Another Room in Heaven

For someone who has spent 15 years in Nepal, I’ve travelled very little in the country, choosing instead to burrow further and further in to a single community, a single home, a place where now twelve year olds have always thought of me as a part of their world. It was only a few years ago that I suddenly thought: I’d like to explore. I’ve started stetting aside a few days every few years to go climb out on a spine of rock some place, in some location that percolates on a back burner in my mind until it bubbles over and asserts itself: this is the time, go here.  Then life adapts around it.

The Way to Muktinath

One way to travel is to go to see things that are new and unfamiliar and exciting or challenging – like that time I went to Murad Khane in Afghanistan, or when I floated in the Dead Sea, or the month I spent in New Orleans doing oral histories for StoryCorps after Hurricane Katrina.  But this is something else, a magnetic pull to a place that is already inside me, a dot on a primal map created a long time ago.  In 2013, Prem and I went to Mardi Himal by a little-traveled route comprised largely of goat trails snaking along a blade of snowy ridge that rims a basin of Annapurna giants. It was winter, everything wide and blinding, the sunrise spilling pomegranates and mandarins and pineapple juice all over the jaws of the cold earth. When I got there, it made sense.

Now it is summer. Muktinath sits north of Pokhara between Lower and Upper Mustang, a stone’s throw from the Tibetan border, and houses a famous complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples. For some time now I’ve been pulled north, toward the areas of Nepal influenced by Tibetan culture, and also where the landscape climbs up and stays high, where the trees fall away and leave a desert mountainscape that stretches off to the Tibetan plateau, a mystery, an uncrossable border. In the winter even local residents often come down from Mustang to the valley to escape the unforgiving snow and cold.

Prem Bhinaju and I met a bus by a curb in Lakeside early on Friday morning. It was headed to Jomsom, which is only a 15 minute flight from Pokhara, but unlike crystalline winter, the summer is dense and foggy and flights have not come or gone from Jomsom in a week. That leaves us with what should be a ten hour bus ride. You know where this is going.

There’s the obligatory 2.5 hour delay when a bearing that has to do with steering left needs fixing, and magically, the Bagloon Highway presents an auto shop strewn with hulking shells of buses and tractors and cars and unidentifiable transport components, so we pull over to fix the bearing. We set off again around noon under ten-ton heat, but I am relieved to be on the move with my day pack and with Prem, my most familiar travel companion. The road winds upward and the Kali Gandaki River drops below us, black and rumbling with coal-colored silt that will settle by the time the torrent gets to in Pokhara, where it is called the Seti Gandaki, or White River. The road becomes a road story that I can’t tell because my mom reads this blog, but even passengers local to Jomsom are praying and squeezing their eyes shut while we loll side to side on a road that, from afar, looks like a child dragged a pencil across triangles of high mountain forest and then got distracted with a sandwich. In the end, aside from knuckles white from clinging to the seat in front of me as if that can save me from a long descent in to the Kali Gandaki – one of the deepest gorges in the world – I come out fine. Prem and I arrive in Jomsom at 7:30pm.

I know I’m in Nepal, but Jomsom looks like a ski town and I have to keep reminding myself that this is Mustang. We clomp along a stone-laid main street with quaint local shops and hills rising up behind them. In the U.S. we’d call the hills mountains, but in Nepal, the mountains are the sheared white rocks twice as tall that are currently lost in monsoon cotton one row further back on the horizon.  It is hard to believe anything could tower over the already looming hills – I remember thinking the same thing at Ground Zero, knowing that Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers had been dwarfed by the Twin Towers.  It is impossible to imagine land up in the middle of the sky, but I know Diligiri is there, behind the clouds, a thousand stories high.  We settle in at a hotel.  Local plum wine.

Our walk to Muktinath starts the next morning and takes two days, one long day up and one long day back. We walk along the Kali Gandaki in a landscape created contradictorily by the upward smashing of tectonic plates and the downward gouging of receding glaciers. The result is a desolate, heaving geometry, eons of history piled atop one another and laid bare straight from river to the sky. Dwellings impossibly carved out by people who once migrated southward from Tibet are clustered in the sweeping rock face, and the occasional modern village is a patch of irrigated greenery in a borderless expanse of brown. This should be the province of giants, but we are just tiny people, our feet sliding over bazillions of even tinier rocks, where fossils casually present themselves because nobody has owned them yet. They were once underwater and they have been here forever and ever and ever.

The climb starts. No houses, no villages, no ancient dwellings for hours. Prem Bhinaju finds a fossilized creature with gold flecks in it. Uncharacteristically , I haven’t exercised in weeks and my legs feel like playdough, but it’s cool. I have an actual fossil in my pocket.

We arrive in Muktinath around five, eat something, and rest for a while. Then, because tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll be pressed for time, we go out to explore the area around the outside of temple complex.  That will leave us time to go to the temple itself in the morning.  I leave most of my things behind except for my SLR camera and rain jacket. Now that it’s evening a slight mist is drifting downwards, uncommitted to getting us fully wet. Dusk turns dreamlike and enchanted.

Prem says we’ll walk up to the place where the path to Thorong-La pass starts. We would need a whole extra day to get to the 5,416m pass, but there is time, at least, to lay eyes on its direction. We circle the wall of the temple complex, and two nuns are just leaving, one wearing hot pink sneakers. I ask if the nuns if they were born here in Muktinath and they say yes, and even though that is a completely unremarkable fact, to me it seems incredible because I am so far away from the world I know. They bustle off to the nunnery.

We climb quietly past parts of the complex wall that have cracked and broken in the earthquake two years ago, and emerge in a widening field that slopes upward and disappears in to a fog. “The way to Thorong-La,” Prem says. He says we are at 2800m. I say, obviously, we should walk up another 200m, so even though evening is turning denser, up we go in to the haze.

Some ways ahead, a walking bridge is slung across the gorge to our left and we climb until we reach the concrete block anchoring the bridge to the ground on our side of the river. Without any comment, Prem sits and I follow, and then I lie back and stare in to the unremitting white sky. No variations in density or color, no dragons or bears or wizard faces, just an endless, depthless white.   Further up the green rocky slope, on the other side of the embankment of fog, is the path to Thorong-La; below us is everything we’ve come from.

Quiet.  I am filled with a profound gratitude for Prem’s company, his silence, the easy way we can walk up to this concrete block and sit on it at dusk and do nothing at all.

After fifteen minutes, I decide to cross the bridge, for much the same reason we walked up 200 meters. We’re on one side of a bridge, so it should be crossed.  The first step out over the edge ofthe gorge sends a thrill through my nerves, and then out I plod out over the wires, which undulate a little with my steps, until I am standing directly over the water gushing down from the high mountains.  A thunderous cloud of sound rises up through my bones and engulfs my senses; I can barely hear my own breath. It feels like the river is running right through me, and when I shout or chant the water picks up the sound and rumbles away with it taking my voice down down down down to all the places we were.

The instant I step back on to the concrete block the mountain silence envelopes me again; magically, the roar of all that water is audible only between the walls of the gorge. Prem takes a turn on the suspension bridge, and then we head back down the green slope and circle around the other side of the giant temple complex.  Night is creeping in slowly, as if stalling a little to give us just enough time to see one more wonderful thing.

