The explosion is so close and so loud that I remember Diwali. Then I breathe in and out and remember it is not Diwali and I am not in India. And as I watch the lights lighten up the mighty Mekong in front of me, as I see it all shiver in and out of existence, as my mind flies away, I realise a whole lifetime has passed since Diwali in India when firecrackers exploded next to me. It feels it was just a character of my only fiction who needed those explosions to be real. I felt a certain fondness to that stranger but it also felt like I knew her from another life.
In India Diwali is the Festival of Light. Firecrackers explode all over the country both to fight evil and to celebrate the return of Krishna. At the time I was in India in 2011 I did not fully understand that behind Diwali there is an awareness of one’s inner light. Now as I hear explosions of a Monsoon storm, as the thunders explode so close and make every bone in my body tremble, as it pushes me away from so close and yet so far, I look at Laos on the other side of the river feeling a mixture of amazement for the nature and joy that nothing in me wants to be anywhere else.
Almost all that I have lived flashes through my mind. A few hours earlier I had visited Mun (pronounced Maaan with an open a), who is one of the ladies that work in the kitchen. Her father had died. I had been to another funeral before (as those of you who have read my book, or have been in this email list long enough know). This time I went in the wake. And as I somehow knew what was about to happen, and as I know Mun, it was easier and more meaningful to me.
Pao, Julian’s wife, drove us there, all of us who worked or work at Mut Mee. Pao is Thai, Simeon is American, Petra German, Carli Australian, and I am Brazilian. Yes, almost all continents represented, for love of Mun.
We arrived in the middle of a party. Older people were gambling. I knew exactly what to do, I had learned it with Horm, my host in the rural village where I once taught 4 years ago. And this time Pao explained to me once again. We go in, we see the coffin, we pay our respects to Mun and her mother. We take an incense, we light it and we put it there with other lit incenses.
No one cries, people laugh, children run, people take pictures. Pao explained to us that it is the best thing to do, to keep joyful company to those who have lost someone they loved. I remember how much I had heard from different lamas that in the time of passing one should be aware and conscious. I remember that I heard the same from Indigenous peoples of the Americas. You must forget the person who died, so that they can keep their journey; trapping the loved ones close was a necessity of the living. I even remember the cognitive explanations that burials were created because humans realised they needed to bury a dead person soon so as not to spread disease and smell, though emotionally they still wanted to keep them close.
My mind wandered as I sat and did a short meditation. I asked Mun how could they keep a body in a coffin for so many days in such a warm weather ( here in Thailand according to what I understood from Tia, the lovely lady who cooks in the Kitchen and whom I adore, a wake takes 3 days) and for it not to rotten.
Mun looked at me and smiled. I could see some tears that had been hidden in her eyes. She took me by hand and took me to see the coffin. I don’t think I remember ever seeing a dead person so close. The coffin was shimmering and golden, and it had a little glass window on top of it, through which I could see a beautiful man, perfectly dressed, surrounded by flowers. He looked asleep. I could also see it was a fridge. Just as I am processing this information, Donut, Mun’s 5 year old daughter who is my friend from the garden of Mut Mee, shows up. Mun lifts her up and shows her her dead grandpa. She looks while her cousin is going around taking pictures of the party. Mun looks at me and says “ My Papa is going to sleep now.”
I hold my tears for I have once learned one is not supposed to cry in a Buddhist wake. As Mun is a dear friend to me, I tell her I am sorry, I know I am not supposed to cry. She smiles and says it is ok, we cry a little bit, too, and she holds me. Remember that this was all done in broken Thai.
We all sit in the ground… while people pay their respects and older people gamble outside. I somehow feel it so healthy the way they do it. Supporting friends and family with positive feelings. And my mind flies to Jewish Shive, Christian wakes, and what I have read about wakes all over the world…. they all have the same thing together… the awareness that we must let go, but that we just don’t want to, so we need to do a rItual.
I, who was never fond of rituals, love them more and more now. I love those actions that mark passages. When they are happy, full of communal support, they are invariably more pleasant. I close my eyes and make a silent prayer, a meditation. I am moved but I hold my tears.
And then I pose for the pictures they are taking of us, and then I take my phone and ask whether I could take pictures as well. I knew I could. I was once asked to take them 4 years ago. Still, part of me feels I must ask, and so I take a gorgeous picture of Mun’s niece taking a picture; in the background is the widow, and behind and we can also see the coffin.
In Northeastern Brazil people scream and suffer in mournings. It feels it is engraved in my skin to cry. But I remember Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who is a Tulku, telling me “ you should cry less” and smile.
I smiled, and he said “I know, it is impossible for you. :)”
And so I did not cry. I prayed, I meditated, mixing all that I knew that could be respectful and then, when I hugged Mun, I just could not hold my tears anymore. And when she told me she had cried a little, too, I felt an enormous relief.
Not because, I felt excused. It was because I understood once more that humans are so alike, and that these opposing tendencies of letting go and keeping close have tormented all of us in the world throughout millennia.
Then her sister came to see the picture I had taken. I promised to send her. But her email was in Thai, we tried to send via bluetooth. It did not work. And so eventually I decided to send it to Yong, one of the kitchen ladies who has a facebook that has a name in english.
And as I stood up to go, I felt happy. Happy that these people knew so well that when someone loses someone dear they need support, and they are ready to give it.
We entered the car talking about it. I was happy that all of us, from so different continents, thought we did not fully understand what we saw but we still came because we care for Mun. And in a sense, for that short while, we had all been a bit Thai.
And so, as the Monsoon thunder cracks and I feel a bit shivery, and wet, I see the lights and I finally understand what Diwali is all about. It is about encountering one’s inner light.
Love, from the Mekong