On Parallel Worlds and Not Leaving Tibet

Jennifer at Tibet Show It all started one spring evening at an art opening. It was the release of a collection of my sister’s photography from Tibet. My family had been to Tibet twice together by then, but my husband and I had not been able to attend, and for that reason I allowed it to be their world, of which I knew little. Most of what I felt of that place was through the remnants of what they experienced. I had been to India, and Egypt, but Tibet was theirs.

nino tibet show I was wearing a red, embroidered silk dress and my Indian jewelry, and I felt singular and lovely. My beautiful husband was circulating wine through the room, taking it upon himself to spread the good cheer and loosen everybody up. There was laughter and the room resonated with long, overlapping trains of words.

I turned the corner to see another image and that is where I found myself, alone, the first time I heard the nuns chant.

It was just a small clip of their voices, played as part of a sound montage from the recordings of the trip. When I heard their sounds, like waves in the ocean pouring one over the other, I was entranced. Sounds like theirs came out of me, and for a moment we were singing together there in that hallway, me and the nuns I had never met who lived on the roof of the world.

I dreamed of singing that song with them again and again.

Walking the room that night and looking at the images, I knew, though nothing had been decided yet, that Sebastian and I would be joining the next trip to Tibet, which it was once said would never happen. I saw, overlapping an image of the Potala Palace, my own view of it from the future. We would be going back, to record the nuns more fully. I knew I would be there.

Still I did not let it in, completely. It was still a world I knew and did not know. Another world for the heart to ache for, future, present, and past…to belong to and not belong to, wholly.

Fast forward to three nights ago. Another room full of people, and this time we are all about to hear the recordings of the nuns for the first time. When the chanting begins to play I fall, deep and hard, into myself, and the great world collapses again into a tiny ball in my hand that I roll, around and around.

In that moment there is no separation between me and those days in the nunnery. Am I really here? Hearing the heavy cloth door covering drag against the dusty floor, and the shuffle of the pilgrims feet alongside of me, and me, crouched against a wall, a beam, a bench, brain stifled and body suffocated, mind and heart birds released to the sky, unwitting, but willing.

The incense fills me and a breeze moves barely the sunlit thangkas and hazy faces of the buddhas, past, present, future. And then there are their faces, the nuns, touched by a light that comes from within. A light that beams from the heart and captures you in its rays, never to be the same. Hidden smiles revealed, and revealed, and revealed.

They are reading from scriptures a special prayer that has been requested by locals. Their usual prayers and ceremonies they know by heart. Everyone is setting up the cameras and the recording equipment and they ask me, do you think another nun will sit in that empty space? Would you sit there so we can adjust the cameras?

Each seat, assigned to a specific nun, along a bench covered in cloth where all can sit cross-legged to chant. Can I? I ask our translator if this would be okay and she asks a nun…yes. I walk into the chambered sound of their inner rows and sit with them. I am immediately altered. Their eyes turn toward me one by one, serious, curious, playful. A nun reaches across and hands me a long paper scripture, smiling. I pick it up as if to read it (in Tibetan) and all of the nuns begin to squeal with laughter and absolute delight…their laughter is like bells ringing forever. The laughter slows and they each continue to smile at me, in turn. One nun points at my hair, her smile and eyes both shy and radiant, and then points at the cloth of her robe, as if to say they are the same color. I smile back, like a child. Has anyone else like me ever sat with them like this?

chanting with the nuns larger The nun next to me leans over and teaches me some words. I make sounds like theirs with them, and for several minutes, holding the scripture, we blend and blur, and a dream I had standing in a hallway a million miles and years away comes true, in a way I never could have imagined.

Will I ever leave there?

I didn’t make it to the caves at Drak Yerpa, or the other nunneries the group had visited. I didn’t make it to see the only monks who do the overtone chanting, who made the sand mandala, or who debated in the courtyard of their ancient monastery. I didn’t make it to the antique stores or the roof of the Jokang. There were a lot of things I missed when we made it, with our lives, onto that early morning flight to Kathmandu several days before the rest of the group. But I didn’t miss anything. I went to Tibet to meet these nuns. I went to Tibet to have the sounds of their nunnery and their faces imprinted on my soul.

There had been a photo of a specific nun, an elder nun, in the art show. She had been my mother’s favorite, and for that reason her face was known to me years before I would first see her, like an icon of something unnamable.

Just after we all arrived at that nunnery that day, I was helping to unpack some equipment, crouched down on the floor, when I heard someone say to my father, “Come quick, Sebastian has been bitten by a dog.”

nun and nino Before he could even respond I was out the door, flying without steps. He was there on the ground, leg bleeding and surrounded by a few onlookers, yet looking totally unaffected. I was the one who burst into tears, a fact which the nuns were tickled to no end over. After they took him into the kitchen to nurse his wound, each new nun that came in to assist thought that it was me who had been bitten rather than him. Then they laughed and each one, in Tibetan, tried to comfort me. Don’t worry…everything is fine, they kept telling me. I wasn’t worried about his pain. I was thinking more about the possibility of the series of rabies shots he might have to have, and all that would come along with that process, traveling through Asia. I was crying from complete adoration. It makes you cry, you know, even when it doesn’t hurt. It just makes your heart spill out of your eyes.

This is how I first saw the elder nun in person, leaning over my nino with cotton, cleaning the wound and forcing it to bleed. She and the Abotess, to become so important in my journey, hovering over him like angels in the flesh.

Leaving Tibet would be an out of body experience. Pre-dawn we would roust ourselves, and a brutal relief would wash over us at the knowledge that soon we would be able to silence the begging of our bodies for oxygen. We would limp to the lobby where I had made helpless calls to the US to try to find a doctor who could help us, just days before. We would say goodbyes, near-voiceless and wrapped for the bitter cold. If only it had been enough. The cold of the long drive to the alien-seeming and refrigerated airport would leave us freezing and aching for anything warm.

Getting on the airplane would be the first warmth of endless-seeming hours, followed by fifteen minutes of peace, before the pressure in Sebastian’s ears from his intense congestion made him rock uncontrollably with pain for the rest of the 45 minute flight. I prayed to Tara, hands pressed, the entire time that his eardrums would not burst.

I would get very used to praying to Tara, each time we scraped the hard edge of our physical endurance, and every time another doctor filled another syringe with another rabies vaccine in another asian clinic in another asian city.

For two days in Kathmandu we would move around like sleep-walkers, mourning something we could never describe. Arranging a massage in the hotel’s spa, I would cry into the bowl of water and bright orange calendula petals beneath the table as she touched my broken body. In that universe of petals I would see a cosmos, and the face of a buddha looking back at me, opening infinity in front of me through my tears. Every few minutes I would ask her for tissues to catch the phlegm that ran from my nose for weeks, even long after we got to India. I kept trying to explain to people, “We have been in Tibet…” There were only blank expressions in return. One leaves Tibet on a long stream of tears. Perhaps not of sorrow, but most certainly of tears.

potala Sometimes my mind flies back to that last, and only, blurred view of the Potala Palace in the blue-white light of dawn. That image in my mind that had once been laid over a photograph at an art opening one spring, and which was coming to life in front of me…one layer over the other the way life becomes itself, and weaves in and out of timelines like a dance. Like the overlapping waves of the ocean. Like an endless run-on sentence. Like the chanting of a group of nuns I have known, in a small nunnery, on the roof of the world.

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