nepal.

Nepal: One of the “Thinnest” Places on Earth

Have you ever heard of a “thin” place? No, not a place without McDonald’s or obesity. (On the contrary, there can be thin places in the US, where both of those things boom.) Instead, a thin place is described as a place of energy, a place where whatever divides the real world we live in and an eternal world beyond our reach is extremely thin, so thin that the two worlds nearly blend. Some people believe thin places are connected to God, but no one can deny that some places in nature – “thin places” – invoke an ethereal sensation, God-filled or not. I’m pretty certain the entirety of Nepal is a thin place.

The spiritual intensity of India can be ethereal, where strangers equate their guests to gods and you can wait hours pressed body-to-body in a sweaty temple just to be blessed by holy men. Waves lapping and then smashing the shores along the Blight of Benin is peaceful, terrifying, and an ethereal reminder of who’s in charge. Standing at a Buddhist temple on Mount Saleve, France, overlooking Geneva, Switzerland under a banner of prayer flags, cold air rushing up the mountain face – that was also ethereal. High altitudes and misty scenery is ethereal. Now, imagine combining all of those: altitude, scenery, the forces of nature. That’s like standing high in the Nepalese Himalayas. Up in these mountaintops, formed by clashing continents and which also host the great Mount Everest, one is greeted by a simpler life that is elevated both physically and spiritually. Picture solemn, dedicated, generous monks seeking retreat. (And don’t picture the ones setting themselves on fire in streets – that’s just to the north, in Tibet. Those are the monks that need to go to a thin place, or Nepal.)

There’s surely a reason why so many Hindus gather in these places, and it’s doubtful that Hindi Ghandi’s admiration of thin places is coincidence. But not all of Nepal is standing on a mountain top amongst trees full of prayer flags, crossing bridges in orange tunics, or eating dal bhat while cross-legged on the floor. Nepal is in fact divided by three regions which run east-to-west: mountains, hills, and the swampy terai. These regions are dissected by the river system, flowing north-to-south, making Nepal truly feel like an intersection of the forces of nature.

Of course, not all of the intersections in Nepal are the most pleasant. Since 1990, Nepal has managed to push through 500 years of governmental transformation in only a couple of decades. Yes, in 1990 Nepal was still a monarchy. This transformed into a Communist lead (well, it does border China) and is now finally a Republic. Yet, no matter how backwards Nepal might have been a few years ago, it is the first Asian country to not only abolish the death penalty but to also rule in favor of same-sex marriage. In Nepal, you can even declare yourself as a third gender – neither man nor woman. Wowzers! Basically, Nepal just wants people to be Yay! happy. And to not set themselves on fire.

The only thing about Nepal that does not lead to a happy, easy life seems to be the complete lack of efficient transportation. Sure, Nepal has 47 airports – but only 11 have paved runways. Most of the population has a 2 hour walk to the nearest all-season road, so don’t even begin to complain about 480 traffic. Basically, everything that geographically assists Nepal in being a thin place makes its transportation feel like a nightmare. And when it’s the rainy season, you can forget it. Fortunately, though, there’s no sense in having a car to get around Nepal. Just get yourself a bovine, load all of your belongings (three blankets, a wok, some tunics) on its back, and you’ll be riding in style, high up on those…15 hand shoulders. (Okay, it’s not 37 Nittos but it’s still cruisin’ for Nepal.) But, seriously, Nepal is one cool, thin place. And you should definitely try to land yourself there some day, in a tunic, on a cow, and while not setting yourself on fire.

do everything better.

I’d heard a lot about Shauna Niequist’s book, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way.  When I tried to reserve it and had to wait weeks on OhioLink, I figured there must really be something good about it.  And it certainly proved to have a lot of simple, selfless moments of realization.  It got me thinking about how I perceive myself, amongst many other things in life.

Reading Shauna’s book, I could feel a lot of similar internal struggle buried under the obvious fact that I am not the girly, frilly, fashion-obsessed, hair-dying lady that Shauna is externally.  In some ways, this realization made me try to compare myself to her more and more as I read – the kind of comparison she accused herself of throughout the book and strove to avoid.  But, despite the moments when I felt so underachieved (I always want to DO BETTER), there were certainly a plethora more when something seemed to stream from my thoughts rather than my reading and I wanted to flip to the cover of the book and make sure I wasn’t actually the author…

I used to think that the ability to turn back time would be the greatest possible gift, so that I could undo all the things I wish I hadn’t done.  But grace is an even better gift, because it allows me to do more than just erase; it allows me to become more than I was when I did those things.  It’s forgiveness without forgetting, which is much sweeter than amnesia.

