The Only Thing to Do

October 23, 2016, Melrose. It is past dusk. Josie runs faster than me, and disappears into the dark as we run on the uneven sidewalk, cobbled with the orange glow of the streetlight through the trees. I follow her through darkness, hesitant and feeling my way, wishing not to fall as my feet land on cracked cement levered up by thick tree roots. She is surefooted, light and silent as she floats into the night air ahead, and for a moment she is lost to my vision. It is hard to keep up. I gulp air. She holds herself back from her usual pace in order to stay with me, every so often, looking back, saying, “Don’t stop.”  When we reach the last hill, she turns once more and says, “Don’t give up. This is where you push.” My lungs are bursting. I put my head down and focus – Louise’s calm voice sounds in my mind – the only thing there is to do is put one foot in front of the other. Each step is in slow motion. As I crest the hill, Josie smiles. This is the first time I’ve made it up without stopping.

Louise told me a story about her friend Mingma, who belongs to the Sherpa people in Nepal. He grew up in a small, remote village perched high in the Kanchenjunga mountains. Most Westerners think of the Sherpa as porters, agile and strong people who safely shepherd wealthy trekkers to summit peaks in the Himalayas. Sherpas call themselves “the people of the East.” Their culture is steeped in Buddhism, and mindfulness is their way of being in the world. The Sherpa people call Everest Chomolungma – mountain so high no bird can fly over it. To say hello in the Nepali means, Have you eaten?  Louise talks about Mingma with love, and describes his unsurpassed kindness. She is tough as nails, but when she speaks of him there is a softness in her like dawn lighting wisps of clouds on the mountains.

When Mingma was a child, his family took him and their small herd of buffalo to the jungle for grazing. They left him there all summer to fend for himself, care for the buffalo, and make butter from their milk. I picture him alone in the dense green rhododendrons dripping with moisture; resonant with the sounds of birds and monkeys. He sits aloft a tree limb with the brown backs of the buffalo moving peacefully below, lowing and reaching to strip leaves from the trees. He is alone. He is wiry and small, and often hungry. If a buffalo goes missing, he must find it. His family comes every few weeks to collect the butter, scolding him if he has eaten too much of it. This is the way things are. He is eight years old.

When he is 11, Mingma’s family trek over the mountains to get supplies, like salt. He must help and carries a bag that is 20 kilos over his shoulder. It shifts on his back, growing heavier and heavier as he climbs. He struggles, and his arms straining with its weight. His legs burn. He falls farther and farther behind as his family climb higher onto the slope. They grow smaller and smaller until they are out of sight. He calls out to them, but it is too far and they do not hear. Once more, he is alone. A long time passes. The sky begins to grow dark. He sits down on the path and cries.

What did you do then, Louise asked him.  He said, after a pause, I got up and began to walk. The only thing there is to do is put one foot in front of the other.

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November 9, 2016, Jinan. I am feeling small, and defeated. I am in the Shandong province, China, teaching clinicians at a hospital how to treat children and adolescents with OCD. I am co-training with another American woman, Denise, who I have come to love like a sister.  I enjoy her grit and stamina. She is a good teacher with a huge heart. She is also a mother, and her children, like mine, have woken up today into a different, nightmarish version of America. I have a deep sense that my friends of color, or those who are gay, or women, or Muslim – and their children – are unsafe. They no longer have the privilege of feeling at home in their own country. Every stranger may be a threat; they are being made to feel less than they are. My friends with children are struggling to explain to them why the bully won; how to reconcile that with teaching them that kindness, and love, and openness are their greatest strengths. Our Chinese friends look on us with sadness and compassion. They sat vigil with us, offered drink and food, soothed us with laughter and gentleness. They are worried for all of us too. None of us know what this will mean, what will happen next.

Each day here, the sky has been filled with smog. It shrouds the buildings, and strangely, does not move even though we have had a day of heavy wind. It is so thick you can taste it – it is faintly chemical; textured. The air smells sour. My chest hurts, and it is hard to breathe. We tire easily. There seem to be no birds in the city. Our hotel is flanked by concrete tower after tower, identical, bristling with cranes, and vacant. The buildings are unfinished; the windows have no panes and gape darkly; blue tarps flap in the wind. Meanwhile a factory on the horizon spews fumes into the air, day and night. Some mornings I can’t see through the smog. It’s not even clear dawn has broken – the gray brightens by slow degrees, the skyline indistinct. Meanwhile, far away at home, we have just elected a leader who I fear will poison our country and our world. Our skies will become gray too. It will be hard to tell when the sun rises. Bees are already an endangered species. The sea will continue to rise and acidify. When my children are my age, the earth may no longer be able to sustain them, or their grandchildren, or their grandchildren. Turns out, there may be no safe place for any of us.

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Jinan smog

When Josie was born, I held her in my arms and marveled at her soft, pink body curled into a “c” in our tiny brick house on the square in Oxford, Mississippi. I watched her chest rise and fall with her breaths. Her fingers were long and delicate; a darker pink net of veins lay underneath her skin. I could breathe her baby smell in forever as I nestled my face into the downy skin of her neck.  My wish for her was that she never experience the trauma and violence that I did – like so many other women – in my youth, in college, and beyond. That she never feel the profound terror of being powerless. That she never spend her nights shaking from nightmares; her days mistrustful, full of rage and shame; hypervigilant for danger. That she will never have to learn how to shut off her feelings and put on a mask in order to function, because there was no other way. As I watched her shift gently in her sleep, I knew there was nothing I would not do to keep her safe; nothing I would not give. This is still true, and will be true until the end of my life. And even after, if I am allowed, I will come back as a ghost and terrorize the living shit out of anyone who harms her.

