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Senses of Connection

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world

—Mary Oliver

It is a knot, an ache, this longing to be present in Nepal right now. Even so, virtual presence fosters awareness. The Internet has become a strange safety net, catching us as we fall into senses of connection. The initial social media push to mark people as “safe” and to track immediate needs as well as report destruction after the two major earthquakes was truly remarkable. Mark Zuckerberg’s stated commitment of substantial Nepal relief funds and a push, through Facebook, raised $17 million quickly. I believe such efforts helped to move my own government into allocating resources beyond the paltry $1million initially proferred by the powers that be.

At latest tally, $3 billion has been pledged toward rebuilding Nepal by foreign donors, from states to NGOs. I will leave aside, for the  moment, the tangle of questions about how such funds will be allocated, and the Nepali government’s role in this process, except to say that there is a great deal at stake beyond semantics in an official shift from “relief” to “rebuilding.”  And that each community’s effort at remaking a world contains its own nuance, as my friend and colleague Sara Shneiderman points out from the vantage of Dolakha District – a place she knows well.

But back to webs and the representations they spin out.

Although the feeling is different now than it was in those adrenaline-soaked first few weeks after April 25, the pings and bleeps that come in from this world of “likes” and “shares” still brings a certain solace. I look to social media for ways to link lived experiences, to analyze emergent representations of this unfolding catastrophe, and to question the symbolic violence that comes with disaster voyeurism. Yet the surfeit of image can overwhelm. These eyes grow weary even though I see Nepal in my mind’s eye. I long to witness resilience and complexity. To that end, I have turned toward images from photographers I know and trust and from friends on the ground to capture in images that potent mix of love and truth, determination and despair.

Even so, distance privileges the visual. What of the other senses?

Touch. Sound. Smell. Taste. This is where imagination mixes with time spent.

***

To call her hands ‘leathery’ is cliché. They are human hands, skin made and unmade by the world she works: hearth, field, sickle, suckle, sewing machine. After the quake she fished out the machine that brings her livelihood – a deceivingly simple technology which stitches together much more than cotton – and sets it up beside the wreckage. Ahimsa means non-harming but it is also a form of gentleness. There is grace in this salvaged machine: glossy, black. She puts her hands together, touches her forehead, and it is rough on smooth, woman to god, living to dead, exhaustion to strength. It is the feel of a life remade.

The crackle of a YouTube clip has nothing on the real roar of a Nepali river, even on a slow day, before the rains. When sheaves of rock and soil pealed off into the Kali Gandaki to create a massive, churning pool that threatened the trading town of Beni Bazaar, the reckoning was greater than the whir of ten helicopters, not unlike a bomb, more guttural than thunder. People watched. But, more than that, they listened for what would come next. This sense and sensibility echoes across many valleys of the bruised country: If that cliff comes down, we’re done for.

The smell of woodsmoke is bittersweet. When mixed with milk from the one family cow that wasn’t crushed or frightened into barrenness, with handfuls of salvaged sugar and tea that came in trucks, there is hope in a day. It is dawn after all. She tells the foreign doctor to sit with her, offers him chiya from a dented stainless steel mug outside her house that is no longer a house. They speak to each other, even as they speak past each other, the air perfumed by small comforts and respect.

While her brother helps her uncle dismantle the roof, she takes refuge in a cornfield with her books. The work of salvaging tin deafens. The radio brings static-infused levity but it breaks her concentration. In order to rebuild, one must destroy. In order to taste a future, one must study hard in the present, no matter the circumstances. Even so, her belly rumbles as she folds herself into these silky stalks of sustenance. World Food Programme rice is a pale substitute for the tastes of home. Still, body memories hold tight to the flavors of this village: roasted kernels popped into a game of upturned mouths; the playful pucker of pickled radish; tang of nettles on the tongue.

The man with a clubfoot who many call ‘elder brother’ had gone to check on a sick neighbor, and so had been late that day staking the two family goats outside to graze. When he returned from the house down the road, dusty and shaken but alive, he found these animals buried under the timber of his home – a place where the boundaries between human and animal, between inside and outside, was already porous. The man pulled the limp and maimed bodies of the nanny and her adolescent kid from the mess. It was like prying open an arthritic fist: each brittle beam a finger, each boulder a knuckle. This required as much delicate touch as it did muscle. And then he was cradling them, crying as he stroked their backs at the loss of so much more than milk and meat and fiber.

At first she thought it was another quake. Soon enough she realized that the turbulence she felt was the shift of the womb-world. Labor had begun. The first earthquake damaged but did not destroy her natal home – the place she had returned in anticipation of this birth. But two nights after the second major quake, she and the rest of her village were sleeping under tarps outside. Any hope of saving the structure in which her own mother had given birth to her was now dashed, bricks scattered like chicken feed across the courtyard. Now here she was, trying to muffle her groans so as not to wake those beside whom she slept. This was a failed attempt at silence. So much pain, so much raw beauty. Her son crowned, passed through, slipped into the arms of his new grandmother. Birth waits for no one, not even the earth gods.

When the Class One student returned to investigate the pile of concrete that was once his school, he found a classmate’s notebook open to a page of sums. 1+1=2, 2+2=4, 4+4=8, and so on, until the work fell off the precipice of a torn page. Curious, and knowing his mother would yell at him if she caught him here, the boy stepped gingerly over the once-wall-now-uneven-floor. He was looking for artifacts from a time, only days ago, that felt like an entirely different aeon. And then he did the strangest thing – something that surprised him even as it happened. This young boy reached down and tasted soil, as he had seen his grandmother do on occasion with the clay by the mountain spring. He remembered the way she would do it, unceremoniously, and how she would remark on its fine sour flavor. But all the boy could taste now was a bitter, chalky loss, inspiring thirst.

The old woman had given up tents. Or at least that is what she thought after she moved from the black wool structure in which she had been raised, up across the border in Tibet, down to this high mountain village. The man she married, now long ago dead, had been the son of her family’s trading partner in the salt-for-grain days. What sort of dream has she returned to, now that she sleeps and cooks and eats and fills her offering bowls each morning within four walls made of olive army canvas? At least the young men who helped her move out of her half-collapsed home had fashioned a chimney. Still, she smells of smoke in ways that she hasn’t in years. There is an acrid tinge to her sweat, not unlike the basket of fermenting barley beer now left open to the air. When the house stood, everything harsh seemed to be muted, sweetened by wooden beams, streams of light, and whitewash.

***

To break open is not to succumb
But to sense our way through, however we can.


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I am a cultural and medical anthropologist and currently Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College. Through fieldwork grounded in Nepal, Tibetan regions of China, and among immigrant communities in the US, I explore translations of science across culture, experiences of health and illness, global health and women's reproductive health, knowledge transmission and expertise, and migration and social change. The author of Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine and Horses like Lightning: A Story of Passage through the Himalayas, I am committed to writing across genres – from poetry and creative nonfiction to children’s literature and narrative ethnography. I co-edit HIMALAYA, journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.