I can remember all of those times when I actually had a perfect moment and I wanted to be absorbed by it.  I would be so blinded by what was that I would forget to live in what is and instead would dream that what will could be as perfect as what has been.  It’s been hard, but I’ve been practicing taking rejection, failure, and discomfort and dwelling on them in a positive way, one that doesn’t change who I am but which opens me to my fullest capacity.  DO BETTER, but on the inside.  That doesn’t always show on the outside.

These years will pass much more quickly than you think they will.  You will go to lots of weddings, and my advice, of course, is to dance your pants off at every single one… Time will pass, and all of a sudden, things will begin to feel a little more serious.  You won’t be old, of course.  But you will want to have some things figured out, and the most important things only get figured out if you dive into them now.

And this is why I like reading and talking to people that have been there.  Why try to figure things out for yourself?  You’re given the luck to not be in the earth’s first generation of humans.  Shauna may not be “old”, just “older”, but still – there’s a reason why the elders are the respected, wise group in traditional communities.  If you want to be better, DO BETTER, you go to them.

For a while in my early twenties I felt like I woke up a different person every day, and was constantly confused about which one, if any, was the real me.  Isn’t that the truth.  Every year, you will trade a little of your perfect skin and your ability to look great without exercising for wisdom and peace and groundedness, and every year the trade will be worth it.  I promise.  Which is good to hear.  Because aren’t we so often concerned with the former and not appreciative of the latter?  Not just in ourselves but in other people as well?  What is really the goal in life?  For whom are you living it?

Now is your time.  Become, believe, try… Don’t spend time with people who make you feel like less than you are.  Don’t get stuck in the past, and don’t try to fast-forward yourself into a future you haven’t yet earned.  Give today all the love and intensity and courage you can, and keep traveling honestly along life’s path.

So how to capture that inspiration?  How to admit what I should be doing?  I would expect Shauna’s advice to be action, but in fact it’s an act of passiveness that she suggests: Admit what you don’t do.  Because spinning your wheels only buries yourself deeper when you keep trying harder to go faster and do better.

I tended to get so tired I’d cry without knowing why, why my life sometimes felt like I was running on a hamster wheel, and why I searched the faces of calmer, more grounded women for a secret they all knew that I didn’t.  (AMEN!)

This is how I got to that fragmented, brittle, lonely place: DO EVERYTHING BETTER…a super-charged triple threat, capturing in three words the mania of modern life, the anti-spirit, anti-spiritual, soul-shriveling garbage that infects and compromises our lives…

Deciding what I wanted wasn’t that hard.  But deciding what I’m willing to give up is like yoga for…that nasty little person inside of you who exists only for what people think.

So, I who loves lists as much as Shauna will now make a new one… Despite what I WANT to do, despite what I WANT to be, here are the things that I, right now, just am NOT, some things I don’t do:

—I don’t have organization.  Disorganization stresses me out, and I have OCD tendencies, but knowing I will fail when I try to keep clean and organized just makes me feel crushed before I even start.  So, thanks, mom for suggesting it’s a reflection of an “artistic” mind.  I’ll just keep being this artsy, I guess…

—I don’t accessorize well.  It’s a lot of work.  I don’t change out my earrings, rings, and necklaces as much as I wish because I just find it a waste of time.

—I don’t keep up with fashion.  It’s just not who I am or in my interests, and I especially don’t support the direction the fashion industry is going these days.  Low-cut shirt?  No thanks.  And I prefer that my underwear stays under my clothes..  Also, my mentality is stuck in circa 1962.  And I like having it there.

—I don’t keep up with TV or movies.  It’s not important to me who an actor is or what he ate for breakfast.  I would rather read a book, stretch my mind, and go for a run.

—I don’t know how to make mixed drinks.  I have the book, the equipment, the desire, but I have neither the guests to entertain nor the money to buy the ingredients needed to mix the amazing concoctions of my dreams.

