What do you do with grief for a far away place?
While on the surface, the earthquake in Nepal might have little to do with western herbal medicine and even less with the sustainable herbs project, my journey following the thread of the sacred began when I first traveled to Nepal in 1985. For me, it is all very much connected and so I am sharing these reflections here.
For days following the Nepal earthquake, I sat at my computer, scrolling through images of injured women rushed on makeshift stretchers to overcrowded hospitals, panicked people fleeing falling temples, grief-stricken mothers, an entire village buried in an avalanche. Night after night, I read reports of the stench from bodies not yet removed, roads and trails blocked by landslides, the need to plant fields with rice, to builds shelters before the monsoon, the bulldozing of hundred-year old hand-carved door frames, the bottle-necks of aid.
It felt important to follow, a kind of bearing witness. But as the days become weeks, following so closely only drives in how helpless I feel and how far away. “Stop looking,” my 10-year old son told me as he headed off for school. I was watching a recently posted video of a drone flying over entire villages reduced to rubble. “It will only make you sad.”
What do you do when the things to do aren’t obvious? When the clearly helpful ways to help – the coordinating and distributing and documenting and carrying and donating and operating – are already being done by those on the ground or those far away with the connections and knowledge and resources to do them.
Beyond donating money, I can’t do anything, really. And yet I also can’t do nothing.
I’m teaching an anthropology class this semester on Asian Medical Systems at a liberal arts college. I taught here fifteen years ago and am surprised now by the students, by how much more open they are, by how much they care – and by how hard they work.
When the Nepal earthquake struck, we were reading about Tibetan medicine in Nepal. At the same time, the students had just written papers about a personal experience that transformed their ideas of health. I was deeply moved by what they wrote – by the things they carried: loss and sickness and death – and by their willingness to share these stories with me, whom they had only known for four weeks. It seemed important to find a way to bridge these personal and global experiences of loss with the content of the class. And so I decided to do a check-in, something quite common in the herb circles I now mostly move in, much more risky in a classroom at an Ivy League school where I could easily be dismissed, as I have been on student evaluations elsewhere, as lacking the intellectual muscle to teach at such an institution. But I couldn’t pretend that nothing had happened, and so I decided to give it a try.
I started off by saying how heartbroken I was and how helpless I felt. That was all. A serious, hardworking student who has already been accepted to medical school said one word: exhausted. The next said the same. And everyone around the circle said more or less the same: tired, exhausted, lost. Yes, lost, the next said, and feeling so much pressure from my parents. One student in a class of 19 was feeling good. And that was, she said, because she had just been home for the weekend
As with their papers, I hadn’t expected them to be so open. Nor had I expected things to be so hard. I wasn’t quite sure what to say next. So I talked a bit about scars, about how I would massage the scar on my son’s little finger after he’d had surgery to prevent the tissue from becoming rigid and stiff. I said I wondered if emotional scars worked the same way. If we ignore them, our hearts become hard like those physical scars, preventing the blood and fluids from nourishing the cells. But if we give these wounds attention, speaking of them, maybe that helps our emotions stay pliant instead of becoming walls we need to defend. And then I had them divide into small groups to discuss not the content of their papers but what it had been like to write about something so personal.
They talked for 15, 20 minutes and then came back together to talk as a group. Again, I wasn’t sure how it would go. The conversation started slowly, but once several students had started, almost everyone had something to say. Students who never spoke, spoke up as each shared how helpful it had been to write and speak about something so personal. One mentioned that writing about it and sharing gave it meaning. Several commented on how unusual it was in class to talk about how they felt, that they usually had to leave their emotions at the door.
I asked what difference it made to be able to bring those feelings into the classroom. One student said that writing and talking about their feelings validated those feelings and that that then provided an anchor for their ideas. Another added that it helped them connect with the topics we were discussing, made them more invested. If they had a personal connection, several said, they were more likely to retain what they were learning. Another student mentioned hearing a talk on emotional intelligence as the root of any kind of intelligence.
The conversation felt real. It felt open. It felt like we were finally talking about the things that mattered, and that, unlike so many classroom discussions, this one would endure.
The first day of the course, I had told a story I have always loved from Hedangna, the village where I had conducted my research in northeastern Nepal.
The story goes like this: Once there was no division between humans and the ancestors or between those who could speak with the ancestors and those who could not. Ancestors did everything humans could do, but they did it better, longer, more easily. Humans aged, grew weak, and eventually died. The ancestors never died. Those who were old had always been old, and those who were young stayed young forever.
Even with these differences, humans could see the ancestors just as clearly as the ancestors can now see humans. They could walk together and eat the same food. At that time, a young man, a human, fell in love with the daughter of the most powerful ancestor, Matlung Thuba. Though a marriage between a human and an ancestor was unusual, the daughter begged her father and the two, were allowed to marry.
One day, the man joined his in-laws on a hunt, they were searching, he was told, for a ledey. The human didn’t know what a ledey was but, reluctant perhaps to point to the differences between himself and his in-laws, all ancestors, he followed eagerly along.
