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 produces 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.

 

*

 

Sindure Signs

 

Sindure village is one of the old feudal capitals of Nepal, where a king once ruled over Lamjung district before unification in the mid 1700s. The drive from Pokhara takes about 6-7 hours…the last three are very bouncy.

IMG_3007Our day began in a downpour at 6:30am, with the usual wakeup activity: loading a dental chair on to the top of a Landcruiser. We packed in various boxes of medicines, adjustable stools, plastic goggles, and this fancy Hello Kitty timer. Because Virex disinfecting soak is 20 minutes, exactly, and one must have a proper timer.

Also, we had an extra passenger and her little boy who were headed home to their village. They set up in the front seat, and the little boy kept arranging himself with his knees splayed out and the bottoms of his feet together, so Neha quickly named him Laughing Buddha. Mean time, we squashed ourselves in the back of the cruiser and set off in the rain, picking up our senior technician Megnath on the way. And then we were off to our first ever clinic opening in the district of Lamjung.

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We settled in and the cruiser bounced joyously along. It was strange to be headed off to Lamjung again, where we spent many long hot days after the earthquake at this time last year. I was apprehensive about how our clinic setup would go, if the whether would clear, if the road would be passable, if a lot of things. And it was Sunday the 26th, exactly one year after my beloved friend Mary passed away on another rainy and pregnant day last summer. I stared out at the passing rain and fog, thinking about each moment I’d spent on this morning last June, checking my phone for updates from the other side of the world, stunned and devastated by a sudden change of events.

Then again, the bracing car ride left minimal opportunity for rumination. A few hours in, we stopped for tea, and shortly afterwards, Laughing Buddha barfed all over Gaurab in the front seat.

Well, the best part is yet to come.

We arrived at the Health Post in Sindure at 2pm to find that, while work had been done on the clinic room, such as making sure it had a roof over the entryway, the room itself was filthy. To give you a frame of reference, here are pictures from main room of the Health Post, which sees patients regularly to distribute medicine and make referrals. Unlike our dental clinic, the Health Post is not performing surgical-type procedures—nevertheless, setting up a dental clinic with rigorous infection control is, well, basically up to us.

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Still, there’s a reason we rely on rooms provided by the community instead of building ourselves new facilities. I’ve seen how that can be the difference between imposing new resources haphazardly, and mobilizing existing capacities to raise things to the next level first.  Then it’s a good time to push the boundary, which in this case as in many others, has not yet been approached. After all, with some sweeping and a few buckets of water and phenol, our dreary clinic room started looking a lot better.  There’s no water source at this Health Post, so Dilmaya, Neha, and the Health Post Assistant good-naturedly hauled buckets of water from a “nearby” house at least a quarter mile away.

A few hours of washing, drying, and setup, and things are improving already. This room will need a nice bright coat of paint on its stained walls – we provide the paint, the team does the labor – but for now, here is JOHC Technician Jagat Dura in his new office!  And we’re not even at the best part yet.


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During our pre-opening day, a veteran technician and our medical field officer go over everything from top to bottom with the new technician (who’s already had weeks of training before this) and clinic assistant.  It was awesome watching Megnath Adhikari, who started with us in 2013 and now runs the Puranchaur clinic, reviewing with the new clinic team everything from how to put the top on the autoclave to how to fill out the patient forms to when to change their gloves. Our infection control protocol, when followed, is stricter than that observed by many field teams and local hospitals. The new teams always look so new and wide-eyed that it throws me off every time. To be fair, imagine if you took a few weeks of training in dental medicine, and then, say, your congressman came in and asked you to pull their tooth out?!  But then, as the months go by, inevitably these green clinical teams turn in to people like Megnath, who started out with sagging jeans and a quizzical look, too. This growth in skill and confidence, which I’ve witnessed over and over, is one of the coolest things about this program. It inspires me to believe that this is a system that could be deployed widely by the government with the right investment in training and resources.

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Senior technician Megnath Adhikari reviewing use of the autoclave with the Sindure team

In the evening we stayed at the home of our technician, Jagat. His mother cooked heaps of food and poured us one cup of local moonshine after the next. I was so tired I kept falling asleep and had to get out of bed for each succeeding round of dinner.  And still…the best part is yet to come.

Sindure is a predominantly Gurung area with different traditions of respect than many of the other areas where we’ve worked. The local President had spent the evening with us, and after everyone was overfed, it was time to sit around and sing for a while. I’m not a very good traditional Nepali folk singer, but I’m a decent self-taught drummer and chime-player. So, having secured an empty plastic bottle and a set of tin cups, I am confident saying my role in this process was solid, although you can’t hear it in this video cause I was filming.

The next morning dawned in a downpour, which cleared as we made our way to the clinic for opening day. The clouds nestled down in to the hills like cotton and we climbed up over them. Sindure was too beautiful to leave out a scenic photo.