—I don’t make good rice.  I did once in my life.  It was in error, I’m sure.  I’ll make a mile-high meringue, cordon bleu that I won’t eat, hand-kneaded bread, asparagus with hollandaise, an awesome pie crust from scratch… but I will over-salt, under-water, not set the timer and completely burn every last grain of rice…then neglect to scrape the mess off for days.  And the sad part is I really like rice.

—I don’t wash my dishes in a timely manner (see above).

—I don’t get my nails done.  I hate my toes (despite hating socks and shoes as well) and I just cannot for the life of me justify manicures.  They’re expensive, they actually look really dumb, and an athletic girl simply cannot keep paint on her fingers.  Plus, I just fiddle with them and pick the paint off.

—I don’t fix my hair.  I want my hair to be nice every day, but, like my lack of willpower to organize, I give up before I start.  It’s just so daunting.

—I don’t even know how to do makeup.  I try, but I usually put on patches of bronzer or blush and give up.

—I don’t go to clubs.  And I don’t intend on starting.

These are kind of silly and maybe just make me seem lazy, but I guess that’s the point.  And seeing the things I am NOT reminds me of the things that I AM, which I like.  I’m NOT go-with-the-crowd, jump-on-the-bandwagon.  I’d rather make a riot and go against something just to know that I didn’t go along with everyone else.  I like my independence.  I kind of like NOT DOING.

So, instead of doing everything better, I think I’ll start not doing more often.

Whiteout.

There’s a whiteout outside of my window. There’s a whiteout in my mind, too, as I seem incapable of seeing through life clearly right now.

My nose is broken, my health is in question, my car is out of service, my money is tight, my patience is thin, my lack of sleep is nagging, my to-do list never shrinks, my friends stopped calling,… I feel like I’ve hit such a wall. If I had a résumé to life, it might look impressive, but my life off of paper is just plain exhausting right now.

I think not knowing where I stand with people lands me in that fog. It makes it even harder to get out of a bad streak when I feel like I’m always going to be doing it alone. It was rewarding when I took my first few independent steps – months – but years? I feel like it’s been eternity since I fit in with a group of people.

Today I was pretty torn up over some social situations. I walked into another office at work for some training we do periodically. A coworker that is too snobby for my liking was standing with some girls from that office. They watched me intently from the doorway to the landing beside them. When I started to introduce myself (I was on their home turf so I expected they’d introduce themselves first but they didn’t), they literally talked over me and then walked away.

All day I kept trying to make conversation with someone, someones in particular too, and I just felt awkward or shut down.

I can’t help but think it’s just me, I’m paranoid, everyone else thinks the same about me…but all the negativity from this month keeps stacking up. Not to mention my always miserable Valentine Days.

I guess sometimes it just feels good to feel sorry about yourself when no one else will comfort you. Especially when you feel as run down as I do this month…

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; It is not arrogant.”
-1 Corinthians 13:4

My week has been rough, but this day was subtly amazing.

We made ligonberry Swedish crepes for breakfast. It was a communion day at church and I was hugged like family. The pastor quoted the same passage that I had recently shared with Jeff. We cleaned off 20 or 30 snowy cars as the people left. We had good conversations and baked soda bread and made stirfry vegetables. Then we met his brother and brother’s wife to cross-country ski and had a beer after. The weather was perfect and the sun was shining. We made pasta and ate banana pudding. We watched the Olympics and The Help. We talked about people and gossip and respect and how people treat each other.

And when I left, I had sweet goodbye and was thanked for my persistence in convincing Jeff to try something he didn’t think he wanted, to watch that movie. It sounds silly, but it spoke volumes. Gentle persistence. Comfort zones. That came up a lot today.

Taking the time to have fun and be patient to understand, that makes such a difference. Slowing down enough to enjoy the smallest things makes anything feel refreshing. The pastor quoted 1 Corinthians today, and I thought it was a good thing to remember.

And in other news, I’m back writing full swing for the Athenian – and illustrating, too.

All Kinds of Kinds.

Miranda Lambert has it right: it really does take all kinds of kinds. All kinds of people, stories of success as well as failure. All kinds of personalities and roles. All kinds of lows to make evident the highs.

I just wish more kinds of things would start giving me some optimism or hope. Or maybe I’m wishing too much.

