Grace — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Grace — By Jennifer Shipp

 Some stories are like lotus flowers; they bloom in layers with each new set of petals adding a transformative shape to the whole. It’s hard to tell these stories, because they aren’t linear and so they require special treatment in order to overcome the tendency that human beings have toward relegating the ethereal shimmer of sacred things like a magic wand polished by hand oils and passed down through generations in a long line of sorcerers into its most mundane form such that dispassionate onlookers see only an old, twisted stick. These stories are like Indian epics–Ramayanan characters who engage in bloody battles but then retire at the end of a day of decapitations and stabbings to their tents where they imagine new worlds and colorful planets of strange beings that get up on their own two surreal feet and cast off on their own digressive journeys, the wild and imaginative, if not totally unbelievable adventures of blue-colored beings with a dozen arms and monkeys that talk. These stories that happen on several layers of reality all at once are always in danger of being told in trite, short sentences that fail to enunciate the full importance of their underlying meanings and the improbable serendipity that connects human-to-human in mysterious moment-by-moment ways.


Over the past three months, I’ve wished many times for a linear, well-lit path with weeds that have been nicely mowed on both sides, a clear destination up ahead on a hill. But mostly, I’ve felt like someone who’s lost in a rainforest, shoe-less with only a rusted machete and a broken handle. 


The sudden twist of ending up in Myanmar after living 3 years in Mexico could be construed as categorically insignificant since Lydi, John, and I are people who travel regularly for long periods of time. But Myanmar is one of the most undeveloped countries on the planet and to be here long-term was not a decision that we made, but rather one that was made for us. 


I was very quiet at first with family and friends about the amoeboid, shapeshifting conflict that took shape in Mexico in the months right after Lydi and Naing Naing arrived there. Naing Naing became depressed and despondent while the rest of us basked in relief at having achieved the ultimate goal. His English, though excellent, was simply not enough to communicate and describe the level of homesickness he felt and the sense that he wasn’t in control of his own life anymore. And when he packed up one small bag in the afternoon one day and left Lydian, it was not a surprise to any of us. Karolina, the curandera had given him a bag of native corn kernels that she’d used to divine Lydian and Naing Naing’s future together and we all knew it was coming.


“He needs to return to his country.” She told Lydian in Spanish. “He’ll come back to you. His love for you is strong.” She cautioned Lydian that, “You may never find another man like him. But he needs to go back to learn how to be a man.” Then she added, “It may take a long time.”


So Karolina told Lydian that she would help Lydi release him, which she did using a variety of sacred medicines. 


But Lydi didn’t want him to go. 


Nonetheless, Naing Naing left. And by the time he finally walked out the door, he was furious with me for having tried to get him to stay. 


For people who have never traveled long-term in foreign countries, it might be hard to understand this story; the deep rabbit hole of details like how I type on a Spanish keyboard and how my fingers still fight with the letters and the punctuation and refuse to admit that the ñ key even exists (my pinky finger hovering over it with uncertainty each time I need to use it). Jet lag, culture shock, illnesses of foreign lands and fevers that have themselves proven to be their own psychedelic journeys, and the sense that home is literally a world away are not experiences to scoff at or minimize as compelling reasons why a person might choose to do or not do something. Long-term travel and expatriation both take their toll on a person and the emotional landscape is full of dark caves, deep canyons, and shadowy deserts of black skies and black sands that meet along a fearful border of shadows. Lydi, John, and I have explored this landscape thoroughly for ourselves and we thought we knew it well enough to guide Naing Naing through it, a young man from the villages just outside of Bagan, Myanmar in a country that had been completely closed to the outside world until 2013. But no. Emotional landscapes are mostly solitary places. External guides are not allowed. 


And so, when Naing Naing left, Lydian wasn’t sure whether she should follow him or not. Was his willingness to leave her a statement about the limits of his love for her? 


She rolled the question over in her mind and after just a few short days, she decided that what was more important to her was that Naing Naing knew that her love for him had no limits. And so, she boarded a plane for Nyaung U. And John and I stayed back in Mexico in order to avoid confusing Naing Naing’s anger toward us with the challenges he and Lydian faced. 


