Sunday, 25 November 2007

a wakeless world

Mr Badger's boat--do you think he'd marry me? I could keep flowers in pots and write novels and brew tea...
It's Sunday and I am turning to memories and trivia to dispell this disquieting winter's eve. My friend Nathan and I have this endearing little habit--at least we think so--of texting each other Paul Simon's lyrics at odd moments. We were at this seriously old cemetery with the oldest tree in the United Kingdom, a yew tree, which has the disappointing habit of dying back to its roots and growing again, smaller and more spindly as the centuries roll by, so that we got to see a not all that impressive looking gnarly tree with a lovely huge ring of stones showing its ancient girth. Essentially, we had to take the tree's past on faith, and I count on trees being something you can actually put your hands on--I'm like a Tree Thomas.

Anyway, in this very old cemetery were all these old gravestones and there was one that said simply, Asleep in Jesus. This was really and truly puzzling to my friends, who aren't Christian and thus aren't used to our platitudes, and the grammar worried them too--why wasn't in asleep in Jesus' something? Jesus' arms, for example. And Nathan suddenly declared that he wanted his tombstone to say, Asleep in Paul Simon. I am telling this story simply because it makes me laugh. The story goes on and has druidic stones in a field and bulldozers chained to trees in a forest and a terrifying slither down a ravine in an enormous ball of leaves, but I'll stop at Paul Simon. Anyway, this is our favorite stanza at the moment:

A man walks down the street,
It's a street in a strange world--
maybe it's the Third World,
maybe it's his first time around.
He doesn't speak the language,
he holds no currency,
he is a foreign man,
he is surrounded by the sound, the sound
of cattle in the marketplace,
scatterlings and orphanages.
He looks around, around,
he sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity,
he says, hey, hallelujah...

It's a good thing to be able to say hey, hallelujah on a winter's night. I'm posting some pictures of narrow-boating with my uncle and aunt and cousin and husband and wee Lisa, my namesake, back in sunny July. Narrow-boating is just the most wondrous activity in the history of England--it's an epic adventure for the lazy and slow moving. With physics and navigation and landscape and boats! I was utterly enchanted, except for the frightening bits where my uncle got me to steer and I desperately clung to the tiller trying not to run us all aground. My cousin's husband Matt became the master steersman and we soon were able to whisk ourselves through the tiny narrow arched bridges with nary a screech nor scrape (this was not the case at the beginning of the day, ahem...) and I got obsessed with opening and closing the locks. Like really obsessed. At one point, my uncle pointed out that I didn't have to actually Run to open the locks, but I explained that this was somehow just part of the pleasure of it all, running-and-cranking-and-locking-and-pushing-open these mossy iron doors... I just couldn't believe that I, with a tool and my shoulder and feet braced against the gates, could get our boat to rise or fall 12 feet (while I danced madly about with excitement on the side of the canal) and then open her way to the river above or below... Basically, I Became Ratty, mad about all things with boats and river. It was just the most enchanting Wind in the Willows sort of activity. You could stop anywhere and have coffee on your gas burner or eat sandwiches. You could get out and run along the towpaths while the boat putted along behind you, bonding with the cows and the birds... Clearly, I have a little much energy for the whole slow moving aspect of this holiday, as the family pointed out--a common 'bumper sticker' on the other narrowboats--for we are talking about a world entire on these canals--read 'if you can see your wake, you're going too fast.' Anyway, here are some pictures of this wakeless world and other English holiday shots.

children's expedition by a pool, which reminded me of my own childhood
guy with flask and dog and walking stick, sitting on old Roman market square (this isn't narration so much as description, is it?)
See, I closed them in there and am making all that water pour out the gate below, the boat descends, the river behind is where we came from--I am Lock Master...
And this would be why I refused to steer the boat through most of the bridges.... Wee bit tight, no?

Friday, 23 November 2007


There was this astonishing lecture tonight about ruination and afterwards there was a party and Katie was there. I taught her Khmer last semester as she prepared to return to Cambodia for the second time in her life, to volunteer at an orphanage and do some research for her undergraduate thesis in anthropology. She came across the room, we hugged, I asked, how was it? She said amazing, it was amazing. And she told me of living alone in a Khmer neighbourhood called Break Bra and how her neighbors insisted that she be in by dark and feed her noodles every morning, watching to be sure that she ate every last spoonful.

