Title: Lhasa, Tibet
I was a Snake, slipping out from under a sleeping woman who smelled of lavender and smoke and coconut. She was tiny and I felt as large as a walrus beside her, both taking up too much space and not having enough room to get comfortable myself because it was a twin bed. Even asleep, her arms reached out to be held, but I was having trouble breathing at this altitude, so without waking her up I slipped out of bed and left without leaving a note. We could talk tomorrow.
It felt good to be out on the streets of Lhasa after dark, even with the constant Chinese military presence. At every major intersection, the Chinese Army have constructed bullet-and-bomb-proof plexiglass cubes, staffed around the clock by four Chinese soldiers standing at attention, staring blankly in one of four directions, each holding a scary automatic weapon in front of their chests for a four-hour shift.
There is currently no curfew in Lhasa, but my presence after dark brought a bewildered and irritated reaction from the local police and the ever-present Chinese soldiers. I could hear safeties click off as I approached and click back on when I passed. I kept to the center of the streets.
The mountains shivered with reflected silver-blue moonlight and I couldn’t look up for more than a second or two. The scale of the mountains here is just overwhelming, especially in moonlight.
Other than that, it felt like every other time I’ve slipped away—the same optimism, the same relief, the sense of escaping something unnamed and unclear but treacherous. Even when I almost stumbled into a trio of Chinese soldiers, those huge scary guns between us, I kept nervously but genuinely smiling. And I laughed out loud when I startled a Chinese policeman sleeping in a doorway more than he startled me.
I was glad I had some ways to walk because I had a lot on my mind. I had never been a Snake slipping out from under a woman before.
And the second I decided to stop thinking about my feelings and figure out what just happened, the story started over and I was scared, backed up against something immovable. In front of me was the blinding full moon and between us stood Kali. She was frowning with her arms crossed, shaking her head back and forth: no … no … no … no? She was disappointed I wasn’t overjoyed at seeing her. “If you’re bored with me showing up every time you get in trouble, why don’t you try saying ‘Yes’ for a change? That can be your mantra. ‘Yes.’ Life would be much simpler for us both.”
During our evening walk, Xi stopped me by putting her hand on my chest, pushing me against a black iron gate. She was looking into the sky, but not at anything in particular. Then she looked at me and smiled and her eyes got big. I could hear it too. “We are walking on the edge of the planet. The moon is so close and the mountains are so high they almost touch. And the wind! Can you hear it? It travels up the mountains and keeps going until it crashes into outer space. In Lhasa I am constantly afraid that I might accidentally walk off the edge of the world or get caught in an updraft and be carried out beyond gravity and never come back. Sometimes I wonder if it is already too late—maybe this time there is no going back.” And she makes her silly horror movie face, her eyes huge.
I tell Xi of my dream last night, that I was a Snake and slid from underneath a woman’s sleeping body in a dark room and slipped through an open window and how good it felt to be out in the moonlight again. “And every time I looked up and saw the mountain peaks in the moonlight, I felt the same vertigo you’re talking about, which is not something I’ve experienced before, and I’ve been in the mountains of Nepal. I’m definitely not afraid of heights. I’m a goat—a Capricorn—in western astrology, not a Snake. If there’s an up available, that’s the direction I’m headed.”
And that reminded Xi of a dream she has only when she is back in her parent’s apartment in Chengdu. “I do not know how old I am in this dream, but I am lying next to a mountain of a man and I feel ashamed. We are in the bed I have slept in since I was a child, and my parents are sleeping in the room to my right and my grandmother in the room to my left. This man is snoring and I am in his shadow, with just enough room to lie sideways on the edge of the bed. I am the one who cannot sleep in my dream, and I try to get out of bed but I am held back by the blankets. I turn around and see that the blanket is covered in feathers and it is attached to my shoulders. I am trapped by my own wings!
“When I realize I will never be able to get out from under my own wings, I decide to stay in bed and hope the mountain man does not roll over and crush me before dawn. But then I hear a woman’s voice yelling, as if she is trying to wake me up, ‘This is not fair! This is not right! I deserve to live!’
