I’ve been sleeping in my clothes a lot since I got home. I don’t know why, it’s as if I need to be ready to go at any moment. I’ve also been sleeping on the couch, weird hours, getting up and roaming around in the middle of the night. I’ve yet to really go to bed. I sleep in my sleeping bag; my dreams are in vivid color and definitely not in English. When I wake up, I don’t know where I am; when I remember, I’m disappointed. My ears strain to hear the sound of dogs barking and squabbling, bells in the courtyard; my eyes long for the sting of juniper smoke and smoldering butter lamps.
Right now it’s 3 am. By 6 pm last night I couldn’t stay awake; fell asleep on the couch, more like passing out, one leg hanging off the edge, lights on; when I woke up just after midnight, disoriented, disheveled, I got up and turned out the light, tried to get back to sleep, gave up finally and got up, drew a wickedly hot bath, lit a candle and opened the window to the chill night air. The steam poured out of the room into the darkness, taking me with it; I was transported back to Tibet as if sucked into a vortex, more than remembering, I was there, opening the window in a shared room at Drikung, Tamin silhouetted in shadow, opening it even though the air was dark blue with cold, cold that reached in and stole my breath and flickered the flame on one of the candles we carried with us, bought from a cluttered store on a corner in Samye.
It’s so still. The air is crystalline.The candle burns in a homemade candle holder made from a cut-in-two Budweiser-canned-in-China beer can. Or is it on a metal plate next to the tub in Vermont? The dark blue sky dotted white with stars. The same sky, the same stars, the same wind carrying the breath of everybody and everything that circles the planet over and over and over again.
Where am I? Outside the window a horse blows steam from his nose, the sound of his teeth clicking and grinding as they clip the grass carries on the chill air, while at the bottom of the steep sudden bank the Zhorong Tsangpo whispers and cries in secret languages about hidden things.
I snap out of it– take my tee shirt off in the middle of the Vermont night steamy bathroom, incense burning. It’s the same one I’ve worn for days, stretched out, familiar, no longer clothing it’s become part of me. As I pull it over my head the smell of me, something uniquely mine, carries on the small breeze of its passing. The smell of sweat and incense mingle in my shirt with the places I’ve been, where my shirt has been. It’s a perfume I prefer to anything artificial.
I’m so full of longing; I hold the shirt to my face, inhale that familiar scent, bereaved. Does everyone go through this? It comes as no surprise to me. It’s as if I’m holding the shirt of a recently passed lover. I knew this would happen—I saw it coming while I was still in Nepal, caught in a downpour in Thamel district, rain pouring down onto the crazy streets of Kathmandu, soaked to the skin, traipsing around with a man I love, a dear friend, a compatriot, a fellow vagabond who I was lucky enough to meet up with after twenty years of not seeing each other.
I had abandoned my hiking boots and given into wearing sandals in the filthy streets and alleyways, feet soggy and sticky brown with mud and who knows what else and suddenly I knew what to expect when I got back to the states. “I won’t just think about this when I leave. I will miss this place with my body,” I told myself. “I will miss it with my heart.” Later on that rainy Kathmandu night, I rescued a cockroach from the shower drain at the hotel and decided against a shower, not because of the cockroach– a not entirely unattractive creature the length of my index finger–but because after spending a goodly amount of time setting the fortunate bug free I’d lost interest in showering and elected instead to sit outside now that the rain had stopped. We were in Boudhanath, the home of the Great Stupa in Kathmandu; the dogs were barking while in the shadows, the night lit only by butter lamps placed around the stupa, a lone pilgrim walked the kora, spinning the long row of prayer wheels and gently chanting.
Later that week, on our last night together in Boudha, my long lost friend Shepherd and I sit silently on an old wooden bench overlooking the stupa in the moonlight, silent, no words needed or sought. The street dogs gradually join us, grumbling and jostling for position now that they’ve added a couple of humans to the pack. The moon is pale yellow and luminous in a hazy sky. A long lean pup wriggles himself into my lap, licks my chin. I hear the voice in my head of the travel doctor in Vermont in that distant lifetime before now. Warning: do not touch the filthy street dogs in Kathmandu. I rub and scratch the black pup. His greasy, stiff and dusty hair feels like a doormat. He sighs, settles in.
Twenty years! Our friendship nearly thirty. Shepherd and I first met when he was a refugee from the Soviet regime that had seized his home, the Czech Republic. Met when he was barely out of his teens, when his courageous and strange path led him across Europe and Canada and finally to the Pacific Northwest, where we lived together in tents in the pouring rain and planted trees for a living. Little wonder I believe in karma. In the middle of millions and millions of people—billions! Halfway around the world from home our paths cross after all this time, and I’m not supposed to believe in magic? Others can talk about coincidence, the law of averages and so forth. I contemplate dependent vs. spontaneous arising, the laws of karma as true force rather than some meaningless phrase left over from the sixties.
I feed the dogs from a bag of scraps. I eat some myself, dirty dog hands in my mouth. The pup is polite, whines softly but doesn’t push. “Kalu” Shepherd says. “Black dog”. And he strokes her, looking up at the pale waxing moon lying on its back over the rounded breast of the stupa.
Alas, there’s not a lot of patience for stench, stray dogs and cockroaches in Vermont. I kick my dirty jeans into the corner, toss the tee shirt on the pile and sink into the tub. Up to my neck in hot water, I watch the steam rise, drift, and mingle with the smoke from the incense. My very domestic dog curls up on the rug next to the tub. I’ve told her hundreds of stories, she alone for the most part. She listens closely when I do, gazing off in her mind’s eye at the faraway places where I’ve been. In dreams, she runs in Kathmandu with her wild ancestors; she begs at the temple in Samye, cavorts on the streets of Paro. I lean my chin on the edge of the tub and watch as her eyes blink rapid-fire and she peddles the air. She whines, stretches, curls again and sighs.