We come to an area of the hill I have been viewing from below in the mist: rows and rows and rows and rows of prayer flags strung behind small white structures scattered high up on a hill. I studied Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals for a course I took this year, and throughout the evening, my sights have been trained here. When we passed the nun in the hot pink shoes, I pointed this way and asked if it was okay to pay a visit. She said yes. Prem and I make our way over the hill toward the fluttering prayer flags.  He walks down toward the road, and with barely a word, I go up.

I’m expecting to see signs of sky burial, but I realize quickly that this is a land burial site. Everything feels unified and still, but also light and high. There are small cairns everywhere, placed for passed spirits to find refuge to heaven, and as I walk between the grave sites, it suddenly occurs to me to ask Prem, still at an audible distance, if he thinks I could build a cairn. Why not, he says, and sits down on a rock facing out over the endless prehistoric topography while I climb higher up and find a patch of ground abutting the faded squares of color calling tut-tut-tut as the wind tugs them from their strings.

Prem never asks why. He just waits.  And when I have built it, a stack of stones among all the stones and fossils, another room in heaven, and when I have sat over it and cried for some minutes, I walk down the hill and we leave.

Night falls at last.

 

*

 

Between the Corn and the Millet

I try to imagine Aamaa’s life as it was back then, when the water springs in Kaskikot weren’t concrete taps but delicate pools that stirred up silt if you took from them too quickly. As a girl and young wife of 13, she sometimes had to sleep overnight in line while other women had their turns gently lifting the water jug by jug. By the time Aamaa was 22, she was a widow with two young girls of her own, and it would still be years before a bus came to Kaskikot, or a door was put on the entrance to her one-room house.

There have been many impossibles in Aamaa’s life. She raised two educated daughters who could split wood and carry twice their weight by grade school. The civil war started, but it was elsewhere, in other villages. The electric mill came; the bus came; the tourists came; other people converted their houses to homestays and restaurants. Aamaa’s house is off the road in a cul-de-sac of mountainside that nobody wanders past by accident. Even after some foreigners bought the patch of land on the hill behind the house and built a fancy hotel there, passers-by from Korea and Israel and Japan and Australia hiked past with their eyes straight ahead on the sprawling white peaks, rarely looking down to notice Aamaa and Didi and Bishnu there in the sunny yard, drying grain.

The likelihood that I would wander through the door one day has always seemed both insane and inevitable.  And over the last fifteen years, I’ve mostly thought of my life opposite Bishnu’s.  We were the two girls born at the polar ends of the universe, the ones who looked at each other and thought, what if I were her?  She’s been in the U.S. for eight and a half years now, while I spend significantly more time in Nepal than she does.

Aamaa was always more like the soil: everywhere, earthy, constant, essential.  She has all the nutrients and produces all the food and water and shelter.  Aamaa keeps the house alive, the field and gardens fertile from cycle to cycle, the fire crackling.  No matter how many people show up, Aamaa feeds us all. And no matter how many people go away, no matter how empty this house gets or how many of her birthdays pass, she keeps the water jugs full and the seeds sorted in dusty bottles. Aamaa has spent five decades in this village.

I had no idea Bishnu had applied for Aamaa to get a tourist visa to the U.S. to see Bishnu graduate from her Master’s program in information technology. Nobody told me that Prem and Didi took Aamaa to Kathmandu for the very first time last May to go to the U.S. Embassy, or that on the way there, Aamaa didn’t eat any cooked food because she couldn’t be sure who had prepared it. A few weeks later, I answered my cell phone in the parking lot at Walmart, and Bishnu announced that Aamaa had been given a five-year multiple entry tourist visa to America.

“What?” I said.

“For my graduation!” Bishnu explained ecstatically. She hasn’t seen her mom since 2013.

This explanation seemed failed to explain all the questions I couldn’t think of.  Obviously the idea of having Aamaa make this trip has floated through my brain millions of times, but it was the ultimate what if ever.  The craziest version of everything.  Part of me thought that maybe this was all kind of a whim – a thing that might happen next year, or something. But Aamaa had sold the buffalo within a week.

On my way to Nepal in June, I tried to imagine having Aamaa with me on the way back. First I tried to digest the most obvious and superficial matters. For example, how would I explain the enormous statue of a teddy bear bent over with an apparent stomachache dramatically bottom lit in the Doha airport?

I can’t even explain that to you.

When I arrived in Kaski, everybody’s greetings had adjusted to the most up-to-the-minute state of affairs. “Laura! You’re here! How long are you staying? So, you’re taking Aamaa back with you, eh?”

Only Aamaa and I seemed cautious and uncertain with our excitement. The whole thing is so surreal that even the discussion feels like an entirely new and foreign continent. For fifteen years Aamaa and I have had what is now a very well established routine: I come to Kaskikot, we eat together in the kitchen, we go plant things with neighbors and churn milk and carry water from the tap, I fix up some things that need fixing in the house, we gossip about family here in Nepal and all the far away people not in Nepal. Aamaa knows them all – my whole extended family and a good number of my friends who have been to visit – largely through stories. But she’s the stable point, not just for us, but for herself also.

“So we’re going to America, huh?” Aamaa says as we are sitting on the porch, as if testing out the statement.

“Sure seems like it, right?”

We stare out at the tall curly corn stalks, crowding out the grassy millet that’s planted between them.

“What is the name of your District?”

“Pascal, do you know how many states there are in the U.S.?” I ask, and he doesn’t know, so I explain again about Virginia and Maryland and Connecticut and North Carolina.

We discuss departure dates because I have to change plane tickets that currently have me going home from Cambodia, where I’m visiting Bethy in August; Amaa knows Dr. Bethy, because she’s been here too. We mull over how long Aamaa’s trip to America should be. A month would probably be good – she might be bored after a month?

“I’ll go after cutting down the corn, and I’ll come back to cut down the millet,” Aamaa suggests with sudden firmness.

That seems good, I agree.  That is more orderly – maybe because we can see the corn.

Long silences. What, exactly, should we should be planning?

“Bishnu suggested I should get some kurta salwaars made,” Aamaa says. “I guess you aren’t really allowed to wear a sari in the U.S.”

“You’re allowed Aamaa. But a kurta salwaar might be more comfortable.”

“Ok we’ll plan a day to do that in Pokhara,” Aamaa states. “I guess we have to leave time to have it stitched and everything, right? We should go soon.”

“It only takes a couple days, but we can go soon.”

“Nah, you should just pick something out and I’ll meet you at the tailor,” Aamaa adjusts. “I don’t know anything about picking fabric.” Honestly, in sixty years, Aamaa has never walked in to one of Nepal’s fabric shops and picked out material for an outfit, which is how literally everybody in Nepal gets their clothes.

“No no no,” I insist, “I think you should definitely get to do the fabric choosing. Pick your own color, something you like.” I have to talk her in to it.

A few weeks later Aamaa takes the bus to Pokhara and waits for Pascal and I to come meet her at a chautara in Chiple Dunga. She can find her way to Didi’s house, but for the most part she prefers assistance to get around the city. Between the three of us, Pascal is the only one who can properly read in Nepali. We set off up the road to go to the fabric shop.