And then she said, and it was terrible, and she started to tell me stories. They tumbled out, one after the other, with hardly a pause for breath, thin stories, more just a listing of losses—five orphans dying of dengue, her own grave illness, watching a family riding a motorbike killed in front of her, giving mouth to mouth to a dying stranger covered in blood, being surrounded by machine-gun waving bodyguards when her friend overtook a powerful man’s vehicle on a road. There was so much anger, she said. I didn’t know, before, when I was a tourist, that there was so much anger. Before I could speak Khmer. And then she said, I’m bitter. I feel bitter that my family and friends can’t understand. I’m going to become a human rights worker so I can help. I don’t know if I can take it, this kind of work. I’m going to go to dinner with my friends now. And then she left, and I watched her go.

And I remembered. That this is what it is like to lose your innocence, your naivete that if you mean well you can make things better, in any world you choose. And I thought of what my friend and mentor Sue said to me the day I went to her weeping, guilty, afraid that my lack of action had cost a child’s life. Sometimes, Sue said, we are just here to witness suffering. It was not what I wished to hear. It was not why I was there, not why I had gone to rural Cambodia, not why I was enduring the incomprehension of my Khmer neighbors, the stifling heat and the long lonely evenings alone with the geckoes and a half-crazy cat. I had not gone to witness anything. I had gone to change the world, as respectfully as I could, but to change it nonetheless. To do good. To be of use. And yet. I had not realized that suffering filled the land, that it fills every land. I had not realized how dark or how vast suffering could be, that I could not stem its flow, that I would fail time and again, that I was fallible and frail and sometimes hateful.

Sometimes, Sue said, we are just here to witness suffering. I told Katie. I don’t know if she was ready to hear that, if she will be able to bear working in a world where one is confronted daily by scenes that shatter the heart. I just wanted her to know that it is normal to be bruised by your inability to save the world, and that when we open our hearts, when we open our eyes, that it is then that we are overwhelmed and battered by the cruelty of the world. This does not have to be the end of us. I still hope for a better world.

I have learned, Thomas Merton once wrote, that one cannot truly know hope unless she has found out how like despair hope is.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Poems by Sheenagh Pugh

This poetess humbles me with her skill. So few words,
yet she reached my heart and stays there.


Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper
for Sheraq Omar

Who stayed, long after his pay stopped,
in the zoo with no visitors,
just keepers and captives, moth-eaten,
growing old together.

Who begged for meat in the market-place
as times grew hungrier,
and cut it up small to feed him,
since his teeth were gone.

Who could stroke his head, who knew
how it felt to plunge fingers
into rough glowing fur, who has heard
the deepest purr in the world.

Who curled close to him, wrapped in his warmth,
his pungent scent, as the bombs fell,
who has seen him asleep so often,
but never like this.

Who knew that elderly lions
were not immortal, that it was bound
to happen, that he died peacefully,
in the course of nature,

but who knows no way to let go
of love, to walk out of sunlight,
to be an old man in a city
without a lion.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

thoughts on how we make the world

I’m thinking about Mondulkiri again. And about my research interests, which are strong and rather inarticulate at this point in time. (Yes, this is a problem.) My own memories of Mondulkiri are, shall we say, elemental, stripped... I posted a few of them here back in June, Notes on a Place I Love, and I can see that stripped quality to them. I have a strong physical memory of the wind and the light and the weight of the rain—my times in Mondulkiri have always been a conscious retreat, and the conditions have acted like a spiritual trope—I have gone to the hills to let the wind and the emptiness scour my soul.

But it’s not an empty place; it never was. I have always stayed in my friends’ homes, or in a guesthouse run by a Khmer family with known shady dealings. There have been webs of relationships all around me—and the sharing of food, of stories, of troubles, the intersections of grace and violence that make up any human society. But I went there to escape the webs of my relationships in the plains below, and so my very presence there was self-interpreted as being a retreat from somewhere else. And made so by me as well, through my actions and my practices—I remember once, while birdwatching down in the valley with Lucas the dog, that I hid in a thicket when I heard voices, because I wanted to be alone and to see the landscape as unpeopled, as wild. I didn’t want to interact with other people or acknowledge other people. I needed it to just be me and the dog and the birds--who were, by the way, busy hiding in the thickets as well, also hoping that we would all just go away.

And I think that all of us in Mondulkiri do this, ‘native’ or expatriate, local or foreign. We interpret or read the landscape and the people there—including ourselves—according to our own scripts. I want to call this ethnogeography, although I suspect that ethnogeographers do something quite different. At any rate, the issue is that these landscapes and representations clash. They are contested, struggling for dominance.