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In an opening ceremony, we were each given gifts, and I received the finest one, a magnificent Gurung-style ornament made by our technician’s grandmother. These shiny dangles are made from cracker and candy wrappers! I love this thing.

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The door to the clinic was officially opened by the Singing President, who had apparently recovered from last night’s revelry and lay down honorably as the first patient.  Jagat performed his inaugural checkup, supervisor standing by, with a crowd peering in the door and looking very enthusiastic about this whole thing.  Who knew dentistry could be this entertaining?!  And we’re still not at the best part yet.

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Now then…nothing like showing off your new filling!

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It is currently the busy rice planting season, which is about the worst time of year to open a dental clinic because everybody is in their fields. Nevertheless, we had a pretty solid attendance from a fleet of Female Community Health Volunteers (official women’s health workers trained by the government) and some other folks here and there.

We plucked various people off the road, such as one man walking by on his way to plant rice. All in all, the new clinic was inaugurated with about 25 patients, with Megnath carefully supervising the new team, and seeing that was especially gratifying.

As our day was coming to an end, I happened to look up at the sky. And for only the second time in my life – the first time being on the sacred day thirteen after Mary passed away – I saw the following sight:

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Look! I cried, look! Everyone turned their faces up and let out a collective breath of delight. I ran over to a clear patch of ground to try to get a picture, but my camera was having trouble focusing while pointed directly in to the sun.

“It looks just like a roti!” exclaimed the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice.

Now then, my mind chirped, this must happen a lot. Weather patterns are repetitive; I mean, I know where to find all the rainbows in Kaskikot, and in what sort of light. It’s so predictable that I’ve usually climbed a hill and pointed my camera already by the time a rainbow is emerging. Still, I consigned, how lucky for me to receive this lovely gift today in a brand new place.

“Do you see this kind of rainbow often?” I casually asked the man who had stopped by on his way to plant rice. To confirm my suspicions.

“I see rainbows all the time,” he said, “bent sideways like this. But I’ve never seen this kind of round rainbow in my life!”

I clicked and clicked in to the sun, and the shutter went off only one time. Almost immediately, the clouds moved back in and the wonderful roti faded away.

Later that night, after a long, bouncy and exhausting ride home, back in bed in Pokhara, I lay in the dark and pulled the photo up on my phone. I turned it this way and that, looking for something. I kept thinking of Mary saying trying to show me the big hand in the sky, and how I couldn’t find a thing until much later. I zoomed the photo in and out and scoured for clues. Then, tired and lonely for her, I held the phone back and sighed. And there, right where I couldn’t miss it, was a perfect Buddha, the sun shining from its heart.

Once I saw it, I couldn’t not see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a little extra flourish, an unmistakable smiley face, etched off to the right hand side, grinned at me as if to say: how obvious do you want me to get, you little shit? I clicked my phone off and fell asleep with it lying near me on the bed.

Welcome to Sindure, world.

*

A Life of Love

A Life of Love

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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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

 

On Fractured Temples

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Normally when I leave Nepal, there is an extended process of departure – physical, psychological, emotional. But after being here for most of the last six months, minus six weeks in the middle, I ended up leaving with no procedure at all.

Actually I should amend that a little, since the morning of my flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I badgered this hairdresser lady – a friend of a friend – into showing up at 5:30am in her salon to straighten my hair for three and a half hours. That’s right! For two months I’ve been hauling around the hills of Nepal in the hot sun in my flip flops, renting tractors and sleeping under tarps and tin, carrying gurneys of rock with old ladies and filling up rice sacks with dirt to build an earth-bag house, sitting in hot stuffy buses for 5 hours and getting stuck in the mud and walking the last hour in the rain…and the one thing I HAD to do before I suddenly left Nepal to fly home for a funeral was get my hair permanently straightened. Why, you want to know? Because in the U.S. it costs $250 and in Nepal it costs $20. A deal is a deal. And besides, there’s nothing like a good hair day to lift a girl’s spirits.

IMG_5188So in the middle of everything – the whirlwind of our new office setup, the excel sheet full of names and bundles of tin and numbers of people, the scheduling of a planning workshop for our staff, setting up a new financial system – I dropped it all for my last three hours in town and had my hair straightened at 5:30 am. Then I said goodbye to Aidan and Pascal on their way to school, and then to Didi and Bhinaju, who took me to the airport. I didn’t get to say bye to the kids at the children’s home so I bought them some treats and told Ranjita to say how sorry I was I’d missed them, but I’ll be back in 6 months. I’d said goodbye to Aamaa and Hadjur Aama the night before, in Kaski.

And the next thing I knew, I was flying back to Kathmandu, in that reverse warp that happens when I leave Nepal. Except about six times faster. Normally on my way out I have a few days in Kathmandu and they are mostly filled with meetings. This time I had just a few hours between my flight from Pokhara and my flight home.

