The Greatest Gift

Alternate Titles: “What I am Thinking About at the Holidays,” or “What I Really Learned in Tibet.”

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Last night we watched the movie The Polar Express to end our sweet, quiet christmas together, and again I felt the worlds collide, like the reels of two very different movies overlapping for a moment in perfect synchronicity…and that sense of relief washed over me. It has been just now one month since we returned from our six-week trip to Asia, and I am still waiting to arrive…to somehow feel that an integration is complete.

I am continually grateful that I kept a journal to share with so many of you, because upon return I have found that it is the most sincere way that I have shared it at all. There have only been a couple of times we’ve tried to tell stories, and I printed off some of my photos to go with them, but it seemed hollow somehow, as if the essence were un-captured in the recapitulations and recollections. How can one so love ones home and still feel as displaced as the water around a newly sunken stone? I think we all sometimes experience that sensation in the world.

So I decided to return to this writing to share with you the heart of my experience, upon reflection. For even the journal I kept here was just made up of fragments of an experience too big to express. But if you know the heart then you can imagine the rest…

Watching the movie last night I entered through that window back in time to that hotel room in Lhasa when portions of it were playing on the tv. The commentary was chinese, but the movie itself was still in english and we were more grateful that I can say to have something associated with warmth to look at. You see we couldn’t stomach anymore of the chinese propaganda on the rest of the channels, but distraction was more than welcomed…it was almost crucial.

I don’t remember whether this was before or after things were at their worst, but since all of the days in Lhasa were in that season it must have been close to it. Our window looked out over an abandoned building, so we didn’t open the curtains much. The heater blew hard, dry air into what was already one of the driest climates in the world. One was not sure whether the constant bleeding of the nasal passages was due to altitude or that ever-present dryness which made breathing slightly painful at all times. Even using the oxygen cans we began to carry around was a bargain, in that it hurt to breathe it through the achy passages to the lungs.

My angel was sick in bed almost the whole time in Lhasa, since he was already ill when we got there, and nursing the dog bite he got in Gyantse, and since the vaccine he received the day after we arrived only made him sicker. He tried to be brave and act as if all was well, and so directly after the clinic we went with the group to the Jokhang, the most magnificent center of worship in Lhasa, filled with room after room of the faces of buddhas and deities that spoke to you, until their voices all wove together in one endless chant. But halfway through the second floor he couldn’t stand up well anymore, and I led him back down the streets of the “Tibetan section” of Lhasa to our hotel.

It was too cold at night to sleep without the heater unless you bundled yourself under the covers, but less oxygen was never a good idea! For that reason we would leave the heater on, but by morning we would be even more congested from the intense dryness it added to with its hard-blowing air. So one morning, thinking we still had many days left of this, when I saw a humidifier on top of one of those heaters in a restaurant counteracting its effects, I asked them where to get one. I took a very long walk that day until that road became a different part of town, through many strange shops and even a chinese department store, trying to describe a humidifier with sign language unsuccessfully, before returning to the restaurant where they were nice enough to send a young woman to help me. I followed her closely as she led me down the same street and as chinese people looked and laughed at my filter-mask openly, pointing fingers.

I waited while she inquired inside a shop, and as I did so I looked over to see what seemed to be a man who was hit by a car, laying in the street…but after a moment I saw that he was crippled rather than injured. He only had use of one arm and perhaps his neck and he was dragging his entire body across the street with that arm. He had a small plastic bag with a few items in it that he pushed ahead of him a little way before dragging his body another six inches each time. I went to him to see if maybe I was wrong and he was hurt, or I could help, but he responded to my words with only the most vacant stare I had ever seen. He wasn’t really there, and it seemed that he must have no one. I knew a car could hit him at any moment as he crossed that street, not seeing him so low to the ground. I wondered what kept him alive. I wondered if there were anything I could do, or should do if I could. I wondered at all the things we can’t help and the constant question of how much we can, and when we should or should not, and most of all I reminded myself that nearly nothing was as hard as dragging your body down the street with one arm, alone.