Heaven is for Real.

hifr

I remember going to the store to look for one thing and always seeing this bright, yellow, silly-looking book jumping out at me: Heaven in for Real by Todd Burpo.  It was actually on one of my long, hidden lists of books I wanted to read.  I only wanted to read it because I knew of people who were wanting to read it as well, and I wanted to know what everyone was raving (both positively and negatively) about so much.  I finally grabbed one of several copies from the library and found myself done with the thin book in no time.

First, I’ll explain the premise in brief: a dad sits down to write this book with an author after a few years of hearing his small son tell stories about heaven.  Little Colton became incredibly ill and, according to the book, was a miracle of survival.  Over time, he starts revealing more and more about an out-of-body experience, telling bits about heaven that sound like scripture he wouldn’t have been able to know by 3 yet told in the way a child tells things he doesn’t quite understand but has seen (“rainbows” to explain the jewels all over the kingdom, “red markers” on Jesus’s hands which would be his wounds, etc.).

When I first starting reading this book, all I did was scoff at it.  It seemed so stupid to me.  The book was mostly about the dad and his family’s financial struggles and connection with his church.  Every time Colton revealed something he had seen, I just dismissed them with things like “well it took him 2 years to say it” or “his dad is a preacher, he could have heard that from anywhere” or “maybe he just wants attention” or “maybe this dad is a total phony” or “his dad prompted him to answer the correct way” or “how convenient, that he didn’t write down the names of the kids Colton had met in heaven”………..

I’ll admit, I still have my doubts.  But there was one point during the book when some switch just flipped inside of me.  Things started to feel a little weird to me when Colton became very strongly expressive about Jesus and how Jesus just loves everyone.  I kind felt this melting feeling and began to realize I have never doubted Jesus’s existence or that he made sacrifices for what he believed in, I only doubted who is actually is/was.  To hear that someone so tied to worldly martyrdom would still be worshipping the innocence of children (which I value highly, too), it made me feel even better about standing up for goodness.  In that moment, I decided I really love Jesus, whether he is the son of a god or if he’s just a guy.  He is, if nothing else, a perfect role model, isn’t he?  With Colton’s description, I formed a very comforting image of Jesus in my head.

Then Colton starts talking about his dad’s grandpa.  I was a little dumbfounded when Colton seemed to legitimately recall his long-dead ancestor and even more impressed when Colton only recognized pictures of the man when he was in his prime.  He claims that, in Heaven, “no one is old and no one wears glasses” which is a cute kiddie way of saying we are in the best of health.  Yet I was still bouncing it back and forth, the idea that Colton could have overheard his dad talking, that he could have somehow imagined everything,… except for the visual recognition part, if that really happened as it was told.

But it gets weirder.  Colton’s mother had had a miscarriage, yet Colton hadn’t been told.  Sure, he could have overheard about “losing the baby” or something.  But for him to come out and say he met his sister in heaven that he didn’t know he had, and to describe him as looking like his mother unlike the other children who are like their father – those things just seemed to real to me.  I find it hard to believe that a young child could process those kinds of concepts unless he had some incredible dream that streamed those thoughts together with no assistance other than his own intelligence.

Yet the moment that I suddenly found doubt in everything I had come to believe came when Colton began identifying problems with paintings of Jesus.  The day then came when Colton was shown one image, one that I have since looked up and which looks exactly like I had pictured in my mind what Jesus is like since Colton’s description… Colton, for the first time in years, found nothing wrong with the painting and said that it was “right”.  Little did he supposedly know that the painting was made by young Akiane who claims to have had a similar experience, seeing visions of heaven.  I was like, what?

(Enter: Mixed feelings.  Feelings that there can’t not be heaven mixed with feelings that maybe this is all a scam.  But how can such a young girl paint so well?  Were her parents really atheists?  So much confusion…)

Regardless of what all of this really means to me, the book made something very clear to me: You can love Jesus and be religious and be “Christian” without being Christian at all.  That’s not saying that there isn’t one singular answer about the existence of a god and that you shouldn’t accept a god that controls your life and is the reason why life exists, it’s more like I began to see the family-ness of religion.  Too often it gets a bad rap and people who aren’t religious like to pin evilness to those who are because those people stand up for their beliefs.  Reading this book made me realize that religion is not meant to shut people out or hurt them, it’s more like fulfilling a duty to a god and to each other.  It’s using “community” as a vehicle for discovery, self-improvement, reflection – with or without religion being the inspiration.

