Waking, Sunday


doves calling: there’s hope for all … hope for all …

Bach cantatas, 80 and 147
(Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring);

the smell of snow


Chiang Mai

A Clean, Well-lighted Place

Hemingway said, “The more true things you leave out, the stronger the story. In A Clean, Well-lighted Place, I left out the whole city of Chicago.” He meant that the “true things” inform what you write without your having to talk about them. He omitted (generously, and in accordance with his dictum) that you begin by finding out what’s true.

His observation applies to all endeavor, not just writing. He left that out, too.

Smith’s / The Boundary Waters

I have moved to Smith’s Residence, a “short stay, long stay solution,” near the Chiang Mai Gate. The solution is an eight story building painted in blocks of orange and white, creamsicle colors. In the lobby, a small restaurant serves meals on tables that overlook Nantharam Street and the first level of the parking garage. There are orchids, a convenience store / bar area to one side, an overhead mirror, two computers to rent for internet access, and a tireless manager.

We are a mixed group of westerners and Thais at Smith’s. Last night, while I was eating at one of the tables, a guest began shouting at the manager. Very surprising. I hadn’t heard a voice raised in anger since I arrived in Thailand.

The guest was short, middle-aged, red-faced. He was shouting in English with a European accent. “It never works! I cannot use it. Why is this? I used it this morning. Now, nothing! My friend is in hospital in Spain. I cannot get information …” He was waving a laptop that he had brought from his room. “It is NO GOOD. They say there is not enough energy in the night time. It is no good here!”

I went over to him and asked if I could help. This gave the manager a chance to think about the problem while the guest repeated himself to me. We took his laptop to the registration counter. “Very annoying,” I said. “The system here could be better, but usually it works. Sometimes you have to give it a little time—reboot.”

“Time! I try and nothing!” Around and around he went. The manager chipped away at the problem, speaking Thai on the phone with his IT guy. The guest began to calm down.

“It is hard,” I said, “not knowing about the hospital. I will think about you and your friend tonight. It is hard, sometimes.” He nodded, and we both felt better. I finished eating and took a bottle of Heineken back to my room. Everton and Swansea played to an exciting 2-2 draw while I wondered off and on about my promise to think of the guest and his friend at the hospital. The words were unusual for me, but the feeling was familiar.

It came back. A train in the night, rolling north through Minnesota. Dim yellow light. I was on my way to Seattle to look in on my wife’s aunt who was dying. The woman sitting next to me was returning home after a month’s work nursing at a hospital in Chicago. She was fifty, plain and pleasant, practical. She named a town which was at the point where the train turns west toward North Dakota. “My husband will meet me there.”

“That’s nice. It will be two in the morning.”

“He’s used to it.

“Do you live there?”

“Oh, no. We have a five hour drive north.”

“Five hours!”

“Yes, up by the Boundary Waters. We leave the truck at the end of a dirt road and canoe the rest of the way, across the lake.” It was hard to imagine. I was already feeling well beyond the edge of civilization. “It’s so peaceful there. I love going home.”

We talked and dozed until we reached her stop. Before she left, she said goodbye and, “I will pray for you and your aunt.” I thanked her. Five minutes later the train lurched gently and began to gather speed.

I love the bible as history, as spiritual evolution, as wisdom, as metaphor, as great writing, but I don’t pray to a personal god. Yet, her words comforted me. I have remembered them many times, always with good feeling. I was in her thoughts. She cared. So simple and helpful. It was she who spoke to the angry guest.

Chiang Mai Gate

Chiang Mai Gate. The market. Thais, old, young, and inbetween, westerners, mostly old or young, motorbikes, scooters, sahm-lors pedaled by thin old men in straw hats take older women back home with baskets of produce for the day’s meals. Sorng-taous drive by slowly, trolling for passengers. Smells of grilling chicken and pork, onions, chilis. A flower stall. A fabric stall. Watch repair in a one man booth. Whistles, as a delivery truck is allowed to back out into traffic. Two young Buddhist monks in orange robes chant blessings over a kneeling woman who has contributed to the shiny tin containers the monks hold in front of them on their morning rounds.

The Gate is on the south side of the old city. It connects the outer ring road with a parallel avenue on the other side of the canal. Between the two roads is a paved public space where the main market (a hundred vendors under an extended roof) overflows into a constantly transforming outdoor restaurant and flea market run by individuals who unload tables and chairs, barbeques, coolers, and racks of used clothing from pickups, and then, a few hours later, take everything away. Except for a scattering of parked bikes, the space is bare until lunch time or dinner time when the whole set up and take down scene repeats. In the evening, people seem quite content to eat at folding tables and chairs in the cooler air. A few hours later everything is gone.

You can see anything or anyone at Chiang Mai Gate. There is a constant press of shoppers and passers-by and vehicles, but voices are rarely raised, and there never seems to be an accident. Awareness and consideration for others is universal, taken for granted.

Sometimes it takes awhile to see what is all around you. I lived in India for four or five months before I realized what was so different from the U.S. No one was afraid. The Indians have a vibrant identification with the universe—think Irish, Russian, Tibetan especially—regardless of their personal condition.

Thais are similarly free but with a social and contented vibe. They have grown rice here for many centuries. They know what works. Respect is earned and perpetuated. The U.S. paradigm of winners and losers is shocking and childish in comparison—ego run wild. There is no shortage of ego in Thailand, but it is largely channeled, made use of, like the sun and rivers, bamboo, and the soil replenished from northern mountains.

On a Honda

hiding from rain,
curled sideways
behind her boyfriend,
his arms reaching forward,
her head lowered,
cheek between
his shoulder blades,
the modest curve
of her body—
Asian, resilient,
moving away
at the green light

Chiang Mai