Tuesday, April 14, 2009

counting my blessings

I can count my blessings on one hand. To be exact, there are 26 of them currently encircling my wrist. Twenty-six thin white strings, a knot tied at the center of each. As these blessings were bestowed more than three weeks ago, they are frayed and rather brown, a situation that prompted my host mom to hint it might be time to cut them off. I can't bring myself to do this just yet.

On the last night of our stay in the village of Nong Po, the community and the students gathered for a feast and sending-off ceremony. None of us knew what to expect other than loads of delicious food and 15 kilos of coconut ice cream (rumors of this treat had been going around all week).

When everyone was rounded up and the food nearly ready, we all crammed into the one-room schoolhouse and sat on the floor in a circle, students on the inside and the rest of the community around the outside like a protective shell. One of the village elders sat with the students. In front of him was an elaborate tower of flowers and folded banana leaves with a single, very tall candle sticking out of the top. Small dishes, offerings of food and drink, circled the display. We all put our hands in a "wai" as a sign of respect for the master of ceremonies. Between each of our clasped hands was a single white string that circled the room to connect us all. The blessing our of souls commenced with rounds of chanting in the Isarn language. This was exciting, especially when the people positioned around the outside of the circle piped up now and again to join in asking for our protection as we set out on a long journey. At times the outbursts were reminiscent of a gospel service.

What happened next was full of emotion and love in a way that I haven't experienced very often. Each villager rotated around the room, a bundle of short white strings draped over one ear, and tied a string around the wrist of each student with a blessing and a smile. The oldest of my host sisters hurried over with a huge, heartbreaking smile and deftly blessed me with her slender little brown fingers. Before she left, she turned over my hand to the roll the ends of the thread softly along the tender skin of my inner wrist until they curled and twisted with the ends of other strings. Something about that simple touch, the whispered prayers, the sincere smile made me never want to forget the moment. I tried to look at each person who came to me and burn their face into my memory forever. The experience was so human. To feel that the entire village was behind my well-being made me feel infinitely more whole.
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Lately I seem to have been in the right place at the right time an awful lot. Like this morning. I woke up at dawn to find the clearest morning since my arrival in Thailand. Every contour and detail of Doi Suthep was visible, its shrouded mysteries revealed (no pun intended in this lovely Easter season). On my way downstairs I caught a glimpse out of the stairwell window and was astounded to behold a whole row of hitherto unseen mountains to the east of Chiang Mai. What struck me most, though, was the dramatic lighting as the waxing sunlight poured around scattered clumps of clouds and sprayed great milky beams earthward in surreal crepuscular rays... one of the most beautiful skies I have ever seen.

Counting my blessings...

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