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.

Keep the Earth Below My Feet

Keep

You were cold, as the blood through your bones
And the light which led us from our chosen homes
Well I was lost
Now I sleep
Sleep the hours that I can’t weep
When all I knew was steeped in blackened holes
Well I was lost

And I was still
And I was under your spell
When I was told by Jesus all was well

So all must be well
Just give me time
Well you know your desires and mine
So wrap my flesh in ivory and in twine
For I must be well

Keep the earth below my feet
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn
Keep my eyes to seve my hands to learn

Mumford and Sons

Avoid Being a Critic.

benin-06

As I struggle to understand the world around me as well as my own emotions and role, I realize how often I judge people in my mind.  You would think that the more I discover about humanity, the more I would come to dislike people who go against the grain of what I think is the right way to live.  On the contrary, it’s been quite the opposite.

I used to be haughty and swing around the opinions I’d been raised on like some kind of righteous sword without even having a cause for why I felt that way.  It was strictly due to my environment.  Moving away from home – and then eventually traveling independently – gave me the priceless ability to view myself from the outside.  And I didn’t like what I was seeing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the toxic wave of judgment.  Someone says one thing, a few people nod in agreement, no one wants to be “that guy” who stands up and protests.  It’s important to remember people come from different backgrounds, experiences, comfort zones, and beliefs – and all of those things drastically influence their actions and choices.  Even if something seems wrong to you, that person might not be viewing it in the same way.

Let me take a very simple example:
When I was living in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa this time last year, it was perfectly ordinary to walk out onto the street from my compound to swarms of children with outstretched hands.  They would chant “Yovo!  Yovo!’ on account of me being a foreigner with lighter skin.  They would sing “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!  Ca va bien, merci!” without even knowing what they were saying.  They would then tug at my dress and beg for a “cadeau”.  The parents would chuckle and watch.  Yes, these children were taught to racially discriminate and demand money, to disregard personal space, and to taunt.  That’s at least how some people saw it and it angered them.  They’d spit out mean words and curse at the children.  I just smiled and played along, rarely given out any francs.  These kids were raised to believe this is how you treat people, this is how you survive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that because that is how they survive.  That’s how those kids get the coins they need to go to the Internet café.  Some of them probably give the change to their mom, and that’s how they have bread for dinner.  No harm done.

Probably the hardest part in avoiding being a critic, for me at least, has been realizing not everyone is so determined to live righteously.  Some people choose to just live and get by within the common rules.  They don’t strive to find some inner-peace or to travel the world or discover themselves.  They’re content like that.

I used to hate that.  I used to resent that and call it being lazy, selfish, stubborn…but really, it’s a choice.  In fact, I preach so much that morality is just a human-made concept in order to function in an optimal society – that we are really just animals.  So isn’t that perspective more animalistic?  I guess so…I just couldn’t see it before.

I think I always just wanted the best for myself, and then to see the best in others and help them bring it out.  It’s a tough line to walk, but there is a point when your suggestions should stop before intervention.  I see it between me and my peers, the ones who don’t say they’re inspired by my ambition and who continue with the same mundane life they grew up into.  The ones who don’t move or don’t try to make changes.  I’ve got to let them decide for themselves; they’ve already seen the things I have done and how those things have helped me.

So before you’re hasty at judging someone, consider why you’re doing it and why you think you’re better for what you do.  You might find you don’t have a legitimate reason after all.  You might realize you should remain a worst critic to only yourself, and I think you’ll be a better person for it.

Remembrance, Emotion, and Human Follies.

I love referring to emotion as the greatest folly of mankind.  I believe that our intellectual capacity increased as a compensation for our physical ineptitude in the realm of survival, thus we tend to “outsmart” other creatures in order to overcome them by means other than one-on-one combat.  It helped us survive up until this point.  However, that intelligence fosters the ability for us to overanalyze, hesitate, and even remember things not crucial to our survival.  This mental clutter, to me, is a flaw rather than a blessing.  I like to think very pragmatically, so I see emotion as being a hinderance to instinct.  Yet that doesn’t keep me from remembering things.