Laura chiama, let’s have some ice cream,” Pascal suggests wisely, because I am the sucker who will pretty reliably buy us all ice cream. As we pay, Aamaa has sat down on the low wall at the foot of the store, which is not a seating area, and Pascal and I go with it. I hand Aamaa her first ice cream cone.

“Do I eat this bottom part, the biscuit?” Aamaa asks.

“Yes, but don’t eat the paper,” Pascal instructs.

“I’m not going to eat the paper,” Aamaa says.

I can’t even remotely transpose any of this to Connecticut. I ask a passer-by to take our picture, and as you can imagine, she looks at the three of us – the Aamaa who has very obviously just beamed in from the village, the entirely incongruous American, and this regular Nepali boy being raised in the city – and gets a huge grin as she takes our picture. What could our story possibly be?

We set off again. Aamaa has brought along a broken umbrella from the house. “Laura, where’s a place that we can fix this umbrella?” she asks. I blink, there must be an answer to that, but I’ve never thought about an umbrella-fixing place.

“We should probably just replace it,” I say, feeling guilty for my wastefulness and mental laziness. I don’t have the energy to try to figure out where the umbrella fixer might be and there’s really no excuse for it.

As we wander to the center of town I’m distracted and disoriented because everything is inside out. When I first came here I couldn’t say a word or do a single thing for myself, and in Kaski, Aamaa runs everything.  We get a few kilometers off her turf and suddenly she is the foreigner and I’m the one who knows what we’re doing. She has also brought with her a heavy bag of cucumbers and other items for Didi and Bhinaju and the boys, and she’s carrying it on her shoulder, the way people do in the village where nothing is flat.  Pascal is twelve and he goes sprinting out in to traffic as we cross the street and I pay him no heed whatsoever because I’m dodging people to keep eye on Aamaa, having no calibration for how much I do or don’t need to hover over her in traffic. We probably haven’t walked through the city together more than two or three times in a decade and a half, and never just us – not once.

We arrive at the fabric shop.

There are hundreds of colors and textures of cloth to choose from. Aamaa looks hopeful that I will take over. As a young man begins removing options from the shelf she bends over them. He throws one on top of another and another and another and another. Her hands settle on a jubilant orange outfit.

“I like this one,” she suggests. She looks at me as though asking if that one is a good one to like.

Within ten minutes, Aamaa and Pascal and I are pawing through dozens of kurta salwaars, trading opinions on what Aamaa should wear in America. She picks two, and we take them to the tailor, who takes out his tape measure. He’s going to make something just for her, in her size and shape, to wear between the corn and the millet.

“I think you should do short sleeves,” I say. “Definitely short sleeves.”

“I don’t know – I think they should be a bit longer. To the elbow,” Aamaa says. The tailor agrees – maybe longer sleeves for an Aamaa. No way, I say, short sleeves look best on a kurta and it will still be hot in September. Aamaa studies her arms for a minute, apparently imagining them in a very standard piece of clothing she’s never had.

“Yeah. That’s how I want them,” she concludes. “To the elbow.”

*

The Ritual of Goodbye

 

I decided to take the jungle path up to Kaski, which I normally travel multiple times during any visit, but haven’t been up or down yet during this hectic winter. I set off late and as I climbed up, the scramble of things fell away and I was alone on the stone path.  Where there is time to climb and think.

It’s been a few years since the forest was cut here (for grass, firewood) so the way is lush and clustered with greenery.  I always wear flip flops and the contours of the rocks feel close under my feet, even in winter.  At intervals, I came upon dustings of red powder laying bright on the rocks, a trail I suspected had been left by a recent funeral procession headed in the other direction down to the river.  Midway up the path there is a natural spring that has been organized with laid stones, and one large flat rock with a groove in the middle serves as a ledge channeling a steady stream of water for drinking. When I come this way with the kids, they cup their hands under the trickle and funnel the water between their lips, like something out of the Secret Garden. The spring always feels like a sacred place, a steady tributary of water that started who knows where, up high in the mountains, probably, and falls there at our feet as we pass.

As I made my way up from the valley to the ridge, I had that granular awareness of time passing behind me, and it seemed so strange that at any moment I was on one stone, and then I would be on the next one, and just that way the whole path would be behind me and I would be up in Kaski, the secret water tap and everything far below where I’d just been.

img_1031By the time I climbed up the last step to the ridge top, I was a combination of chilly and sweaty in the January dusk. I walked the spine of the ridge, which curves along our cubby of village as if along the top row of a stadium. Little Narayan caught sight of me up along the ridgetop, and yelled out from way down in the first row where he was visiting a neighbor, LAURA DIDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!! before launching in to a sprint and leaping up over terraces to come walk the last bit of the way by my side. We made a right turn at our row in the top section of the stadium, and strolled out to the house sitting in the wings, where the fire was lit and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa were waiting.

We had some popcorn and hot tea as sunset approached. Narayan’s brother Amrit came over and in the yard we practiced taekwondo and played chungi, which is basically Nepali hackey sack using a ball of rubber bands, while Aamaa cried out at us to calm it down and I riled everyone up. Govinda dai came over and we sat with Aamaa in the kitchen while she made anadi paste, a rice dough with ghee that is healing for sore muscles and bones, and then we ate it and it made our hands sticky with ghee. Saano didi came over, and then Mahendra’s mother came over. We transferred to the big room with all the beds, and while our visitors took seats around the room to hang out, I jumped under the blankets with Hadjur Aamaa, and with us both lying down, my long limbs rested against the soft jumbled folds of her sari.

Aside from ritualized procedures and ceremonies – tikka-giving, astrology-reading, mala-making — goodbyes are wholly unfashionable around here. So what usually happens on my last day or last morning in Kaski is our closest neighbors come over to chat, but nobody talks about the fact that I am leaving, going to another world, and won’t be back for a long time. If we do, it is in the form of asking about the trajectory of my flight, how long I’ll be in the air, what they give us to eat during such a long journey, and whether or not it is colder where I’m going than where we are. We discuss what season it will be when I come back (summer), and what fieldwork we’ll all do together (millet planting and rice planting), and this leads us to reminisce about what a klutz I was when I first arrived, and how many things I know how to do now. At some point, people wander out mid-conversation. Because the course of events is set, both the leaving and the returning, and since there is nothing to be done, there is no point in becoming uncomfortable. I understand this ritual of goodbye, and have become grateful for it.

churning milkAfter most people had left, Govinda stayed while I churned milk so I could bring buttermilk to Pokhara tomorrow for the family. Govinda took photos of me, which is kind of nice because I don’t have many photos of myself since I’m always the one taking them – but then, people, he posted them on Facebook and two days later I would discover that this photo album is wildly more popular than anything I’ve ever posted of myself trying to be useful or worthy. What does it all mean?

