Two Moments and A River

17 Oct

 Taking time with the small deeds matters. A moment of time spent in the present, experiencing all the rhythms, sounds, and intricacies is often more pleasant than reveries and memories. But occasionally the present might present us with an item – a sound or a perception – that touches something in us. Our mind may sneak its subtle tongue into the world of the present and draw us into the world of the past or future – the worlds of loss and not having. Such is the subject of my own mind in this town, Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang sits quietly by the banks of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan. It is a place visitors often describe with eloquence, naming the various feelings that arise in this town – feelings inspired by ancient temples and palaces, Indochinese architecture, and the town’s welcoming attitude toward visitors. I write this only because I would prefer to skip the pleasantries of introducing “the feel” of Luang Prabang to my readers (a task many others have already endeavored) and move on to my experience of this town almost ten years after my first visit in 2002.

I arrived here several days ago and was surprised that not a whole lot has changed about this town. A few more guesthouses coupled with a few more European bakeries have made it slightly more attractive to honeymooners and vacationers. While China and Thailand, economic powerhouses of the East, might see change on a rapid scale (China far outweighing Thailand), Laos seems to amble along, giving itself time to make slightly more informed decisions about its destiny. In fact, the number of “foreign” consultants working on development projects in this country may be an indication of the government’s practical investment in a desirable future. But I will save my analysis of Laos’ transnational development relationships for another time, and again, if I can, direct my reveries and daydreams into the now.

I am sitting on the main road, which turns into a tourist market at night. Hmong and Lao women are setting up their crafts, and I am penning some words, to the curiosity of an eight year-old boy from a village some twenty kilometers away. He first approached me with a cardboard tray of bracelets to sell earlier today. When I responded in Lao, he seemed interested more in me than selling his goods. He sat down and began watching me intently.  Now, later in the day, he is back by my side.

My meeting with this boy was the first of two moments that brought me into my experience, both in my body and in this land. This boy, dressed in an old brown t-shirt and some stained shorts, comes from outside of this large town almost every day to sell these bracelets – he and a couple dozen other children. He said that he can use some of his money to buy himself snacks, and brings the rest back to his “people.” While I wondered more about this boy, I would not pretend to be able to change his situation, and have not yet resolved that it should change. But something inside of me did want him to have more interesting experience with a non-local, and so I engaged him in conversation. We talked about his village, his brothers and sisters, and his bicycle (something he was very excited about, which made me think it might be a new item). He then shifted the conversation to me, wondering if I lived in Vientiane and if I were a teacher.

And then he says this: My father is not here…not around. He has been gone for a while. Won’t be back. A wave of energy seemed to rock my body backwards into the wall behind me. The feeling was palpable, as though a mortar round had sent a powerful shock wave from thirty meters away. It was not necessarily the part about his father being gone that hit me; it was the Won’t be back. At his age, this knowledge seemed powerful.

After he broke the story of his father to me, I gently and slowly found my way out of the conversation and began walking. I walked through the quiet streets of Luang Prabang for two hours, watching, thinking, feeling. I felt closer to people, more open to the world, and yet simultaneously on the brink of tears, like anything at any moment could drop me into the release of sorrow.

Then the second moment came. I had walked into a bookstore, perhaps looking for a slight distraction. Perusing the books, my eyes landed on a murder mystery written by a Bangkok resident. That’s when it all flooded in, my body into itself and the truth of where I was…the truth of where I am. When my father and mother visited me in northern Thailand some five years ago, they brought with them a few books by this author. It was their tradition to read novels that take place in the regions they visit, and the closest thing they found for northern Thailand was this series of crime novels starring a Bangkok police detective. There, in a wooden bookstore in the midday heat of Luang Prabang, the tears came streaming down my freshly shaven face.

It was a grief that goes deep into my existence, a grief that I would argue works deeply into our common humanity, and it was this grief that surprisingly brought me into the present more powerfully than the meditative practice I have held for a number of years. I left the bookstore and the puzzled shopkeeper and headed to a place where the land could hold me: a quiet spot in the shade by the banks of the Mekong. I let grief flood me, and let the river’s movement clean out the grime of suppressed doubts, sorrows, and fears.

I saw how sorrow is attached to change, how in every moment we lose the past that our mind seems to prefer. This is why, when a town changes, when a village outgrows its family-oriented ways, when a city like Jinghong grows to three times its size in a few years and sweeps over villagers’ rice paddies, we feel such grief. The trouble is that we, as a global society, need the physical space and time to encounter this grief. When the human world moves quickly, we jump into the current because it seems to be the only plausible action. We only swim out to the banks when we realize it is too much for us. But this realization does not come regularly. We usually try to find ways of beating the current, which in turn makes the current more turbulent.

This boy, this town of Luang Prabang, this river: they allowed me the space to feel the grief of a lifetime of losses, from the death of grandparents to the death of my father and the loss of my childhood home, to the separation from a dear partner, to the many recent turbulent changes in my life. I saw the boy adjusting to a change and being able to speak of it with a stranger. I saw the river and its ability to move across whatever path the land held for it. If we can speak of our losses and slow down the artificial changes we create, perhaps we will evolve as humans into a place where we can support each others’ losses, reserve human-made change for positive, thoughtful evolution, and move at a pace where our bodies and minds may generate compassion rather than turbulence.

-Max Woodfin

2 Responses to “Two Moments and A River”

  1. patricia lasseter November 8, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    thank you, max.i reread the last two paragraphs several times and was equally touched each time.

    patricia, your mom’s neighbor

  2. Somsanid April 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Thank you Ai Max, for writing and sharing this beautiful experience, it’s so touched and made me thinking of the time in Ban Chan. And the temple stairs down the river of the Mekong in the early morning and during the sunset time.

    Guess who?

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