Everything looks different in Kathmandu than it did when I arrived on May 13, less than 48 hours after the second earthquake (remember the second earthquake???), when the city was filled with bright blue and orange tents clustered at intersections, and all the people were quivering like leaves, waiting for another hit. Things seem to have settled in to a process that is serving as the new norm. IMG_0904And the truth is that if you landed here now, from anywhere, you’d be amazed to find that the apocalyptic situation that’s on the TV is not how things look. That’s because the collapsed buildings that the photographers zoomed in on aren’t the whole story. In fact, they were the tremor after the earthquake of poverty and poor governance, which is too chronic and undramatic to capture our attention, but remains most of the problem.

But the real difference is me.

When I arrived here two months ago, this situation felt vast and unknowable and as tragic as my imagination could make it. Now I can locate myself within it. Our piece, which will ultimately total around 150 homes and piles of stories, was small but meaningful. I have a sense of how people are moving forward with their lives one step at a time (although I should add that during these months, I met only one family that had lost people in the earthquake). Which is not to trivialize what’s been destroyed – only to say that, in the beginning, when everything collapses, it’s impossible to imagine a different future.   All the unseen things are terrible and insurmountable in your mind’s eye, and you can’t conceive of the steps between here and there. I couldn’t even visualize “there.” Now I feel like can at least be at peace with a changing target, because that shifty feeling of uncertainty and failure is a known thing, not a shadow. And so far, we’ve done our part despite it.

My last few hours in Nepal were perfect. I met up with two friends from the U.S., both doing doctoral work in Nepal, both fluent in Nepali. We walked down to Patan Durbar Square, my favorite section of old city, known not only for its temples but also its artisans and craftsmen. Patan is one of the areas that was featured heavily in the days after the earthquake, when the only photos of villages were from the air.

On this last afternoon, the rains held off, making way for a cool golden evening, the light waving in the folds of cloth that ripple along the edges of the temples. We sat high up on the foundation of what used to be a temple, observing the courtyards that were filled with people eating ice cream, buying balloons, whispering on dates, playing. Between the scaffolding that surrounds the damaged buildings, people were busy living in the very space that, I know full well, much of the world sees in its own mind as a pile of dust and despair.

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My thoughts drifted to conversations that Anne and I have had about the beauty and strangeness of Pashupathi Temple, Nepal’s holiest cremation site, where passers-by sit across the river and watch pyres burn during the day and night. Sometimes there are kids playing soccer, or folks out enjoying the sun or the beauty of this thousands-year-old place of pilgrimage. What’s always amazed us about this is that people can play soccer near death. Or go on dates near death. Or just gaze, for no reason at all, at death.

Of course, it’s there anyway, even if you’re not looking at it. And once you get used to the idea that you do not have to avert your gaze from a pyre, or from a mother wailing over a pyre, everything else looks different too. Suddenly that moment belongs, in some way, to everyone.

IMG_0956There is no caution tape around Patan Durbar Square, or even around the base of this foundation that used to have a temple on it. The reconstruction is public and unbashful, but it’s also not desperate. In a courtyard tucked away to the left, bricks are patiently stacked up and a young couple is talking furtively under a tree.

But who would think to take their picture for the news?

I think maybe, in the sterilized West, it is hard to believe in loss unless it looks like something we wouldn’t feel right resting our gaze upon in person. We see the spectacle and only the spectacle, because cracks don’t mean much, but the un-witnessable speaks to our understanding of destruction, and insulates it from the safe and organized world we know. But that’s impossible in this part of the world. Things are lost so often, so publicly, and with so little fanfare. All the falling and building is mixed up together with the balloons and scaffolding; the moment belongs to everyone.  So it is still okay to play.

We sat for two hours with all the other people doing normal things on the bald foundation of this temple, looking out over the square, talking in the warm breeze, and watching the balloons and ice cream and couples and pilgrims swirling around these fractured structures, which are on to the next chapter of their lives with minimal complaint or ceremony.

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When I boarded the plane to come home, my pants still had thorns in them from Tripureswor, Ward #6. These feisty little guys are so hard to get out you have to either pluck them one by one, or have a couple of ladies grooming them off you with a sickle like a baby chimpanzee.  I’ve been groomed a few times in the course of these last weeks, but I just kept walking through the thorns and re-collecting them, and now I’m taking them back to America.

Classy, right?

Hey, my hair looked good.

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Day Thirteen

 

Today is the thirteenth day after my friend Mary’s passing.  As I’ve written about before, this day marks the end of the initial kriya period, where the immediate family of the deceased observe two weeks of purification and austere ritual that instructs their food, bathing, clothing, sleeping, movement and prayer.  It is during this time that the spirit wanders in its new world, perhaps hovering about in this one, finding its way.  On the thirteenth day, a large meal is cooked, the family and community drink purifying bitter gaun, and life begins again.

I have decided to go back to Connecticut a week early for Mary’s memorial service.  But I wanted nothing more than to observe this thirteenth day in my own way, here in Nepal, where I feel close to the sky.

In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.

