Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
The day before Thanksgiving I stood in Bangkok’s afternoon sun and humidity. The day after Thanksgiving I stood on the deck of our home here in Andover and felt snow flakes hit my head. The contrast could not be more complete, from tropical heat and moisture to northern cold and snow in a day plus. It felt fantastic; I mean, it literally felt like a fantasy to have such apposite experiences so close together.
And wonderful. I felt exhilarated. South East Asia to Minnesota. I know some people experience this kind of transition often, but I don’t and I loved it. I have a bodily sense of how big and how different this mother earth is.
I’m also getting some images beginning to emerge, unexpected ones, as happens for me after trips. A street side vendor in Chinatown, a young Chinese woman, standing over a hibachi, turning small mussels on a screen. The giant street signs looking north on Yaowarat, red and yellow, all in Chinese characters. Chedi after chedi. The pagoda across the Chao Praya from the hotel, lit up at night. Shark fins displayed in restaurants. Gingko roots. Chinese apothecary weighing dry substances on old black scales with scoops to hold the product.
More re-entry. Went to Festival Foods this AM to do a little grocery shopping. The store is under one roof, owned by a corporation, multiple items available from green groceries to baked goods and meats. Refrigeration units lined the outside walls and everything shined under bright lights. Unit prices, clearly marked. No negotiating, not even considered. Ever.
There were few people and few clerks.
This is different from Yaowarat. There, the green grocers line a soi, each vendor with different produce: rose apples, durian, jack fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, vegetables of all kinds. Their foodstuffs sit on metal pushcarts, as much as can fit on top of a 3 foot by 2 ft rectangle. Haggling over prices is part of the shopping experience.
Dried foods from cuttlefish to nuts and dried fruits are sold on the sidewalk of Yaowarat itself, in front of the Chinese apothecaries and Sharkfin Soup cafes. In shops: smoked duck and chicken splayed out with bamboo spreaders, various parts of a chicken, including feet in glass cases. Around the corner tanks bubble with langostini (an odd looking creature), grouper, and crab.
I saw very few canned goods though I’m sure there’s a place where you can get them. The kinds of hardware items sold here in grocery stores are in various stores along the alleys between soi’s and on the Thannon that connects to Pier #5.
The number of people varies by time of day, but is never below several and, during midday and after dark, rises to human traffic jam proportions.
The atmosphere, while not well lit nor in appearance hygienic, gives a more important quality to the market experience: individual human encounters. In all of Southeast Asia I visited, including Singapore, the markets still provide a third-space, an intermediary moment where strangers can meet with a feeling of safety, perhaps get to know each other. The market is the glue of the community.
At Festival Foods I can now enter the store, purchase bar coded items or items with inventory numbers, never talk to a clerk or another customer, then proceed to the self-check out where I can scan my barcodes or enter inventory numbers, get my total from the computer, insert my cash or credit card, bag my own groceries and leave without even a “Have a nice day.” cliché.
After, I can get in my car, drive to the BP station, uncap my gas tank, put in the nozzle, pay by credit card, wait while the gas fills my tank, then leave, again with no human contact. This, of course, is quite in synch with American culture and the isolated exburban lifestyle that is mine.
And I prefer it. I like the relative anonymity we have here in Andover. It took me a while to disengage from the more Yaowarat like urban scene in St. Paul, though, to be honest, on a long continuum, of say 100, with Bangkok’s Chinatown markets near 100 on human scale interactions, St. Paul’s Edgecumbe neighborhood might be at, say, 40 if Andover and points north were a 25/30. Even my hometown of Alexandria, where everybody knew my name, would only get up to 50 or so.
My preference comes from my Western liberal worldview, a perspective that places the individual first and bends the rules of culture to allow the individual mobility and privacy.
Still, the vitality and buzz of Chinatown, or even the much smaller Siem Reap, has a human quality, a sense of tribe and clan, which we can have only through inventions like the Woolly Mammoths, church, or a real neighborhood bar. These inventions, by their nature, cannot provide the same level of stranger interaction in a safe environment as the green grocer vendors of soi’s off Yaowarat. This means that our world tends to shrink to work and family with little stranger interaction at all outside of work’s structured and distancing opportunities.
Yes, of course, there are exceptions, but they are much less common than you might think. This is, to some extent, the same argument of the Bowling Alone essay and its famous decrying of the loss of community in the US. This fails to acknowledge the trade-off we made long ago with our embrace of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. In return for privacy we offer innovation and an individual work ethic; in return for an egalitarian promise, we forego the security of the tribe.