“And I get angry too, and I arch my back and try with all of my strength one last time to shrug the wings off of me long enough to at least fall off the bed. But before I can move, the force of my wings, unfolding upwards, pulls at my shoulders and the upper half of my body rises off the bed, and that pulls my chest wide open, and then I need to exhale and I pull down with all of the strength in my body and I can feel my wings pushing through the thick air, and by pushing down I am rising, like I am doing the breast stroke or I am paddling in a canoe, or I am doing a strange push-up that involves my whole body constricting, and I can feel my knees and then my toes leaving the bed and I look down and I realize that I am flying, that I have always been designed to fly, but I have never known about my wings before.
“But then almost immediately I remembered I cannot fly. My body was flying, not me. And I lost control of my wings and flipped over and began falling, my heavy wings pulling me down, and I could not breathe and I knew I was falling from too high an altitude to survive, and I also knew I was too low to pull out of the fall. So I shut my eyes and prayed as hard as I could to Quan Yin, who is my personal goddess, and I asked for mercy. I called upon her as a young unmarried woman, I called upon the good deeds of my grandmother, who is a saint, and I prayed in the name of my ancestors, who did not deserve to be bereft in this way. I prayed that when I opened my eyes I would be safe and alone in bed and that this would all be a dream. And I did, and it was.
“But I did not feel good. I felt shame. And this shame was a familiar shame, as if I had failed this test many times before. I felt that either flying or dying would have been honorable, but to pray for intercession was my failure. I knew that I would have to go through the same test over and over until one day I believed in myself enough to fly. Or maybe I would believe in myself enough that I would go down with the ship. I would be happy with either, but not this shame again.
“And there is the debt that I owe Quan Yin and my grandmother and my ancestors. How do I repay them for saving my life? What can I do to redeem a life spared through no virtue of my own? So many times I wish I never called on her, for now it would be over, either way. And it is worse because I feel she has spared me many times before.”
“And there is another dream I have only in Lhasa. In this dream I am carving a prayer into a stone. When people ask me what I am writing. I tell them that I do not know; that I am going to have to wait until I am finished and read what I have written. But when I reach the end of the prayer it is the middle of the night and I am sleepy and I cannot even remember the last word I carved and now it is too dark to read. And my fingers cannot find the letters, and then I cannot find the stone. There are so many stones, which stone is mine? And then I feel embarrassed and begin to cry because I know my ancestors are watching and they would know how to start a fire with what they had in their pockets and what they found around them. Or they would have had the presence of mind to remember the prayer as they carved it. And all of my ancestors were married and parents long before they were my age and I am without child, without a wedding—my parents without grandchildren, my grandmother without her great grandchild. In all of these ways and others I have shamed my ancestors. They sacrificed for me and I am a disappointment.”
“In the dream.”
“In the dream, right.”
We stop at the corner, to let a yak-cart pass and catch our breath. We are climbing into town. “Except the part about being alone without prospects.”
We walk in silence for almost an entire block. “Sometimes I feel these two dreams are different faces of the same dream, but I still do not know what they are trying to tell me.” We walk in silence for half-a-dozen steps. “So, you fail again!” We both laugh.
“You are right, though. I do not recognize the dreamer of these dreams. I am a success in everything I attempt. I am a daughter in China who has been given every opportunity by loving parents. When I was a teenager I won my first award in traditional landscape painting. I am the only Chinese person I know my age who has been to the United States. I am the only one in my extended family to have a university degree.
“But the one area in my life where I have failed is the most important one, the most obvious one, the one you cannot hide or overcome: I am single and twenty-six. My family has tried everything—marriage brokers, advertisements in national newspapers. My extended extended family and their neighborhoods are searching and praying for me. But I have failed every time. Now there is so much anxiety, no more any excitement, no hope. And it’s so much work, so much pressure, each time more pressure than the last. Six times we have had to change my age in the ads. My age group keeps falling lower and lower on the page. One day I will fall off the bottom and become invisible. I will still be available, but I will be like the dark side of the moon—no one will see or think about me. I will be invisible.
“I have suffered every indignity. Rejection of the most personal kind, as equals, as a potential partner. And then more rejection, years of rejection. The worst was when I was rejected by people I would have rejected, which was almost everyone. I have been weighed like a hunk of meat. I have been handed a schedule for how I would repay the costs of becoming his wife. I have heard my parents argue over proposed expenses related to my “care” as if they are bargaining over an animal they are boarding at a stable.
