As I sit here thinking about where to begin this post, I’m a little paralysed by several issues: first, there’s a lot to tell, because the couple of days since my arrival here in Chiang Mai have been full of incident and interest; and second, perhaps more problematic, I’m in the middle of a book of short pieces, segments that are story-telling and reflective memoir, by the brilliant Tony Judt, whose thinking and writing are both so clear that I feel my writing and thinking to be muddled, predictable, and inelegant in comparison.
If you haven’t come across Tony Judt - he’s most famous for his writing on twentieth century European history, in his book Postwar, and for his reflections on contemporary society, in his book Ill Fares the Land - then you have a lot of wonderful reading and thinking to look forward to. And if you have, then I imagine you’re as big a fan as I am. The tragedy is that he died in August 2010, of the horrible ALS (aka Lou Gehrig disease), in his early sixties. The book I’m reading, The Memory Chalet, was written when he was incapacitated physically, partly as a way of staying sane. In short vignettes and reflections we travel through rooms in his life, from his early childhood memories of postwar London onward.
As I read I can’t help visualising his situation at the time he was “writing” (by dictation, since of course ALS had robbed him of the use of his fingers), and marvelling at his clarity.
It’s form of solitary confinement and torture, ALS, but of course it makes me aware of all the different incapacities that lie ahead for most of us as we move from full health into older age. Some of us will drop dead, but many will have to figure out how to live well with diminished faculties and capacities. And it’s that goal of living well, with positive energy and a feeling of accomplishment and forward momentum, that is so important for our mental health, and so difficult to achieve.
The Tony Judt book, and the underlying circumstances, are thus a good solid reminder to make each day count, and to figure out how to maintain my equilibrium even when circumstances don’t go my way. I’m not being namby-pamby here. I really do believe that the hardest thing is maintaining grace under fire, or positive equanimity, or whatever other way you wish to phrase it, in situations that are harsh, hurtful, “unfair” or just plain horrible. They come to us all, at one time or another. And we want that for everyone, don’t we? that we all keep our dignity and self-respect even when things are dire or painful.
How to manage it? is the question. Nothing worthwhile is easy, it seems, and this surely isn’t easy. But we have the chance as we pass through various rough patches in our lives, to practice and become more skilled at managing how we cope with adversity. It’s a life-skill we need to develop, in the same way as a child’s learning to fall asleep on her own is, or learning how to calm ourselves when we’re feeling anxious or fearful...
Meantime, when I’m not reading and being amazed by Tony Judt, I’m out and about in Chiang Mai. I’ve seen friends, had time with a New York friend who left this morning for Burma, and eaten some of my favorite treats.
On Friday morning we went early to the weekly Haw Market, in the parking lot opposite the mosque. It was a reminder that even as things stay constant (the market is always on Friday morning) they also evolve: the market has changed its geography, because part of the area it was in is now slated for a building. The two soup places I usually go to in the corner were somewhere else entirely, for example, and so was the Chinese pickles stand. The market is spreading south along a lane now. I wonder whether development pressures will eventually force it to move elsewhere entirely. That would be a pity, for it exists because of the mosque: Haw (Chinese muslim) traders set up there when they were in town for Friday services at the mosque. The market is much more than Haw people now of course. There are Burmese of various cultures (Shan, Burman, Karen, etc) and also hill people of many kinds, selling their oh-so-fresh and healthy-looking fruits and vegetables (huge avocados yesterday, pink radishes, and lots more), and a wonderful array of rices.
I took my friend to eat what I call (in the BURMA book) Silky Shan Soup, unctuous and comforting, and then after awhile we shared a bowl of mohinga too. In between we bought samosas, beautifully fried, and also black rice donuts, chewy, darkly almost-sweet with palm sugar syrup, and oozing deliciousness. It’s a filling morning, Friday morning, always.
On Thursday evening we went to Huen Pen, the North Thai restaurant in the old city that has been consistently good for a long time. My friend is pescatarian, and even though Northern Thai food uses meat as a flavouring in many dishes, we found lots of choices to order, from a great som-o (pomelo) salad, a joung jackfruit salad, a fish curry, nam prik num, and more. Yum.
This morning as I pedalled up Thapae Road, I found myself behind one of the old Chiang Mai cycle rickshaws. It was early and still cool, so the driver’s hat was still tied onto the back of the rickshaw. His passenger was an older Thai woman being pedalled home from her trip to the market to buy meat and vegetables for the day. I caught a quick whiff of her scented powder in the breeze and was reminded of my grandmother. The woman turned her head, caught sight of me pedalling behind, and gave me a nod and a smile as we glided along.
All this is a lovely welcoming landing-pad, from the food and the markets, to old friends and cycling through the streets, to the look of Doi Sutep, looming northwest of the city, its mountain bulk sometimes blue-green, sometimes purplish (especially in the evening), and always a reassuring reminder of where I am, right here, right now.