When the milk was churned, Govinda dai left to go home and Aamaa and Hadjur Aamaa and I got ready for bed. It’s always been a nightly habit of mine to go out after everything is quiet and look at the stars, across the village stadium at Kali with her arms stretched out under her cloak, and study the positions of the constellations amassed around her. I usually walk out along the garden, and sometimes I climb halfway up the hill to the ridge and look back at the house with its golden porch light, a warm square in the broad, cold darkness. Even when I am far away from Kaski, I often feel my self located there, outside in the silence, looking back at the still, lit house in its expansive darkness. That spot is a place of gratitude and wonder, of tiny-ness and huge-ness at the same time: my little self, with coordinates in the galaxy.

It was another January night, clear and chilly, the stars laid out overhead like dust. I went out to the yard to brush my teeth, and for whatever reason, instead of going out along the terrace, I stood in the square of light cast off the porch and looked out in to the dark. In the summer, the yard is hemmed in by towering corn stalks, but in January, there are no walls against the yawning night.  I stared out in to the blackness, past the edge of the yard, and all I could see was the outline of trees under the stars, and an opening in the blackness at the top of the hill where the path gives way to the ridge.

It occurred to me that in all this time, I’ve never looked at it this way. I studied the inscrutable night, brushed my teeth, and threw my eyes up to the sky for a moment to make sure Orien was where I expected him.  Then I went back in to the house, placed the wooden bar across the inside of the door, got under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep, safe against the morning.

*

img_7051

Between

 

On my way home (by way of Delhi…woe), I have stopped over in the city of Almaty to visit my college friend Freeman, who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan. I know you almost certainly have no idea where Kazakhstan is, and that’s fine. It’s a former Soviet state that shares part of its eastern border with China and its southern border with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh culture is heavily Russian with a mix of other influences from China and central Asia, and people are predominantly Muslim.  There’s also a significant Korean population, and the art and food maintain a lingering fragrance of the old Silk Road.  The eastern and southern borders are braced by the upper parts of the Himalayan mountain range that eventually makes its way down through Pakistan, India and Nepal.

That Crazy Russian Alphabet

That Crazy Russian Alphabet (bonus: Camca = Samosa)

Basically, Kazakhstan is a gorgeous cultural crossroads, surrounded by mountains, where everything is written in that crazy Russian alphabet that looks like English after a rough night.

On the first day, Freeman and I used a combination of gondolas and hiking to get up to Talgar Pass at 3200m, just outside the city. Later we had an amazing dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Cause also, Georgian.
Talgar Pass, 3200m

Talgar Pass, 3200m

The second and third days we went sightseeing around Almaty. In the Green Market we browsed all manner of essentials including fruit displays from Mars, sacks of rust-colored spices, butt-pad underwear, and a vibrant expanse of fermented Korean goods stretching off nearly to Korea. We spent some time wandering “the area of cheap goods from China, which are the same everywhere,” according to Freeman, who was our only expert in this situation.

One of the most interesting things about Almaty is the mash up of quaint, European-like streets lined with chic cafes and flower gardens, combined with austere Soviet-era concrete fortresses dotted throughout the city: apartments, offices and municipal buildings. On one hand, Kazakhs have enacted such delicate flourishes as distributing mountain runoff over the natural downhill slope of the entire city to create a delightful canal system that sends fresh, cooling streams of water gurgling down the sides of the manicured city lanes. On the other hand, we walked these lovely streets to get to the Central Musuem, which turns out to be housed in the Citadel of Sauron, beamed over directly from the Middle Earth.

 

IMG_9715

 

“When the Russians build something, they go big,” Freeman explained.

Inside the Central Museum we saw two of my favorite things: mesmerizing spearheads made by prehistoric humans tens of thousand of years ago, and extremely detailed ideas on advanced cosmonogy world organization, painstakingly translated for English speakers.

I was enthralled when we visited a candy store lined with bins of billions of dazzling wrappers in every color, which, it’s candy store-ness notwithstanding, Freeman pointed out had retained a very typical Soviet-era setup, whereby customers wait in long lines while employees put goods in to containers for them. Of course, we’re talking about candy here, and an endless supply at that; under the Soviet Union, basic goods and food were often in short supply. Freeman said it was similar in China, and when he first came to the U.S. at age 11, it was incredible to him to enter a grocery store and be allowed to touch the food.

 

IMG_9631

 

See, I never thought of that.

As I come to the end of my summer travels, I appreciated the complexity and diversity and contradictions of Almaty. At night, we tried to watch the Olympics, but Kazakh TV was only showing the things where Kazakh athletes were competing, so we attempted to be riveted by the race walking marathon – YES, A WALKING MARATHON – TRY TO STAY RIVETED – and the trampoline competition. When race-walking got to be a lot, I flipped occasionally to the BBC or CNN, where the U.S election is the only thing on, far away and too close, oddly irrelevant, and yet more relevant than ever.  During the time I’ve been in Nepal this summer, there has been an onslaught of international terrorist attacks and domestic racial violence in the U.S….the other day, a friend posted a photo he captured at a Connecticut political rally (where he was protesting) proclaiming “Diversity = White Genocide.”

Mean time, Aamaa has no idea who Barack Obama is, and a major event of our summer was that I acquired some new sheets of corrugated tin to replace the 25-year-old kitchen roof, which was leaking directly into the cooking fire.  How is it possible that a person can go from one side of the world to the other in barely a day?

Nepal is my full-time work, not a summer excursion. Nevertheless, during these transitions from one continent to another, I’m gifted with the chance to be between; to float over the globe and feel the intensity of tiny things, like the drops of water falling where Aamaa sits by the fire, and also the drifty arbitrariness of all of it, how the most urgent fixation somewhere is irrelevant somewhere else, how everything is swallowed in sweeping expanses of destruction and renewal and passages of time. We are so small, yet there are so many treasures to find.

 

Aamaa's cooking fire, Kaskikot, Nepal

 

Maybe that’s why my favorite stop in Kazakhstan was the Central Mosque, which we visited just after the color and chaos of the Green Market. Before we went through the gates, I draped a sheer pink shawl over my head, and while Freeman entered the cavernous men’s side, I made my way around to the smaller women’s side. I removed my shoes and entered a hushed, carpeted room just as a row of women was moving through a series of prayers playing over a speaker.

Standing in the back, I was vaguely aware of myself, a white American Jew standing aside in a Kazakh mosque, a cultural transplant who seems to be at home everywhere and nowhere. I hope these women will forgive my vanity in sharing the over-exposed photo I snapped of their meditation, because at a time with so much violence outside the walls, it was such a soft and sanctified place.  The natural thing was to move to the center of the room and join in the late morning prayer, and it was easy to follow the succession of standing, bowing, kneeling, and bending to the floor. I’ve offered prayers in so many different kinds of temples and situations and settings, these fleeting spaces sometimes feel more like home than many other places where we live.

 

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I don’t speak Arabic, of course, and I’m no more Muslim than Hindu. But with the U.S. border emerging over the horizon, CNN flashing in my head, and the world marching under us, I heard words announce themselves in my ears as I put my forehead to the ground one time and then the next, the pink shawl falling comfortingly around my face.

Please humble our hearts.

Please bring solace to those in sorrow.

Please give wisdom to our leaders.

Please guide us to our better selves.

Please strengthen us through our differences.

Please make me an instrument of peace.

See you soon, USA.