Two weeks ago, on friday morning, I woke up to a misty dawn with my phone near my head, and rolled over to see how my friend had fared since some bad news had arrived in my email the prior night. There was nothing yet – it was now night time in the U.S. – but I had a bad feeling.  And when I walked outside to wash my face, our very, very, very pregnant buffalo Lulu was shifting about uncomfortably in her shed.  She was due any moment.  Since I’ve arrived in Nepal this summer, I’ve been hoping to be at the house when Lulu has her baby – a phenomenon I’ve witnessed only once in twelve years, and will never forget.

For anyone who’s never seen a large animal like a buffalo very pregnant and approaching their moment, it’s hard to describe.  You can feel, like a physical entity, the pent up power of nature, the imminent violence and miracle of birth.  This animal that is normally so much bigger than you is so much smaller than what’s about to happen.

I left that morning for a meeting in Pokhara, already crying on the bus, where another little blue dot popped up on my phone – a new message saying things had not improved, that Mary was probably in her last hours back in New York.  And I was on this strange road in Nepal, on a mountain, the mist close and threatening rain, and the buffalo shifting around uncomfortably in her shed under Aamaa’s watchful gaze.

I spent a surreal day in Pokhara, and called Aamaa late in the afternoon.  The baby buffalo had been born and everyone was doing fine – the marvel of life.  Twenty minutes later, I got a message saying that Mary had died.

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So this little baby buffalo has been a source of wonder and comfort to me.  I named named her O’Neil. When I came up to Kaski a few days later, Aamaa pumped me full of the nutrient-dense, sacred milk that the mother buffalo makes in the first few days after giving birth, because she wanted me to be nourished.

The birth of a buffalo is a ritualized affair that is, in some ways, the inverse of a death.  For eleven days, we are not to eat the milk with food, or wash cups and bowls used for the virgin milk in the same impure space as the rest of the dishes.  When I took a little burnt piece of something out of my milk one day and tossed it on the ground in the yard, Aamaa went and picked it up, lest it touch the bottom of someone’s foot.  It is, essentially, an eleven day observance of the fragility of life and the gift of the milk that our Lulu will provide to her baby, and to us.  Then on the eleventh day there is a puja, with a priest and everything, and on that day we cook rice pudding, putting the milk into our own “bread” and bodies.  And the cycle goes on.

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Kalika Hill

I had missed O’Neil’s birth puja because I was out in Dhading.  So today was the first chance that Aamaa had to make rice pudding for me with O’Neil’s milk.  And that’s how Day Thirteen began, with a rich and delicious celebration of the life of our little baby buffalo who was born almost the same hour that Mary died.

Then I climbed up to my favorite place in all of Nepal, a spot along the hilltop that leads to the Kalika Temple, for which Kaskikot is named.  First I went to the temple, with flowers and incense from our house.  I made my offering and rang the bell.  Before heading back to my favorite spot along the crest of the hill to do my qigong, something made me think I should look around for some sign, something that would make me feel like Mary was here with me, and I was here with her.  From the Kalika Temple, you can see everything, the valley on all sides, the lake to the southeast, the stretching falling foothills reaching to the horizon, and the soaring Annapurna range to the North, towering halfway up your field of vision.  It is spectacular.

But the direction I decided to look was up.

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I have taken hundreds – literally hundreds – of photos of rainbows in this village.  I know where they show up and in what kind of weather.  But I have never seen a rainbow like this anywhere on the whole planet.

I left the temple gates and ran through the grass in my flip flops, following the hilltop to my favorite rock.  I kept checking behind me to see if this amazing rainbow was still there, and it just kept getting brighter and more extraordinary.

When I found my favorite rock, I lit incense and placed more flowers I’d brought from our house.  I am so close to the clouds on this three feet of rock.  I can see my little house looking like a toy in the hillside.  Everything is far away and whole.  I closed my eyes.

When I opened them forty five minutes later, the rainbow was gone.

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Mama Lulu and Baby O'Neil

Mama Lulu and Baby O’Neil under Aamaa’s watchful gaze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Merit of Stories

 

Last night in Tripureswor, Anne and Dilmaya and I slept in a makeshift tin cottage with the sound of the river rushing by outside. When we got up in the morning, we were astonished to find that the shelter was buttressed up against this stunning prayer site.

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It is hard to capture the beauty of this place in a photo: river-worn, looping rock formations swirling around the base of this strong and humble tree. It is maintained daily and with great joy by our host, Krishna Man Shrestha, known by everyone here as Saila Dai.

He took us in to this wonderful garden and proudly went around showing Anne and I where each of the Gods sleeps in it. Below is the bed for Shiva, king of the Hindu gods. I missed a brilliant moment where Saila Dai lay down in this nook in his shorts and Nepali hat with a blissful smile, eyes closed, hands clasped in a Namaste over his head, to demonstrate how Shiva sleeps here.