But here is what I want to say: my darling, you are strong. You are smart, you are powerful, and you are worthy. The world needs you. I am sorry we have failed you this time. But there will be other times, and we will fight together. We will fix what we have broken so that you and your children and their children will know they were loved, and that we did not give up.

We will need help, and we will need each other, so radiate love – to your family, to your friends, and most of all, to those who would not see you for who you are. Speak out against injustice. Let your kindness blaze away in the dark.

Understand that because of the color our skin, we are privileged. We are part of a history that has done violence and damage to others that continues today. Because of the color of our skin, we have inherited a place on the wrong side of history. It is our legacy, and we need to own this. And because of this, it is our responsibility to use that privilege to help others without it to rise. It is our responsibility to be a part of a new history that makes a place for us all. Speak out. Silence is complicity and will pull us all back into a vortex of what has been, and the cycle will repeat. This is where you push.

Listen. Lean in to hard conversations. Appreciate that people are angry. Stay in the fire even if it is painful. The world is richer because of our differences. Treat each person you meet with exquisite curiosity. Be patient. Find out what it is about them that is magical, unique, surprising, and good. Discover that difference can be astonishing, inspiring, and powerful.  Cherish it. Celebrate it. Our differences are a result of, and the engine for, our evolution into a more just and nurturing world. They are what makes us human, and are ultimately the only thing that will save us all.

Most of all, stand for those of us who cannot protect themselves. Look through their eyes. Be their champion. Educate yourself about the world – see it for what it is – all of us are equally full of blindness and vision; goodness and horror. Know that which we become is up to us. Cry. Rage. Your feelings are yours, and they are beautiful. And when you feel your smallest and most vulnerable, know that I will be there to hold you, always. Remember this: They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds (Mexican saying).

The only thing to there is to do is put one foot in front of the other.

 

 

Calculus

It didn’t take me long to figure out that this trek to Everest started long before we will arrive in Kathmandu. I’m not exactly sure when it began – perhaps when I bought our plane tickets – but the more I think about it, I wonder if it started long before that. Maybe I set out when I was a small girl. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go outside in winter to draw the constellations for an eighth grade science class. I can still see the pale violet color of the snow in the starlight, lit so brightly it is faintly luminescent. There is no sound except my breath, made visible by the cold air. I am in my backyard, surrounded in the distance by sleeping houses. A few high clouds waft by the moon in silvered tatters. There is Orion, the hunter, with his three star belt and dim sword; at his knee is Sirius, the white-blue dog star.  I know the stars are moving, but they appear still, pinpricks through a velvet cloth.  The few oaks in our yard are tall and dark, brittle limbs tangled and shifting ever so slightly against the sky. After giving in to the hollow discomfort of waking up, I sketch the stars in my notebook: Ursa Major, Pleiades, Cassiopeia. I stand still, drinking in the silence. The world, for just a few moments, has fallen away. I wonder if it will be like this on Everest. Louise tells me that it will be a full moon on the night we reach Base Camp.

Josie’s trek will begin with Calculus. She is taking an AP class, her first, and it is hard. There are so many things that she must handle in order to go on this trek. There was the gutpunch disappointment of thinking she understood the material, but getting a test grade that suggested otherwise. She goes through mental calculations constantly: how many days she will miss; how many hours of schoolwork she will need to complete; weeks before college applications are due; her last days of summer at home; weekends left with her neighborhood friends until their diaspora in late August; moments she has left to spend with John and me between  our jobs and travel; time borrowed from our son, Rory’s soccer; hours stolen from her time snuggled in her tiny bedroom under the eaves. She talks about growing up with finality and dread. She says going on the trek is impossible, that she can’t do it while keeping up at school. She is tired already, going through the motions in her mind, throwing herself again and again against a wall she can’t move. Her mind tells her she is not enough.

She is beautiful, although she does not know it. She is terrible, and stubborn, and exquisitely kind.

She is mean to her brother, and does not quit or back down in arguments. She is forgetful; she is super organized. She breaks everything. She makes utterly perfect origami. She leaves her dirty socks all over and our dog, Peaches, eats them. She is a brilliant fiddle player, and effortless music pours out of her that brings me to tears. She never practices. She can take deep breaths and speak eloquently about how she feels. The blindness of the world baffles her. How do people not get that we are ruining the planet, she says, holding up two fingers in each hand. I don’t get it. It’s like this: if I have two things, and then I add another two things,  she says, putting her fingers together,  then that makes FOUR things. It’s like that. How do people not get that? 

She is small and fierce. She is the bravest person I know. She does not understand that she is exquisite, one in eight billion, the only one of her kind that will ever be.  She does not know that I am grieving already.  This trip is one of two bookends to her childhood – the first, when it was just she and I, before Rory, her younger brother, came – and now, she and I venturing out beyond anything we have ever known or done, as she grows up and away. The sadness and joy of that are breathtaking.

I ask, If it were possible to make a plan so that you could manage your schoolwork well, and go to Everest, would you want that? 

Of course, she says. I can see her behind her eyes, determined.

I am betting on her for the win.

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See you in Kathmandu

“See you in Kathmandu,” Louise says as she steps away into the grey bustle of Newark airport, lugging the two suitcases she’s brought on her workshop tour of the US. I know she is tired, and misses home. Although she is just setting out, her heart is already elsewhere, seeking the stillness of the mountains. I stand on the damp macadam, cars whooshing by, people jostling their luggage. She smiles when I ask her to say it again. She does. See you in Kathmandu. I shriek with joy and disbelief. I am going. In February, I will trek to Everest Base Camp with Josie, my daughter, who is 17. me-and-josie