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The Contract of Attaining

 

I have been working on rural dental care in Nepal since 2003.  That’s thirteen years.

When I began, the iPhone had not yet been invented.  To call home from Kaskikot, my choices were to wait while Shiva’s dai’s mother rigged up the satellite phone in Deurali, or take what was then a 2.5 hour bus ride to Pokhara and call from an internet cafe.  Now I can Facebook chat while taking breaks during firewood chopping outings.

Our first dental program at the Kaskikot Sub-Health Post, for Sada Shiva Primary School, on May 9, 2004

Our first dental program at the Kaskikot Sub-Health Post, for Sada Shiva School, May 9, 2004

Now in July 2016, Kaskikot’s dingy sub-health post has been upgraded a few times and is a full-scale Health Post.  Someone from almost every house has  left for migrant labor in Malaysia, Dubai, Qatar, or another gulf country, leaving swaths of flush green rice paddies overgrown with grass.  An insurgency overthrew Nepal’s monarchy back in 2006, and the country is still figuring out how to operate a democracy in a place where the young are mostly literate and the middle-aged mostly are not, where rains cut off whole villages from road access during the summer and snow isolates other regions in the winter.  Wireless has long since outpaced plumbing.

Nepal still does not have McDonalds.  Or a majority of schoolbags with zippers that last longer than a year.  Or regularly scheduled elections.  Or, even though it’s the most prevalent disease in the world and influences many of Nepal’s core public health problems, any medicine for dental decay at all in rural places.  Which is still most of the country – and will be for a long time yet.  (See, Wireless vs. Plumbing.)

To the best of my knowledge, our nine rural dental clinics are the only ones of their kind.  There are many aid-funded health care facilities in Nepal, but our clinics are operated by Nepali providers, local to their villages, who practice specialized rural dentistry techniques that are sustainable in limited-resource settings.  We didn’t invent these techniques, but we contextualized them by adding in other pieces like school-based prevention and technician mentoring.  More recently we’ve focused on asking what standard of care these dental technicians can and should be held to within the limitations of environment and training. As a result, we’ve developed considerably more rigorous protocols than are typically applied to permanent rural health services.

Lwang Ghalel Clinic, 2012

Lwang Ghalel Clinic, 2012

This concept is known in international lingo as “rights-based health care.” It’s just the argument that people are entitled to the highest attainable standard of health care within the limitations of context.  This isn’t a new idea, but actually manifesting it through innovation requires a level of patience and detail that could really make you wish you’d gone into a career of monastic asceticism instead.

Fortunately when Roti’s mother came over writhing with a toothache in 2002, I didn’t know I was getting in to a career at all.  At that time I was looking for something I could tell my neighbors in Kaskikot to do when they showed up moaning in pain, which was whenever, not when somebody happened to be rolling by in a mobile clinic.  The answer had to be viable, respectable and available on any random day.  As it turns out, this way of thinking is, by definition, the pursuit of human rights: it seeks a permanent and dignified answer for people, not the implementation of a prefabricated idea.

P1030500That’s how we started combining localized clinics with community awareness programs.  But it took years to realize that wasn’t enough…we had to bring these clinics into the existing health care system of Nepal, a centralized government system that provides a rural Health Post in each village. Basically, our clinics needed to become part of these Health Posts, without losing the benefits of specialization we’d developed.

Nice puzzle.

 

Since 2012, the biggest challenge we’ve faced in this project is handing over our clinics to local ownership after a two-year set-up and supervision period.  Our first clinic in my own adopted home of Kaskikot, the very place I was motivated to have answers for people, ultimately folded after we ran it for SIX YEARS, treating hundreds of people.  The local government wouldn’t run it.  

Honestly, our advocacy strategy was nonexistent in Kaskikot.  Worse yet, I was the American neighbor-kid, and my efforts were seen as personal.  In Kaskikot, I learned the taste of letting go and swallowed a bitter but essential lesson.

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Our second clinic, in the neighboring village of Sarangkot, inched forward.  It’s been operating on its own since 2012, mostly due the persistence of the dental technician, Dipendra, and clinic assistant, Renuka.  They continue to go to the Sarangkot Health Post every single week, and whenever I’ve visited, they have at least 5-10 patients in a day.  But Sarangkot’s local government only “kind of” funded their clinic.  When I sat in a room full of Sarangkot politicians back in 2012, conducting a (kind-of) “handover” ceremony, there was a Washington Post reporter and photographer present while officials explained that the government just didn’t have any money for this clinic.  I had to say bye and hope for the best…and against the odds, another NGO stepped in and donated a moderate dental budget to the Health Post.  Which allowed the Sarangkot clinic to survive, but saved the health care system of the burden of evolving its priorities on a deeper level.

It’s a quandary, so let’s call the problem like it is.  It feels good to do something and see a result.  But when you have an aid state like Nepal, the do-ers are part of an entrenched structure of dependency that absolves Nepal’s public systems of responsibility.  This has been extensively documented, and everyone always seems very dismayed when they’re documenting it.

Okay, but, everyone knows this is the explicit Contract of Producing.  Things mostly run better when the people who decided to start the things are the ones who keep doing them, which mostly is what those people want to do anyway (so that it’s done “right”), and of course the people who didn’t start these things, and probably don’t want to run them, prefer the very same.  Once that’s the way it works, that’s basically what everyone expects and signs up for.  As far as exposés go, it’s not super material.

I am acutely aware of my reluctant participation in this arrangement.  And I too could raise money forever, operate dental clinics one by one in Nepal, and help us all feel like heroes.

But what about the right to the highest attainable care everywhere else?  And besides, what’s “attainable?”  Nepal has a national public health care system that has two key qualities: stability and scale. It’s not famous for quality or agility, but is it capable of incorporating the creations of social innovators and risk-takers to improve its performance one round at a time?

Yes, it has to be.  But only once you break the explicit Contract of Producing.  Instead, there has a be a Contract of Attaining, and then making better things more attainable, and then attaining those.

I think.  I’m still working on this theory before I publish.  But actually, I’m pretty sure about it.

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Salyan Dental Clinic, July 2016

In any case, here we are in 2016, billions of dollars of foreign investment later.  In our corner, we’ve decided to revisit all nine of our dental clinics and focus on their permanent integration in to the government health system.  They’re are all at different stages, from nebulous commitments of local funding to full halts to pre-handover.  We’ve begun by brainstorming with the technicians, and then meeting for coffee with individual village leaders.

Our first stop: Sarangkot…scene of the 2012 Kind-of-Handover.

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Sarangkot Clinic, Post Earthquake

I’ve never visited Sarangkot’s weekly clinic and seen it without patients.  At this point, Dipendra has more specialized experience in rural dentistry in Nepal than pretty much anyone other than the trainers.  He’s treated thousands of children and adults in rural settings, taken refresher trainings, and had at least two clinic audits by a dental surgeon.  But since the kind-of-handover in 2012, we’ve significantly upgraded clinic standards, and the Sarangkot clinic is isn’t supplied for our present quality protocols.  In fact, it’s also being used as a storage room, and the earthquake last year did some interior decorating…and, dusty books. The decor doesn’t really convey, “awesome and critical.”