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Yesterday, as soon as we met Anne and crammed in to a hot bus with tiny seats to drive to Dhading, I told her about my friend Mary, who died a week ago. I’ve been missing her terribly and I feel myself trying to sort out where she is in this strange journey I am on in post-earthquake Nepal. Even today, I’m not sure why we’re headed out to Dhading. Because Anne is an expert on ritual, I knew she’d have some ideas of ways we could connect with Mary on our impending adventure in Tripureswor. While we bounced along in the bus, Anne told me about the Buddhist ritual of cultivating and offering merit to a departed soul, to help them along on their transition from this world to the next. I knew that was the perfect thing to take with me into our undiscovered story in Ward #6.

Saila Dai

Saila Dai

So Saila Dai’s gorgeous prayer site was an auspicious beginning to our day. After tea, we left with Bishnu to explore his village. I brought along my recorder and camera. With no clear plan and full day from Pokhara, it is safe to say we were winging it.

What we ended up doing was sitting down at house after house talking with the owners. We asked about their families and where they were when the earthquake hit; how they’d rebuilt and what they thought the future held. When asked what we were doing there, we were honest: we said we weren’t sure. We admitted don’t have the capability to do a complicated or expensive project so far from our base in Pokhara, but we were interested in understanding what people are experiencing in Tripureswor.

IMG_2357To our great surprise, person after person told us that we were doing a great service by taking time to talk with them. One person said, “by coming here and looking us in the eye.” Anne and I were both amazed by how many people said things like this. People’s lives are pretty shaken up in Tripureswor. But of course, it’s not just the talking, it’s the sitting, the cup of tea or slice of cucumber, the story of the prized son who is studying college in Kathmandu, the unwritten story of getting old in this place. It’s the lack of an agenda. That’s how most of the things that have mattered in the end have started for me in Nepal.

And then there was the water. The main focus of the iNGO community right now is shelter, but no matter who we asked, everybody told us that the biggest problem in Ward #6 is water. The earthquake damaged the water tank that supplies this whole ward, so they’ve been piping water in from neighboring wards, but that sharing won’t last. And even so, people have to walk very long distances to fetch water. Having done plenty of that myself, I can tell you it’s no picnic. The community has already located a new spring, and all that’s needed is infrastructure to collect and distribute. But in addition to some simple concrete tanks and many kilometers of pipe that they need – which is something we could provide – there are some complicated engineering factors, one of which is that the water source is on the other side of the river, so pipes need to be slung across it like electric wires.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

Ward #6’s water pipes will have to be slung over this river.

As the day went on, it became clear that the water project also is too complicated for us. However, Dilmaya and I did feel like we’re capable of advocating for it. I can contact Oxfam, the major iNGO doing recovery this village, and my contacts at United Mission to Nepal, who are also involved with relief in Dhading district. We decided that Anne would stay for the week and help get together enough details for a proper proposal. Late in the afternoon, we all went in to town to meet with the Village Chairman and run this all by him.

The last thing to come out of our day was that Anne, who’s spent many years doing cultural and sociological research in Nepal, came up with a beautiful project for her upcoming week. There is a Japanese tradition whereby people write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper, tie them to strings, and then hang the strings in the air, sort of like prayer flags. She plans to have tea with all sixty families in Ward #6, look people in the eye, and write their worries and prayers with them. She bought the paper and string while we were in town meeting the chairman.

I also did a lot of recording and hope to produce an audio slideshow about Tripureswor, as well as a radio story about the effect of the earthquake on animals. So if that works out, I’ll have a concrete reason to point to that we schlepped – and I mean SCHLEPPED – all the way out to this village. And if the water project actually comes around, that will be really amazing.

But on some level, I understand that this expedition was not about something concrete anyway.

Late in the evening, I went up to a high hill behind the house, overlooking the valley and emerald hills that are glistening with humidity and rain. I did my qigong practice and offered the merit of our day to Mary, to guide her on her way. I offered the merit of Saila Dai and the humility and joy he gives to his enchanted prayer site, and which he had in turn offered freely to us. I offered the merit of looking people in the eye, of meeting Janet for twenty minutes in a coffee shop and connecting her good heart to mine and following the road out to Tripureswor Ward #6, with no agenda but to listen to stories and return them to Janet, whom I don’t know at all. I got started late, so by the time I was finished with my practice, it was nighttime on the unlit hill, nothing but moonlight reflecting off the river in the valley and the spare lights of the bazaar down below. Which seemed right. The merit of stories is how they linger past sunset, into the darkness, when all the people have gone to bed.

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For Mary

I haven’t posted in this series on mourning for a while, but today I only have one thing worth writing about. My beloved friend Mary passed away early yesterday morning in New York – my 3:23 in the afternoon in Nepal.

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I understand that Mary’s death was not a huge surprise, except that every death is a surprise in its finalness. She was 71 and she’d already beat the odds many times. The doctors were always saying she might die. I never tired of hearing about all the times she had, in fact, died. She always chose to come back – from the promise of an easier place, from her father beckoning at the foot of the bed, to this world, to this body, to the blue couch in her living room that we sat on for many long afternoons. Where, in addition to other topics, I plied her for every possible detail about dying.

