Heart Wattage

Heart Wattage

sandy sangha

On a pavilion of Wat U Mong, a “forest” temple close to Chiang Mai University (and miles from any forest but that of the mind), lie the Buddhas in disrepair.  There are a lot of them and impermanence has had its way.  Some are just a head, or missing that capstone entirely; some are corroded and chipped at the shoulders or laps– Time’s habitual equivalent of nail-biting.  Of various materials and sizes, they rest all together in an order-less pile: so much for that.

and now I lay me down to...

Beside them, garbage lolls about in the same way it does everywhere that humans gather.  The boddhisatvic plastic bag is the second-tier congregation even in the holiest of spaces and is never too far from its populist sidekick, the plastic bottle.  One local entrepreneur, “Mr. Brandname” sells new-ish shoes on the steps nearby to the throngs of Thais who have showed up to make merit before Songkran, the New Year.  Not bad: propitiate an imitation Buddha, get a new pair of imitation shoes, and leave happier, luckier, and with something concrete to show for it.

Wooden placards with Instructional Caveats are nailed to the trees, the usual admonitions about time passing, slovenliness, and attachment.  Drunkenness is singled out, in this whiskey culture, as a direct road to decay; one sip signs you up for a permanent subscription to Samsara.  The irony is that the signs themselves, set along the route to the building wherein the new monks get their heads shaved during initiation, are in worse shape than the livers they attempt to guard.   And no one has bothered to apply a fresh coat of paint.  Let the morality fade with the rest of the game.

The lone statue of the emaciated Buddha, made of dark stone, all its ribs visible, sits away from the action down the way from the central chedi.  Dead flowers, slough of the parched trees, mark the way to his seat: nature’s own emphasis. This is Buddha in his starvation phase, depriving himself of the nourishment on which all humans rely to sustain life, and yet sustaining it anyway.  But his gesture proved to be egregious, even to himself: why bother living, then?  By the time you learned what it is to be alive and conscious, you aren’t anymore.

ribbons of breath

Speaking of which: we’ve now come and gone through Thailand.  This post will grandly disrespect time, with all due respect.

Time: [nigglingly] Sister, why you gotta call my bluff?

Me: Relax, you always get the last word anyway.

Time: Yeah but–

All the Signs of Heat

The English signs around here are rife with misspellings. “Crap salad” is a favorite of mine– to chuckle at rather than to eat.  I feel a certain sensorial resonance with that blooper of a repast, as it’s exactly what the heat does to my brain.  A few words about the heat: It’s hot. It’s so hot that talking about the weather is, at best, redundant, like asking someone about how they would be if they told you how they were.  The pollution sits atop the Chiang Mai valley as a cap on a baseball player: there is just no playing the game without it.

And it’s hot even for the Thais: worst dry season ever, say some.  Not only Farang homeostasis is in peril.  When I checked the weather prior to our departure from Istanbul, the general tourist information for the month of April said: “Don’t go, if you can avoid it.”  If you can avoid it?  Is karma like a punch you dodge?  Nah.  You take it right in the hypothalamus.  Which F referred to during an anatomy lesson as “that…you know…hippopotamus…in your head.”  Not too far off.

But despite this heat, beauty weakly prevails.  Your average flower is hardly as limp as the people look.  Even the Bangkok airport (as frenetic as usual in the midst of the larger red-shirt crises) is a reminder that beauty belongs everywhere: its walkways, however institutional, are filled with fresh orchids.  A few robed monks wheel suitcases around like the rest of us.  I had a misguided assumption that monks would travel sans baggage.  After all, they’ve given up on the world and wear an orange flag to mark this fact.  Do they really need a toothbrush?  Nah.  We know how it goes, though: the abandoned world has a way of living on inside the head.  It’s a wonder Buddha’s cranial muscles held out long enough for him to downgrade from asceticism to the Middle Path.

orchid onslaught

But we have somewhere to go.