But here’s our idea. Let’s imagine Sarankgot’s local government was to allocate funding for Dipendra and Renuka, and in exchange, we put about $1000 in to refurbishing the clinic and providing further mentoring.  Sarangkot becomes one of nine places we can invite policy makers in and say: look, this works.  This is awesome and critical.  Here’s another one in Bharat Pokhari, and one in Lwang Ghalel, and…see?  The central health ministry should allocate funding for a rural dentistry specialist in all of its Health Posts.  These progressive village governments are doing it already on their own.

No sweat.  Chop chop.

But it’s important, not just for our issue, primary oral health care, but in principle.  The Contract of Attainment is fairly unpopular, because it’s unmarketable, and we’d all rather feel like heroes.  Somebody has to champion it for its own sake.

IMG_8867Therefore, we’ve spent two long afternoons in the office strategizing, and tomorrow, we’re off to a meeting with local politicians in Sarangkot.  All four of us – me, our Program Director Aamod, and our field officers Dilmaya and Gaurab – are going.  None of us are particularly schooled in political lobbying, but hey, as far as advocating for dental clinic funding in villages in Nepal, I think we’re as good as it gets.  When we met with the Health Post chairman yesterday, he was much more positive than I expected. But things can sound different in a room of people with competing agendas.

So this is where we are in 2016.  We’ve all been thoroughly self-schooled in Virex disinfecting procedures and gloving-regloving infection control, as well as of course the difference between upper molar forceps and an enamel spoon, and we are now embarking on an in-depth immersion experience in citizen advocacy in emerging democracies.

It’s like a career in…in…

…a career in attaining?

Wish us luck!  Time to jump in.

*

Salyan Dental Clinic, 2016

Salyan Dental Clinic, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Clouds

Dear Mary,

First of all, don’t worry, this isn’t setting an annual precedent–it’s not like I’m going to write to you every single year on June 26th, which you would find dreadfully contrived. However, I have a few things to tell you about the past year, and I’m thinking about you today.

A year goes by so fast.

Remember those four college guys you told me I should totally convince my parents were okay to stay in my apartment while I was in Nepal last summer? That didn’t work out so great. They threw beer cans in my neighbor’s garden and now my neighbor won’t talk to me. In fact, my neighbor, who chain smokes cigars but used to bring me fresh vegetables from his garden, told me that if I put my recycling in the wrong bin, he’ll take it out and relocate my recycling to my porch. Still, no major damage inside the apartment, and I got a solid month’s rent, so on the whole, I’d say the renters were a win, for me if not my neighbor. You’ll definitely take my side on this one.

The little memory card from your service is on the bookshelf across from my desk. I flip it every few months between your photo on one side, and the picture of the cloud that looks like a hand holding the sun. One afternoon, when you were really exited that you’d taken that picture, we sat in your living room and you tried to show me how the cloud was shaped like a giant hand reaching down from the sky, but I couldn’t make it out. Right here, you said, this is the thumb, going along like this, and the other fingers go along like this. I squinted and turned the paper around and I couldn’t find the hand of God anywhere. You didn’t seem particularly amazed that I couldn’t see this image that was so obvious to you. Eventually, we moved on to something else. Now when I look at it each day I can’t see how I missed it. The hand of God is right there. I can’t not see it.

Just a few days just after I returned from Nepal last summer, I was driving to Wallingford and couldn’t believe you weren’t there.  I consoled myself by deciding we would build all the bamboo houses again.  That would fix things.  We’d hike for days in the hot sun, negotiate with tin vendors and take long bumpy tractor rides, surf waves of despair followed by hope followed by despair and hope, again. We’d be confused all over and learn it all over from the beginning. I’d hike up to that airy ridge in Lakure in the burning sun and drink knockoff Redbull, again. Yes. But when I got up the next day, nothing had changed. The bamboo houses were still standing, and you were still gone.

Often I think about all the people that have died. The list that has grown even this year, when I couldn’t call you. Fifty people were just gunned down at a club in Orlando. So many people die violently or young or right in the middle of dinner. You had a long life full of beautiful things, you were at peace with yourself and the world, you left a tapestry of all of us who love each other because of you and in your memory. I tell myself I should be grateful, and I am. But I miss you anyway.

You are still in the “favorites” in my phone because I can’t delete your name from the list. Once, I was getting in the car and without realizing it I tapped your name and dialed your phone. You picked up your voicemail and started talking to me right there in my car and scared the crap out of me.

VERY FUNNY, YOU TURKEY.

Also, listen, things have gotten really hectic in politics, and I think Bill and I should consider going out as a presidential ticket. I haven’t asked him yet but I think he’ll consider it.  We sometimes watch the debates together on the phone, the way you and I used to have wine dates in our kitchens when it had been too long since our last visit. While Bill and I watch the debates we text and afterwards we debrief till 12 or 1am and I explain all the reasons that I’m right and I represent the future. I am pretty sure that if we ran – of course we’d have to decide which of us was going to be the president – but anyway if we ran, I’m pretty sure we’d have much better ideas than a number of the people who have been running. We’d make you absolutely crazy and you’d roll your eyes over dinner.

Next year I start a field placement for social work school. I’m going to work with Cambodian refugees. This is something we should talk about for a long time. I know I’ll do my internship without you, but it just won’t be the same.

I never did the follow up talk I had planned in the library, and I never tried to get on Fox news again, after that adventure where you convinced me to call and get myself a TV interview about the earthquake in Nepal. I just couldn’t bear the thought of being back in the television studio where I texted you, and especially not the thought of standing before a crowd at that same podium in the library meeting room, looking at the door you sat behind. But strangely enough, I walk past the other side of that door every time I go in the library to get my parking ticket validated. I glance over at the spot where you and Bill sat listening to my talk, and then hustle past it.

Why do I feel better when I’m missing you the worst? I think you should have explained this to me before you left.  The absence is in the shape of you, right where you fit here. I think more people should be made aware of this. It’s a real fucker, as you’d say. You wouldn’t say “fucker” though. You’d make the “f” with your teeth and squish up your nose and then jab the air with your pointer finger, and then slide your gaze sideways from the imaginary fucker back to me. Like this thing about this fucker is slightly classified information that I get to know because I’m with you.

The clock would gong in the living room, and we’d say, it is getting so late!

Also, can something be slightly classified? Isn’t it all or nothing?

Isn’t it all or nothing? 

I’m going to declassify everything. But there are just so many things we didn’t get to.

I think you would approve of how I’ve grown this year. We don’t have a lot of time to spend being afraid or making ourselves small. My life is very blessed with family and friends and challenges of merit. After our visit to Tripureswor Ward #6 last summer, just days after you died, I came home early for your memorial service, but my friend Anne stayed behind. She and Saila dai did a puja for you in his magnificent temple garden. Anne saved prasad for me, a tiny branch with two tear-shaped leaves. She mailed this delicate offering to me months later from Moorehead, Minnesota. Isn’t it an amazing thing to have friends like that? The branch sits on my mantle next to the hand of God. It connects me to you, and Anne, and Saila dai, and those hot and trying weeks after the earthquake, to the bamboo houses, which I can’t trade for you, which is not a deal you’d take anyway.