But I can’t imagine my life without her.

We texted often – she was the queen of the multiple exclamation point with a space preceding it !!! – and talked on the phone like champions. She’d say she only had a minute and then we’d talk for no less than an hour or three. Our longest conversation was 4 hours and 11 minutes and it began at 10:03 pm. For the last fifteen minutes or so, we talked about the record we’d set, and how late it was, and how we should hang up, but how we could never seem to hang up.

Once, after we had talked late in to the night about this choosing and coming back, I was lying on my bed thinking about injustice and heartbreak. If souls choose their destiny, what is the point of all these violent and cruel games? I can’t understand why our souls would choose to create this world out of all the choices. I told Mary that I believe in balance, not kindness or purpose. She said I was really smart, that I had a special gift with words. We discussed it until two am, and when we hung up, I felt smart, and Mary still had kindness and purpose. She never minded that I would throw stones at God and then come back to her to get organized.

Mary was never in a hurry to finish a story. She’d say she had to quickly tell me one more story really fast and then the story would take twenty minutes to tell and then we’d analyze it and think of all the other stories it reminded us of and all the life lessons it offered for another forty minutes.

She called me “kid” or “you turkey” so I called her “kid” or “you turkey.”

One time I trimmed her hair with office scissors in the staff bathroom.

I met Mary when I came to the clinic as a patient in 2006. The fact that she became one of my best friends in the history of ever, and that I would talk with her on the phone for hours and hours late in to the night, makes my story completely like almost everyone’s story of Mary. She became one of my mom’s best friends. I became friends with the other patients Mary became friends with. I listened and re-listened to stories of best friends she’d kept since kindergarten.

I never felt that the army of best friends Mary had diminished my best-friendness with her even a little. This is one of the important things about the nature of the universe that Mary taught me without ever explaining it. I just understood with her that there was enough love for an infinite amount for everybody.

I wanted to record so many of her stories. But I never recorded the story about how she got her finger stuck in her friends’ designer bowling ball and ended up in the emergency room attached to the bowling ball. I never recorded the story about how she fixed up her sister with the doctor who tended to her during her first heart surgery forty years ago, or the story about the proud old woman Mary insisted get into her car on a steep hill one day, and how Mary said, “Don’t you just want to cry?” and then cried with the old woman in the car because the hill was so steep and it was so hot. I never recorded the story about the hour she spent chasing down a lost purse in a store for a complete stranger who had left on a bus, and how the bag turned out to have a precious bundle of cash in it, bringing the owner to tears. I never recorded the last story she told me, the night before her surgery, about how the residential suites at NY Presbyterian Hospital are only for VIPs, so she got the mayor of Wallingford to write a letter about all the Very Important things she’d done in Wallingford, and then she mailed it to Angela upstairs, who promptly arranged a residential room for her dear Bill and Colleen. (When the mayor sent the letter to her house, he threw in an edible arrangement.)

Mary, I know you would say it’s totally unimportant that I never recorded these stories. That’s because I’m always trying to keep the past with me, scraping at it with my fingers and toes and arms and legs and everything, and you found all that hassle extremely pointless. You weren’t much for books or movies and I love books and movies. Your living was people. You said books were disconnected from people and took you out of the moment when you could be talking to someone. All this documenting and remembering that consumes me was always, to you, a distraction from the wonderous, fleeting present.

When Mary told me stories about her grandkids and kids, or about dating gentle Bill, or about the best friend she lost when she was sixteen, it was never boring or self-indulgent. Her family brought her so much joy, you couldn’t not be happy with her. I listened to the same stories and looked at the same pictures and read the same poems many times, and I always felt lucky to be in her delight and gratitude.

I spent more time talking with Mary about God than anyone else I’ve known or ever will know. We talked about everybody’s dying. Hers, mine, our friends’, her mother’s, the relatives – we relived and examined all of them, past and future, death in the abstract, the question of choosing, the question – or lack thereof – of God.

Mary said she didn’t want any fanfare after her passing, and I told her I was showing up anyway, even if it was by myself in the rain (which would be impossible anyway, given the legions of best friends). I said if I got hit by a bus and went first, she better freaking show up on my day. I didn’t care if that made me less enlightened. She told me there could be a hurricane on the day of my funeral and nobody would come, and that I had to come to a place in my heart where that was okay with me. I said that was the most awful thing I’d ever heard.

Mary didn’t “believe” in God. She just experienced God. She let me argue with her about God and wear myself out, so that I could rest on her experience. Mary helped me make a tenuous peace with the fact that life is easier and fuller and more magical with God, and you can’t win the argument either way. So you might as well be with God. All her dying gave her cred with me in the God department. She knew things I don’t know. She wasn’t afraid of anything except for the pain her death would cause her family. That was no secret – it was a wisdom and fear she offered freely.

