Sunday, September 13, 2015

Walking the Four Corners

Our small bus slowed as the traffic and people gathered on the walkway in Thimptu. This was a new road in the capital, the country's first and only road flyover (overpass) on our way from the Punaka Valley to Paro in Bhutan.  The police cars waiting while pedestrians stared, not at the robust football match across the river, but down to the shores of the river below.

A happenstance encounter with the local newspaper the next day revealed that it was a drowning. A woman  jumped to the river after an argument with her husband.  On the plane leaving Bhutan I read a newspaper with a headline stating that suicide rates now outnumbered the combined deaths from HIV,TB, and Malaria.  Bhutan is now in the top 12% of countries worldwide for deaths by suicide.

Tigers Nest. Paro Taktsang  Photo by Ira Block. 
This troubling statistic comes from a country that prioritizes gross national happiness over gross national product. Here, mountains and hills roll unfettered through a tiny country. Small villages are connected through muddy roads that cling to their sides around innumerable curves.   Healthcare, education and a small baseline consumption of electricity are free. Plastic bags and tobacco use are outlawed .Like Alaska, my home for many years, there is a very small population (less than 700,000 people largely clustered in urban areas), rural subsistence lifestyle and deep cultural traditions and national identity.

That's where the similarity ends.  Alaska hosts  nearly 2 million people a year in the frenetic 100 days of the summer tourist season,  Bhutan has a very strict tourism policy allowing only 100,000 visitors a year into the country  A minimum daily package includes flights, visa, lodging, meals and a Bhutanese guide for $250 a day.  Normally out of my price range, the trip I sated a long-time wish in the spirit of carpe diem.

The Universe at Punakha Dzong. 
Stunning, fulfilling and peaceful were my three words that I crafted to summarize the trip for my friends when they ask.  I traveled for 10 days with 14 other creatives (convened by Writer's Journeys) and led by a handsome, thoughtful and talented Bhutanese guide.  In between soaking in the delicate, symbolic art that adorns nearly every surface, sharing stories and impressions with our group, and hiking up mountains and through rice fields,  I wrote.

We had daily workshops that included reading and writing. lunchtime conversations included great conversations around craft, practice, and publication.  We met local writers who were talented, generous and eager.  I rejuvenated my spirit and miraculously, despite buffets and beer every night, did not gain weight. I  reflected on my current big projects and the past, present and future path..

In an early morning before breakfast, I remembered and wrote about my two years in Juneau, Alaska in the mid-90's. Surrounded by vigilant mountains that tumbled into a narrow ocean channel,  I spent the summer leading kayak trips and the rest of the year in a small office managing a struggling organization. The dark season was long and filled with a nearly constant cold, horizontal rain that pummeled my lonely self in my early months of living there.

Juneau Harbor at night.
Desperate for exercise, on occasion I would power-walk  home from the office along the long sidewalk between the Gastineau channel and a 4-lane road.  In the first months after summer and as the sun slipped away, the weather was often blustery and unsettled, ominous and fearsome.  Thoughts circled around.   "What if I jumped off the ferry one night?" I mulled the possibility over.

The rumble  of the engines and the anonymity of 4am would hide the act. By the time anyone realized, I rationalized,  the icy waters would have numbed physical capacity to swim and I would return to the ocean, to the natural world I loved.  That thought would sit next to me for a while, waiting. When I was ready, I would mentally swallow brightly-colored lights and muster on.  The thought gained and dissipated strength through challenging times, but never became overwhelming.

Some cannot move forward with the dark thought at their side. Who  knows why the woman in Thimphu  jumped into the river upstream?  Buddhist precepts foretell painful reincarnations for this act. For Bhutan's deeply spiritual population, the portent of this despair is powerful.  Bhutan's suicide rate, like Alaska's, largely befalls young people between 18-25 who live in rural villages. As in Bhutan, alcohol is usually a factor.  Faith and tradition can help, but in a country where the forces of culture are sometimes in conflict, young people are most at risk.
National Memorial Stupa 

Late one afternoon, we went to the National Memorial Stupa in Thimptu.   Dozens of people gather there to walk clockwise around the stupa chanting,"Om mani padme hum". This Tibetan Buddhist chant of compassion is invoked through prayer wheels. In all shapes and sizes, the prayer wheels are held in the hands of the walkers, gripped by the base and turned by people walking by (always clockwise) or the forces of a river stream. At the Stupa, older people clutch prayer beads, reciting the mantra 108 times. Children accompany their parents, some surreptitiously checking their telephones while holding the arm of their elder.  A few walkers make sure that they move to the outside of the pillars at each of the 4 corners, touching them as a way to meet the ground in the 4 directions.  This feels important for all of us: centering ourselves in what is important. 

The prayer wheels, large and small, are present everywhere in Bhutan. 

In Linda Learning's memoir Married to Bhutan, she talks about her observations on happiness:
  1. There will probably be some physical pain and some form of renunciation on the road to happiness. 
  2. Ultimately, no one else can make you happy. You have to do it for yourself. 
  3. Happiness doesn't come from outside forces. It comes from how you view the outside forces. It comes from inside. 
On this last point, she coaches us to train our attitude to happiness.  To do that, she encourages us to consider death as a tool to stabilize our mind and to focus on gratitude. Our goal to maintain happiness requires us to face the fact that our life is short.  I am filled with gratitude for the capacity to go to this remarkable country with a very special circumstance.

We become better people when we are grateful for what we have. When we remove the attachment to belongings or transient emotions. To always be grateful for life.  We have so much to accomplish- sometimes by doing and sometimes by being.  For this experience- small moments combined in a profound, thought-provoking and reassuring landscape-- was an incredible gift.

The Place I Want to Get Back To

The place I want to get back to
is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness
and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let's see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can't be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named

Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press 2006)

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