The old house where I live in Vermont comes alive with the slightest acknowledgement—animated, breathing. It’s deep winter; I don’t go out much. I spend my days in the company of animals, furniture and weather. Teapots. Soup pots. The long table in the kitchen with its scars and stories. The fire in the woodstove sputters and ticks; sitting on top the stove the water kettle rocks as it heats, a gentle soul emitting a soft rhythm, metal-on-metal. The refrigerator hums.
When I was a little kid I had to be taken out of the house whenever an old appliance was hauled away or a rug thrown out lest I panic, lest I think the no-longer-needed object was being put to death. These things were my companions, my confidantes. Here by the fire I sit on a small, very old rocking chair given to me by my mother. It has a chip in the arm and the seat is worn. It’s like sitting in a very familiar lap.
I’ve returned from the Himalayas, halfway around the world again but backwards. I’m still trying to locate. I’ve talked to people who traveled to India or Nepal or Tibet thirty years ago, spent a month or two or six and came home and they still haven’t really come back. I used to think they must lead pretty small lives if one trip blew them away that much. Now…I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m wondering what it’s all about. Where have I been, really, or where was I to begin with if returning to what I thought I knew feels so other, so abstract and, well, shifty?
I was sitting on the couch one night a couple of years ago at my son’s apartment when he was still a college student in Colorado. I was talking to Steve, a friend of my son and his roomies who’d dropped out of school and was at loose ends. Steve was living in a tent on the back porch for a few weeks while he figured out the next piece of things. This was an all-guy household; all students. Steve was not much help around the house—he did a lot of thinking—but the guys were mostly kindhearted and easy going about it. They’d all go off someplace and me and Steve would have these long talks. Me being a woman (but basically an old one)and a mom (but not his mom) gave us a lot of room.
Sometimes I’d drop by when everybody was home and find that ‘thing’ in the air, that sort of strung tight feeling when everybody’s irritated but nobody’s saying anything out loud. A kind of low grade buzz. Somehow they’d finally blow it out and get it over with, agree on who was going to buy the toilet paper next time and who was going to clean the kitchen and so forth and all in all, really, Steve was good for them; he rocked the boat in a good way. With all the thinking he did he made them think.
I’d walk in after things were settled and instead of weird vibes find the air saturated with the musings and debates of young men, coffee table piled with books and cups and dirty plates and all the trappings of late night college life and I’d just breathe in all that freshness and curiosity and complexity and angst.
And Steve made tea; lots of tea. We were drinking tea that night on the couch, in fact, and talking and laughing and expounding and then we got to reading Lao Tzu to each other. Steve got up and took the book off the shelf, read aloud then handed the worn volume to me; I read the next verse and handed it back. Sitting there on the couch, passing the book back and forth.
Free from desire, you experience reality.
Trapped in desire, you see only appearances.
Reality and appearance have different names, but
they emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness, deep darkness;
and yet it is the way to all wisdom.
What can you say, reading this sort of thing? It does something to you, reading this stuff. Shuts you up. Gets you out of your head. It’s a body thing, a shift from brain to mind, mind being located where, exactly? “I” being located where, exactly? After a while you simply can’t read anymore, can’t discuss anything either. You yell, “Uncle!” You give in. You can only sit and wait to see what comes of it. So we did, finally; just sat there in silence gazing across the room.
After a long while of nothing but the sounds of a Boulder evening drifting through the back-porch door, Steve asked if I’d ever noticed how a wall looks different when you look at intentionally, rather than just taking it for granted, you know, being indifferent, not caring about it one way or the other. Had I ever noticed that I could care about a wall or anything inanimate for that matter? And if I had, if I’d ever looked at anything that way, had I felt it looking back? Breathing with me?
Yeah, I told him; yes. Yes I had. I’d noticed that.
Here at home, now, midwinter, the Himalayas a memory, I experiment with identity, play around with reality. Who am I if not a collection of memories, ideas, cells and atoms and light? What is the world if not something that appears, dissolves and reappears depending on how we pay attention to it? The fire burns brighter, I’m denser somehow, more compact and yet less solid. I’m aware of being almost pixelated; like I could disappear, travel and reorganize someplace else. My body is different, my senses sharper. I pour another cup of tea, black with milk and sugar—sweet milk tea, so common in the Himalayas—black tea boiled in milk; no one dreams of serving tea without milk unless it’s mint or ginger. Chai, chini—tea, sugar. Masala chai—tea with spice. I close my eyes and taste Samar.
Samar is a village in Upper Mustang, in Nepal, but this is the border between Nepal and Tibet and not the steaming green jungles of Kathmandu. Here the air is dry and thin, rarified as they say, the landscape barren. In the absence of water the palette is gray-scale in all its variations; rusted, washed out, brown, white, gray, black. Wherever there’s a combination of water and reasonably flat ground, the green jewels of villages cluster on cliffsides in the shadows of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas.
Samar is high above the river, nearly 4000 meters. Whenever the clouds open up, the peaks of the Annapurnas appear anew, as if buried or hiding they’ve torn their way through the steep brown rock-land and burst into the sky just that moment for the very first time. Jagged, raw, impossibly neck-cranking tall, purple and black topped with pure white glacier snow they watch over everything and everyone.
I am free from desire.
I need nothing.
I am walking down the hill at Samar, and my head is empty; my mind has moved out and taken up residence in my knees, my shoulders and feet, my fingertips, my heart. I’m walking downhill at a clip, walking down along the creek from the temple at the top of the hill to the guesthouse.
Inside my mouth a celebration’s going on. We’ve just had tea served to us by the temple monks after sitting in mediation; before the taste has left my mouth we’ll have more at the guesthouse. Of course! It’s endless. “Tea, tea, tea!” My tongue sings to my throat, licks my lips to savor the smooth sweetness. My bones and muscles and blood are having a party. My legs sing to my hips, my hips to my back. My body sings a great chorus in the company of tea and monks and thin air. “I will carry you for days without stopping; for weeks, months, years. I will not fail.” The mountains sing back, “We will hold you on our paths and not let you fall.” The sky smiles, the creek is a bell, ringing; the wind the sound of many voices chanting. Om ah hung benza guru padme siddhi hung! I am a walking sapling tree, my limbs that strong and supple; legs rooted, arms swinging.
There’s nothing else to notice but the air in my nose, the tea on my breath, the tensing and releasing of muscle and sinew on bone. “I could die now”, I think. “It wouldn’t matter a lick.” I am happy, so very happy. Rare air shimmers in the sun, the veil visible and parted like gossamer between the worlds. All those faces smiling on both sides. I step from bright sunlight into the shadows of the guesthouse where tea and laughter–the way to all wisdom–awaits.