Since Sebastian had stopped being able to go out to eat with the group, I would walk that street by our hotel often, to the Snowlands Restaurant where I would order our two meals to go with the lemon-ginger-honey tea they gave us in jars that was one of the saving graces that helped us through. I would bring them back to the hotel to my angel and we would both hope that each meal might make us feel better than worse. You see, at first it was just Sebastian who was so sick…a flu, terrible congestion in the lungs and sinuses, and a fever that came and went, but it was the altitude that really added the weight to everything, eventually giving him very scary heart palpitations, and it was the altitude that eventually got me too. Some say it is worst when you arrive, but for some it hits harder at the end, as it did me.

I can’t describe exactly how it so debilitated me…simply that regular functioning became harder, and harder, and harder, and simply more and more existed in the lands between uncomfortable and painful, without relief. The body just couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t this way for everyone, but I didn’t have time to imagine why or make comparisons…in fact I didn’t have the energy to even talk to my beings, which complicated things further. You see, before I had left on this trip I had had health complications which many considered serious. I hadn’t been to a doctor in many years, and when I did he refused to keep working with me if I didn’t agree not to take this trip to Asia. I didn’t agree.

For that reason I had been as careful as I thought I should be in checking with my beings that things would be okay on this trip, and they had said that they would be. So when my angel was already sick and had to have that first vaccine in that clinic with the dirty floors and rooms full of people I was terrified…though all the time I could still hear the beings say that he would be okay, my human self was crying out. And when the chinese doctor didn’t speak any english, and we asked about complications with the malaria medications he was supposed to start the same day with sign language that involved holding up the bottle of pills and pretending to pinch ones arm like a bug…and she simply waved her arm like it was no problem at all, I didn’t believe it. And when my research in the internet cafes of Lhasa showed that there were speculations that malaria medicines can interfere with the immune response to vaccines, I began a mission that involved hours of research and emergency calls to find answers in the US by phone. Finally I learned that the injections must be 1ml and intramuscular to not be affected by the medication. No one else had known this or thought my investigations were very important, but I knew.

All this, when I knew that Sebastian didn’t have rabies, and that neither of us would contract malaria if we even made it to India (which was in question by then). But such is being human sometimes, and especially loving and making decisions that include someone else, and their very life.

So I was upset with the universe, blinded truly and deeply by my pain and the effort it took just to be alive, and by the fact that I had not been warned. This is why I forced myself to sit up with a will I wasn’t sure I had into the black ache of 4am on what would be our last day in Tibet. All of the facilitators and staff on our tour had spent a good portion of the day before obtaining a doctor’s letter which permitted us to get us visas to leave Tibet without our group, and airline tickets. They were angels in doing that for us. Had it not been for getting out when we did, and having two days to rest in Kathmandu, we never would have been able to travel on to India, and there were moments when I wondered if we would have made it anywhere at all.

That morning I put on all the clothes I could while Sebastian kept saying from the bed, “Are you sure you want to do this, baby?” I didn’t know if I could, but I was sure. Something within me beyond my own blood and bones and physical strength was pushing and willing me to make it. I put on my mask which I wore ritually by then to break the cold and dust and pollution, and then covered that with a big scarf. I wore a hat and my coat hood then over everything. You could just see my bloodshot eyes. I met the group in the lobby still a good hour and a half before the sun would rise, but I didn’t talk to anyone. My throat was too sore and swollen by then, and I was beyond words anyway.

We were going to Nechung, the monastery where the Chief Oracle had once lived and spoken the words of the Protector Goddess of Tibet to the Dalai Lama. I knew I had to go there, and I knew it was because I had to restore my faith and could not leave Tibet with it broken. In fact it was to reaffirm my faith, because I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t any left. I went to pray.

It wasn’t the long, cold ceremony the monks performed for us at Nechung, nor the fantastic tantric paintings of human skins, animals, skulls, or demon-gods all over the walls that saved me. It was coming face-to-face with my own energy rising up from the earth there, and more than anything, it was the nuns.

You see, my mother, stepfather, and sister had been to Tibet twice before. Those trips were what had inspired the nun project for my mother, and compelled my sister to take a photo of a particular aging nun which became an image that spoke to many people, including me. She became larger than life because I had seen her long before ever meeting her. It was said that she had been left for dead by the chinese, and had rebuilt with one other person her entire nunnery. And yet her face showed no hate.

abbess It was too perfect then that the first moment I saw her was right after the dog bit Sebastian, when we were lead into the kitchen at the nunnery, and where she and others nursed Sebastian’s wound. For almost a half an hour they washed it and cleaned it well, which we believe is why it was never infected. And that is how we met the Elder, and the Abbotess.