I think it is very difficult to judge, from within American culture, its relative value over against a more communitarian and family/clan oriented culture found in Asia. There is a tendency, among “liberal” critics of American culture to see in our life only isolation and anomie, angst and neurosis, but that’s too easy. Yes, those negatives exist in our America, but they exist because of the priority we’ve put on the individual, not in spite of it. We gain a degree of personal freedom and liberty unthinkable in the Asian context.
We do not have to contend with the degree of personal repression and suppression found among Asians, bound by a sense of duty or a role imposed by family, constricted by cultural expectations of conformity. At the same time we do not enjoy the sense of security and belonging available to so many Thai and Khmer. Neither is better. Each has benefits and costs.
It is 3:45 AM. I didn’t take an Ambien tonight, tried to get through the night without it. Hmmm, in retrospect not the right choice. Ah, well. I woke up early at Mary’s a couple of times. Got a three hour nap today...didn’t mean to, just did. That didn’t help either. I got about three hours from 11:00 PM to 2:00 PM, then, boing. Awake.
So, I’m trying to figure how to celebrate the holidays. I’m giving the whole idea a re-think using my holimonth notion as a guide, but extending the season from Samhain to Imbolc. This includes Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Advent, Posada, Christmas, Winter Solstice/Yule, New Year, and Imbolc. It is a time of celebration all across latitudes where the darkness seems triumphant early in the season, then, wonder! Days begin to gradually lengthen.
I plan to talk about this whole topic at greater length in my Winter Solstice e-mail, but right now, for our house, I’m considering these ideas: two tall pillar candles on substantial stands, holly and ivy and mistletoe, flowers in certain rooms: forced bulbs and potted plants, cut flowers in certain rooms, get out all the crystal and the millennium plates from way back at the change, put out my advent candles and a crèche. Music of the season and food, too. Perhaps a winter solstice celebration. Return to daily meditation—starting with Christian Advent readings and using pagan material in alternation. Spend at least one or two nights up all night: hey, I’m ahead of the season tonight! A large, clear bowl of water keeps coming up though I have no idea where it came from.
Nearing 4 AM, I’m gonna try to catch another couple of hours before day break. Good morning.
Spent most of the day writing a presentation/sermon for Groveland on the SE Asia trip, almost 3000 words, but I’m gonna have to put it in the file. Sometimes, when I get going on certain topics a need to have everything nailed down and comprehensive rises up, like a python, and squeezes the life right out of the writing. It’s a mystery to me, I try to avoid it, but I get in the flow and before I know it, I’ve gone on and on...of course, at one level that’s where editing comes in, but at another, if the quantity is too great. Start over. Often that’s the only solution.
So, I spent a day writing and have to have another go tomorrow. Sometimes the stuff just comes. No problem. Let it cool. Revise it. All good. Other times. The stuff just comes. And it’s the wrong stuff for the purpose, or it’s the right stuff said in a wrong way. Or its good stuff, but not for this purpose.
So. The trip still bubbles. In conversation with Kate this or that comes to the surface. Today, for example, I showed her some of my photographs, one I like a lot is a row of Buddha statues covered in orange cloth and then covered with protective plastic, standing one behind each other next to building in an alley. Showing her the picture made me recall the whole street, lined with shops selling Buddha statues, temple bells, ordination robes for monks, monks begging bowls, incense stands, altars—all the paraphernalia of a Buddhist temple, like St. Patrick’s Guild in St. Paul or Cokesbury Bookstores only done as street level commerce. I wanted one of each; I love religious artifacts, popular and traditional, Christian and Buddhist and Taoist and Jewish and Islamic and Hindu. All kinds.
I’m not sure why, but the material elements of religious faith move me. They are concrete manifestations of a spiritual realm, clues to the sacred vision of another person. Anyhow shop after shop of spirit houses and temple bells really makes my day.
Just a brief note on spirit houses. I’m gonna get one built for our land. These small, pillared dwelling like objects are everywhere in Thailand, Cambodia, and to some extent in Singapore, too. The Thai place them in the northeast corner of a house or property, in a place where the shadow of the house never falls on them. Their purpose is two-fold: 1. To honor the spirit of the land that dwells on your property; and, 2. To block evil from coming into the house. A strong spirit of the land helps keep evil away from the home.
I recalled, often, a moment when Gyatsho and I were looking out the window of the MIA toward the expansion underway across the courtyard.
“Did they seek the blessing of the spirit of the land?” he asked.