Is this particular hill, for example, the sacred home of some local spirits, a prime site for a Khmer Buddhist temple, or a site for a new plot of pine trees for the Chinese plantation? And what kind of people will people the site? Worshippers, labourers, tourists?

If one position becomes dominant, everything changes. And what then will befall this highland province and its residents? Anyway, I think this is what I am interested in studying. The competing representations of (peopled or unpeopled) landscapes. Before. And now.

Huh. You have now read my attempt to articulate what I’m about. Thanks for listening. Below is a short memory about an interaction during one of my trips:

Len, the self-styled first indigenous reporter for the Bunong, wants to write about land seizure and corrupt chiefs and the neglect of Bunong orphans in the local orphanage. He works for an NGO, not a newspaper, and is supposed to be making a general easy reader paper for literacy practice that won’t offend any of the powers that be in Sen Monorom, and I, as the visiting writer, have been asked to give him some ‘journalistic’ advice. Personally, I would like him to be able to do exactly as he pleases, but he walks a fine line, with the spectre of being shut down altogether only a snap of the Khmer governor’s fingers away. We discuss what he can and cannot safely write about. Then he brings out a photo. He wants to print a publicity still taken from some tourist brochure in the Bunong news sheet. In this photo, Bu Sra women and girls in spotless traditional garb stand arrayed around the waterfall for which their town is named. He has titled it, even, “beautiful women at Bu Sra.” He wants to print a picture of the Bunong posing as traditional for the Bunong themselves. Why are they dressed like that? I ask. To sell cloth, he responds—we both know the drill. The visionary women descend to the tourists splashing about in the waterfall, then on the way home, after paying a small fare for the use of an impossibly long bending bamboo ladder down the cliff, the same tourists find wares laid out in baskets by the path—the same traditional clothing on the women, now for sale in the forest! This is clever marketing. But none of this is what Len wants to write about—this is all understood. He wants to simply print this photo of these women, with no commentary on authenticity. And I wonder, why does this photo please him? Is he trying to create indigenous pride? Is this the only decent photo of Bunong women in public circulation? Or are they truly just, in Len’s eyes, some beautiful local girls?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A Few Pictures

This is my brother Jeff's photograph of a tree in Masai Mara. I can't stop looking at it. It's so Edenic it makes me want to cry or just stand up and walk into the frame and fall into another world. You know, the way the Pevensies or whatever their last names were stood looking at the picture of the Dawn Treader until the sea itself reached out and washed them into a watery Narnia...

This is my brother Mike's photograph. Somewhat less highbrow... This is me, a massive stone potato. I'm standing in one of those ancient stone jars on the Plain of Jars on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos.
This is me and my friend Nathan at a birthday party for another friend of ours, in case anyone cares what I look like at this particular juncture in time and space. My hair is now officially long and lives permanently tied up at the back of my head. Happy day.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Winter Came Today

Winter came today. She’s been slow in coming;
autumn has held on hard and long. But when I
left my office at half past seven this evening the
cold took my breath away. (In case you’re overly
impressed by the long hours I keep, let it be said
that I don’t start at 8 like people on a proper work
week. I’m often in the swimming pool at 8, doing
lazy laps and panting for breath.) There are fireworks
going off all over the city—remember, remember, the
5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot…
The United Kingdom is celebrating Guy Fawke’s foiled
attempt to blow up Parliament along with the gleeful
acknowledgement that blowing things up is really really
fun. So is burning people in effigy, apparently, but that’s
a little dark for me. Besides, it’s Cold outside.

I’ve been absent from this site for ages. I’m not sure why.
I was avoiding all kinds of reflection for a while, but I’m
done with that now. I’ve gone birding a few times—it feels
like a life-affirming act somehow, like a centering, leaving
all the people in my life behind for a while, getting on a bus
by myself with my binoculars around my neck and riding all
the way out to the where the River Esk empties into the sea.
Passerine migrants have been coming through—wild geese,
and sea ducks are turning up for the winter, some from the
Arctic Circle. I saw four new species of bird on my first trip—
the goosanders and wigeons were particularly exciting. The
wigeons were in eclipse, which means that their plumage is
turning and is currently a crazy patchwork of russet and brown.
Andthey had, I kid you not, bright yellow blazes on the crown
of their heads. Think little ducks with Mohawks. They were
amazing. On a more solemn note, the wild geese called when they
flew over my head and I remembered that they are the signs of
the Spirit in Celtic Christianity and wished that I could be so
innocent and so free.