Mary was the very first person I ever spoke to about IMT, which eventually healed my body, brought me irreplaceable teachers and friends, and changed my life. She was the person whose arm I curled up under on a fluffy couch during the scary and uncertain week I first moved to Connecticut. She was the person who I sat with at parties and funerals, and who had time to talk to me almost every single day for an hour or two about big wide things, during a period of my life where I felt unmoored and panicked for long, terrifying hours at a stretch. She was the person who, during a moment of lingering emptiness or need for contact, I could always text or call without feeling like I was imposing. She appreciated every last fiber of human connection that this life offered her. My search for meaning was as beautiful and important to her as it is to me, and she was never too much older or wiser to include me in her journey too.

The last time I should have seen Mary was just before I left for Nepal six weeks ago. I was giving a talk at the Hartford library about the earthquake, and it was unfortunately on Mother’s Day. I was feeling sad and disconnected because nobody was around, and I was preparing to return to an unknown Nepal suffering new destruction and loss. I hoped I might get lucky and see some familiar faces in the crowd. There was a small audience of about fifteen people, two of whom were my parents and two were my good friends Steve and Jackie. I put on my bravest face and did the talk, which actually went pretty well.

Later that evening, I got a text from Mary. “Well, we tried !!!” she said. I wrote back to say it meant everything to me that she’d wanted to be there; her text finally brought a little bit of lightness in to my heart.

“No, we WERE there !!! ” she replied. Turns out that Bill and Mary had delayed their Mother’s Day plans with their son Billy, drove an hour to Hartford to surprise me, and arrived 10 minutes after my talk had started. And Mary, being Mary, said it would be rude to enter after the start of the talk, so they sat outside the closed library door. The one I was staring at the whole time during my presentation, with no idea they were right on the other side.

Mary told me later that she was listening to my presentation, but I know she wasn’t concerned with the details. She was there to provide her presence, not to learn about Nepal. They waited and waited, but when the program went much later than planned, they had to leave to go to Billy’s house. So I never saw her. I never snuggled my nose on to her shoulder and got wrapped in her hug, which was the one thing I wished for so much that afternoon, and the one thing she came there to offer. But she was there the whole time.

She was there the whole time.

This is the enduring image I am left to wrestle with of you, my beautiful Mary. Maybe it was your higher wisdom at work, because that was our last meeting. I know that my task is to take comfort in the idea that you are just there on the other side of the door, where I can’t see you, waiting for me to be done with all these cumbersome details, bearing witness to my story so that I can indulge in my own relevance until I find my way out of the room. But today, this is too close to how I actually feel. You are just where I can’t get to you, and I only want to jump in to your arms. It is too soon to appreciate your nearness when I am enraged by the door.

I love you, Mary. I will never be able to quantify your impact on my life. I think this is all new, and you are still basking in the glory of the kingdom where you have finally arrived. I know that with time you will find your way to us, and we will find your way to you. I know impatience won’t help me, and you know I will be impatient anyway. I know you are not afraid, and you know I have borrowed your courage and will have to find a way forward now with my own. I miss you so much. Your last text to me says: !! Drive safely !!! You know perfectly well you sent that to me in reference to a tractor I was preparing to ride on for 12 hours, delivering tin roofs in the hills of Nepal on ridiculous jeep roads. You turkey.

I wish I had at least recorded the story about the bowling ball.

I really should go now. This has gone on much longer than planned and nobody is going to read it to the end. But it always takes so long to hang up, and these aren’t the kinds of things that can be rushed. This is what happens every time. I know you will read it to the end and that’s all that matters.

Ok then—see you in the morning, kid.

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Looking for Shelter

 

I woke up tired today. Partly because I stayed up so late writing, and partly because we’re all sleeping on the floor of the living room by the front door.

But I had an interesting morning. I made my way to an outdoor lot full of incomprehensible discarded piles of things, where Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, was meeting about their transitional housing unit, a clean white bubble sitting in the middle of the mess. It was really fascinating to hear how they’d developed this design by researching other units, most notably the post-earthquake shelters used in Pakistan. I’m going to save the details, because I hope to produce a quick audio slideshow about it.

IMG_8773While I was there watching, two government officials came to inspect the prototype, and discuss minor modifications so that it could be used to replace a destroyed Health Post in rural Lalitpur. By the time we left, the builders were getting back to work on the second unit, with a plan to drive the pieces to Lalitpur and set up a shelter within two days.

This has really got me thinking about transitional housing as a possible use for our relief fund. I plan to either donate it to a group doing really valuable work in rural areas, or finding a project that we can do well. It has been such a chore to procure and deliver tents – which are getting more and more expensive – and it’s frustrating to know that, while obviously better for people than no tent, this is such a short-term improvement. Plus, each time a transitional shelter is placed in the field, it’s an opportunity to get feedback and improve the design, so if we can collaborate with a group like Kiran’s, perhaps we could contribute to the larger good in terms of research and design.