I look at my cats and I wonder how much they remember, think, and feel.  I believe they do feel emotion because they express love and fear and gratitude.  I’m not so self-centered to think that is some superior quality that only humans have, to feel.  I used to think that cats really didn’t remember too much, like they had some kind of short-term memory.  When I moved to Ohio and their crates opened for the first time in my new apartment, they had total fear in their eyes and suspected everything because it was unfamiliar territory.  I expected the same thing to happen after they got used to my place and we visited Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving.  I was wrong.  I opened the crates and they came pouring out and ran to their favorite baskets or scratching posts as if they’d never left months before. I confirmed that cats do remember over at least a span of several months.  However, also I do know that cats have a lack of attachment, and memory is certainly different from emotion.  I’ve seen cats meow after their lost kittens for a few hours, then move on as if nothing happened.  It’s life.  They don’t intend to have another litter because they probably aren’t conscious of how they end up with one, but, when they do have another, it’s the same instincts that take over.  It’s all about survival.

The only creatures not fixated on survival appear to be the humans so enamored with the idea that Mother Earth is living hell, that God will save them, and that they’re only getting by here to reap everything in heaven when they’re done.  Because humans think too much.  Because animals live in the present.  Animals inherently and naturally understand what it takes to be a successful, integral, non-destructive part of this planet. I try to imagine what my life would be like if I could have more animal-like thinking patterns but still live in this artificial human bubble of protection where all it takes is a turn of a dial to change my room to a comfortable temperature setting.  I can confirm that I’d have less personal growth.  I would be less transfixed on intelligence and self-improvement because those would get me nowhere as an animal and somewhere only as a human functioning in a human-made society.  I would essentially live the life of an innocent child who speaks without thinking, tells no lies, and sees things for exactly what they are, albeit everyday murmurs or something completely jaw-droppingly amazing and inexplicable.  I wouldn’t search for reason; I would accept and move on.  I wouldn’t question why I am here, what that moment means to me, or where I should be going.  I wouldn’t contemplate right or wrong because those things would be null to me, completely moot to survival.  I would just live.  Aren’t we all just meant to live? Instead, I am stuck with a crippling ability to feel.  I overanalyze, I dwell, I suffer.  I cry when I am not physically wounded.  I cry just because I haven’t cried for a long time and I feel like my body needs it.  BUT WHO DOES THAT?  Humans, yes, but only humans?  I think only humans.  My cats don’t cry.  My cats don’t miss their family.  My cats don’t go to funerals.

I think that’s when I started thinking the most about remembrance, when my cousin died this week.  It made me start to recall memories of my family and all of the things I’ve done this year and all of the people I may never see again, whether they’re alive at the time I post this or long gone.  I try to think of the “purpose” to all of these moments and then I try to decipher whether or not such things have “purpose”.  What is “purpose”?  Is it only a spiritual thing?  When my agnostic mom tells me things happen for a “reason”, what is the “reason” of which she speaks?

I don’t have many memories from my family outside of my direct line.  My cousins have never played a large part of my life, but I do keep cousins whose families haven’t had common ties with mine since the 1700s – because we are few, far-flung, and in need of someone who understands us.  Too many family quarrels have limited even my most direct ties so that, essentially, I am left with siblings, parents, and grandparents to go to.  That means I have my grandma and little else.  But that wasn’t always the case.  And so in recalling my cousins who I knew less than I’d wished, I start to think about those moments I don’t have any longer, the moments of remembrance that define me as a human.

I can’t imagine who I would be if I didn’t have either houses of my grandparents’ to visit.

