Thursday, November 26, 2009


It’s dawn here in Chiang Mai, the sun’s yellow blurred by haze on the horizon, the sky above a pale blue, and the lovely bulk of Doi Sutep that fills the northwest horizon (and the view from my north window) a soft purple-blue. In North America it’s still November 26th and still American Thanksgiving Day, but here it’s already the 27th, Tashi’s birthday. On Monday is Dom’s birthday, so in fact, unencumbered by any need for the exact days to arrive, I have been thinking about birthdays and my (now-grown) kids and spans of time.

For example, Dom turns 22 on Monday. The last time he was divisible by 11 he was in Grade 6, just finding his confidence in school; this time he is in the first year of a PhD. No wonder as we get older life seems less eventful and time seems to fly by. When I think of all that a child or young adult packs into a year, all the growth of new understanding, the learning, the whole-hearted engagement, it is truly astonishing. When we’re inside it, as young people, it’s all we know. That’s what life is. Then as we age into adulthood we’re busy, but we’re mostly managing time rather than living inside it.

Yesterday I sat in the grounds of a wat (temple) and tried to draw a naga, a dragon/snake that makes the railing and frame for one of the temple staircases. My friend Lillian, who is an artist, did some wonderful line drawings of temple details when she was here last year, and I wanted to try. The result of my efforts was a reminder of the place, but not particularly lovely. What was lovely was the experience of engaging, of losing myself in the effort. Every time I sit down to draw something this amazing thing happens. (And similarly, the focussed concentration on getting a word right in a piece of writing, or on shaping a poem, brings the same wonderful loss of self-consciousneess, this headlong plunge into the now.) It’s a gift, available almost any time, and I think it’s available to all. We need only choose to embark.

Focussed concentration, to the exclusion of almost all else, is the pleasure scholars feel as they wrestle with a text or a problem, and musicians, or artists, or anyone engaging single-mindedly or wholeheartedly with a task know it well. Children have a capacity for intently settling to one thing, playing or jumping or whatever. It’s one of the fundamental pleasures of childhood, that we mostly lose as we get distracted with meeting the social expectations of the adult world (“Come along now; we can’t stay here all day!”).

Just DOING without second thoughts or distraction is a great drug and a balm to the spirit too, for it reconnects us with ourselves, it grounds us.

I sat down in the dawn chill to write about being up north of here on a farm near Fang, the cascading bougainvillea, the glowing green wing-beans, the scent of the lychee trees, the complicated wonderfulness of the Fang weekly market, the village house where I finally learned how to make tua nao (the fermented bean paste that underpins northern and Shan cooking), the coming-into-paradise luminousness of the mountain-rimmed landscape to the north. So much for plans. I do love the way that threads of thought, ideas that have occurred to me during the week and that perhaps I have been mulling over subconsciously, surface and insist on expression as I settle to write each week.

I guess I have come full circle here, for it seems clear, as I reflect on the question of getting grounded by committing wholeheartedly to a task, that the process of teasing out these thoughts on the virtual page each week is one of the ways I find that pleasure for myself. I enjoy it so much, and today, in writing this, I’ve come to understand a little more where the pleasure lies.

We’re in highly self-referential territory here! My apologies if it’s irritating!

And for those of you who want something concrete to taste, in your mind’s eye or in fact, here’s a quick descriptive recipe for an issaan dish called moo nam toke (pork in a waterfall, meaning with a wet dressing). The issaan one uses dried chiles. There’s a northern version: just substitute fresh prik ee noo, Thai bird chiles, to taste.

There’s a vendor set up near the huge plant market (see my entry about the place in November-December last year) about a mile north of my apartment here. She sells grilled pork, som tam, sticky rice... Fern and I dropped by there one afternoon early this week after running some errands and asked for moo nam toke: Start with about half a pound of grilled pork, preferably several small pieces that are not too lean (brush it with a little oil and fish sauce, or rub it with fish sauce and ground black pepper if you wish, before grilling) and chop it into large bite-size. Place in a wide shallow bowl. Add a scant half cup of sliced red (Asian) shallot or chopped onion, some coriander leaf, some dried red chiles ground to flakes or powder, (to taste, say a tablespoon to start with), and about two tablespoons of roasted rice powder (dry roast some raw rice in a skillet, then grind to a powder in a coffee grinder or whatever). To make the dressing, combine fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind liquid (soak tamarind pulp briefly in hot water, then press through a sieve to get the liquid), to taste (about 2 tablespoons each should do it, if anything going more lightly on the tamarind and heavier on the fish sauce), then pour over. Toss to blend well, then serve and eat with pleasure...

A POSTSCRIPT: My Burmese visa has come through, hurrah! This trip I'm headed to Moulmein (now in post-colonial times written Mawlamyine), on the coast southeast of Rangoon (now Yangon). That requires a flight on Saturday to Bangkok, then another to Rangoon, then bus or train along the coast. (The land border between Thailand and Burma that is closest to Moulmein, is at Mae Sot, and is still closed to foreigners.) I am due back here late on December 10. Since internet access is unpredictable in Burma, I may not be able to post until I'm back, though last March I was able to, amazingly, from Myitkyina, so we'll see.


Tashi Freeman said...

Safe travels!

Note: The text graphic is asking me to write spells out, quite clearly "so cult."

Have fun Nom.

cassandra said...

Travel well, Nom. Looking forward to the next report.