SXJ 95’s unit costs about $500, but they put a lot of thought in to user feel and aesthetics. On one hand, this means we could potentially offer rural families upgraded transitional housing; on the other, we couldn’t afford very many. I plan to keep in touch with Kiran about their test in Lalitpur and maybe see if this design could be used for another health post or school classroom. Here’s a recent article by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK, on the importance of reinstating schooling for basic child safety and welfare (sorry for the sensationalist title).

I left the crazy stuff lot with its shelter bubble, and my next stop was the Ministry of Health and Population. The World Health Organization holds bi-weekly meetings in collaboration with the Nepali government, where all of the major players in town for recovery – large iNGOs, foreign medical teams, etc. – come to share information. These meetings are divided in to clusters, such as Health, Communications, Shelter, Security etc. I went to the Health Cluster meeting.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the WHR’s and SXJ-95’s of the relief effort. Kiran dropped me off, and I hopped out of his car into a parking lot full of oversized, logo’ed SUVs. I made my way to a packed meeting hall – probably close to 100 people of various nationalities. I sat in the back of the room and scanned the emblazoned vests in front of me: World Vision, Save the Children, AmeriCares, International Medical Corps. Japan, Switzerland, Canada…and then in the back, some straggling foreigners like me, probably there to get the lay of the land.

IMG_8789The meeting was led by the WHO rep to Nepal, Dr. Lin Aung, with government representatives in attendance. I had missed the first 20 minutes or so, but listened to some updated figures, and then attendees were invited to share what they’d been doing. That part seemed a little odd. They would announce the name of an area – “Sindhupalchowk?” and then various groups would stand up and say what they had been doing in Sindhupalchowk since the last meeting. It was more information-sharing than strategizing – but maybe these groups have other methods that they are using for truly coordinating their efforts.

After the meeting, I went to go talk to Dr. Aung. Ironically, I was trying to meet him all winter because I thought he’d be a good person to know for Kaski Oral Health, and I was never able to get in touch since I’m rarely in Kathmandu. But when I introduced myself, he turned out to be a very friendly and genuine guy. He gave me five minutes of undivided attention, even though another half dozen people were waiting to talk with him.

I asked what he thought a small organization like mine in Pokhara could do to pitch in to the relief effort. Like others, he said we should be thinking medium and long-term, which is where multilateral agencies aren’t nearly as agile or embedded. He said that with our community ties, we should focus on counseling and psycho-emotional support.

I said, “We don’t know anything about post-disaster counseling.”

He said that the psycho-social cluster is developing protocols for this kind of thing and gave me an email address where I could access this info.

All of which tells me that, for better or worse, coordination is almost completely at the discretion of aid providers. I think – and you could argue that this makes sense under the circumstances –things are really set up such that, in order to find the best way to participate, organizations large and small have to make a point of reaching out.

I’m not sure why I’m a little hung up on this. But I suppose we’d like to think in a humanitarian crisis of this nature, somebody has the answers and can tell us all what to do – and maybe somebody should know. But the basic fact remains that everybody is winging it to some degree, and I can’t argue this is exactly anyone’s fault. It seems like it’s really one of the cruelties of the whole situation.  The real blame lies in the injustices of the past that led to poverty and bad planning and lack of security, not in the present where nature took over. In any case, it seems like coordinated strategic planning is largely a matter of self-discipline.

Before I left for Pokhara, I went to visit a friend who is the CEO of Teach for Nepal. Most of their teaching fellows were there for a day of counseling with social workers from Israel, experienced at working with disaster trauma. I learned that one of TFN’s young teachers perished in Sindhupalchowk. The day of the earthquake, my friend and her husband were unable to call a helicopter to Sindhupalchowk, so they drove 5 hours to get there and dig through rubble themselves.  It was out there that they realized they’d actually lost her.  Now they are left with continued aftershocks and their other 89 fellows to send back out to their schools.

Everyone is spinning.

By the time I got on the plane to Pokhara I admit I felt pretty down. I had also spoken with my friend’s husband who has worked on a shelter that costs just $100 and might be a good option – we could potentially provide an entire community of about 100 -200 families with safer housing while they rebuild. But everyone is so hurt, psychologically and otherwise. The scale of rebuilding that’s needed is really hard for me to wrap my head around. I really just wanted all of it to go away.

At the airport in Pokhara, Prem was waiting for me. And as we crossed the road, Aidan was on the other side sticking his head out the taxi window, shiny as a stamp, his cheeky toothless grin lighting up the whole city. Pascal insisted on sitting in my lap for the seven-minute car ride. I gave them some super-sized squirt guns and unloaded the rest of a bag of Reese’s Pieces.

We went out into the late afternoon Pokhara sun, and walked to a plot of land up on a hill, where leveling strings are stretched across deep foundation holes in the ground. Prem and Didi are building their first house.

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For anyone wishing to support Dr. Kiran’s group, SXJ-95, you can do so here: http://bit.ly/1ReQ8gj.

Teach for Nepal is providing relief in their working areas, and will have a special focus on rebuilding schools. You can support them at http://nepalrelief.teachfornepal.org.