As it turns out, Lydian picked a stubborn, strong-minded man as her husband. Naing Naing doesn’t get weak-kneed about very many things. Rather, he tends to be incredibly calm and docile in the midst of chaos. And at times, he goes at problems with wild abandon and at terrifying speed. This weird dichotomy of Naing Naing’s calm-centeredness mixed with his sudden, piercing determination of a knight on a white steed going to battle with a sword that’s sharp enough to cut down trees has been hard for John and me to accurately size up and understand through the haze of a major language barrier. When Naing Naing packed up and left Mexico suddenly, he said that his mission was not to leave Lydian, but rather to return to her as a man, his Burmese accent thick and his words muted by an army of restraint from having survived and in fact grown up cradled within a type of poverty that teaches whining children to go to bed hungry without so much as a groan or a peep or any kind of fanfare really, to wake hungry, and suffer through the daytime conditions wrought by the clumsy, angry and sometimes abusive adulting that happens when people are exhausted, starving, and hopeless. 


But Myanmar, though beautiful and mostly friendly, is also undeveloped. And in its most hidden, backwards parts, the people believe that foreigners marrying locals is not only bad, but worthy of death. This rule mostly applies only to Burmese women who marry foreign men, luckily, but the anger toward the mixing of ethnicities has still been applied by certain locals in certain ways, like a hot iron to bare skin so that Lydian and Naing Naing won’t easily forget about it or learn to ignore it in the quiet ceiling-gazing moments of night. 


During Lydian’s solo trip to Bagan, they rented a house and signed a contract with the dragon. Never did either one of them make an action against the other. Yes, they fought. They argued. They cried over the impossibility of being together in one country or the other. Naing Naing was in debt for the plane tickets he’d purchased to return home. His family had sold all of his worldly belongings in his absence, an old scooter, his tiny piece of land that he owned. He no longer had the job at the restaurant he’d worked at before (making $150 USD per month with fully 48 hours off every 30 days and a table to sleep on at night with the other homeless waiters who made so little that they couldn’t afford to even rent a small room in a rattan hut somewhere in town). But since he had not legally been allowed to work at all in Mexico, his positioning in Myanmar seemed slightly more hopeful in some respects. They tried to tease it all apart, but the administrative issues seemed insurmountable. 


Lydian returned to Mexico unsure about what to do or what to think, unable to get a moment of downtime in Myanmar away from prying eyes and sideways glances from locals unable to comprehend the idea that these two kids with different ethnicities and skin colors could actually love each other. John and I held to the Mexican soil, clinging to our shallow roots but with fresh soil still under our fingernails, decided that there was no time to delay. If we were going to offer our support to their marriage, now was the time. 


But Naing Naing was still angry with me and he refused to speak to me even as we boarded the 40 hour flight to Myanmar. But by that time, John and I had undergone an Ayahuasca ceremony, three Xananga sessions, and multiple Sapito journeys in order to see ourselves through this young man’s eyes and release all the baggage that no longer served us. We’d traveled for 14 days from mid-Mexico up through Missouri and across Nebraska to Denver, Colorado to make peace with all of our own mistakes and visit estranged family members, ending the journey with two breathwork sessions and an Ancestral healing in a residential area of Golden where the man next door had literally just killed himself. And the woman who beat the drum on our behalf looked into the Lower World and said that, in regard to Naing Naing that there was a padlock without a key. And this news seemed very bleak and hopeless and John and I wept about it, but then as we settled in for the long ride home and headed south and the sun fell below the U.S. horizon and rose over Myanmar, Lydian called to say that she’d had a dream that she’d passed through a Narnia-type of portal where a kitten approached her innocently wearing a blue collar and a key.


But still, I boarded the plane for Myanmar with a lot of anxiety about whether or not Naing Naing would ever be willing to make peace with John and me. I knew that it would be nearly impossible for them to scrape together the basic material necessities of a peaceful life together without some kind of family support in a place like Burma. And if Naing Naing rejected the support, it would be a very sad trip home.


But there were reasons to be hopeful. Our greatest strength came to us in various ways from family members, some of whom had been absent from our lives for decades. John and I had dinner with his dad and Lynn, a person we’d met, but only once and briefly before we were married. In the moments before we left their house, John noticed himself standing in exactly the same pose and posture as his dad, unconsciously though he hadn’t seen his dad in 22 years. This gave us pause. And we met our grandchildren for the first time, Kylie and Thomas’ blonde-haired kids with big smiling eyes and an innocence we’d long-forgotten since our own awkward grade school days, tiny packages, like Christmas gifts filled to the brim with possibility and all kinds of hope for the future. And John’s mom and her husband, Dave, long on the periphery of our lives came in a little closer for pizza. And then, heading west, we laid bare all our youthful follies across the plains of Nebraska contemplating the past and the future with a brand-new perspective that was and still is incomprehensible. My parents welcomed us on the western side of the state, a symbolic full-circle back to our origins.  At the end of it all, we realized that there is no way to reject family without rejecting oneself and with this in mind, we pushed on to reunite with everything we’d lost over the course of 20 years together.


