Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bringing Us Back To Start

“At the center of everything is nothing, the silence of god.” August West

Hey Now Kids,
Once upon a time Tim returned to his copper mountain of paradise of Tsenkharla. But it wasn’t the smoothest reentry as a matter of fact. But physically I am nestled in my concrete shelter on a moonlit night. And as I gaze at the moon I see Bobby! My guru now relegated to streaks of gold light coursing through god’s artery the Dagme Chu below in the vapid valley. Oh what a splendid place to be alive and call home for this short spell. In fact we are all moving on, paddling towards our maker. For me that would be the elements the raw materials that form life. Bare hard earth and rock fortify a magnificent wasteland. As long as the parched earth thousands of feet below my stoop remains uninhabited then I will enjoy some degree of happiness. One thing is clear for me and that is I LOVE this land the most. Feeling depleted of late I haven’t even roamed much but rather have read two Kraukauer novels on my rock enjoying the mild winter sun licking my face like a zealous puppy. On the offhand chance you are waiting for an account of my Himalayan Odyssey over the break, you will be disappointed in this mere simple report of “my village life” I haven’t quite processed the myriad of cosmic occurrences that constructed my vacation yet. Sufficient to boast it was an unparalleled adventure which I hope to share later on in another self absorbed rambling. But if you’ve come along this far perhaps you will go FURTHUR! Ah shucks your readership means a damn lot to your humble author! Some of your generous donations are directly responsible for my being in the Kingdom. So let the jubilant complaining begin. On the surface things are peachy. I have a mild sore throat from talking all day in class but I am sound and my loved ones are accounted for on the other side of the globe. The best part of this homecoming is reconnecting with the children that sustain us here. Across the board BCF teachers (past and present) love their students immensely and often we put up with some heady circumstances to connect with them. After traveling so far it warms my innards to see smiling familiar faces welcoming me home. But the flip side is the terror of digging in for another year in the wild East. But Bhutanese are a special breed. One might see them as pilgrims or chosen ones blessed with a bountifully diverse piece of land in a small portion of the Himalayas. But it’s the people that inspire. I endured a bout of insomnia which allowed me to lay in bed at 5 AM listening to the kid’s prayer chants from the MP Hall in the predawn gloaming. These kids are remarkably self- possessed and composed in the difficult reality of boarding life. Unlike me they are not built for complaints or misery and support each other as a community. I can’t help but think of ants or bees on occasion but they also have distinctive personalities if one scratches the surface. This interaction lies at the core of our collective mission here. Our mere presence opens a new world to them and we gain more than we could ever give from the hearts of our children. On days where I am tired or lacking, a moment of magic always reaffirms my career choice and placement in no-man’s-land. And I have Karlos and Sonam to take care of me next door. Love thy neighbor. Ah Tsenkharla how I cherish each rock, tree, and the very dirt I tread on. Especially the dirt which has a comforting configuration, dry and lean yet capable of supporting year round life. Add in some adorable kids and a quirky village and Bob’s your uncle. Lord Buddha would teach us to unhinge ourselves from attachment which is improbable as a teacher. But it is also part of the game plan. New kids replace the old ones and some move away and you can only remember and hope that you served them well. Love well or not at all, right?

As the digital large size clock beside my cot strikes the bewitching hour I pray to turn into a pumpkin or maybe a pizza. Therefore I would eat myself up. Instead I am talking nonsense to a radish I call Bunky. So now my pal sits on my desk top silently condemning this sentence. (Like Wilson from Cast Away) So for now let’s hang it up and see what tomorrow brings…In the words of legendary KTVU anchor Dennis Richmond Goodnigh”t”  Or better yet in the posthumous words of late night host Tom Snyder, “Fire up a colortini and watch the pictures as they fly through the air.”

“Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard” Paul Simon

Good morning on a Thursday in Bhutan. The Circus rolls on. Mutating into new expressive dimensions and weight. I start my day listening to “Graceland” which is about long enough to supplement my morning routine of washing, brushing my teeth, and making tea. “You Can Call Me Al” is spot on to my experience here and I think it is mine and Becky’s song. Being kept up by a noisy hound for three consecutive nights, I love the lyric “get these mutts away from me you know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore” Absolutely genius Paul! The whole darn tune is autobiographical. I enjoyed the morning classes and facilitated the writing of poems by class seven. All but one of my thirty kids had never written a poem so it’s a celebratory day for the muse. Later they will revise, draw pictures to accompany, and hang on the wall. Early on, I have found a better cadence and rhythm in my second year. At times I have taught like a chicken with its head cut off and must remember to breath and take time. Preparation is essential for the job and improves the flow of the lesson tremendously. Teaching is difficult. You must take into account different learning styles and pace, undertake classroom management, and facilitate learning all in the moment. Truthfully I am still seeking my voice in my third year at the job. But it is a rewarding if not demanding profession. For me it is a process of learning to love the journey and the daily fruits of the teacher/student interaction. And putting in the time needed to craft my lessons and execute effectively. At times I am envious of how easily it seems to come for certain of my colleagues who simply have a knack at it. (Along with great work ethic) But what I might lack in organizational skills I hope to make up for in passion and care for my charge.  Either way I have been given a space to work on my skill set in unique environment, and for that I am grateful. And one of my former boy’s from last year thanked me for my teaching, which reinforces the meaning. I had an interesting conversation with Jigme, a soft spoken, tall and handsome new teacher. He noted the difficulty of a Bhutanese teacher to make the American literature relatable to the students. Being somewhat familiar with my own cultural history I can provide useful background information. For class nine we are studying a Booker T Washington essay which calls for a short explanation of racial tensions of that era in the United States. I try to stay true to the “Harris Line” of 80/20. That is, 20% teacher instruction to 80% student activity. In the ESL game that is pretty hard to maintain but I keep it firmly in mind. Principal Julie Harris critiqued my student teaching lesson in 2011 exclaiming I was providing too much direct instruction in the classroom without enough student centered activities. Mostly I want to have the students feel energized and engaged at each moment. I don’t want to put another brick in the wall so to speak but rather tear down the wall with active student based learning. I want empowered freethinking kids that can work as a team to solve Bhutan’s future problems. Many will toil in traditional farming role after class ten but they will be “educated farmers” I try to instill a mentality to do any job to the best of their ability. So if you’re a taxi driver, be the best driver possible.     

