A Commute Via The Himalayas

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We Chicagoans love to complain about the Winter. Each year we are incensed, outraged even, that we are subjected to such injustice. “It took me an hour to get to work”, we say. We threaten relocations to such exotic locals as Portland, but we never go.

We can continue to complain year after year, or we can experience cold for what it is: just cold. Not a grand conspiracy to make us late. Not a big personalized drama. Just cold.

This week I’ve been teaching my students about the value of Winter. We talk about how seeds drop from trees in the Fall, and nestle into the damp soil. How the first snow drapes like a blanket over their little seed bodies, protecting them from the bitterness above, while the earth gently warms them with heat that it has stored up over the hot Summer.

I tell them in a very hushed voice that something magical happens. The seeds and plants huddled under the snow start to whisper secrets to one another in a private language that humans can neither hear nor understand. I teach them a very old song about it.

Why do you whisper, green grass?
Why tell the trees what ain’t so?
Whispering grass, the trees don’t have to know.

Today after school I bundled up and walked out to the greenhouse to see how our Winter garden experiment was coming along. The plastic sheeting crackled solid and brittle as I lifted it off the low tunnels. To my amazement, two rows of leafy sprouts still had their bright green hue, despite the outside temperature reading a high of 11 degrees Fahrenheit (pics). These baby plants won’t quite be edible, but they are certainly making a concerted effort.

I considered catching a bus home but decided that taking hands out of gloves to fish the CTA card from my wallet was far less desirable than walking a mile, with the windchill making things feel like 18 degrees below zero. The wind whipped sharp pellets of snow in all directions, so I kept my head down with my hat pulled low over my brow. The only thing in my field of vision were my feet and snow.

In her excellent book Where The Heart Beats, Kay Larson describes the ordeal of transformation experienced by a Zen-master-in-the-making during a walk.

After a time, they walk. Walking is meditation too. Suzuki watches his feet move and marvels that they belong so intimately to him. What are his feet and how does he know to move them? Does he really know who he is? What is this mind that rattles on so? Is it real? Does it say anything meaningful? Or does it just get in the way? In the way of what? The bell rings again and shocks him out of his reverie, and he realizes he’s literally been lost in thought. He sits down, wondering if maybe this time he’ll “get it” – whatever “it” is.

My old self would have spent this entire walk home ruminating over countless arguments, real and imagined. My old self would have been blinded by thoughts, never really experiencing the stark beauty unfolding with each step of my boots. Never experiencing the sense of groundlessness as my body weight crunched my foot inches into the snow, the smooth powdery drifts sculpting around corners, the miniature mountain ranges forming on the sidewalk.

Mountain ranges like the Himalayas. For the first time in over a year, I thought about my friend who does community development in one of the most remote Himalayan regions called Ladakh – home to one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. When visiting our class she told our students that people in Ladakh walk for miles every day down the side of a mountain to fetch the day’s water, and to do so they must pick their way through thick sheets of ice with hand tools.

A ringing car alarm snapped me from my dream, and I focused again on walking, breathing, and listening. In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön wrote:

every ordinary little peep or scratch or snicker, every little chewing sound or drinking sound or whatever, can wake us up…if we don’t think there’s a better, more inspiring, less irritating, or less disturbing sound – sounds become vivid and transparent.

So I listened for sounds to become vivid and transparent. The car alarm faded and Doppler-bounced off hard brick. Snow crunched under foot. I became aware of my breath. Incredibly, a bird sang. A faint ringing in my eardrums.

I reached home and climbed the steps feeling very alive. As I fumbled with   keys in my gloved hands, I thought about the homeless people living under the overpass near my school. How fortunate am I, and for how long have I failed to take notice? Before unlocking the door I breathed in the subzero air for the suffering of everyone without a warm place to sleep, and breathed out healing.

Inside the apartment, my two cats sauntered and stretched their way to greet me, obviously just awoken from a day-long nap. Pancho led me to the back door and begged to be let outside, oblivious to the changing seasons in his air-conditioned domesticated life. Part of me wanted to let him feel the ice under his paws so he could really know the heat of the carpet. In warmer months he spent hours in our back yard, and (much to my chagrin) prowling the surrounding alleys. I would like to think that he understands the strange and coded language shared among animals, plants, and the spirits dwelling therein. But since I have no ability to ask him about it, the best I can do is listen to the sounds in between – much of it silence, all of it speaking a truth worth hearing.

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