“No,” I remember saying, “Our mythology doesn’t allow for such things.”
Well, mine does and I want to honor the spirit that dwells here on our land. I can sense it and I want to strengthen my/our connection with it. So, gonna get me a spirit house built. I would have shipped one from Thailand but they looked too clumsy to pack.
Much of the devotional life of the Hindu or Buddhist in Southeast Asia involves, as the spirit suggests, a simpler, animistic element, too. Fresh flowers for the spirit house, a bit of oil, some incense, keeping it fresh and painted. Much like the family altars for Ganesh, or Shiv or Vishnu. This daily practice, acts literally of devotion, engage the heart and the spirit in a concrete world of spirituality made present.
OK. Naps edge over into three hours. Mary says that will pass. I’m sure she’s right. I’ve learned the body is a reluctant traveler, much happier at home in its own time zone and latitude. It is slow to adjust, then slow to re-adjust.
The cultural lag exists, too, but doesn’t seem quite as insistent, especially coming home, though even here some dissonance occurs. I took up the habit of eating a clear soup with noodles and little pork balls, sort of whenever. This is, it turns out, a very Thai way of eating. I also came to enjoy fruit at the end of the meal rather than our custom of a sweet thing. I find I still have a yearning for the soup...so, I got out my Thai cook book and I’m gonna learn how to make it and have it available. I suppose you could see this as the body again, but what I’m referencing here is a change in expectations about meals and meal times and the appropriateness of certain foods, ethno-dietary stuff, or something like that.
Also, as always, I got hooked on public transportation, but, hey, out here in the exurbs public transportation is...my car, transportation that gets me out into the public.
Picked up a few pictures I had printed at Pro-ex, not so hot, but they’ll do for my presentation on Sunday. I thought about making slides, but then I realized...silly. I’m gonna figure out this digital thing. Tom Crane was right about using the viewer rather than the LED screen. Much better.
Below are two of my favorites. The young monks waited outside an ordination hall while the older monks chanted. I asked them if I could take their picture and they said yes. They were as curious about me as I was about them, though the language barrier didn’t allow verbal conversation. I knew the feeling of being on the bench, in a religious sense, so I could identify with some of their feelings. All dressed up, but no ritual to perform.
The one below their picture I took on a street devoted to selling Temple paraphernalia. I mentioned them earlier I think. Here they are, standing in an alley, ready to go out and be of service. Later in the trip, not far from where I took this, I saw two heavy Buddha statues, seated in the lotus position hands in the meditation mudra, sitting in the bed of two pick-up trucks, each one with its own blue Chevy pick-up.
These kind of images, set off by the striking saffron color of the robes make for colorful scenes throughout Thailand and Cambodia.
Mr. Sir Tailors has not sent me my four shirts and pair of pants. I have e-mailed them and am prepared to go to the Singapore Tourist Authority and sick my sister on them if necessary, but I hope we can settle this amicably.
The four stone sculptures I bought came in less than a week, arriving unscathed by their trip from Siem Reap to Andover. If I can get 22 Kg of Cambodian sandstone in one week, they can send less than 1 kg of cotton and linen in a month.
In these ways, also, the trip continues. It will be awhile until all this stuff settles out and I can let the trip sink away into memory, to cure as a pilgrimage and as a travel experience.
I want to leave it alone for now. So, I will.
Now, looking ahead—how, I just wondered, does this fit with Be Here Now, my mantra in Asia? A good question as I consider it. Today is still, as there, all I have. And, of today, all I have of it is this moment, a moment which decays and resurrects as I breathe and type, yet, in duration, remains always the same, never then, or next, but now. A great mystery for our order fixated brains.
I taste my morning coffee, see you, each one of you for whom I write this, hear you. The candle flame flickers by computer tower. I light a candle whenever I begin to write in earnest, extinguish it when I quit, a small ritual I began years ago. Now, it helps me...be here now.
The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” plays through quad speakers, “...a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” and late college spills over me, gives me a sense of here and there, not really then and now, but, what? A physical experience of synchronicity.
Both of my intellectual mentors, Whitehead and Jung, believed in synchronicity; Whitehead’s version more radical even than Jung’s since he believed in literal diachronicity—there is, in Whitehead’s metaphysic, no way to NOT be here now since every now is always in the present...for always.
Thus, with Whitehead, the experience of the crucifixion is present to us, not in a metaphorical theological way, but in a physical, bloody capital punishment way. So, too, the resurrection. The Pythian oracle declaiming at Delphi. Homer composing the Odyssey. The first humans walking upright, waving their cudgels and crying out to the dawn, We have come! All now...