One thing that is difficult in Bhutanese Education is getting face time with a student. I find one on one instruction particularly gratifying. For example during my poetry exercise today one diminutive girl was having difficulty staring her assignment. She sat pensively in the golden grass overlooking a hazy horizon. I knelt down next to her and asked her about her village. (Always a good icebreaker) and what parts of nature she appreciated? Her voice was barely audible but she remarked her affection for trees. So I prodded her for more information and she provided a great first line which read. “Trees provide us many things” For the next twenty minutes Cheki intently scribed into her notebook and another poet was born. I love this lesson and did it last year. We don’t have many opportunities to write poetry and it is amazing to see the raw talent and poetic sense of many of the students. It’s also a rare gift to see Bhutanese kids expressing themselves creatively. (Talent shows are a notable exception and that’s why they are a hoot) The educational system is rote in construction but the natural tendencies of the students are affable, creative, cooperative, and fun.
One setback to the new school year is that old thorn in Tim’s side, trash. All my trashcans have vanished from the property and litter peppers the campus. The cans were merely old oil tins that were hard to scrounge up from various places. We also had to buy paint and brushes to coat the receptacles yellow and green. I was sad to see them gone and the lackluster response of administration irked me. Culturally Bhutanese are more consistent and stable so the reaction only appeared ambivalent. In addition I had to except 51 members when I only wanted 30. As the numbers increase, bunking becomes an issue. (Bunking is slang for truancy) Also, BCF has withdrawn my grant for lack of ability to acquire large trash cans. Resources can be an issue in these parts and I hold myself accountable for the lapse. So I will find more tins and restart the effort encouraging the students to change their habits and reinforce the community cleanliness standards. (Sisyphus dragging the stone up that hill again) I don’t take the problem personally anymore and know gentility wins the race in Bhutan, la. I will use this approach to secure a month’s salary that some of my colleagues have received for January. Due to the efforts of certain BCF alumni, Trashigang teachers received a January salary as do the national teachers. Each Dzongkhag doles out pay individually.  
I awoke after a fitful sleep to the smell of Bhutan that I associate with the Brokpa’s. A sort of smoky fermented cheese odor that is deeply pleasing to my core. Perhaps due to my poor eyesight I have always cherished smell. I can’t clearly remember the face of the waif rainbow I pinned for in 95’ but I recall her scent which remains palpable. Similar memory burns include the fragrance of Ashland in spring, or the smell of Donner Lake in early morning. Probably when the images of this place fade from memory over the years that Brokpa smell will remain locked in my DNA. When I go down Gods Highway AKA the tunnel of light, I will likely follow a fragrance into that white light. This day (still Thursday) will be capped by watching the light filter through the hazy valley and then off to a baby shower, which hopefully included dinner. (FYI I am definitely the hungriest man at Tsenkharla.) Today as always, my emotions ranged all over the map, but let’s call it a good day for prosperity. (Today is February 28, 2013) The best lesson I learned today which I already knew was to keep smiling. In class it is my duty to remain positive and upbeat which I let slip away at times last year. Youth are sensitive to moods and being a grumble bunny doesn’t contribute to the vibe of the class. Of course I will be firm and fair but also gentle and compassionate. My temperament and collectiveness is my primary goal for this academic year with many supplemental goals as well. It’s nice to be back in action as the beat marches on!       

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Two From the Vault


In the frozen hearth
of the Annapurna Range
Shiva takes my hand
guiding me
through a snow cave
down a ceaseless stone staircase
with lightning and thunder
BOOM! (the universe accelerates)
like a female water snake
slithering scales between
rainbow rhododendron,
squirming in a fathomless canyon
fade away
like vapor from a dreamer’s pipe
puffs of daunting mist,
dissipates radiant sunshine  
Oh hail the hail!
on the path, off the trail
somewhere between Landruk
and Chommerang 
IT happens
heaven pisses soaking my face
cackling like a madman
I ascend ten thousand stairs
as this poem dies
in the shadow of Machhapuchhare

Circumambulating Bodhnath and Chorten kora with Becky

Navigating the filthy street
stepping over a limbless beggar
we slip through the portal gate
into Bodhnath
where rays of sunshine splash Buddha Eyes
and timeless clockwise Tibetan worshipers
prostrate frenetically
as the air crackles with pregnant electricity
(in the belly of a hungry tigress)
butter lamps burn slow to the tune of
rattling prayer wheels
spun by weathered Himalayan hands
clutching rosary beads and chanting,
“Om Mani Padme Hum- All Hail the jewel in the Lotus!”
breathe in- incense and suck a cube of yak cheese
orbiting enlightenment for eons
or take tea on a rooftop
watching flocks of birds
and people ring the base of the mighty stupa
this is IT for once I AM.
she says “I like it here.”
start where you stand
making concentric circles
at Chorten Kora
where a fresh breeze paints the Kulongchu
brushing in buoyant greens and ecstatic blues
which bleed rushing liquid over stone
as devotees tread over bursting marigolds
and lustrous grass chanting,
“Om Mani Padme Hum- All Hail the Jewel in the Lotus!”
but there is no god here
only Buddha Nature bereft of ritual.
 from my seat on a bench
I count Becky’s revolutions in triplicate
always pressing forward
we are the maitreya
the walking wounded
exiled from the rainbow palace
following the light of a precious diamond
that melts our iron chains
until we soar as ravens into the ether

Bodhnath is an ancient stupa in Katmandu Nepal. Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse Bhutan was modeled after Bodhnath. The title is modeled after Gary Snyder’s poem Circumambulating Mt. Tamalpais.