of my life, the idea that God uses suffering for good has been anathema to me. That’s great if he does, but if he’s all-powerful, wouldn’t it be even better if he simply got rid of the suffering altogether? In fact, doesn’t it prove he isn’t so good after all, since he has the power to end suffering, but doesn’t? In philosophy, this conflict between an omnipotent, good God and the existence of suffering in the world is called the problem of evil, and for a long time, the problem of evil was one of the main reasons I could not and never would call myself a Christian.
The thing is, though, when you’re actually suffering, when your depressive tenor reaches an all-time low, you don’t care too much about the contradictory nature of God. All you care about is receiving some sort of relief, some sort of balm. And when all else fails, you turn to God, even a God you’re not convinced exists, in a last ditch effort for help.
Or at least, that’s the way it was for me.
One evening several years ago, I sat on a twin-sized bed, a book lying open on my lap. But I wasn’t reading. I was staring out the window, my emotions churning and disoriented. I felt so poorly, like I would never be able to read another word, let alone get out of bed, that I decided to temporarily suspend my disbelief in God and ask him, please, to ease the pain.
Amazingly, something happened.
As I stared out that window into a cold, snowy night, an image appeared in my mind, an image of a strong, firm hand reaching through my bruised ribcage to cup its soft, steady palm around my wounded heart. And as my heart rested against that warm hand, settled into it, unclenched its tension, a sense of peace settled around me, and I entered a momentary solace, a temporary reprieve.
In the morning, the melancholy descended upon me again. But I carried with me the memory of that comforting hand, using it to wield off despair. I was still suspicious of God and of prayer, still unsure whether I’d received an actual answer or simply conjured the image I needed. And yet, I guarded the memory of that hand, of that fleeting peace, reminding myself of it whenever the shadows slunk too close, threatening to cave me in.
This experience nudged me toward a deeper investigation into my religious heritage, but it did not convince me of the existence of God, nor did it resolve in my mind the seemingly unresolvable problem of evil.
So, maybe God comforted me in a moment of despair. But if he were a good God, there wouldn’t be any despair to begin with, any need to comfort me at all. He would have done away with all that suffering long ago, maybe never allowed it to exist in the first place.
It wasn’t until my investigation led me to the story of Jesus that a realization clicked into place.
Of course, I knew the story. Growing up, I’d heard it in church services, talked about it at my evangelical high school, and even studied it from a literary perspective in college.
Yet, I’d never let the words soak into my skin. I’d never imagined what it must have been like for Jesus when Pontius Pilate handed him over to be flogged, the wild whip stripping away the skin on his back until he was nothing but mashed red meat, the crown of thorns smashed onto his beaten and blood-drenched forehead, the nails hammered forcefully into the palms of his shivering hands. They say in order to breath during crucifixion you must lift your whole body up by your hands, and I see Jesus’ palms torn open by nails digging sideways through flesh and bone.
And then Mary, his mother, comes to stand below him, with Jesus’ beloved friend John at her side. And they look up at Jesus with tears in their eyes, and how deeply Jesus must have wanted to be let down from that instrument of torture to be with them. And then Jesus cries out to God, but God has forsaken him. And how lonely and abandoned he must have felt. How much he must have suffered. Really, in those last moments of his life, he experienced all the various kinds of suffering that exist in the world.
Which, of course, means he was and is acutely aware of every kind of depression, from the occasional down day to the severest mood swings.
Christians often describe Jesus as a compassionate God, and as I began to reflect on the story of Jesus’ death, I began to think he must be. Consider the word compassion. It comes from two Latin roots: com, which means “together”, and pati, which means “to suffer.” These roots combined mean “to suffer with.” To be compassionate, then, is to share in the suffering of another.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus did, what he’s still doing today? He knows intimately what it feels like to suffer – be it from depression, from physical illness, from grief, from poverty – he knows what all that’s like because he knows what it was like to die on the cross. And he cries with us because he knows our pain. He cries for us because he knows what it’s like to suffer. In fact, he went to the cross to be able to enter into our suffering with us, to take our suffering onto himself, to let us participate more fully in his divine life.
This suffering with us, this entering into our pain, this compassion is what allowed me, for the first time, to trust God, to believe he wasn’t at best, indifferent, or at worst, malicious, but instead, fully aware of my tendency toward melancholy and fully wanting to bare that burden with me.
Of course, there’s still evil, there’s still suffering, there was and is and always will be, and this is a conundrum, a difficulty that philosophers and theologians continue to debate and struggle over, but if I were to believe in a god, in any god, it would be the God who tackled the problem of evil head on by jumping deep into the middle of the most painful experience of all. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft put it, the only way we get God off the hook for all the suffering in the world is for him to hang on the hook. Then, and only then, can we trust him to understand, trust him to comfort.
I prayed once more that year, a unique prayer said in another moment of blue.
Again, I stood in my small room, looking out the window at the nighttime snowdrifts. Again, my insides were steaming with boiling black sap. What I wanted more than anything was another moment’s reprieve – like that night when it felt as if God reached through my chest to massage my poor heart. And I didn’t want it to be fleeting. I wanted to know with solid assurance that what I felt was real, that I wasn’t making it up in my head, that God actually appeared to me, and would appear again.
And so I suspended my disbelief once more and asked, if God existed, really, truly existed, that he make me turn to him again and again until I saw his face, even if what made me turn to him was depression and that meant letting me descend into the deepest, most severe darkness I’d ever experienced. If that’s what it took, let it be.
In that moment, I intuited what I now believe: that the presence of God is often strongest and most apparent in our deepest fears, and it is often through pain that what is hidden becomes abruptly illuminated. Jesus said those who mourn are blessed, a counterintuitive, bitter truth I began to understand just a little through my own invisible, blood-red wounds.
He’s always standing solidly in the center of our struggles, holding our hands, knowing, knowing what it’s like, realizing that we don’t always understand, and inviting us to trust him and walk a little further all the same.
September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.
Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.
Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.
On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.
The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”
In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.
A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.
Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.
This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.