Baking is not my thing — I struggle to measure carefully, to not spill and therefore throw off the already questionable measurement, to take the time to properly beat the eggs. It is difficult for me to wait a full minute before pouring more hot water over the coffee grounds; and you need to do it three times.
“Make slowly, slowly, Bridget”
I feel my American-ness when I am at the cafe. Mostly in my voice, that doesn’t match in cadence or volume, but also in how I charge around the tiny kitchen or want to take on those who disrespect or offend me (or something I care about). It is easy to drown things out; most of the customers are foreigners, and I draw questions and conversations. I tease, laugh, drop things, and call out the window to people I know walking up the street.
Moving quietly in her traditional Tibetan dress, smiling, with flour-covered hands, my manager disguises her resilient, courageous, and assertive character. Sometimes when things are slow, she shares stories of violence, frustration, and terror, her own and those of the women in her community — celebrating the positive, yet tinged with resignation. When I described the woman screaming in the night, she sighed and commented on the futility, and frequency, of the situation. Her dreams and difficulties, their illusory simplicity and dedicated intention, remind me of how such overwhelming violence in this world can be picked at until it has been wiped away through the collective work of many.
Now, a week or so into the volunteer work, I still spill things, but much more quietly.
This morning, feeling ill for no clear reason (generic India experience) and having slept little, I contemplated going into work an hour later. When I tried to call my manager’s phone number, it did not work; so I, slowly, slowly, climbed the five flights of stone steps up to the main road. I stood on the front stoop of the cafe for a moment, threw up over the wall, and carefully sat down, leaning against the door.
My manager arrived, smiling and waving. Today was important: we had been closed for four days (annual celebration of the anniversary), and we needed to replace all of the baked goods, clean up after a small electrical fire, and generally put life back into order. Between fresh ginger tea and moving very, very carefully, I managed to stay throughout the my shift. In America, I would have stayed home.
This morning, a Buddhist nun, originally from Germany, led me down a shortcut to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
I met her behind a car that was stuck in the rubble of the cracking road; we had both offered to push. Must have been startling for the two Indian men – suddenly finding themselves next to a young woman from the United States and a previously-German Buddhist nun in her saffron robes attempting to fight gravity and pebbles sliding underfoot.
She took off down the mountain at a quick pace, perhaps some combination of German upbringing and Buddhist purpose. I caught up with her, asking if she was going to the dharma class at the Library. It had already been quite a hike down the steep road from the main part of McLeodganj; I knew it was halfway down the mountain, but I had not fully realized how far. Students in this class walk it every day.
We set out down a stone steps laid into the side of the mountain, an apparently faster route. Concerned about tripping over my feet and knocking a Buddhist nun down three flights of stairs, my focus narrowed to the width of a single stepping stone. The stairs led us to a complex of houses, the nun briskly moving up and down more wet concrete staircases, around corners, my eyes still focused on her swishing red hem and sneakers. As we popped out onto a slippery stone courtyard, she said “That was easy!” as I staggered up behind her.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is exactly what you want it to be: simple but gorgeous stone, brightly painted wooden eaves and an elaborately detailed entrance-way not overpowering its elegance. Rather than walking directly to the classroom, we turned left, moving clockwise around the building holding sacred texts – this, as I understand it, is called korma, and when done mindfully has as much merit as if you read all of the texts inside. Same reason that people spin prayer wheels.
A mix of Westerners and Tibetans were milling around outside and in the classroom. I joined the nun after removing my shoes, followed her advice on etiquette, and summarily botched the genuflections made when the teacher entered the room. Wise elders are revered more than any statue or image as the embodiment of Buddha. I chanted as best as I could, tried not to wiggle too much on my little mat (even though I was lucky enough to get one against the wall), and listened to the lecture.
Afterwards, alone, climbing the winding road back up the mountain in the reasonably-light rain (for the monsoon), every empty taxi honked and waved at me – why on earth would someone get soaked walking up that awful road if they could afford a lift?
But philosophy cannot remain trapped in a classroom, it must breathe throughout the mountain and in life.