Monday, February 11, 2013

Buddha on a Rope Bridge, New England in the Cold


News from opposite ends of the earth. Eastern world first:
            Our favorite globe-hopper Sonya (I'm prejudiced, she's our daughter) is crossing a footbridge made of rope and wood over a brown river in Laos. It's one of those bridges that sway and bounce whenever you take a step. Think Indiana Jones. The river isn't that wide at this point -- outside one of those French colonial cities that attract tourists -- so if the bridge collapsed and you fell in you could make your way to shore. And it's not filled with nasty creatures. Still, it's wide enough that it's a lot easier to cross over on a bridge than get soaked fording it.
            Crossing for the first time you quickly realize it's better to step on the wood rails rather than on the rope, to reduce the bouncy feedback. But still, if you're a tourist, you're new at this, so you walk cross carefully. Slowly.
            Sonya is halfway across when two Buddhist monks appear on the other side. Barefoot, saffron robes, shaven heads. 
            Courteous as all Laotians are, they wait patiently for the foreign visitor to cross before they begin their own transit.
            Sonya and her traveling companion have encountered the monks before in their week in Laos. Mostly young -- many Laotian men spend a couple of years as monks before transitioning into adulthood; it's Buddhist higher ed -- the monks rise before dawn and proceed at a ceremonial pace through town seeking alms. The Laotians wait patiently for them, sitting in front of their houses on woven mats with a beaker of rice. The monks announce their presence at the corner, then walk slowly down the street stopping to receive a pinch of rice before each household.
            Everyone is patient in Laos. No one ever shows anger. No one expresses strong words or emotions, even when Sonya tries to draw English speakers into conversation about the tragic years during the Vietnam War when Americans bombed their country and destabilized their government. Cluster bombs dropped by American planes still go off in the fields, decades later, causing injuries.
            "Those were unfortunate times," she says, digging for a reaction.
            "Yes," she is told. "That was unfortunate."
            No one ever expresses any interest in learning that a visitor is an American.
            She reaches the other side of the bridge, eventually. The monks bow. A few words are exchanged. One of the monks appears to desire to extend the chance counter a little longer rather than go on his way over the river. She waits for him to say something more.
            Finally:"You want cigarette?"
            Sonya's take in recounting this story: who knew monks smoked?
            Meanwhile (my favorite transition) in the Western world, things grow difficult when Nature delivers one of her timely reminders of the limits of human control over our man-made environment. The winter storm called Nemo was forecast with great accuracy, even in the timing. In Massachusetts motorists were sternly warned to stay off the roads, public transportation was shut down in Boston Friday afternoon, and workers were sent home early. With all this pre-storm wisdom afloat, I made my advance preparations for some serious indoor time: wine, DVDs, and pastries from our favorite bakery.
            But a funny thing happened Friday night during the third or fourth hour of thick snow and high winds: the power went out. We sat in the dark, waiting. It did not come back on.
            I was not in a patient, Buddhist frame of mind as Anne and I went to bed under three quilts. I could not imagine one good thing that would happen on the morrow in a house without heat or electricity.
            In the morning it was 15 degrees out doors and 45 indoors. When it's that cold indoors, it feels warmer outdoors because you're layered up like a mummy and, it almost goes without saying, you're shoveling snow. However, as one of our long-shoveling neighbors observed, you'd liked to go inside afterwards and have a nice cup of tea.
            That didn't happen, at least in our house, but other good things did. The neighbors who have a gas range invited us in and made us strong cups of coffee. Man does not live by bread alone; he needs coffee. They also warmed our spirits with a few rounds of a highly imaginative board game using picture cards apparently designed by a surrealist, presided over by their charming elementary school daughter.
            But things went downhill after that when, exhausted from shoveling, we went back indoors, used our working phone, and discovered that nothing was open in the city of Quincy: no restaurants, no motels. The sense of isolation was deepened by concern over the state of the roads, which you were not even allowed to use them until later that day. Cold food, cold house, cold bed?
            In the end we were rescued by an open-house invite from another neighboring couple who had heat in their house because of an old and arcane boiler no one could explain; and by simple good luck. While we were drinking wine and our friends were engaged in dinner preparations that included barbecuing steak and tuna on the deck, a little flicker of early evening brightness in the living room, as if a star had flown into the room, materialized into a light bulb. The power was back.
            It took another three hours for it to come back on our street, but that was still in time for us to begin heating the house before going to bed.
            Many, many others in Massachusetts, tens of thousands, were not so fortunate.
            In the end we suffered very little. The anticipation of being cold and going without power for an indefinite time -- for me, cold is the nemesis; if it were summer I could have sat outdoors under the stars, though my wife would have been cursing the mosquitoes -- was the worst of it. Some frigid hours on Saturday gave me a taste of it. With no alternative heat source, no fireplace, no wood stove, I found the helplessness paralyzing.
            But in the end the hardship was neither long-lasting nor terrible. No one was bombing our country. Our children were safely living their grown-up lives elsewhere. Sonya had crossed that footbridge to the other side of the river.
            A Buddhist perspective would no doubt serve me better during a time of discomfort and anxiety than my native Western self-centeredness. I'm not patient; I get upset too easily. Like most human beings of a certain age, I'm pretty good at controlling my outward behavior, but not so adept at mastering my inward thoughts and emotions.
            Human suffering, Buddhism teaches, is caused by attachment. If you're not "attached" to events or emotions, they can't bother you.
            But attachment is another word for "caring."
            Laos, while poor, is beautiful, clean and "very cheap" to live in, Sonya says. But she wouldn't want to live there. Too much of who she is was simply on ice there. It's life in neutral.
            We're Americans, born to the pursuit of happiness, to expressing ourselves, to standing up for our "natural rights." We care, sometimes very passionately, about what happens to us, and (hopefully) to others. We want to believe that our little, ordinary, transitory lives are meaningful. Our lives are a roller coaster; we go up and down. When bad things happen, as they inevitably sometimes do, we suffer.
            It comes with the territory. As does the detachment of the East.