Fear 3: The unknown and intangible

So many questions. This intangible source of fear.

News of COVID-19 started slowly for a couple of months and then burst out in March 2020. COVID-19 arrived with uncertain and unknown risks and predictions.

This intangible virus that brought so much panic. I’ve wondered: what if everyone in the world had sheltered in place for a month in March 2020? Would the world be in the ‘situation’ it is now?

What if we had accepted the uncertainty before us?

Many of us underestimated it assuming that ‘it’ would be all be over within a few weeks. Weeks became months and more months, as 2020 went by.

After a while I stopped watching the data every day. Could it be manipulated or incomplete? For several months, the basic numbers of cases reported, did not include that key question of cases per capita.

I wonder how many people have had a mild case or no symptoms and are not one of the numbers. What do we know about them? How many people have been sick at home to the despair of family unable to find help and medical care for them? How many have died at home, trying to get home, or in a rented room?

Some writers ask if these times are a portal to a new beginning? Or a “sacred time”?

A new beginning depending on how we emerge and how our lifestyles might change? Do we really want to change? Or is part of the fear of COVID-19 a fear of changes to our lifestyle? Questions.

If these are so-called “sacred times”, how do we begin to reconcile with the immense suffering of so many in the pandemic on two fronts?

This intangible source of fear.

Fear of crowded places, sending children to school, or visiting and hugging family and friends.

Fear worldwide and some saying that we are all in this storm together.

Those in Western countries, or with the affluence elsewhere, have sturdy boats in which to weather the storm. With all this waiting, I find myself becoming more content with my own company thinking about life, people, ideas more thoroughly. There is time so my decisions are less hasty. To be honest, I’ve not found the lock down as a time of unhappiness. Rather, a fear that we really don’t know how this will all emerge.

For so many in developing countries without social safety nets, the pandemic and lock-downs have brought more fear of starvation than of the virus. They cling to pieces of driftwood in the storm. Humans are more important than the economy but how do we sustain basic livelihoods for the poor? So many questions.

For those of us adequate money and resources, it could be a sacrosanct time when we have had the luxury of staying in our nice homes and letting our creative fires burn with interesting thoughts and commitment to our inner voices and growth.

So long as we could avoid the virus… How has this time been for the front line health workers in long and difficult conditions, seeing patients suffer and die so isolated from their loved ones. Is it a sacred time for them in constant proximity to death?

Is the virus symbolic of what we have done to the earth? Is it a reprisal from Mother Earth?

Curbing our wanderlust, our drive to socialize, our thirst for adventure. What is this time? Is it sacred? Or is profound better word? It is a thought-provoking time to question where we’ve been and where we’re going.

It is the opposite of the earthquake that plunged me into the moment. Realizing that the earthquake in Nepal rattled our very basic survival instincts and enlivened that reptilian brain to survive.

The pandemic is less reptilian in its mode of working. It requires an intellectual understanding of this unseen, unheard, untasted, un-felt danger that can make you seriously ill or kill you. Its outcome, the disease is very palpable to its survivors and those who cared for them. But, to those of us who have not contracted it, the virus is the indescribable. How do you describe it but in scientific intellectual ways?? How to make it real for so many, especially so that they will take precautions?

How will we look back at this time?

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Arundhati Roy[1]


[1] https://pnhp.org/news/arundhati-roy-the-pandemic-is-a-portal/   https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

The Letter

This letter on my desk sits shining with the embossed gold lettering and logo of the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Complete in gold embossed folder and envelope. Delivered with great intent by an earnest young embassy official in late January 2021.

Our latest fan mail but no ordinary fan mail… it is from a head of state. A woman so cherished by her countrymen and once by the world, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a woman who stood up to the generals and endured years of solitude in house arrest. Winning two elections, now after the second victory, arrested. Where is Aung San Suu Kyi and how is she?

The signature on the page…    did the world expect too much of her. She pursued the dream of democracy but equity for all Burma’s citizens seemed to be beyond her interest and reach.

Ironic how she as a Buddhist could not comprehend the urgency of compassion for all in a crowded world with shifts of people and movements.

The Rohingyas must be part of a people living along that southern coastline, moving, trading, being brought back and forth by the shifts of power and the powerful as they played their games for more power and prestige.