“The only serious argument I have had with my parents has been over this. They thought I was not making an effort. They accused me of being cold and unfriendly in the interview. I must be submissive, my mother said, and she sat on her heels at my father’s feet to show me. No, get up, get up, not like that, I screamed. If I could not even pretend to have a submissive side in such an important matter, they said, they have failed me, and they began to cry. ‘No!’ I wailed. ‘Do not let me bear the shame of having my rejection bring you to tears! It is my turn to cry. It is my time to be comforted.’ ‘You will have time to train him when you are married,’ my mother confided to me in private. ‘In the beginning you have to be patient. It is the same for every woman. But look at what I have done with your father,’ and we both began to cry.”
Lhasa’s cold air has sharpened into a blue haze with the evening’s peat and wood fires and who knows what else is burning? Since we are essentially walking through an alpine cloud, ice crystals form around us in mid-air, and float slowly to the ground. Tiny ice beads gather in my pockets and in the creases of my pants and my sleeves and on our boot-tops as we walk. We are both avoiding looking at the silver-blue mountain peaks in front of us.
“What did you think of the talk this morning?”
“Honey on a machete.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think what he had to say was dangerous, but he was smiling when he said it.”
“It makes me angry that I must treat a monk with respect even when he tells false stories that insult my gender. I want to defend my grandmother and my mother and myself from these stories. I think it is wrong to keep women weak so men can feel strong. Women are always demons who devour men in Tibetan Buddhist stories. If women had the power to bewitch men, would there be so many battered women? If we could spin a web and entrap a man against his will, why is it always the women who are getting raped? If we could bewitch men, my friends and I would bewitch them for some of the things that make life meaningful.
“If we could talk to the women in those stories, I bet we would hear a different story. And that is the point. Men do not want to hear women’s stories so the world is unbalanced and the burden of this imbalance falls on women, everywhere, in all times. In all of history women have not felt they owned their own bodies. In China it is no better. Here a woman must stop after one birth. Here a man still barters for a wife. And women are still being groomed for a life in service to a man. Thirty years ago my only education would have been on how to please a man. How could I want that for my children or grandchildren? The monks point to the west—see how shameful, they shout. But I say a woman in service to a man is shameful. We both have been given life, why should I make a man’s easier by making mine more difficult?
“The monk is angry that the leader is a woman who is not home nursing a baby and serving her husband. He is afraid that if one gets out, how can we stop the others? He is afraid of the future. I have to deal with people like him every day. What could he possibly teach me?
“But in one way he is right: there is no going back. He has outlived his time. We had emperors a century ago. Not being able to see what is in front of you or feel what others are feeling is a kind of suicide.”
Xi Tells a Ketchup Joke
We’re amazed that we’re being served French fries in Tibet, along with a tomato-based sauce, like ketchup, but slightly off. The fries are good on their own, but the ketchup is thin and greasy, and slightly bitter. The Nepalese cook says it is not ketchup, but a tomato and oil sauce served with potatoes in Nepal.
Xi says, “Learning English is like a history lesson because I learn the stories behind some English words. Like ‘ketchup.’ I did not realize until a couple of days ago where the word ‘ketchup’ comes from. Does anybody know?” No one at our table knows. “Well, it seems that there was a family of tomatoes out for a walk and one of them kept falling behind. Finally the father got impatient and walked back to the slow tomato and stomped on him, and shouted, ‘Ketchup!’”
Xi smiles broadly. She has told a linguistic joke in English and the Americans have genuinely laughed.
“Yesterday you asked if you have to die in order to be reincarnated. You said you felt like you had been reincarnated several times already in this lifetime and I said that was not what I was taught. Then last night when I was in bed, I was not even thinking about your question when I heard myself thinking, “No. Not at all. Of course not.” I had to think backwards to remember I began with your question. And it was as if I had to come to my answer before I could understand your question.
“The reason I am standing in front of you and I am speaking these words is because of every decision I have made in my life. And the reason you are standing in front of me and you are hearing these words is because of every decision you have made in your life. If either of us had made even one different decision, something else would be happening for both of us. This means that this meeting is part of both of our fates.
