April 4, 2017 § 9 Comments
Just when you think it’s over, the mountains try to kill you again.
Emma and I are ecstatic to make it to base camp at last. But could it be possible that we’re just as thrilled to return to Kathmandu, a city that, three weeks ago, felt foreign and frightening, but now feels safe and civilized? I’ll admit it: being at this high altitude, sleeping at almost 17,000 feet, makes me paranoid. We have barely felt it, and yet, seeing an Iranian woman lying unconscious beside me as I eat my dinner of fried noodles, watching as a helicopter arrives to fly her down to Kathmandu — I’m glad to be going down the mountains, too.
Going down should be easy, right? But isn’t it funny that we walk for so long to reach a certain destination, only to turn right around and make the same journey back? Everybody talks about the way there; hardly anyone attends to the return home.
Like every other day on this trek, each day we hike back to Lukla, where we will catch a flight to Kathmandu, brings another challenge.
In Pheriche, the elderly Nepali woman who gives us a room in her tea house asks if we would like a fire. Oh, yes, we say. It’s freezing.
But the woman doesn’t seem to know how to light her stove, and we spend the evening with the rusted thing rumbling ominously in the center of the room, spouting billowy clouds of kerosene-clogged smoke into our blood-shot eyes. We open the windows so we won’t asphyxiate and eat our dinners of fried potatoes and pizza and hot tea taking turns sticking our heads outside.
The hike from Pheriche to Namche Bazaar begins pleasantly, with clear blue skies and the towering form of Ama Dablam looking over us. Most of the Sherpas view these mountains not as inanimate piles of rocks, but as spiritual beings, as goddesses to be honored. This whole trip, it’s felt as if Ama Dablam has been watching over us, her arms open wide in welcome, in love.
But the hike soon becomes grueling. We walk this day what we did in two days on the way up. By the time we reach Tengboche, where we see a monk clad in rust red robes painting Om Mani Padme Hum in clean white on a gray boulder, our legs are heavy with fatigue, our stomachs rumbling with hunger. And we are only halfway there.
My knee begins to hurt. Our packs seem twice as heavy as they did on the way up. As we contour around the mountains, a thick fog fills the valley, shrouding everything but the few feet of path in front of us. We know there is a sheer drop on our left, but we can’t see it. Rounding every corner feels like walking off the edge of the world.
An owl hoots. A monal, a turquoise and emerald green pheasant which is the national bird of Nepal, waddles across the path and disappears into the woods. Several lone cows lumber down the trail, the metal bells around their necks clanking. Porters laden with toilet paper, beer, tin pans, bars of Snickers, all stacked in bamboo baskets on their backs and strapped around their heads with cotton strips, appear silently through the wall of fog, not looking up from the ground even to acknowledge us. How much farther, we ask? Did we really come this far at all?
Many times during the trek, I have prayed silently to see something, some glimpse of God, some vision of His face in the mountains. After all, isn’t this the place to see it?
In this trek through the mist, the sun momentarily slits through the clouds high above us, and there, where only blue sky should be, are the towering snow peaks of the Himalayas, floating as if baseless in a murky sky. This, I think, is what we see of God. A brief, majestic glimpse that’s fleeting and sudden and only visible if you lift your tired head from the dirt trail.
Less than a minute later, the mountains are hidden once more. After eight hours of hiking, we reach Namche.
There are some things the mountains do to you, and other things you do to yourself.
In Namche, we count our money. We have been pinching pennies ever since leaving Namche the first time, when none of the ATMs in that cobbled stone town worked for us.
Once again, none of the ATMs spew money, and we realize we barely have enough to get back to Lukla, and only enough to stay in Lukla one night. In other words: not enough if our flight to Kathmandu is delayed, which is a real possibility.