Finally, after a long day crossing the ridges and valleys of eastern Nepal, a tiny bird darted down the valley. The brothers cried out, “A ledey!” and began to chase what to the young man seemed like some invisible prey. The in-laws told the man to wait at the head of a valley and catch the ledey when they chased it his way. The young man, not knowing what to look out for, sat down to wait. He noticed a tiny bird flying up the valley. Bored and not thinking much about what he was doing, he shot it with an arrow and stuffed it under his hat.
The others ran up asking if he had killed the prey they had sent his way. “Prey? No prey has come up this valley,” he said, shaking his head. Perplexed, the in-laws went back down the valley to look for the ledey. This happened several more times before at last the man reached under his hat and pulled out the small bird. “This is all I’ve seen,” he said. His in-laws cried, “But this is what we have been chasing all along! What did you think we were looking for? What a useless son- in- law!”
They cleaned the bird, giving the son-in-law the thighbone as was the custom for whomever shot the prey, and began the long walk home. The young man followed, thinking “What in-laws I have. They are Kiranti, and yet they don’t even know how to hunt! All this time we have taken, all this running around, and we haven’t even gotten enough meat to feed ourselves one meal.” They arrived home long after dark. He strode into his house, where his wife was tending the fire.
“La!” he cried out, throwing the thighbone at his wife. “This is what your family hunts for! Here is the meat we are meant to live on!” As he threw the piece of meat, the tiny bone suddenly became quite big. It landed with a dull thud on his wife’s leg. She shrieked in pain. “What have you done?” she cried. Her father rushed in to see what had happened, and she turned her anger toward him. “Why did you do this to me?” she cried. “Why did you marry me to this big meat-eating, buffalo-eating human! This bone is plenty for us, but it has no meaning for him! Look—he has broken my leg! What am I to do?”
The storytellers paused at this point to underscore the blindness of humans. Although tiny, the bird would provide food for the ancestors for a long, long time, they explained. The problem was that the man, a greedy human, could see only what was visible to his eyes; he believed only what he could touch with his hands. He did not understand that a body needs more than physical sustenance to stay alive and did not trust that the nourishment offered by the bird was as sustaining as that provided by a larger animal, such as a bear. Size has nothing to do with it.
After this, the ancestors retreated up the mountain slopes where they could only be seen by those who could ‘see double’, by the priests and shamans who were born with the ability to see the living and the more-than-living.
I told this story to my class as a way to talk about the invisible world – call it the sacred – that sustains us. And to talk about what it takes to see that world, to know it is there even though we can’t see it with our eyes or hold it in our hands.
Yet seeing double – seeing that what we hold in our hands isn’t all that matters – is little comfort at a time when material things: houses and food and roads and people we love – are precisely what matters. The story seems better suited to happier times, when physical structure are intact and the loss doesn’t cut so deep.
But from far away, I don’t have a lot more to work with. And so I wonder how this story that has guided me so often might help, not those on the ground who needed water and food and tents last week, but those of us far away, trying to make sense of how to bear our grief in a way that seems to help.
As I read the story again, I realize I’ve always focused on the idea of seeing double. I’ve thought about our eyes and not about what inside allows us to see that the leg of a bird, say, might sustain us in a way the leg of something larger, like a deer, might not.
What struck me was not that my students went where they did in that discussion, but how ready they were to go. They simply needed permission. And during the week following the earthquake, amidst a lot of conversations that didn’t help, connecting with these students was one of the things that did. Not because they understood my sadness or I understood the exact nature of theirs. But because we all acknowledged the ground on which we stood.
I spent the most formative years of my life in Nepal in a community for whom suffering was a given. Among people who knew from experience that there were limits to what they could control, who never assumed things were any different because that was all they had ever known. I don’t mean to simplify what is nuanced and complex or to romanticize poverty. But I think this awareness made a difference and I think that difference is important. I think it relates to being able to see what matters amidst all that does not.
In preparing for my class, I came across Mary Oliver’s poem, Lead. This poem describes the beautiful, haunting song of a loon and ends with these lines
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this to break your heart,
by which I mean only that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
by which I mean only that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
As with so many others, my love for Nepal, the depth of which has nothing to do with anything that can be measured – with years spent or places visited – is at the root of my impulse to give back to the place that first helped me understand the importance of all I couldn’t see.
As is so often the case, it isn’t just Nepal that’s in crisis right now. Everywhere I look the news is heartbreaking. It can be hard to find a way to move forward without steeling myself against it, creating a wall between myself and the pain of the world, a wall that doesn’t seem to help. I think back to the thin hard scar on my son’s little finger that he will no longer let me massage.
When our hearts are cracked open, we ‘see double’. We see more than meets the eye and when we see more than meets the eye, we connect with what is real and with what endures. And we create a space in which others can do the same – wherever they may be.
Ann Armbrecht lived in and traveled to Nepal between 1985 and 1997. She is the author of Settlements of Hope: An Account of Tibetan Refugees in Nepal and Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, an ethnographic memoir based on her research in Hedangna in the Arun Valley in northeastern Nepal. She directs the Sustainable Herbs Project.