The envelope on the table, thanking me for books on her mentor, Dhammawati Guruma. How excited I would have been to have received the letter when I sent the books with a friend moving to Myanmar four years before. Instead, the little package sat forgotten on a shelf until my friend was packing to leave Myanmar. She was kind to take the time to send the books through her office connections to the head of state. A woman who had lived in Nepal and volunteered at the nunnery to teach the young women English.

How this woman soared into a global role, leaving her husband and two sons, leaving a life of comfort in British academia, to stay in Burma to fight for democracy… for elections. It is such a complicated country, Burma, with layers of ethnicity, discrimination, power, guilt, denial. She had one goal, to bring a voice to her supporters.

Buddhist in name and ‘religion’ but in spirit… we might wonder. Or are they like so many countries where a few wield power, keeping their heads down, watching the track in front of them, not looking at those to the side.

What is democracy if it is not for all? Can we criticise when blacks in the USA or indigenous people in Canada and Australia face discrimination, hardship, and often oppression. The persecution of the Rohingya was an overarching brutal reaction to slings and arrows from the insurgent group.

Wrote my friend: “Myanmar is a complex country with a painful history and not one person even Aung San Su Kyi could resolve the deep fractures of that society and decades of prejudice, we all misunderstood her and thought she could help end of the suffering of the Rohingyas .. still she has tried her way to make progress for her country , it’s just a more difficult journey and she is not as perfect as the West portrayed her .”

Derek Mitchell, former US Ambassador to Myanmar told the BBC: “The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is as much about us as it is about her. She may not have changed. She may have been consistent and we just didn’t know the full complexity of who she is. We have to be mindful that we shouldn’t endow people with some iconic image beyond which is human.”

Sending prayers for safety and well being of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all the people of Myanmar (Burma).  

Fear 2: Tangible shaking, tangible fears

Living in Nepal for several years, you sort of get used to the little tremors… you get jolted awake in the middle of the night, or your desk does a quick shake.

My first earthquake was in the monastery kitchen at Tengboche when the tea ladles hanging on the wall began to sway.  It was confusing – just a mild sense of motion – but the two Buddhist lamas sat calmly. 

The first sense of the 2015 earthquake might have been ten days before when we were planning a work field trip to the mountains in Manang. We knew that the road was bad with ice and snow left over from the winter… but I had this ominous feeling.

I was able to change the field schedule to do a shorter trip first and arrive back in Kathmandu on the Thursday before… but having no idea of what would happen on Saturday. Otherwise, on the originally planned date we would have been driving on a road across several cliffs at the time of the earthquake only 50 kms from the epicentre.

It was a muggy but chilled out late morning waiting for a friend to have coffee.

The main earthquake started as several little quakes that kept building in intensity over five minutes that felt like fifty.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as if there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’

That moment of being alive but connected to all those experiencing the horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

The power of the quakes… 7.9, 6.9, 7.3 brought huge devastation to some districts of central Nepal. Old style houses made of rocks and mortar collapsed killing about 9,000 people.

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Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

The frequent aftershocks drove a very tangible fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. 

It was a very moving to see people come together, to see how young people organised to help those in need. Helped me to sense our common humanity and the importance of helping others. A very tangible response to the tangible fear. 

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Fear 1: Moments of danger, times of fear

As fear engulfs the world right now I think of the moments of fear I’ve experienced in my lifetime – usually tangible fears felt or seen, unlike this almost intangible virus bringing the world to a stop. I think of people with whom I’ve shared those moments and of another being with whom I shared fear of each other.

I was just a bold twenty-something backpacking when I carelessly stepped into a very dangerous and fear provoking experience.

The mother bear and her cubs had left footprints in all the muddy patches along the trail. From the size, we knew that she was a grizzly bear – large, solitary, and as a mother, defensive of her cubs. We knew that she was in the valley bottom so when the trail went up onto the mountainside to skirt a gorge, we assumed that we had left the bears behind. Precautions fell away and I let my longer legs take me ahead of my friend.

On the trail traversing the mountainside, I stepped into a clearing in the forest. A loud grunt shattered the stillness and down the slope, I saw a large brown animal. At first, I spread my arms not sure what it was… moose, bear. Then, two little bear cubs ran off into the forest. The mother stood on her hind legs. More snorting as she dropped to all fours and ran uphill towards me. She was about 30 feet away.

It was like a switch clicking on in the back of my mind with all the precautions that I’d ever learned first from my parents, hiking partners, and more experienced friends and official warnings.

Stand still.