I find this idea oddly comforting. Odd in this way...I cannot escape what I have done, all the faulty judgments, the fear-driven actions, mean decisions, failed promises, nor can I lose the moments of courage, ecstasy, brilliance, and creativity for they come in my trail, like a comet’s tail, still attached, still constitutive of who I am and what I am and, note this because it is interesting, where I am. When I am is of no importance, none at all, for today and tomorrow and yesterday roll around together, all a mobile soup. Me.
This means, I hope, that the “better aspects of our nature” are just that, the better aspects, but, not the only aspects, and, to have me, all aspects are necessary, the better and the, well, not better. It is the dialectical interplay or the multilectical interplay, multivariate interplay, that creates us. Not the light only, or the dark, but the chiarascuro, too.
This does not do away with evil, not at all. It simply notices—this is important, I think, noticing—that even evil has its day, then gets folded into the whole, best when not lost and not forgotten, best when known and acknowledged, noticed, not occulted. To take the paradigmatic example of our time, the Nazi holocaust of Jews, gays, the mentally ill and the physically disabled this perspective squares exactly with the Jewish motto, “Never forget.” It also empathizes with the actual fear in some Jewish quarters that the holocaust, once the survivors have died, will wink out and thus be lost to us as an important aspect of our nature , not one of the better aspects, but nonetheless important.
OK. Enough. Dante and Goethe and Ovid and I all have work to do right now. Until, well, now.
Now a local correspondent, writing from a safe location in the northern exurbs. Back here now. Still.
Found myself moving fast, then faster. Getting impatient in traffic. Wanting to get my stuff done quick, then get on to more stuff. More. Quicker. Faster. Outta my way.
On pilgrimage I had settled into a let the day bring what it will, minimal planning mode. (which drove Kwo nuts.) I found myself saying, doesn’t matter, de nada, it’s ok. No worries.
The contrast, like some of the others I mentioned, is apparent right now, though in time I imagine the contrast will fade. Part of it is my personality, a part I try to keep dormant, put away in the Presbytery/community organizing attic. I own that part and it comes out strongest when I sink into melancholy; it is, I hope, backup behavior.
Digesting a pilgrimage, letting it sink into the body, become metabolized, integrated creates a certain torpor, a precursor to melancholy.
Why? Because I have begun to recognize my melancholy as a call inwards, a turning toward the interior and its process. Poling my boat in dark waters. This is part of my creative work; like a python or a crocodile digesting a meal. I don’t want to be disturbed, brought out of my inner work. When I am, I’m distracted and cranky. Blinking and often confused.
I find the outer world of traffic, people, demands an irritant, something to be got past, rather than experienced.
Sort of Be In Here Now.
The holidays produce a similar inner directed move, a motion of many parts—devotional, meditational, past negative and positive experiences, the descent into darkness, the cold, end of year self-analysis, and who knows what else.
1 X 1 = 8 or 12 in the algebra of the heart.
Yet, what I wanted to talk about here, in addition to what I own as mine and mine alone, is the frenzy (I don’t know what other word to use.) of our urban culture. Cars move and push, Minnesota Aggressive. People shove ahead, sigh, rattle their keys while standing in line. Exasperation and frustration. Blinking holiday lights and insistent cheerful music. Sales. Gifts. Santa. Trees. Parties. Give me the New Years, now!
It may be ethnocentrism on my part, but the Yaowarat street side market, for all its bustle and crowds, had a certain amity to it—not cheerfulness; this was a Chinese, urban place after all—a lot like Oslo, Norway might be if it were just a bit warmer—but a willingness to be out, with each other, and to recognize that part of that was less personal space, more jostling.
The traffic was the same. In both Cambodia and Thailand. Incredible traffic for places in which most people can’t afford cars, but little honking, no discernible road rage. Just moving along, realizing it would take a bit longer, or, if that wasn’t ok with your plans, just drive a little crazy: go between two cars going opposite directions, drive on the narrow shoulder, or, and I actually saw this a couple of times with motorcycles, drive the wrong way on a one way.
Perhaps the incredible luxury of privacy and space we can afford makes coming out of it difficult for us; we’ve forgotten how to act in the public square, our civic deportment has diminished in proportion to our affluence. If so, it’s yet another argument against it.
Or, maybe I’m projecting all of this. Anyhow, happy holidays.
Only 7 weeks to the end of this project in first draft form. Wow.