Saturday, April 26, 2008

Finding My Way

I am a lonely pilgrim wandering in a wilderness so unfamiliar even the dust seems less buoyant.
I don’t know these mountains. I don’t know this Asian air. I don’t know this Nepali language or Sherpa culture. I cling to God for I feel far from the cathedrals of my faith but I can still listen for His Spirit in the wind, the ruach, the messenger carrying prayers to His ears. I don’t feel lost nor deprived from the constant feeding of religiosity we have in the Bible Belt of America. It seems that at such a distance faith flattens out into a given, a certain kind of permanent strength that survives all sorts of challenges to what one is used to.

I am seeing in Nepal a survival of the fittest first hand, people who are not impressed by those things so impressionable to Americans, people who find a depth of meaning and happiness in areas we’d never consider comfortable or pleasant. But then they do. And learning why they do is part of the task of leaving behind the regular and figuring out how to deal with someone else’s habits. Sometimes, if we can divest our prejudices, we can actually see things with a different eye.

I’ve mostly been horrified at the conditions of life, the filthiness of the urban areas, a poverty to Western eyes that is not a misery without company. It is not about giant houses, thousand dollar wines, Prada purses, best sellers, getting the best draft pick or the biggest donations, or being the best or even being humble. Humility is the given here. No one has to work for it or go somewhere to learn about it. It’s in these peoples and that’s the reason they can smile at the stumbling trekkers in the latest gear who effort to get off the couch and live in nature at its best. Is it about the soul? To me it is. It’s questioning if I even have a soul and what does that mean. It’s thinking about death on a daily basis and not being afraid since that adventure can not be much more challenging than the one I take each day trying to stay upright on hikers poles and not stumbling on spreads of rocks.

I wonder why Americans feel we must make the world copy us? The British wanted the world to be at their feet and so they colonized lands that had nothing to do with their way of thinking, eating, or signing and made a mess of it. That world eventually was wrenched from them or unleashed as it should have been. But Americans have got to make a buck. They push to be the hand of power in everyone else’s affairs, and mostly, we aren’t even cognizant of what other cultures think, want, and do because we can only measure them if they are like us or hunger for our desires. Why do we presume we might judge poverty, religion, politics as if we were masters of greatness when really the diversity formed around the world is what gives greatness, even richness to life? Why do we think we have the monopoly on justice and that everyone else is corrupt and wrong? Truth can be an auspicious discovery.

There is nothing worse than sameness. Or counting on the familiar. Change happens. It must happen. Yet I’m as bound by routine, regularity, judgement just as much as the intolerable tight-minded capitalist or hater or bigot or politician. It is hard to understand concepts are far from the apple of the television eye - things not clean, not in our control, not dependent, not weak, not permitted by laws created to make living next to another man tolerable. It is hard to realize our current government has squashed every ounce of friendship that those of us who have lived abroad worked so hard to make positive. It is hard to be the bad guy whose only good point is his dollar bill, and even that has lost its favor. We are considered war mongers with muscles based on military magnificence. We excuse ourselves as fighters for freedom, but is freedom USA-style worth such cost?

Even Mt. Everest, a sacred mountain which randomly or with some order selects who will reach the top and who will not - it’s never a sure thing for anyone - has become a commercial enterprise. The Sherpas believe a female diety, Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma, lives on and rules the mountain at its peak of 29,035 feet. She rides a red tiger and carries a spitting mongoose in one hand. The Tibetan name for Everest (named Everest for the original surveyor) is Chomulungma or Sagarmatha ("head of the sky"). Its well-traveled route has brought prosperity to the Sherpas in the Khumbu, as they open lodges with modern conveniences, offer delicious meals with what can be brought here on a man’s back, and prosper as guides to the many mountains and treks in this area. To climb Mt. Everest costs from 25,000 to 120,000 dollars for a single person. The permit fee is 14,000 dollars per person alone. But to think you are entitled to that climb because you paid for it, is stupid. Nothing can be guaranteed.. You must get to the base camp first. Don’t think you can beat the odds. Too many factors are uncontrollable, leading off with weather, conditions and of course the stamina, patience, and soul of the person climbing. Who can even make it across the ladders of the Ice Fall? Is it right to risk so many lives - including those of the Sherpas - to be able to say "I did it?" Where do you become the fool? A real man is not afraid to admit he couldn’t make it. He wins if he sees value in the effort he made to push himself beyond the couch of a comfortable routine.

Edmund Hillary, the first to ever summit Mt. Everest 55 years ago with his faithful companion Tenzing Norgay, wrote: "It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves." I know my toughest enemy is myself. How do I convince myself to continue when I feel like a dissolved snowflake? How can I deal with the loneliness factor, because, in the end, I do it alone and according to what is struggling in my spirit? It’s nice to have supporters to cheer me on. But it goes back to the core of heart and soul, the faith that one clings to whether on an operating table or about to cross a wobbly bridge. I am doing things now in my old age that I would never have tried when I was young when I was more able to do them. Is it because I have nothing to lose? Maybe. I do have God. But before I die, I am taking for real T.S. Eliot’s quote: "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." I believe this is what I am doing, finding out how far I can go at my age, in my condition, in my health and in my faith.
Photos: Mt. Kongde, a foothill of Mt. Everest - they are all incredible; The Buddhist way to Nirvana; Happiness is making momo for guests; The four animals which answered Buddha's call for help: elephant, monkey, rat and bird; the strangling fig vine which lives off trees in Chatwin.

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