A Massage at Wat Pho

Pieter was right: the temple massages at Wat Pho really were awesome. Lisa wasn’t surprised by how crowded the site was, because it was dazzlingly, exotically beautiful. All of the palace buildings had golden roofs that gracefully swooped down and curled back up towards the heavens. Guardian demons held up columns or stood with watchful eyes. Thai06_2584_018All of the surfaces were covered with encrusted diamond shapes of colored glass, or tiny mirrors. Throngs of tourists wandered with cameras and guidebooks, admiring the buildings that glittered in the bright Thai sun. WatPho3“It’s almost as if this entire site is winking at us!” Lisa exclaimed.

Lisa and Babs wandered with their own cameras until they found the traditional massage school. An attendant asked them what kind of session they wanted (how long? what style massage? rather from a male or female therapist, or no preference?) and assigned them numbers. Babs’s number was called first and she looked nervous as she vanished out of sight with a therapist. A few minutes later Lisa heard 32 announced. She stood up and a young Thai woman led her to a different building.

The slats of the rattan walls in the low open structure let in both light and air. Lisa was led to the back of the long room, filled with low mats to the left and right. All around her fully clothed people lay on backs or stomachs as Thai therapists pulled at their limbs. Her therapist pointed for Lisa to lie down, and Lisa watched intently as the Thai girl put her palms together in front of her chest and whispered a prayer. She took one of Lisa’s legs in her hands, and Lisa forgot everything around her as the therapist smoothed away the knots of travel.

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In the tropical climate Babs’s own long blond hair had gone completely limp. Babs was miserable. She was pretending she wasn’t shocked and frightened of the foreign megalopolis. Thailand’s capitol city might be a short plane ride away from Singapore. In reality, Bangkok was light years distant from any sanitized, orderly place. Babs knew Lisa admired her for what she perceived to be Babs’s sophistication and worldliness, her previous international travel experience. But just a few days in Bangkok quickly forced Babs to admit how terribly narrow the contours of her worldly knowledge were.

She was terrified of the jostling throngs and afraid of the foreign faces hurrying down the streets. The Bay Area consisted of lots of ethnic groups, of Americans. The jumble of nationalities here was far too authentic. If one more sticky brown body brushed against hers, she would have to scream.

At the temple Babs had been unable to relax despite the massage therapist’s coaxing, dexterous fingers. She had lain fearful and stiff, horribly awkward as a stranger touched her. Babs left the temple with an uncomfortable awareness of how uptight she was and no idea of how to release it.

Her sinuses were clogged with humidity and the aromas of overripe fruits and other odors she couldn’t identify. The stench from open food grills just made her want to gag, while the sly, half closed eyes of the Buddhas in their strange rich temples frightened her. WatPho6They watched Babs, and on all accounts they found her wanting. The glittering Thai world was simultaneously far too blinding, and contained far too much clarity.Thai06greenBuddha

Lisa noticed nothing of how scared Babs was. Instead, Lisa charged head first into the contradictory experience of the crowded streets Thai06nighttrafficand serene, glittering temples. Thai06MonkBabs was dismayed first by her friend Lisa’s surprising lack of fear, and next by her startling physical transformation. For the first time in their friendship she was discerning a little stab of jealousy against plain Lisa.

– from my short story “Banged Cock” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

It Was a Bitterly Cold -22°

For 14 years my husband spent half of every winter up in northern Sweden, working on a frozen lake. The engineers flew up for 2 week stints, leaving home on Mondays and returning two weeks later on a Friday evening charter flight.

The very last year that Uwe did this stint, his company began to allow family members to take advantage of the flights. At the end of March 2001, on the vernal equinox, I flew up to meet Uwe in the region broadly known as Lappland.

Limited access roads

My flight was delayed while President Putin flew through European airspace back to Russia. By the time I arrived it was close to midnight, and we had to drive an hour further north to reach Arjeplog. It was a bitterly cold -22° and on either side of the deserted road the snow piles loomed. But we kept stopping the car to get out – the Northern Lights were dancing in the heavens! So far north, surrounded by nothing but woods and the glittering of stars, the aurora borealis played across the horizen.

I heard a weird background swishing noise underneath the sound of my heart beat. I was listening to the borealis. As I stood on the frigid road my optic nerves took pictures of the Northern Lights. It was so quiet that the part of my brain which processes sound picked up signals leaking out from the images. Early explorers in the Arctic Circle reported this experience. (They discovered when they put their hands over their eyes, the sounds went away.)