It would be hard for me to tell you what it was about the elder nun that stole my heart so completely. It was something in her presence, which was also felt with the younger Abbotess who now kept charge of that nunnery. We were deeply blessed to have them travel with us on to Lhasa for the rest of our journey, and that morning at Nechung the open seat next to them was my saving grace. The ceremony lasted longer than any other. The doors were left open so that the pilgrims coming and going would not interfere with the recording, which also meant that there was not much respite from the cold and that the smoke from the huge brush fire in the courtyard made the air even more unbreathable. Fifteen or twenty minutes into the ceremony the ache just became a wave I could barely ride. I curled up into a tighter ball where I sat and rested my hands on my big, padded head and then placed them both on my knees.

That was when the Abbotess took my hand. Across the body of the elder nun she reached, holding her whole body awkwardly for what must have been forty-five minutes. In the pain of no escape she reached into the abyss and gave me something to hold onto…beyond the light deep within me that I was clinging to, she gave me something to hold onto in this world, and to help me bridge the two. When she finally took her hand away to accept some yak butter tea, the elder nun took over, nursing me with that warm tea after waiting each time for me to pull the layers away from my mouth so I could drink. She drew me close and didn’t let me go. She put her head to mine, she held my hand to her chest and pointed at my heart and said the only word I happened to know in Tibetan, “yabado”….beautiful.

While the recording team pushed through with the procedures of their duties, and the rest of the group tuned in to the chants of the ceremony, and the pilgrims came to prostrate and to pray, I took in the love and kindness of two women and their radiant hearts. And when the ceremony was over I didn’t notice anyone else, and spontaneously prostrated to the nuns in utter gratitude for the gift they had given me.

During our trip a monk and nun were each separately asked what the most important goal of a life of Buddhist practice was. The monk thought about it a while and responded, “the cultivation of the mind.” The nun asked was the Abbotess, who responded without much contemplation needed, “loving kindness.”

This loving kindness is not really learned, though it too can be cultivated. It doesn’t always look like hand-holding or gentle praises. It is sometimes like the wrath of a loving goddess…fierce but true. For I received both forms of loving kindness in Tibet, and both served me well. For when I was well enough to speak to my beings again they explained why I had not learned or discerned in advance the challenges we would face in Tibet. They said that I had become very adept at trusting what I knew, even if I only knew it by feeling or by guidance. They said I had had this experience so that I would even more fully trust what I didn’t know, what I hadn’t been shown.

And what do you know but even though our trip in India was rough in so many ways as well, upon arrival home it is clear that my health is much better than before I went on that trip, and my “health condition” which was supposedly serious, is absolutely gone.

So last night, when we watched The Polar Express, I remembered that night in our Lhasa hotel room that it brought us peace for a few minutes. I remember telling myself that one day we would be back home, and well, and that all of that would be behind us. That it would be christmas and we would watch that movie from our warm home together, which seemed like such a far-off dream at that time. It gave me hope…and a link through a window in time to a safe and healthy future that I knew I would experience if I could just hold on.

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We have so many reasons not to believe, especially the bigger our dreams are. The reasons to believe are like elusive neon fish darting through the water on a dark night. We see them for a moment but they seem to quickly disappear and are very hard to grasp. They must be found in the heart, eyes closed and no longer looking for anything. Like a real understanding of loving kindness they can only be found there. And anything that draws us nearer to that utter blindness caused by surrender either forced or voluntary and nested in the harmonics of the heart breeds faith and trust. Then we are home, then we are closer to being fearless, to knowing our divinity completely. And if there is a hand that reaches across the abyss to help us through the harder moments, god/dess bless it. And if you ever wonder what you are doing here on this earth anyway, know that you are that hand to others, and that alone is enough. If you can light that flame that helps another through a dark night, or if you can discover the flame in your own heart, it is enough for an entire lifetime.


With Love and Faith, Jennifer

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