We want more than anything to go out to the Irish pub down the street for a beer, but we can’t afford it. I vaguely wonder what it would be like to beg for rupees from strangers, good-willing trekkers from foreign countries, Nepalis with little cash to spare. We kick ourselves for not being more careful. We console ourselves by saying, really, we were. We say a prayer before curling into our sleeping bags, worried.
I think about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. I think of manna raining down from heaven. I think of the five loaves of bread, stretched miraculously to feed five thousand. We’ve been shown our pure state: vulnerability. Now: will we be shown provision from above?
I think about the Buddhist monks we heard chanting low and earthly to a clanking wooden rattle in the red monastery in Tengboche several days ago. I could use some of their wisdom right now.
“I need to be more like a Zen Buddhist today,” I tell Emma. “I need to live in the moment, to enjoy this final hike, instead of simply wanting to get it over with. I need to accept what comes, to take both the good and the bad of life equally, instead of worrying so much about this money situation.”
Actually, I am fairly Zen for the first half of the day, when we hike down the steep slope from Namche, cross wobbly suspension bridge after wobbly suspension bridge over the frothy mint green water of the Duhd Kosi. I am especially Zen during lunch, when we enjoy the best dhal bhat — lentil soup with cilantro, curried vegetables picked straight from the garden, white rice, and chapati — for lunch at a blue-painted tea house.
But in the afternoon, as we turn corner after corner, climbing higher and higher up endless stone steps to the mountainside village of Lukla, when it seems like the trail will never end and my backpack is crushing my spine and my legs feel like heavy weights I must heave out from under me — then, Emma and I ask each other, “Where the hell is this place?” I just want to get this over with.
So much for six hours. We hike for over eight. A group of trekkers from India tells us it’s been over 12 miles since we left Namche — all up and down steep inclines and clambering over large boulders and gravelly slopes. We walk the last few feet straight uphill to the crumbling arch that marks the entrance to Lukla, and have only enough energy to smile wearily, shake our heads, and say, “we did it.”
And just like that, we wake early on a Wednesday morning to muesli and hot milk served by a Nepali woman in the dark downstairs of her tea house. She goes upstairs to wake her son who is supposed to walk us to the airport in Lukla and help us buy our plane tickets back to Kathmandu. There is some confusion, and Emma and I think the plane leaves at 6, when really it doesn’t leave until 7 — if at all. The weather is precarious in the Himalayas, and these tiny propeller planes land by sight.
The Nepali woman climbs the rickety stairs to wake her son. We hear her berating him in Nepalese. I don’t know what she’s saying, but I can imagine. Sometimes, cultural barriers are thin.
The son leads us down the empty, cobbled streets of Lukla. Soon, the streets are not so empty. Other trekkers step out of lodges, backpacks slung on their shoulders and battered trekking poles clutched in their hands. They snap last minute photos with their porters and guides. They walk wearily up the mountain toward the airport on the side of the cliff.
When Emma and I were planning this trek last fall, the thing that scared me more than anything else was the flight out of Lukla. If you google “the most dangerous airports in the world”, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla is always at the top of the list. There have been a number of plane crashes at the airport over the last few decades, most notably in 2008, when a Yeti Airlines plane crashed upon landing, killing all 18 passengers and crew. Only the captain survived. There is a chipped and faded white stupa in Lukla honoring the victims, which we passed on our way back from base camp.
Back in Dallas, the thought of flying out of this airport terrified me. Even knowing flights flew safely in and out every day did not help. Even hearing about friends of friends who entered and exited the mountains through Lukla did not help. It was my biggest fear about the trip. I even had nightmares about it, waking in the middle of the night with one thought: I cannot fly out of Lukla.
Now, after completing the trek, after surviving the harrowing ten hour bus ride to Shivalaya, after managing by ourselves in the mountains for three weeks, flying out of Lukla seems easy. I am not nervous at all.