Well…maybe you’d consider it.  You had a pretty good time here I think you’d take another day.

You will always be one of my favorites. Call, ok?

I love you kid,

Laura

p.s. me trying to get you to sing “imagine that” while listening to it through headphones…first the song, in case you need to reference the lyrics up there

..and this, which I can’t listen to without laughing

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And one from Nepal I think you’ll like…

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Puranchaur Clinic

 

Today I made my first visit to our clinic in Puranchaur, which launched a year ago in winter 2015. We rode motorbikes – I hopped on one with our program director Aamod, and I stuck my friend Freeman on the back of the other bike with our field officer Gaurab. Freeman lived in rural Afghanistan for two years and his training involved things like “how to drive through a blockade,” so I figured it would be okay.

FYI, re: riding on the back of a motorbike:

  1. Paved road –> plus side: fast / minus side: scary
  2. Rutted dirt road –> plus side: good workout, bracing / minus side: rather sore bum, dust
  3. Previously paved road that has deteriorated and broken up in to a patchy mess with some dirt packed around in it –> plus side: there’s a road, so you’re not walking / minus side: everything else

IMG_6319The way to Puranchaur comes in at a solid #3 for a vigorous 64 minute joy ride.

Fortunately, we were greeted at Puranchaur by the sight of a very well-built Health Post. All of our clinics are in buildings provided by the community, and where possible it is ideal if the building can be in or next to the existing government Health Post. But Health Posts aren’t usually this nice.

It was immediately clear that we’ve received good local support at this stage of the game in Puranchaur. There was a lively crowd of patients waiting on the balcony, and this clinic is run by one of our more experienced technicians, Megnath.

See for yourself:

We went through our supervision checklist, which includes a rigorous infection control protocol that I wrote myself by talking with dentists and rural trainers, then making modifications based on my own knowledge of the environment, because I realized that none of the existing guidelines were really adapted for these conditions. Amazingly, the only existing protocols I could get my hands on were for dental hospitals with electricity and technology – think, UV disinfection – or, alternatively, unwritten procedures used in temporary dental camps, which presume very high patient volume and the lack of any stable infrastructure. Can you believe that I could not locate a single infection control protocol designed for a permanent rural dental clinic in Nepal? 80% of Nepal’s population and nearly all the government Health Posts operate in rural conditions!

Which is why now I know more than I ever planned to about gloving and re-gloving, positioning of safety boxes, and timing of Virex disinfection, among other topics.

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Our rewarding visit to Puranchaur has me thinking more and more about the larger idea of our project. It’s great when we’re able to establish these services and it sure is gratifying to come all the way here, after hours and hours of sitting at a desk, meetings on Skype, researching oral health data, giving talks and raising money, and see patients coming in to a clinic in Puranchaur on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s also awesome to me that none of these people associate their clinic with me or my slideshows or any kind of charity, which is not what these services are intended to be. All that is good stuff.

On a bad day it seems like it just isn’t enough. There are so many problems here. A toothache is definitely one of the worst things in the world if it is in your mouth…but it’s not as bad as child trafficking. These clinics don’t solve problems of violence or lack of basic security or opportunity. Sometimes it seems like a lot of effort to still end up in a world that has those problems anyway.

But one thing I think we’re isolating bit by bit has to do with recouping lost opportunities for self-determination. Something our little project does increasingly well that I don’t see very often in this sector is to understand and respect the present capacities of individual people and the communities where we work on all levels. That means letting go of the UV disinfection, but it also means having a proper replacement and monitoring it. It means making services accessible, but then holding people accountable for accessing them by choice, rather than spoon feeding and disempowering everyone for our own gratification. It means that explaining to an old lady that she will not be blind if we pull her tooth out, and making the service psychologically available, is just as important as having a dental clinic that’s physically available.

This is hard to do. It requires an unreasonable amount of patience and the willingness to constantly sort out where to impose control and where to throw everything you think is correct out the window. Inevitably, there are moments where it seems like you’re dong everything wrong and it’s all for nothing.  At some level, I think it only works if you find people as interesting and challenging and curious as the problem you are trying to address.

That’s what has me wondering what we’re really getting at here. I’ve always felt like, even with the visible services this dental project provides, for me as a person, it’s an exercise in something else I haven’t understood yet. Maybe this is just a story I tell myself after a good day, but we would live in and more dignified and peaceful world if we cared as much about actual people as we do about ideas of people.

Today, one old lady with a toothache spent a good bit of time explaining how she’d treated it by putting tobacco in there.  The tobacco helped. Megnath couldn’t extract her tooth because she had complicating heart issues that require referral to a hospital – but he had a nice long conversation with her about the tobacco, anyway.

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The Obvious Practicalities

 

The other day I came across a dazzling, haunting article in the New York Times. The Lonely Death of George Bell opens with a chaotic photo of George Bell’s apartment. He was a hoarder, and until you look at the photo directly, it meets you more like a cubist painting than a photo of an apartment: an angular, colorful, dump.

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The story follows a public administrator in a bleak office in Queens as he searches for George Bell’s next of kin, distributes George Bell’s assets, makes arrangements for George Bell’s cremation and burial. These tasks unfold in unceremonious anonymity – in fact, a significant amount of procedure is devoted to proving George Bell’s body is George Bell. No friends or relatives come forward to identify him. He was discovered in his apartment only after neighbors called to report the stench of his lonely end. This is the story of thousands of deaths in New York City every year.

To me, the article itself serves to witness and exalt George Bell’s silent passing, as well as what might have been among the most authentic feature of his life: isolation. In a way it is a glorious tribute, nearly impossible to look away from.

As you will see from the letters at the bottom, not everyone agrees.  But I was taken with this rare and unapologetically voyeuristic look at the mechanics of death in its most cold and undignified form.  In Western culture, we rarely visit death undressed. Jobs that in other parts of the world – certainly in Nepal – fall to the community in an old and well-traced set of patterns fall for George Bell to the Queens County Public Administrator.

George Bell’s situation is extreme, but it in other ways it simply exposes a shared fear and denial of death in the West: how the body, sacred in many cultures, is foreign and terrifying to us once it is dead.  It must be managed by professionals, or at the very least, out of sight, and as a society we treat any honoring of the spirit as a bonus round after the paperwork has been completed. We take this for granted, as if it is obvious because it is practical.

When I happened upon The Lonely Death of George Bell this week, I was editing a radio story about young widows in Nepal. The piece is about how widowhood rituals are changing for young women, and features 21-year Bishnu Pande, whose young husband died while working in Qatar. He never met their six month old daughter.

This topic is close to my heart, because historically, young women who lost their husbands have been forced to live out lives of ritual mourning, and Aamaa is a direct result of these traditions. She hasn’t worn the color red in 35 years. There was never any question of remarrying. Her husband’s family didn’t entirely abandon her, but they’ve done little to help her. When I arrived in Aamaa’s life, her daughters were in their early twenties, and her identity as a widow had long since blended in to the larger idea of her. I have always known Aamaa just as who she is, not as a woman bereaved. She has good friends, and people to look out for her, and she goes to weddings and dances.

