Friday, 6th January 2017
Postcards from Phimai, Thailand
To my husband:
The first thing I see upon entering the Historic Park at Phimai is the ruin of these passageways. Only, I’m looking through them from the other side. A sign tells me “the plan of the Kamphaeng kaew structure is cruciform.” What it feels like most of all is a corridor of echoes. I follow the wooden plank path laid out like a road: two steps up, over, and down to cross the threshold of each doorway. It’s almost like a hall of mirrors: each threshold a frame, a reflection – but not of ourselves. Instead, a reflection of what is ahead, what is further on. Each frame a painting of reality. There are stone pits in the ground: foundational layers. The kinds of plans you can’t build houses or cities without, let alone a temple.
I realise I’ve brought the wrong pen for these postcards, so I’m writing them backwards (right side first. Good thing I don’t need space to address them) and covering the ink with a post-it note, like a bandage staunching the blood of a wound. Ironically enough, the admission hut has the best pen – they’re using it for the sign-in sheet. I want to go borrow it, or trade another pen for it, but I have no idea of my bartering or my English will come off as offensive or – worse – entitled. I both love and hate that my experience is currently mediated through a debate about pens.
How appropriately Emma of me.
To my husband, part 2:
Things I have learned so far today:
1.) If I need a certain pen for a certain reason no other sane person could understand but might unwittingly hold the solution to my problem, I should buck up and just ask for it. (I know you’re both curious and worried about my pen saga. I went back to the admissions hut and bartered to trade away my Pilot V4 pen for this one. They looked highly confused, but nodded. Objectively, in terms of pen quality, they unknowingly got the better end of the deal. Subjectively, I got a lovely thin ballpoint pen that doesn’t smudge. Win.)
2.) Heat is heat is heat. It’s very earthly – it attaches you to the ground. Cold makes you turn inward, layering on defenses. But a cool breeze – ah – that’s close to flight and divinity.
3.) A man approached me where I was sitting – my gut reaction was fear that he would reprimand me for sitting on stones I wasn’t supposed to. Instead, he just asked if I spoke English. He wanted a picture. I took it for him. He asked me where I was from – I said “England” – an explanation of my accent. You can tell I was speaking out of anxiety. If I had been speaking from the heart, I would have said “Scotland.” He told me he was French but living in Thailand. He gestured to his partner, saying, “She is a tourist in her own country.”
4.) I’m inside the Main Prang, writing on the stone equivalent of a window ledge. I’m out of the heat, I feel a godly breeze, and my stomach is pressed against the cool white sandstone. It makes me think about feeding our lorikeets on the balcony at home, the plump vitality of their bellies.
To the American journeyer:
This morning, you echoed back advice I gave you before you left for your adventure trip – advice I had forgotten. “Don’t force yourself to act like a tourist when you don’t feel like it.” You said you had used the advice many times already – that you’re using it today in your hotel room for the afternoon.
So, here’s the thing: we’re often smarter and kinder in conversation with other people than we are with ourselves. This is something I’m working on. I’ve written poems with the preface “repeat this back to me when I’ve forgotten it,” but then publish the poems without the preface. My favourite letters from friends that stick in my memory are the ones in which they’ve quoted me back to myself, knowing what I might need more than anything to hear.
This isn’t hubris or conceit. It isn’t a self-centered ego’s listening skills. It’s an immense gift to be brought back to myself by someone I deeply trust – someone who has synthesised and heard a message I once told them, someone who can reflect back what they’ve carried from those words when I’ve clouded over and forgotten I’ve said them. This is a gift, and an honour.
I’m at the stone temple in Phimai and I’m not forcing myself to be a tourist. When my inner critic pops up in mind saying “this is a holy place; where is your reverence?!” I say, “Shut up, Paul. This is my reverence.”
And I stand in the window and I keep writing.
To my friend who feels we’ve been distant:
I’ve spent weeks trying to craft an honest, heartfelt response to your letter. So far, none of them begin in the right place, which I think is somewhere close to: thank you for sharing your pain with me. I could write pages on what arises when I think of your words, our conversations, the very valid symptoms of these moments and the root causes we can only guess at. But they would just be words, and I would still be guessing.
Instead, an image: Last week, Andrew and I sat on the balcony late at night, looking out at the sky. We were deep in conversation, but I lifted my head at the just-right-moment to catch a shooting star. Immediately, I thought: the thing I love about seeing a shooting star is that half of it is evidence of the speed of its journey, and the other half is evidence that the world still turns. Which becomes a metaphor of our lives.
This is true of all of us too, of all relationships. One half is always proof of the speed and strength of the moving aspect, and the other is proof of the stable loyalty of an axis of rotation. Like sunflowers and their sun-lit faces. Like lilies in the mud. Each of us is always both, and sometimes we miss each other.
But in the best balance, it’s why we take turns in conversations, why we return to each other to reflect our lives and separate experiences. The light is proof – the flash that illuminates the relationship, the coming-into-contact. The focal shift that allows us perspective to see the part – and then the whole constellation.
I’m sorry if I’ve been distant or unlit. Let’s come back into orbit.
“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
To my friend who’s getting married:
There’s something sanctifying about being in the ruins of a sacred space, so that you get to see the stones and the holiness in natural light, open to the air. The weather has worn down the stones so much that some of the steps feel like rock-climbing. Which makes me think of you and our rock-scrambling on Hawk Mountain. Only that one time, never repeated, and yet I think about it so frequently.
What I really mean is: I miss you.
This temple makes me think of the first time I asked you about God, in your car parked outside of Trexler Library. I don’t know if we were coming or going. I don’t remember the exact words you used, but I do know that you measured your answer – wanting to be careful and to be honest, in the truthfulness that came after when you sighed, “I say all that, but I really don’t know.” I remember telling you that my first communion came through music – an awareness of the divinity of perfect fifths. And then, from there, through mathematics, from the wonder that there are such things in the world as absolute answers.
I have a sense I should update my list: the sky and the stars. The sea. The acoustics and light of cathedrals. Ruins. Anything worn in by time. The immense simple clarity of “I don’t know” and the peace that comes from the acceptance of that. Open air. Poetry, and light, and lots of openness. I think from now on any major milestones should happen outside.
You who know me for all of my searching, you’re here with me today. I feel like you hold my inner heart like these ruins hold the history of what we’ve sought for so long.