In the center of a two-street by two-street Muslim “village” hugging the North wall of Chiang Mai… The Masid issues its mellow call to prayer.  The sun balances at the apex of sky—god’s flashlight.  Neighborhood kids are chanting Koran verses in open-air classrooms.  They’re lucky enough to study here during their sweltering summer break from the government schools; the ants are practically pole-vaulting in their pants.


Meh Lah heaves her huge rice cooker, brimming with hot jasmine rice, onto a dolly and beside it, the equally large pot of whatever she’s prepared for their lunches.  This creation is often as unidentifiable as it is gorgeous smelling.  She wheels her contraption down the street and into the mosque courtyard, where she portions out the food to the children pitchfork style. This is how people used to live; close to what was needed, the mosque like the axle of the wheel of daily life.

Once upon a time, I too lived in this place, in the open home of three sentient beings that likely none of you will ever have occasion to meet [for this reason, I’ll use their names in full].  It’s beyond the scope of what I can write to haul them into verbal animation.  So I will try anyway.

Dha, passing their doorway, sees me walking up the road with Y, my feisty French bud, and J.  In his white cap and white get-up, he is momentarily shy, the way certain ghosts are reputed to be.  When I stayed in this house, teaching in return for being taught, he and I became inseparable.  We were a truly odd pair: he, the wise-man of the hood, short, strong, indefatigably informative and in his advanced middle-age and I, the foreign blonde then in my twenties, more wiry and bubbling with adoration than is normal around here.   I wince at years gone down the rabbit-hole.  Yet the feeling of being in these rooms again is perversely identical.

Entering Meh La’s house, it’s clear time is a nice fable we tell ourselves to organize what defies category.  Y comes along to translate because I’ve forgotten virtually all my Thai, the first travesty of the day.  Dha had predicted, after teaching me to speak, read and write (and to box…) that within three months I would have learned the remainder of the language by myself (easy!) and taught it to the rest of my country (American adventurer!), “from sea to shining sea.”  Seems not.  I’d have an easier time reading rabbit pellets as a sham augur than deciphering even a single Thai grapheme.  Dha shakes his head in disappointment and tries to speak to me in Thai anyway: but, sorry!, willpower doesn’t override cognitive deficiency.  I imagine my face, linguistic registers closed for business, looks like a broken slot machine: full of promise, but winning mechanically impossible.

We are immediately seated on the wooden bench by the window—which comprises, with its identical twin on which the eldest sister, Dihan, spends her days and nights, a wet rag over her forehead, eating whatever snacks are handed to her– the only furniture in this rather big room.  There’s a comforting amount of clutter around (refrigerator shelves not excluded) of unknowable utility—revealed by the fact that occasionally someone digs around in it for something, and comes up with what was sought.  The doormat is an old jacket, near the point of shredding.  The bathroom mat is a mop-head.  What else would you use? And the T.V., centerpiece, is the lord of it all, a fly-catcher for prana, a feudal fiend you tithe with your life energy.

dha's dharma

Feeding The Fire

plates of prana

Upon arrival, we’re “serviced”—fed as much as we’ll agree to eat—until we plead (and plead and plead): EEM! (“full”).  Lah gleefully loads our plates as if they are the last culinary chedi, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her sleeve.  Dha’s first pointed question could rival even a Jewish mama for its bodily concern:

Dha: Salah, tung poo?

The Linguistic black hole engulfs me.  I look up from the bottomless bottom, but no one lowers a rope.  Tung poo sounds like a noodle dish.

Dha: Sa-Laaaah, You don’t remember tung poo?

Of the many, many things I don’t remember, this is, yes, one. The fickleness of my memory, since arriving back in Thailand makes me think I understand what phantom-limbs must feel like: reaching for a tea-cup with a hand that is no longer there.

Dha:  Sa-LAAH! Tung poo? When you cannot bathroom…

Me: [enjoying a lightening-speed neurological reconfiguration, such as Moses, cloud-covered, must have experienced when the Lord used his outside voice to speak the Tablets…?] A-HA! CONSTIPATION!

Dha: Yes, Yes.

They say the elephant never forgets but the elephant has nothing on my Thai family.