“It is undeniable that without you, I would not be having this conversation or these thoughts. So, yes, this is a new incarnation for me. You have become a part of me. I continue to think about your questions when I am alone and quiet. Even if we never see each other again, our relationship is just beginning. There will come our next incarnation—when we separate—whatever that will be, the next chapter, just like a death, an ending and a beginning.
“So my answer to you now is that I do not think we have to die to be reincarnated. I agree with you that people can and have been reincarnating every moment of their lives each time they make a decision, consciously or unconsciously. The sad ones are the ones who cannot find a way to make a different decision and so make the same decision every time, even though it always ends badly. I feel like that sometimes.
“The proof that this is a true incarnation is that you are not the same you and can never go back to a previous ‘you.’ The current you includes all of the previous yous, but you cannot even imagine tomorrow’s you. Could the you of ten years ago imagine the you of today? Even when you dream of the future, is it ever correct?
“We can sense that something is in control of our lives but we cannot accept that it is us, so instead we believe in fate. But your fate is the result of your decisions—not the cause of them! We are the secret intelligence behind the shaping of our lives, but we cannot accept it.”
She took a spoonful of oatmeal and appeared to be through talking. I decided I’d talk for a while so she could eat. I was finished and we were running low on time. We had maybe two minutes before we were supposed to be on the bus. I didn’t want to look at my watch, but I could see people getting on the bus reflected in the window behind her.
“Sometimes I think that we are like a diamond that gets polished over time, and we have like 48 facets and each lifetime is about polishing a single facet. Personally, that’s the way I feel—that I have about 48 lives going on simultaneously, but I only have enough attention for one at a time, so I’m always pushing the others away to concentrate on the one that’s caught my attention. I’m convinced that’s why sometimes life feels like one crisis after another even though I know the only thing necessary for it to change into a miracle is a change in my perception. And if I’m right and there are a number of facets that need to be polished—like 48—it’s not surprising that we fail so often. We’re going to fail the first 47 times. That’s how life knocks the false off of you.”
“But after failing, people are bitter, they are angry. They tried with all of their heart to do right. That does not seem to be knocking the false off of them. That kind of life knocks the good off of you. Their lives do not get better, they are getting worse. They persevere but something dies. You are a hopeful romantic.”
“Hopeless. The saying is ‘hopeless romantic.’ Hopeless, not hopeful.”
“Hopeful. Hopeless makes no sense.”
“I am not hopeful! Have you read much of Shakespeare? In Shakespeare—and when I say “in Shakespeare” I mean “in life”—in Shakespeare no one does as much damage as someone in love. It’s the lovers who do most of the stabbing and abandoning and betrayals. Even Romeo crushes everything he touches. The best people in Shakespeare are the ones who doubt love. They’re the ones who end up fighting for it. They’re the ones you can depend on. I’m a doubter. Don’t laugh! Ask anyone!”
The light of the city fades as the sun goes down. The backstreets are shadowy and the distant mountains flatten into silhouettes as the moon rises behind them. Drifting flakes of ash from fireplaces land on my sleeve. “Look,” Xi says, “The end of the evening is smoldering. This is the ashes.”
Behind her there is a sudden cracking and she jumps, grabbing at my right shoulder and wrist.
“That was a window shade snapping shut. Did you think it was a gunshot?”
“Whose ghost? Why?”
“It could be a ghost announcing they have arrived or more likely that they are leaving. We have disturbed them. It could be a warning from an ancestor. Maybe some of our ancestors do not want us walking together.”
“Would your ancestors follow you from China?”
“Not likely. Spirits stay where they belong.”
“There’s no way it could be my family’s spirits?”
We were silent a long time.
In China we have a saying, “A lotus will not grow in too small a box.”
So, that explains why you are always leaving relationships.
I almost never leave a relationship.
But certainly by now you would have found someone.
Most of my best friends are ex-girlfriends. Does that count?
Have you ever fought for a woman?
Sure, but it never works. So now when we get to that place, I try to help them get out and start over. That’s how we remain friends. That’s a very mature kind of love and I have a lot of it in my life. I don’t have any room for romantic love. I don’t believe in it.
And that is what they always want, right? To be free, to move on? Why do you think they are willing to remain friends? What if what they really want are you?
Then they wouldn’t leave. They’d fight for me.
The ones you will not fight for?
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.