And yet, for all practical purposes, Aamaa has lived a life of ritual widowhood. She is alone. Dancing is on limits, but ritual celebration – wearing sindur powder, receiving celebratory tikka, red clothing – are forever out. Moving back to the home where she grew up is out. A new marriage is definitely out. Her role in society is that of a woman who lost her husband, and has been since she was a 23 year old girl.

That will not be Bishnu Pande’s story.  But something will be.

So today I come across George Bell while editing a piece about Bishnu, having spent over a decade as part of Aamaa’s life. And it’s clear that what is obvious is not just what is practical. And neither is the ritual discipline that Aamaa observes. The obvious is just what we’re used to. Our treatment of death seems inevitable because it stems directly from our collective, subconscious attitude toward life, toward the nature of existing. Which can span the range of possibilities from Aamaa to the Queens County Public Administrator.

I feel like these hours I am spending with Bishnu Pande in my ear come at a time when  she and I are both somewhere in the middle. We’ve approached this crossroads from opposite sides: I from New York, where George Bell died, and Bishnu from Kaskikot, where Aamaa’s husband died. Her culture is learning to shed ritual, and I feel that mine has lost something vital and is scrambling to get it back. It’s like we’ve bumped in to each other in the middle of some misty dreamscape, each of us missing someone and renegotiating the collective attitude we’ve been taught.

Some letters to the editor have already been posted the article on George Bell. One says:

At first I wondered why “The Lonely Death of George Bell” was on Sunday’s front page above the fold. As I got into the article, I couldn’t put it down…Mr. Bell’s sad experience reinforced for me the importance of reaching out to relatives, friends and all those in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s so that they have dignity in their final days. He deserved better.

And then another:

What could possibly justify this callous violation of George Bell’s privacy?…Mr. Bell could not have made his wish for privacy any clearer if he had specified it in his will, and no decent purpose is served by inviting us all in to trespass on his home….With this article The New York Times inflicted on Mr. Bell a final indignity.

     *

George Bell in 1956. / The New York Times

George Bell (L) in 1956. / The New York Times

 

Fall

 

Tiny yellow petals have started collecting in the right angle between the sidewalk and the street. They are huddled there like a paper river, jumping around and changing places ever so slightly as the cars drive by. It is fall.

It was the end of summer before I started to feel like I had arrived here in Connecticut. Even though I’ve been moving between these two very different worlds for twelve years, it has been over a decade since I was abroad for so long at once – nearly seven months, with a brief six weeks back in the U.S. in April, which is when the earthquake hit in Nepal.

I’ve always felt that the gift of living in two worlds, if I am open to it, is the chance to deepen my appreciation of multiple realities. Certain particularities, like the soft muffle of people arriving to temple during the High Holidays, or the rustle of fall and how it smells like apples and makes me think of being outside with my dad, the amazing fact of the New York bagel, a spectacular city skyline twinkling at night, the miraculous convenience of speedy internet – these gifts and many more have been imbued with a resonance that comes only from heightened gratitude. What a tremendous blessing that this is my world, my life, my palette of choices.

Besides being near friends and family, it’s this intensifying of senses that makes me look forward to returning to the States when I’ve been in Nepal. Whatever the tradeoffs, they come with the euphoric feeling of appreciation. Maybe this is why I’ve come to realize that in some way my role on the planet will always be to move between disparate worlds, rather than settle comfortably in one and become stagnant.

This last arrival, however, has been different. It’s been harder for me to access the joys of this plentiful environment. Maybe we are in a new season in America, and maybe I am different, or maybe some of both. I arrived back to the U.S. during the week of Sandra Bland, just as Donald Trump was taking center stage. Everybody seemed so angry and so loud. Among the significant, real outrages and pathologies happening at our doorsteps – Sandra Bland! – precious few were garnering a majority of the words being expended in mainstream discussion. Outside my house, everybody was disconnected from each other, and inside, I couldn’t hear the wind blowing.

It was like being in solitary confinement and being assaulted at the same time.

I’ve started and stopped this post many times, wondering how to write about this season of being between realities without resorting to clichés. I was in rural Nepal working with people to rebuild their houses after an earthquake, sleeping under tin roofs while the early summer monsoon pounded the hills.  Now I’m in Connecticut listening to the Republican debate in my living room. It’s totally cliché.

And yet it’s not these visible differences that constituted the turbulent vacuum between my worlds this summer. Mostly the last two months have been an exercise in putting up barriers. Between myself and the pavement. Between myself and indifferent crowds. Between myself and a certain nothing that creeps in between the activities and compartments of cars and apartments. Between myself and a hailstorm of unmourned and even unacknowledged injury. Between my ears and the fantastic amount of noise, all the talking and procedure that is not about anything.  Between myself and the precious narcissism of our public discourse.

I realize that these barriers have their value. But it feels like a loss. I’m more aware than ever before how many ways American culture forces us to reduce our perceptiveness in order to survive. It’s true that the catastrophe of the earthquake created an especially unique doorway to a productive social consciousness: there was a gigantic and terrible event, but it was fairly concrete – at least on the surface – and I located myself and my community within it. I was one of many people who looked destruction in the face and began rebuilding with patience and humility and a willful connection with others.

But I didn’t really realize how much my sense of my self in the world and in society had swelled out beyond me in these last seven months – even to the earth and its power, to the inevitability of the monsoon, to the practical absurdity of dirt roads going up mountains – until I was back here, and my world became a cacophony of conflicting radio stations, all purporting to be of critical importance.

The summer has been an exercise in shutting down one channel after another, and then re-learning how to decide which ones to turn back on for brief and highly monitored periods of time.

The summer has been an exercise in dodging the frustration, despondency, and aggression that billows about on the street, unchecked, like car exhaust. Then re-learning how to locate and selectively engage sources of collaboration and joy. After all, it is still a blessing to have this palette of choices, whether or not we see it, whether or not anybody sees it. Gratitude is not something that can be faked – it comes directly from a place of knowing.

The summer has been an exercise in observing our political system, our environmental system, and our media, with the surprised naiveté of a newcomer, and hearing the same story repeated in different packages: in how we describe ourselves, our problems, our economic and racial tensions, the rest of the planet.  In the way we talk about the earthquake in Nepal and the victimized people of the third world.  It is a story of detachment, silence, and frustration transmuted in to righteousness.  And yet the power of our systems is tremendous, if only we could see them.  If only we could hear ourselves.

Our narcissism isn’t that we’re a bad society or a bad people.  We just can’t see it.

I have spent a great deal of time sitting quietly in my living room, wondering how we get outside of ourselves without leaving.  I think it is human nature to cling to anything that tells us what we already know about ourselves.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I’ve just spent a lot of time in situations where there wasn’t much to cling to, so there was no choice but to adjust.  We are much more arbitrary than we think we are.

I think about my dear friend Mary every day and I miss her.  I would like to tell her about these things, so she can remind me without saying so that I am just one more well-meaning narcissist, and we are all going to the same place, so we might as well be good to each other and enjoy the scenery.

Now it’s September and the brittle yellow leaves are collecting in the gutter.  They dance around when the cars and people rush by, but they could care less for the hurry that makes them play like that.  It’s just their season to fall from green branches, and become a river in the street.

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