All flights are delayed because of the weather. A thick cloud bank fills the steep valley at the end of the runway, shrouding the airport from sight. Emma and I buy our tickets and go through security. There are two lines: one for men and one for women. The men’s line is a string of trekkers that fills the room. The women’s line is mostly the two of us. For every ten male trekkers, there is maybe one female. This makes Emma and me feel good.
The security lady at the front of the women’s line asks us, “do you have any knives or scissors?”
“No,” we say, and ever-trusting, she ushers us through.
We sit in the crowded lobby until an hour later, when the sun burns off the clouds in the valley and four tiny propeller planes land one after another. We are shooed out onto the narrow runway and into the first plane that lands. A stewardess hands us balls of cotton and a hard malt candy each, and then, we are off!
For a moment, my heart thumps bright red with fear and I clutch Emma’s arm. Then, we are rolling down the hill and only seconds later lifting off above a sheer drop. What scared me for months is over in a few wild heartbeats. Now, we soar above the clouds and one more time I see the snowy peaks of the Gaurishankur Mountain Range out the window. As we fly over, I think: we walked all this way.
Kathmandu is jarring. The mountains, for as difficult as they are, were peaceful. Life in them is getting up, freezing, eating bowls and bowls of soup and rice and lentils, hiking, hiking some more, thinking you will never stop hiking, staring in amazement at a mountain and realizing there’s more mountain above that’s folded in billowy grey clouds. It’s falling asleep, hard, and not waking until morning.
But Kathmandu, this city is a bustle of dogs snarling and car horns honking and construction workers clanking away outside. It’s a shower, yes, though not as hot as we’d like. It is heavy ceramic pots of fresh brewed coffee and creamy, sugary masala tea. It is a quiet, flowered garden. It is dodging motorcycles and taxi cab drivers trying to sell you a ride, your shoes muddy from the streets that are muck after a heavy rain.
Emma and I move into a popular hostel in Thamel, the city’s tourist district, and suddenly, we are surrounded by young, hip travelers from all over the world, eating veggie burgers and smoking cigarettes and reading Siddhartha on the roof in the sun. Justin Timberlake plays over the speakers. There is good, strong WiFi and a restaurant that serves Western food.
It seems too soon. I’m not ready to be friendly. I’m not ready to swap stories about lives lived on separate continents with adventurous strangers who travel the world. I escape down the street into a Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist bookstore, and flip through tomes about this foreign religion in a momentary quiet solace.
I wish I were going home. I wish Kathmandu weren’t so busy. I wish I didn’t have to act like a normal person just yet. I wish I could see the mountains once more.
After going and going and going every day, my body doesn’t know how to be still. I am sore and still scraping the dirt off my skin. I am a rush of emotions that hits me all at once, so tangled up I can’t discern one from another.
We go out for pizza at a ritzy Italian restaurant, Fire and Ice, popular amongst trekkers who’ve just returned, and I think about the porters carrying huge loads of beer and tents and chairs up the mountains to base camp. So many of them travel through the night.
In the morning, I go out for coffee at a trendy spot down the road and read the Kathmandu Post in English. On the way back, I see a beggar dragging two useless legs in the dirt behind him. He sticks up his hand, reaching out gnarled fingers to me, unable to fully lift his head to meet my eyes. I don’t know what to do, so I keep on walking.
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.
October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!
When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.
South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.
“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”
I never know quite how to respond to these questions.
After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.
When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.
Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.
Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.
Other times, I talk about the war.
It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.
Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.
Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”
Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.
And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.
I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.
We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.
We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.
Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.
We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.
As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.
Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.
We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.
Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.
By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.
I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.
The bus pulled to a stop.
We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.
Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.
We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.
Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.
My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?
I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.
As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.
More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.
Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?
But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.
The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.
The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.
There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.
So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.
I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.
Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.
Scaring us was a way to pass the time.
When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.
Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.
Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.
The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.
Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.
I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.
After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.
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.
July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”
When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”
Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.
I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?
And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.
When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.
I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.
And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.
To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.
*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.