Last time I was here, not only was I really clogged, but I also begged “clogged” on the occasions that home-made food was put before me that just I could not fathom ingesting.  Am I constipated? Is that an existential or physiological question? Really, it has all the cheery immediacy and indiscretion of a T.V. commercial.

[Got heartburn?  Try this…] Constipation also happens to be as conceptual as it is actual.  The mere mention of it lights up a chain of suggestibility that goes straight to the colon’s hypersensitive antennae.  And memory is insistent, although you never know what it will insist upon.  The buffet of human experience stands.  The colon, like the fox in its hole, can never get enough.

Dha immediately falls in love with J in a way that is so manly and exclusive I suddenly know how the second child must feel.  Between our former bond comes the broad shoulders of my boyfriend.  Dha ladles out his perennial advice piecemeal, punching J amicably in the leg:

Without rice, no power.

And About the coffee-

One cup: good.  Two cups: common.  Three cups: dangerous.

No cucumber!  It makes the man [finger twirl next to temple].

In the heat, you must smile.  Otherwise, you go crazy.


Pac-Man Philia

It’s weird what love does to us, how it asserts its logic in a Pac-Man-style: eating all the obstacles in its way as it goes along.  Dha, who I love beyond what I can speak, refers to me as the “vegetabalist.”  He holds J chummily around the neck while J, blessed be, chews on sugary dried squid.  As in: sugary dried squid.  To Dha, I’m a pure one, since I don’t smoke or drink coffee (do little sippies of Nescafe count? The heat makes you want weirdly…).  By his standards, purity is an easy qualification to make.


Pac-Man consumes the next tasty dot, and the next one.  P-M is notoriously nearsighted—his next mandible maneuver may just take off my one and only head (dot-shaped enough for government work).  And this would truly be fine, since it’s conceivable that in my cardiac locker, thereby exposed, there could be a bit more Thai stored than in my flailing forebrain.

The N Factor

We decide to head more North.  Among the many delusions which one can agreeably host on a daily basis was this: the mountains must be cooler than the city.

Well, actually, no.  The thoroughly deluded are equipped with a short-term protection against the fact of the matter: the necessity of being right.  We were entirely wrong; the heat triumphed at first light.  But in the place of our wishful thinking, we had the profound pleasure of seeing an old friend …

We go to Mae Suae, near Chiang Rai, to the “waterfall resort” of N, a retired general in the Thai army, who now guards the king on rare occasion and spends as much time as possible around green things.  His resort is visited mainly by other Thais and Europeans—those people who come across it in the back roads of Chiang Rae while motorcycling.  If one wants to “live like a Thai person” and wonders what a Thai person might do on a resort holiday, the answer is: watch T.V. and eat fried stuff.  This presents a simple solution to the complexity knots we untie and retie in daily life.

N says to us over breakfast, when he joins us for mangos (which God must have intended to hoard for herself but accidentally dropped off the precipice of heaven, gifting the scavenger race below): You see the nature, you see the flower, you feel good. And it’s true: trees are the stars of this show and the rest of us are just sweaty back-up dancers, always falling short of photosynthesis.  Have you seen how trees lie in the arms of their brethren when they die, until they rot as is?  Can you imagine holding a corpse, even of someone you adore, until that point?  “Tree pose” is but an aspiration—and, in fact, a “pose”.  Meanwhile, the forest keeps exhaling in our favor.  So that life can go on…

heart shmear

N is very convincing.  It’s hard to really suckle your bad attitude when you look at the banana leaves fanning about.  N had wanted, at heart, to be an engineer, but he came from a family of soldiers, and it was his to carry the ancestral mantle.  You could not envision a more ahimsic being:  hospitalized three times this year for health complications, he says to us, apologetic for his English (um, have you heard my Thai lately?  No, me neither.  Because it comes out sounding like a broken fax machine): It’s alright, I’m not worried, because I know my soul is still strong.

Naturally: because you, dear N, understand the link between feeling good and doing something basic and available.