I suddenly realized that all of those people who ever tried to help me follow my grandma’s footsteps or who feared for a non-Christian in my family or who wanted to “spread the word” were really, the whole time, doing nothing but trying to help.  I’ve seen enough non-Christians react to this help to know that they see it as sabotage, unaccepting, backwards, closed-minded…but, in reality, I think there is some hypocrisy in that interpretation.  This book made me realize that people who whole-heartedly believe in something feel like that they have the key to all the doors you need to open and here they are trying to hand you those keys.  It’s like they know something already that you don’t know but they’re helping lead you to it.  It’s not such an evil thing after all, if done kindly.

So, although I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with the book, I did order a used copy of it to keep as a reminder of how it made me think – and I want now to spend a moment on the mixed reviews I have read regarding Heaven is for Real.  These reviews are seriously split down the middle, between adamant Christians celebrating how god has touched the family and the son and aggressive atheists denouncing Todd Burpo and calling the whole thing a scam.  Well, isn’t it only pleasing when we hear only what we choose to hear?

To the Christians in love with the book, I wonder if they ever raise any doubts?  To the atheists who detest it, do they seriously read it with nothing but cold-hearted conviction?  It would be like a Christian reading an atheist book, insulting its ignorance while the atheists revels in its accuracy.  That’s why I prefer to sift through everything and, regardless of spiritual context, take away some sort of meaning that I can use to better myself.

For all of the people who complained about the Burpo family being like the Flanders family in the Simpsons, well how is that such a bad thing?  I don’t think it is at all.  A little funny and strange that people could be so happy all the time, but I wish the world was full of more Flanders.  There were also complaints about the author being the same author as Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and how it was like Palin, too bubbly and sugar-coating or ignoring the bad stuff.  Again, what is so wrong with that?  (Although, I have to say I disagree with Burpo when he says, on page 84, that you might as well tell God what you’re thinking since he already knows what you’re thinking [when you’re angry, for example].  Yes, but what about filtering it to show him your control and respect?  That passage stuck out oddly to me…)

Regardless, I think the point of the book is something I can really agree with: that a child is innocent and pure due to “lack of guile” (74).  That’s why Colton’s Jesus loves the children, why Colton is so idolized in the story for his unfiltered thoughts, why this telling of heaven is so powerful – because it is meant to be pure visions retold by a guileless human.  So, if nothing else, that and my new appreciation for the concern of others is what I will take away from this book – and perhaps much more.

Timing.

I spent the majority of my weekend in Tennessee.  It took my friend and me arriving to absolutely every scheduled event exactly on time for me to realize how stressful day-to-day scheduling has become.  I already have experienced the stress from the other perspective, when I worked in third world countries and a contractor doesn’t show up or call for a couple of days which is apparently completely okay over there.  That stressed me out because I was on a schedule.  But what about when you can make your own schedule and be stressed by yourself?  We didn’t need to meet my friend, do the Louisville Slugger tour, taste-test at Jim Beam’s, hike Mammoth Caves, honky-tonk in Nashville… but we scheduled ourselves to do all of those things.

I just got so accustomed to the stress and success of the weekend that, when tragedy struck leaving the Smokies and Knoxville, I was completely unprepared to be stranded in southern Kentucky without a car.  The timing has kept us from getting to work today, finishing things we had to do,…and I have to feed my cats again.  The timing then restricted us to shops being closed on Sundays, places being booked on SuperBowl Sunday, an impending storm limiting our travel, and even plopping us down in the most remote corner of our entire voyage.

But the timing has also made many more things evident which are positive.  I have finally had to forcefully resolve the small, persistent problems in my new car which are actually big problems that somehow flew under the radar when the dealer sold the car to me.  I have a new perspective on how to handle and prepare for these situations, partly thanks to a conversation I had with a friend.  It also made me realize how much patience my friend Jess has and how amazing Jeff is for offering to come “pick us up”.  That would be a 12-hour roundtrip and he didn’t hesitate to offer help in any way possible.

I just think timing is a funny thing, how it can keep you from seeing something or be so perfect at making a little thing obvious.  I just hope it doesn’t decide to show me too many things on our drive home this afternoon…