On my one side, I used to have both grandparents – and many of their siblings – but that all drastically changed in the course of just one year.  Without those grandparents, I wouldn’t have my grandma’s perspective on religion, my grandpa’s indifference, the obvious love that glued them together, their passion for the outdoors, or even that community spirit where we need to work together to improve ourselves and search for something more.  I would say those grandparents made quite a life out of what they were given.  The gardens, the knowledge of how to live off the land, long bike rides through thickets of trilliums (my grandma’s favorite flowers), singing hymns, watching the 8’o clock flowers bloom, sipping sweet tea on the gazebo with a mason jar of lightning bugs, a day of fishing, making salad from grandma’s homegrown loveage, swinging on the same tree mom swung in, feeding the birds, writing poetry on the typewriter, making crafts in the cellar with the musty smell of dried flowers and moss, putting giant magnetic spots on grandma’s car (because she was, after all, “Lady Bug”), listening to grandma storytell, PapPap grouching when we tell him to leave the football game in the TV room and go mow the lawn, his “jungle” garden and train set, the smell of their air-conditioning in the summer (they were the only elderly people I knew with air-conditioning), trying on grandma’s square dancing dresses, playing Pass the Pigs on the porch, the smell of grandma’s homemade biscuits in the kitchen, imagining my mom, her brother, and her sister living in the same rooms, falling asleep to the sound of distant cars and their headlights flashing on the ceiling (the only house I knew near a road), running out to meet the mail woman when she came down the lane, realizing I never saw the attic, wandering through the greenhouse and trying to remember the outdoor garage when their horse Bootsy lived there, crates of Coke bottles, Christmas and Easter when it actually had a meaning, skiing in the front lawn, the mantel clock that chimed a hymn, all the things that we could have done and they could have seen if only we had had more time…

On the other side, the farm.  Driving until we were in the middle of nowhere, then taking a turn into nothing and driving some more.  The lane that wasn’t a driveway but supposedly a “road”.  That road splits into four, and I still go there when I visit home.  One lane now jogs over to a temporary home for our friends.  Another shoots off into the forest, having once served the oil companies.  A third lane runs along the bottom of grandma’s garden and splits, one side going to her garage, the other continuing past a series of buildings that make up the abandoned pump station she bought years ago.  That lane continues through a cornfield until it dissipates from lack of use.  The last lane also splits again, heading up towards grandma’s house and then going either left to the dog pens or right towards the brick-layed yard that divides grandma’s two large barns.  I remember years ago when grandma still lived with her half-brother and how he was always mixing concrete in a trough between the barns and feeding his pigs.  My brother and I would play on the play set he concreted into the ground, then jump on some old rocks surrounding the chicken coop, toss rotten apples that fell off grandma’s tree into the well beside the house that had a broken plywood cover, chase each other through the pastures catching butterflies (or lightning bugs, at night), go “bale surfing” (when we would run across the tops of hay bales and try to get them to roll), run across steel beams Uncle Mike had laying around the barns for his new construction, chase kittens and stray cats that grandma feeds daily in her barns, climb in the hay loft to look for kitten holes or make “castles”, poke the corn bin in search of a black widow, stir leaves and sand in a giant rain catcher every time it rained, paint any window we could find with a Rose Art kit, draw grandma’s dogs with chalk on the patio, climb a tree that we didn’t realize our great-grandfather had planted in the sixties for our dad, roll down the hill in the front yard, sneak around the abandoned buildings in search of treasure, follow our parents to the open dump and jump on piles of tires and furniture before we realized open dumps are actually illegal, walking food over to our neighbors a few miles down the lane, hearing Joel come over to crank up the tractor or a bailer, listening to the crickets at night, grandma flipping on the lottery at 7 each night so she can interrupt the Wheel of Fortune and write down numbers in a book she keeps in the candy door, the clicking of the fan, the smell of the old rooms with furniture dad used when he still lived here, photos of a grandpa we never knew, pierogies, nut rolls, chicken noodle soup, coco-wheats, coffee with cream and sugar, corn flakes with sugar on top, motorcycle helmets for our toy bikes that we took racing down the gravel lane, grandma’s stash of Coke in the basement, feeding the dogs “dog lasagna”, cooking in both the upstairs and the downstairs ovens, filling buckets of water during hurricane season and lining the halls with them, boiling water in kettles to wash my hair because the heater was broken, stories of all the cool cars grandma bought while she worked the factories, trips out to Uniontown and the mall, those sweet summer nights with dogs and bubbles and a setting sun,…

