The Beds We Lie In

It has now been seven weeks since I slept in my own bed. Five of them absolutely wonderful, two of them rather stressful -- seven very full weeks.

As I think back, I realize that the single thing that set my recent five-week vacation apart from every other vacation I’ve taken is simply that this one wasn’t planned around places; it was planned around people. I didn’t make a to-do list; I made a to-meet list. Over the month of May and running into early June, I visited about 40 friends and acquaintances in 10 cities, and in the process was able to spend real, quality time with at least 20 close friends. In each city, I asked the person/ people I was visiting to take me to the places they love there, or I simply hung out at their homes and in the neighborhoods, catching up over walks, meals, and slumber parties. I experienced in this month so much love and warmth that it has made the last couple of weeks of caring for a very ill family member much easier than such an experience should be. People talk of safety nets; I feel like I am carrying one of those acrobat trampoline things in my stomach -- the moment my heart starts to sink, it bounces against that trampoline and springs right back into action.

They say that we make the beds we lie in. I am grateful, humbled, and proud this month to realize that the beds I’ve been making are warm and welcoming in the most important of ways. So let me tell you about these seven weeks by telling you about some of the beds I’ve been lying in.

There was the clickety-clack futon in my aunt’s living room in New York City, where I spent so many nights during various family emergencies and celebrations during my grad school years -- where a beautiful white cat sat on me every morning as a wake up call. There was the mattress on the floor of the American friend in Brooklyn, who hasn’t bought a bed yet because she moves to graduate school soon, and who has lived in India long enough not to hesitate to ask me to share her mattress for the night. There was the bed of the school friend in DC, who has lived in the USA long enough to need to ask if I mind sharing her bed, but who remains sibling enough for us to fight over the blankets in our sleep.

There was the couch in the office where I used to work and where I will always be home enough to be able to go nap during a spare hour of a too-hectic day downtown. There was almost a bed in the house of one of my closest friends from poetry school in Brooklyn, but I’ll never know what that would have been like because my aunt threw a party that night, and said friend and I ended up reunioning over baking brownies in a toaster oven instead of having a slumber party.

There was the futon in San Antonio where I spent Spring Break two years ago, catching my breath in the comfort of an old friendship, between the many episodes of illness and the deaths that punctuated my years in graduate school. There was the solid ground and open night sky of the Texan desert, sleeping bag on picnic blanket, with the moon and stars so bright they woke me up periodically.

There was the wrought iron bed in the house of another high school friend in Los Angeles, where we slept less than we talked during my brief first visit of only 10 hours. There were the cushions and the sleeping bag on the floor of the spare room in the home of my favorite family -- a former professor and his wife and daughter -- where ocean sounds mix with distant highway traffic, and two beautiful dogs vie to shed hair all over you and your bedding. There was the Japanese fold out mattress in the graduate apartment of a close friend from college who says she’d cook and clean for anyone the way she does for me, but who nevertheless succeeds thereby in making me feel like a special guest. There was another night in the wrought iron bed, except the bed had by now moved to a new apartment, and we spent an hour after midnight literally making the bed we’d lie in.

There was the 6-hour long bus journey to see another of my closest graduate school friends, during which I did most of the sleeping I didn’t do the previous night as we talked rather than slept in that newly remade wrought iron bed. There was this graduate school friend’s bed in an apartment full of loud, night-owl musicians, while he slept in someone else’s apartment. There was a bed covered in drapery in San Francisco where I napped after an eleven hour journey that could have taken just three hours. There was a couch by a window, with a view of the ocean and the most gorgeous light, in the home of an acquaintance who became a close friend while I stayed there. There was a spare bedroom in another house, this time in the UAE, where I recovered from jet lag and was offered four pillows and fell asleep to the crying of an old friend’s new baby.

There was my mother’s bed with my own pillow, and my dog on the floor beside me, for one brief night as I transitioned from holiday-travel to family-emergency-travel. There was a mattress on the floor of an almost empty apartment belonging to a friend of my father’s, where my family and I processed his sudden illness. There was another mattress in the home of another friend who is an expert at making one feel safe when one stays with her during an emergency. There was the half-broken fake leather armchair in the waiting room of the ICU, where I spent many long hours, reading or napping or talking to my father’s family, whom I otherwise don’t see very often. There was the attendant’s bed in the hospital, where I napped while my father rested after his four bypasses, and where I will spend tonight.

Soon, in another couple of days, there will be my own bed, at home. For many weeks, perhaps even months, to come. I have never looked forward to it so much. But I will also always look back with a smile at this summer spent in so many beds, homes, hearts. And I will always look forward to the opportunity to offer a bed in my own home to all of these people I am privileged to call my own.

 

An Alternative Guide to Tabo

If the monastery at Tabo is a checkmark on your to-do list, listen to the guides, and go there at 9 AM, when the gods are ready to meet the tourists. If you want to catch the gods when they are more at ease, ignore your guide, and go there at sunset. The temples will be locked, sure, but the gods are around, relaxing after a long day of meeting with pilgrims and tourists. They have time to chat.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first day in Tabo; you can’t not find the gorgeous mud structures. There is no way not to notice the piles of engraved rocks — no way not to know that this spot, with its broken wall and open gate, is sacred.

Once inside, close your eyes. Listen to the river gurgling in the distance, the birds who know to keep their chatter to a respectful volume. Open your eyes, and watch the mud temples and walls against the crystal sky. Watch the sky tracing the outlines of the larger mud walls, the mountains in the distance. Breathe in the prayers of a millennium.

That might be the most important thing — breathe deeply. You will need that air later.

If you are there to ask the gods for favors, I won’t promise that they will answer. They are off duty (would you pick up a client’s call at midnight?). But if you are there for conversation, there to listen to the secrets they have been keeping for a thousand years, there for friendship rather than for favors, I’m willing to bet you will not be disappointed.

The locals tell me that one must walk clockwise through this monastery. I trust them on that — you probably should too. All the same, the first time I went in, no one had told me yet to move clockwise, and so I didn’t. I moved from structure to structure, as they called out to me, beckoned me over. I ran my hands over the engravings on the doors, and I sat down to write outside the temple of the mother goddess. I had my back to her, and I wondered briefly how she felt about that, but ultimately, she didn’t seem to care. She knew I meant no disrespect. I was there for love, for friendship, and I think she understood that. I think that meant more to her than did the direction in which I walked or faced.

As you walk out, stop by the shops. The shopkeepers, who have been just as busy with tourists all day as the gods have been, have time to talk in the evening. Let them tell you about what brought them to this town — or what leads them away from this town every winter and brings them back every spring. Let them tell you about another god and where you can meet him, April to October, for a week at a time (it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to meet him — it’s good to know anyway). Let one of them invite you home for tea or sell you a scarf for your mother. Let them explain to you the flags that tourists will buy. Let them give you the stories that cannot be bought.

Walk to the river. Get lost. Let a farmer tell you which way to go, allow you a shortcut through her fields. Let yourself get more lost in those fields when she disappears before you’ve found your way. Accept the slosh of your shoes wading through just-irrigated fields. Stretch your arms into a T, learn to balance on the narrow raised ledges crisscrossing through the fields. Find your way through the barbed wire, back at the mud structures.

Go into the monastery one more time. If you’re lucky, it is now dark enough for the stars. If you’re really lucky, there is no moon, and the stars have free reign of this particular night. Walk through the monastery again, this time by starlight. Walk silently — the gods are probably asleep, and so is most of the town.

Relish being awake and alive amongst resting gods. It may be the closest you ever come to godness.