Those moments as she came up leaping over the fallen log her paws slashing out sideways. Her gaze pierced me. I closed my eyes to break the glower between us, not knowing what would happen. As I opened my eyes, she was sideways having turned within 2 feet of me. Off she rushed after her cubs.

I realized that we had shared a moment of intense mutual fear, that she was perhaps more afraid of me than I was of her.

My feet shook so hard they bruised from hitting the sides of my boots. My thoughts raced to the friend behind me on the trail. She soon arrived and immediately asked what happened from the look on my face.

Those moments of fear replayed through the night as I tried to sleep. By dawn I came back to the realisation of the shared fear with the mother bear. She was defending her cubs and I have had intruded have on their peaceful feeding in the forest meadow.

My intangible fear of ‘what if’ had materialised as a tangible danger of sights and sounds and presence. The fear returned as ‘what ifs’ but in the moment of most danger my inner brain had taken control of my reactions. My mind was blank, still, my inner mind knew what to do.

Grizzly mother and cubs Colleen

Grizzly mother with young cubs of the year.  Courtesy of and (c) Colleen Campbell 2001

Images courtesy of Colleen Campbell and Noel Rogers https://www.facebook.com/noelrogersphotography/

Spectacle of Flowers

Here in ‘loose down’ Kathmandu in the spring of 2020, I wonder when spring plans for a trip back to Khumbu might materialize.

The monsoon has arrived lush and humid with the spring rush of flowers fading into numerous shades of green.

The monsoon rains create a sudden rush of plant growth in Nepal’s Himalaya, with different species coming into flower each week. Spring and summer in the mountains offer glorious floral displays.

Spring in the Everest area brings out purple irises and primroses in open sunny places. The large solitary flower of the iris appears first, days before the leaves come out of the soil. New leaves on the birch trees give the forests a faint sheen of green.

Nepal is of course famous for the spring blooming of its rhododendrons, the national flower. Whole forests may be in flower at this time. These trees that are usually only waist-high in other parts of the world, may grow ten metres high in the forests of Nepal.

Starting in March, rhododendrons at the relatively lower elevations bring forth bright red clusters of flowers covering the tree. Through April and May, trees at higher elevations come into bloom. The colour of the rhododendron blooms varies depending on which of the thirty species of rhododendron trees is growing at each location.

On the higher ridge tops at about 3200 meters, the flowers are pink, or white edged with red. Higher still, the trees are shorter and in June, loaded with soft yellow blossoms.

It’s not until July that the short, shrubby rhododendrons in the high meadows flower. Their pale purples color the dwarf, knee high forests of rhododendron, juniper, willow and cotoneaster at 4500 meters.

Sheltered beneath these miniature forests are species of geraniums, anemones, forget-me-nots and more primroses. Tall, yellow Sikkimese Primroses abound in wet areas beside streams.

   Higher up on the ridge are dwarfed versions of familiar flowers such as gentians, vetches and saxifrages. The saxifrages specialize in filling in the rocky niches that are uninhabitable for other plants. The name comes from the Greek “sax” for rock and “frage”, to break; saxifrages are rock-breakers despite their delicate appearance in this harsh environment.

Many plants flourish in these demanding conditions through adaptations such as leathery leaves, hairiness, compact mat or cushion shapes, and an ability to blossom and form seeds quickly in the short growing season.

Some fleabanes grow tall and are cut for hay in the yak pastures but 800 m higher, at the edge of glaciers, closely related plants grow as tight, compact cushions.

The harshness of dry winds and temperature extremes is softened by the fuzz covering the edelweiss and pussy-toes that lay low among the rocks. Several kinds of edelweiss thrive in the Everest area, from the villages at 3500 meters right up to the edge of the Khumbu Glacier.

The bright blue of one of the most beautiful Himalayan plants is only found up high, close to the blue ice of the glaciers. The Blue Poppy is armed on its leaves and stems with stiff spikes that would discourage any hungry yak from devouring it.

From the hills vibrant with color to the mountains sparkling with fresh snow, the monsoon months offer a spectacle for those braving the mists and the rain.

What do we really want from International Women's Day?

A few lines from International Women’s Day in Nepal.

I’m seeing several images posted on social media with classic looking women pumping their biceps and lots of raving.

But, I am asking myself, is this what Women’s Day is really all about?

Is Women’s Day about using brute strength like some men (certainly not all)? Do we women really want to imitate men and how they do things?

Or is it really to celebrate the perseverance, equanimity, subtle strength, and love with which women go about their daily lives?  