The Lahu kids at the creek on their summer break wave us over to the flat rock where they’ve gathered, cluttered with beer bottles and cell phones and the usual hagiography of adolescent spare time, and point at their noses insistently.  They call us the way you would call a cab in a pinch: but they want us to take them somewhere that doesn’t involve getting up.  We don’t have drugs.  We don’t even have pockets.  Nevertheless, when they pass us walking in the midday heat later on pitiless dirt road, they offer to fit both of us on their motorbike.  They point ahead.  We wave them onwards.  Thanks, we’re actually enjoying this jack-ass constitutional. Yes, we noticed not a single other human being tries to walk at noon without a shadow.

But back to N: Got that?  You see the flower, you feel good. It’s a simple cause-effect leap.  If it were a self-help book, it would be one page long.

In a wordless: Enough

“With each day passing, what have you been doing?” queries The Buddha from the tree trunk at Wat U Mong.  Leave it to Big B to interrupt the bliss of ignorance with his spiritual nosiness.  And tacked onto a neighboring tree: “Until death there is nothing enough.”  O? Enough is enough, goes our adage.  But “enough” is a vague, entirely subjective category.

soothe the spirits enoughly

When S was dying, we went to visit a rigorous healer in Long Island, who also owned a gym.  Master K had a particular connection to some esoteric medicinal arts in Thailand.  Afterwards, he drove us to the train station. While S was resting his head, fresh from a vigorous scrubbing under wet towels, meant to entice the bad karma (which had coalesced into a tumor?) to pour out his ears like so much water, K caught my eye in the rearview mirror of his enormous SUV (yep).  The Master said to me, with all the confidence of a gym trainer giving abdominal crunch instruction to a gym buff, you received a gift in Thailand, but you don’t know what it is yet. Now do fifty crunches.

Reflecting on it now, he likely did not know what the gift was either.  But that I had it—this was as evident to both of us as the fact of the windshield.

I suspect that what he alluded to belongs not to me but to all of us: it is the gift of being alive in the first place, and the recognition of that fact.  Whatever it is or was, it seems it is still in my pocket, perennially unfindable, like pesky housekeys.  Though we had our questions about K’s methods, the following thing happened to me in his home.  As I sat in his leathery livingroom waiting for S and looking at the picture of an elderly monk in a gilded frame, his bony shoulders lifted almost up to his ears, the monk winked at me.  So refined was the movement that the meeting of lids made a clinking sound, like champagne glasses at a toast.

I glared back at him Brooklyn-style, daring him to do it again.  But that kind of thing you’ve got to catch the first time around.  I tried to stare him down but his monkish unflappability prevailed: he was all customary portrait frowns, as if Nirvana was the worst idea anyone didn’t have.

Get it?  In the blink of an eye.  Take a look at what’s here.  You’re allotted about enough time for that before your karma comes calling.

When I departed later from S, oddly hopeful and sad, the mala prayer beads I’d worn around my wrist since my first trip to Thailand inexplicably exploded in the middle of the city street.  The wooden beads scattered everywhere.  The passing traffic couldn’t have given less of a shit: it plows onward past holy and unholy alike.  I stood there stunned.

No hope for protection from the gifts we are given.

But in the meanwhile, mangos are so very, very sweet.



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One Response to “Heart Wattage”

  1. (0v0) Says:

    Beads for Pac-Man…

    This is super beautiful, Sara.

    And oh I love that you went back to your Thai family! And that the intimacy was still there, all the way down.

    Salah, ting poo?

    We are on the same lower wavelength now too. A few mornings ago, I dozed off with Rob after getting up to practice and then sneaking back in to bed. He woke me saying, “What do you see?” And I told him that I saw a man’s head (that of a particular professor, as it happened) and it was morphing in to a hippo head and back again. Thought it strange at the time.

    Random… at Deer Park, Thic Nhat Hahn’s monestary in Escondido, signs the size and shape of bullseyes are tacked on trees. I never knew it was done elsewhere, and couldn’t help associating them with target practice. Which, I suppose, is what they’re there for. But most of the Deer Park signs say: PEACE IS EVERY STEP, and (an apparent contradiction) NOWHERE TO GO, NOTHING TO DO. Subversive.

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