The Lights are caused by disturbance in the magnetic field of the earth’s poles. Energy generated by solar winds is hurled from the sun at incredibly high speeds. The solar winds get stopped when they hit the magnetic field. Electrons and atoms from the windstorms collide, and that creates the lights.

In some parts of Sweden and Norway, people earlier described the aurora borealis as the reflection of Silleblixt, millions of herring swimming in the sea. The Eskimos have a legend about the Northern Lights. They think the aurora borealis lights up the trail of the afterlife. This is a dangerous, narrow path that souls must take when they leave dead bodies and head to heaven.

Some cultures mention the lights as dancers in the heavens. Scotsmen call the Northern Lights ‘Merry Dancers’. In the Middle Ages, if people saw the Northern Lights and they contained red, it meant a war was starting somewhere in the world. The red color was death and the blood being spilled in battles. I just saw different shades of white lights and no other colors in the spectrum. And I definitely thought they were alive, like dancers.

The next day we drove north and officially crossed into the Arctic Circle. The trees ended altogether and the landscape beyond this point was a dome of snow meeting an azure sky.

It had warmed up to -6° and the day was clear and beautiful

The Swedes refer to this time of year as winter-spring, the 5thand most beautiful season of all. I made a snow angel

A snow angel for the Arctic Circle

and spotted a rare Arctic white ptarmigan. We drove past spots on the deserted roads where black garbage bags hung dark against the snow. These are a signal for drivers that a herd of reindeer is grazing somewhere nearby.

That weekend is the only time I have seen the Northern Lights. They have danced in my memories ever since.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

The Music of the Heavenly Spheres

Schwedagon Pagoda, Rangon

In 2009 we spent 4 weeks in Burma, the maximum time permitted on a visa. For years we’d debated back and forth about whether to go. Does one travel to a repressive regime? Just the year before, monks were shot for demonstrating peacefully in the streets. In the end we decided to go and bear witness. A country closed tight and ruled with iron fists, the poverty and corruption are unbelievable… as are the loving kindness of the Burmese and the beauty and magic of their land. I have been pondering what to post about our trip to Burma and how to write it, because Burma is unlike anyplace on earth.

But these are only words.

Let me begin again, this time with a story:

Sacred Pali script

On our very last day in-country, in Yangon we stopped at a café on a busy street with outdoor tables. All of the tables were filled with other tourists. The locals did not have the money for anything so extravagant. A beer, a pineapple juice, and hot green tea arrived; I wrote out some last post cards. Hovering in the street were the post card seller, a hawker for newspapers (used and days old), and a skinny boy with an endless “Hello? hello! Hello? hello!” When a tourist looked his way he said “Eat,” and mimed someone putting food in his mouth. He hovered looking over the wall dividing the café from the street, persistent with hunger.

I became aware of an ethereal music swimming its way up from the background of my consciousness. I thought someone down the street a ways with access to a power generator was playing a recording of a beautiful, haunting voice. Then the sound came nearer, and it was a young Burmese person. At first I thought it was a man slowly making his way down the road. It was a woman: she had her hair up under a cap and thanaka paste on her cheeks to protect her skin from the sun.

A voice from the Heavenly Spheres
A voice from the Heavenly Spheres

She halted and stood very still as she sang, or chanted verses, or recited a Buddhist prayer. It wasn’t clear if she was singing or speaking and didn’t matter. The purity of that voice pierced all barriers and reached all hearts. Every so often the little metal cymbals in her fingers went ching! in a perfect counterpoint.

When she stopped, the entire café burst into spontaneous applause. People kept getting out of their seats to put bills in the can on a string around her neck. I checked my wallet. I knew my last offering in Burma was going to this young woman with the voice that sang with the music of the spheres. This music usually can’t be heard. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras of Samos believed the movement of planets (heavenly spheres) creates ethereal and earthly harmonies; Shakespeare wrote often about how these harmonies affect events. All I know for sure is that on that afternoon, in a dusty street in Burma, a young woman was channeling that music for us to hear.

I walked out with a 1,000 kyat note, stepped around the restaurant’s retaining wall to donate – and saw my singer had just one leg. She was propping herself up with a rough plank of wood.

This is my final image of the country sometimes called Myanmar. This is my avatar for Burma: a transcendent voice beyond language, standing with only one leg, singing gloriously, regardless.

I will post more about Burma in the coming months.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)