Do we really want to celebrate our masculine sides or strengthen our divine feminine? Bring that feminine power and way of doing things to a chaotic world?

Do we try to fight force with more force or try to return to more harmonious ways of being?

How do we create the conditions for women to be ensured of their rights to dignity and freedom from fear and servitude? Conditions so that women can voice their concerns and aspirations and have the agency to conduct their lives and livelihoods in a dignified and happy manner?

How do we ensure that some women never have to return to bonded labour (basically slaves) or en denture their children?

I hope that International Women’s Day also reminds women to follow their dreams and aspirations – whether to be a professional, climb a mountain, or raise happy and thoughtful children.

Samayak: Walking with the Buddhas among us

Again after four years, it is time for the Samayak when all the households with special Buddhist statues in Patan bring them to the big squares in the middle of the old city. The last Samayak was in 2016, just months after the earthquake. A couple of the temples damaged then have since been rebuilt.

First each household brings their ‘deity’ out to the front of their home on the street, where they offer prayers for the journey and gathering. The statues might be any size from six inches tall to huge heads over four feet tall that are worn by a man carrying them. Needless to say, many other family members help guide him on the journey through the streets.

Then, the Buddhas assemble in Patan Durbar Square before moving over to the Nag Bahal Square where tens of thousands of people come the next day to offer their prayers and devotion. The queues to enter the the courtyard stretch for blocks along the nearby road.

Come twilight on the second day, after a procession by the elders of the community, the Buddhas head home with crowds lining the lanes and reaching out to touch the statues as they pass. After a brief rest outside the home or temple, the statues are returned to their secluded homes. Portions of the offerings are shared with community members sitting and waiting in rows

Getting out of the ‘now’

For four years since the earthquake in Nepal, I have had writer’s block like a noose halting the connection from mind to paper or computer. I would start and almost immediately stop. It has been a struggle to keep work deadlines, to get writing done without a deadline.

While writer’s block is a common challenge for most writers, it seemed to have had deeper roots within. something had shifted with the earthquake and its hundreds of aftershocks.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as it there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’ It was a moment of being glad that right then I was alive. Thoughts crossed through my mind that there must be horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

It has hung with me until tonight when I realized that to write, I needed to step outside of the now, to look at past and future and still appreciate the present.

MUSTANG – trees to temples

Dust and blowing sand

Standing in the middle of the sandy trail with the wind howling, the sun blazing, no shade and not a tree or shrub in sight.

“From right here, 700 years ago, the Lo kings cut trees for the gompas in Lo,” says Chimi, our guide.

The only trees we’ve seen in four days of walking are those planted near irrigated fields in villages, oases of green in this rocky, barren, desolate landscape. Eroded bones of the  earth. Canyons out through the layers of rocks lay down over the millennia as sediments on the floor of an ancient sea. Rocks in reds, rocks of beige, a few striped rocks with  green argallite. Rocks, sand, canyons, and sky.

“For those huge pillars? ”

“Yeah, this all used to be a forest of big trees. It’s in Khampo Tashi’s book.”

Those pillars, those huge pillars at least 3-4 feet in diameter and 25ft high are so magnificent. Many came from a single piece of wood …  That would have come from this desolate place. Huge timbers that must have been cut from even larger trees.

Larger trees that grew until 700 years ago in this now barren high desert.

A forest where it is now high altitude desert. What happened?

Mustang is an old place for the Nepal Himalaya. People have perhaps lived here for 6,000 years – at first in caves  cut into the sandstone cliffs. Gradually, Lo became the walled capital of the Lo kings.

A walked city like none other in the Himalaya. More and more building with growing affluence from the salt trade, more gompas and monasteries. At the pinnacle of the Lo dynasty and culture, three huge gompas were built of stone, rammed earth and wooden windows, doors, and pillars. Huge pillars to hold the heavy building. And they came from a forested valley that is now this desert place.

The speed of the change both intrigues and depresses me. I no longer find Mustang a fascinating desert landscape but a denuded land.

A traumatized land where demons and saviours (Guru Rinpoche) fought over bringing Buddhism to Tibet and the Himalaya. Where the slain demons blood is believed to colour the red rocks of the region.

Later talking to the forestry professor stranded in Jomsom, I learn that when trees are cut, their roots no longer have the capacity to hold up the water table so the water drops deeper. Only those trees and shrubs close to irrigation canals or streams can survive.

Why do we keep cutting so many trees?