I even remember the days when I would go to grandma’s sister’s.  It’s not the way it used to be.  Now her husband has died and her son has moved back in and my brother and I no longer play at the baseball field in the summer.  But we used to.  And we used to stay after games, watch our uncle do crosswords, sneak Skittles from his dispenser, watch TV on my aunt’s 4″x4″ black -and-white kitchen screen, eat Fudgesicles from the basement freezer, throw powder in the fireplace that made the flames blue, do puzzles, ride the stationary bike, lay on the tweed couch, play Don’t Break the Ice on the red carpet, poke at the overweight dog, sit on the porch pouring too much pepper on our fresh and local ears of corn, tying up tomatoes in cages in the yard, trimming the bushes by hand while dressed as the Ingall sisters in sunbonnets and dresses, climbing the backyard tree, watering plants out of the rain barrel, doing something that earned a spot on my aunt’s photograph-littered cabinet, pushing wheelbarrows of mulch, sitting at the bottom of the drive with a cardboard sign that said “vegetables for sale” and selling the vegetables, the feeling of the grass when we rolled down the bank just after it was mowed, the hot asphalt (and the only asphalt I knew), playing computer games for the first time (the only old person I knew with a computer!), the squishy toilet seat, packing my “Going to Grandma’s House” suitcase for my aunt’s house and her forgetting that I wasn’t actually her granddaughter, being called my mom’s name, the neighbor kids’ awesome new shed (I had never seen a store-bought shed before, so I would hang out in it with the neighbors and my brother), sloppy kisses, the smell of my aunt’s onion for breakfast, chocolate Nesquick milk, the Clap-On lamps, the Russian doll set, the impossibly white carpets, getting TY Beanie Babies for Christmas, family visiting from Virginia and North Carolina,…

These memories make me remember the little things so that I always appreciate them.  I don’t want a big, glamorous city life.  A small life where I can remember vegetable sales and the way a couch feels is enough for me.  Nothing compares to the feeling of a summer night of playing catch, jarring lightning bugs, and sipping homemade tea.  That’s a good thing, when those memories make me appreciate silly things.  But it’s also bad.  Because now I’m stuck far away, out-of-state, with people who don’t understand my background and who don’t have the same country experiences that I do.  Baking, cooking, farming, gardening,… those are all huge parts of my family time.  A lot of people here, in this drab city, don’t have those things in their past.  They look forward to a much different kind of thrill, the kinds that you don’t get in the woods, on a hunt, just being outside.  I think about that a lot and I convince myself that I cannot stay here, in this urban Ohio.  Not permanently.  But, in the meantime, it will make me appreciate what I left behind.  The mountains, the freedom.  And as for the people, many of them gone, I can’t forget those times – I doubt I can ever forget them.  As much as I could let it bring me down, maybe I can also let it pick me up.  I can hope for a future that will be filled with those same emotions, with people that I can share those times with in another place and another generation.

Memories can bring us so quickly out of the present.  It makes me wonder, where are those people now?  Those times?  It’s so easy to say those people are in heaven and those times are never forgotten but, in reality, I say neigh.  Those people are gone, there is not heaven – that is wishful thinking.  They are gone, and that realization is what makes us appreciate them the most heart-wrenchingly way possible.  You cannot take the present for granted because it is so fleeting.  To think there is redemption, that is foolish naïveté.  To hope for something better when you’re done here is greed and a wholesome lack of appreciation.  Things are meant to be seen simply and fully, like the animals around us see them.  We’ve been granted with the ability to perceive perhaps even more and so we need to use it.  That perception can help us define ourselves and better ourselves whilst we are so transfixed on how we are perceived and how we are changing our own lives. So not everything on this planet feels as much as we do, but we do feel it and we have to learn to live with it.  In the meantime, we can practice remembering those things that we want to carry with us and use them to spark us for the better.

There’s no use in trying to forget an integral part of your past, but dwelling on moments won’t progress you either.  You have to strike a balance.  For that reason, I’ve decided I need to accept what is here and what is gone, take away from it what I can while I can, and then continue to withhold my traditions because that is, in essence withholding a deep part of myself, the static part I want to keep as I continue to grow.