Living & Dying
There is nothing romantic about living through a natural disaster and being stranded in the mountains for weeks, except maybe being shook free.
Accepting life implies accepting death. From the esoteric, “We die and are born again each moment,” to the obvious, “We’re all gonna die,” life is lived in recognition of death. To be in relationship with the world — with everything, or any one thing — there is the truth, “This too shall pass.”
The joys of love came from the understanding, “And someday we will be apart, but today, in this moment, we are together. I love you. I will always love you, until the day I die.”
Playing the odds over and over, we live in the knowledge our happiness is not permanent. We are not permanent. And yet, we struggle to be. Often we (re)act today as yesterday. We try to find a sense of stability and normalcy, finding comfort in the patterns and routines, knowing deep down — suddenly or slowly — they will change. The old ways die. The young are taken too soon. Time has played its joke again, and now it’s all different.
In the Spring of 2015 there were a series of earthquakes in Nepal, and now it was all different.
All major earth events are extraordinary and terrifying, but living through them — being brutally and immanently aware you may die, right now, today — it’s a feeling unparalleled in everyday life, and it never leaves you. It reframes your entire existence in glorious and frightening ways.
It took over two weeks to get out of Nepal, and we were lucky, because Nepal wasn’t our home.
The entire village of Langtang was destroyed in seconds, killing everyone, locals and trekkers alike. Over 100 bodies were never recovered. We heard bits and pieces of the story as the days went by.
Are you more dead if your death and burial happen at the same time? If everyone you knew and loved died with you, maybe you’re less dead. If your entire culture dies with you, were you ever alive? If your existence, your home, your family and friends are buried under a mountain, what happened? Where did your love go? What was your life?
These questions didn’t come early for me. Mostly there was the fear I would be next. Some foreigner buried halfway across the world, right where he was, in a village my friends and family would have no ideas about. They wouldn’t ever know what it was like. My existence buried under a mountain.
As I sat with the fear — day after day, hour after hour — the ground still shook. It never really stopped. The fear changed, or maybe it clarified. The fear was something like: I do not want to die alone.
There was a teahouse in Dole at the Yeti Inn. It was located three stories above the ground on one side, and only fifty feet across in its longest dimension. The entrance on the third floor sat atop the rocky earth. It was built with hewn stone and barely enough mortar. When we arrived back in Dole — after the first quake and days of aftershocks — there was a new crack running down all three stories, from roof to rock. It was the first and only thing I noticed before we entered.
Inside, half the tables and benches, the ones on the far side of the room, were cordoned off with a rope. “Do not sit here,” was implied. There was a feeling of relief to be back in Irkin’s place, a roof over our heads, warm food, and a place to sleep, but we had to be crazy to enter that teahouse. Crazy for what, I did not yet know.
It didn’t make sense to me, pretending the ground still didn’t shake every hour. Pretending it was normal to run for our lives and get outside every time we felt a tremor. I was sleeping with my boots on. Maybe that was because I had been caught barefoot at 14,665 ft during the initial quake. I never asked if everyone was still sleeping with their boots on. We all did the first night, the night we scoured the fields and tried to burn yak dung. (I still hadn’t properly cleaned my hands.) I know Gombu was wearing my spare shoes, as his had been lost when his room — and everything in it — crumbled down the cliff in Machhermo.
Our sleeping quarters at the Yeti Inn were next to the teahouse, and built not with stacked rocks, but with aluminum walls. It felt safer there. At least what would fall on you wouldn’t crumble first. At least there was a chance of not being buried alive. This is where I stayed for days, alone.
Someone was always nice enough to bring food to me through the window.
I read the only book I hadn’t left in Namche, Ocean of Nectar: Wisdom and Compassion in Mahayana Buddhism, and I thought.
I felt crazy for not going in the teahouse as much as I felt everyone else was crazy for spending most of their time there. Craving connection was making everyone crazy.
I had no idea what could possess my friends and fellow trekkers to sit in that teahouse day after day. Maybe they didn’t believe it would crumble under their feet. If so, then why did they continue to run out when it shook? (Albeit, this happened less frequently with each passing day, as the structure “proved” its stability.) Why did they not believe another large quake would come? (As it eventually did.) What kept them together in such a precarious place? (We’d barely known each other to start.) Why risk life and limb to play cards? (A game aptly named Avalanche.)
Alone, in my room, I wondered how — amongst intelligent individuals — I could be the only one to see the teahouse was doomed to fall apart, along with everyone too slow to run out. It was not permanent. We were not permanent. There would be blood, injury, and death. It didn’t make sense to spend time there. My mind tossed and turned and could not reconcile the risk with the benefit. I did not understand how a few more hours of comradery could be worth risking bodily harm and death.
Eventually — without feeling any particular awakening — I left the solitude of my room and joined the crew in the teahouse. I craved connection.
“Someday we will be apart, but today, in this moment, we are together.”
At the time, I remember feeling something like, “It is better to die together than survive alone.” Who really wants to be the sole survivor when a mountain village is destroyed? Despite everything I had imagined, that single thought was too much to bear. I would rather risk my life with everyone than end up being the smartest person in an empty room.
If we were crazy, it’s better to be crazy together.
We spent the remaining days and nights together, without consequence, playing cards and twenty questions, eating popcorn and Pringles. We enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed and only cried a little. We did our best with the situation we were in and didn’t share our fears. We lived the life we had as best we could.
Every few days, we’d hike down to a new village, with a new set of cracks to worry about.
I don’t remember whether it was more frightening to imagine landslides and rock falls while on the trail or imagine being buried under rubble while sleeping. Both were more terrifying than words can express, and both became our normal crazy life.
Back in Namche, we found an old PC connected to the internet and started a fundraiser to help the locals rebuild. We raised close to $25,000 before we left Nepal. We tried to help as much as we could with the life we had left.
I still slept with my boots on every night, but stopped running outside with every tremor. It became as normal as everything else.
Finally in Kathmandu at the Tibet Guest House, where the only clear path to safety was jumping out a three-story window into one of a pair of garbage dumpsters — we still always checked every place we went for the best exit— I stopped reacting. I stopped worrying about illusory stability. I would just lie there staring at the cracks in ceilings, gently being rocked left and right, hoping only dust would fall. Knowing, if the building started crumbling, I could always jump out the window.
Our group motto became, “We’re all going to die.” This was as much our joke as our life had become. What else was there to do, but spend time together, laugh when we could, and try to help as much as possible.
They say the mountain decides. And the mountain had not thrown us off.
It is never up to us, when we die. It is our choice, how we live.
Only later, while living in Seattle — at four in the morning, after a heart-stopping panic attack, after I finally cried for my body and apologized for putting it at risk to save my mind, months after the ground shook so often something shook free — I finally understood.
I was no longer confused about dying.
I know we are not permanent.
We are given bodies to live until we die. They are our path to experience, and we use and abuse them to learn while we’re alive. We use our bodies in all sorts of clever ways to explore our minds and humanity. This is a personal exploration; it always is, but we never do it alone.
Even in that room by myself, I was never alone.
It means something when we live — to us, to others. Our presence is important. There is always something greater than our self.
We do not live life alone, but there is nothing romantic about this.
It’s just how it is.
It’s the same, how there is nothing romantic about living through a natural disaster and being stranded in the mountains for weeks. It’s just how it is, except maybe — when the mountain doesn’t throw you off — there is a greater opportunity to be shook free of dying.
Learning finally, even though we’re all going to die:
We all live together.