Lydian was fascinated by our American trip and anxious to meet these people who were a part of her life via the snake-y caduceus of her DNA, but otherwise unknown to her. 


They were events long past-due and we hurried to sweep up our own mess in order to sit and wait patiently for whatever would come next.


Meanwhile, Lydian has surprised us with her quiet nature and how gentle she is toward Naing Naing while at the same time standing firm and unmoving against the rest of the world. At times, I’ve looked at her and called her “submissive” and then, I check myself and remember how she can be unwavering, the sole ruling empress of a kingdom of green rolling hills and a resplendent, gold-leafed castle on a carefully guarded plateau. She established an unlikely peace in her kingdom at an early age with a wise balance of tolerance and equitable laws along with a steel sword-in-the-stone waiting for the one brave knight in shining armor who would be able to unearth it. At times, Lydian has looked at herself and wondered what words to use to describe who she is now that she’s married and the king is at her side. This young warrior won her through his cunning bravery and undying loyalty that can stretch to the other side of the world, but he struggles to see his own kingship. He is an Aurelian-ruler beset with high philosophies about right and wrong that make him contemplative and, at times, endearinly grouchy. She bends her will not to his, but with his, in the traditional-family-sort-of-way that’s almost extinct now in modern America. But her femininity and flexibility isn’t the same thing as submissiveness and I know now that there’s a difference. She depends on me to not philander with feminist ideals or Public Service Announcement cliches or to make excuses that would mislead her because life is not so much about rules as it is about feelings and whether a relationship builds or whether it destroys. Whereas once I was the rock, and I know better than to be the scissors, I need to mostly act as paper, but sometimes all three when strategy calls for these kinds of maneuvers. 


I raised Lydian on the idea of meeting people she’s known in other lifetimes and the belief that this person she would someday marry would be someone she would somehow recognize instantly, or perhaps over the course of many meetings, but nonetheless that he would resonate with her with a harmonic, low hum according to a resounding high-note of her own choosing that she’d sing out into the world through her search for her own self. She didn’t believe me, of course and sometimes she would cry and say, “Where IS he?” And I would say that perhaps he was thinking of her just then too and wondering where she is also, right at that moment, and that always made her feel better in some ways and worse in others. And then, she would reach out into the world with courage, stretching her skills and talents and courage as far as she could get them to go and she would do things like sing with the estudiantinas or teach English or take dance classes, always extending further and further to try to discover her own limits.


From the moment of Lydian’s birth, and even before that, I was in love with her. And I felt blessed to get to spend as much time as I have with her during her childhood. But I knew that she’d leave one day and I knew that I wanted for her to leave John and me and to evolve into the next stage of what she would become. But I never expected to love the man she chose as her husband the way that we do. Or to mourn him when he left.


It is at this crossroads of giving my daughter away to another world while adopting a Burmese son-in-law along with his country where John and I must stack the stones with intention and call on some Higher Part of Ourselves to both let go of the old backpack and also pick up the new one. The apparent simplicity of this act is deceiving except to those who have lit the candle and sat vigil through the night at this haunted intersection agonizing over the proper ritual for the changing of the loads. I think most people our age and a little younger perhaps have done this kind of tense overnight vigil. It’s at the crossroads that we’ve discovered that all that we thought we knew, the rules, the formulas for success, the recipes, the guarantees, and the contracts that we’ve been given to carry in carefully delineated, meticulously organized files with colorful little tabs to make them easy to find and pull out at a moments notice are not nearly as useful as the old, dusty Book of Shadows that our ancestors have passed down to us in a hush of guarded secrets made up of the seemingly flimsy stuff of intuition and blind courage. It is the Book of Shadows that offers us real guidance when the sun sets on a moonless night at the crossroads during an epic blizzard. And we know that Lydi and Naing Naing need to accumulate their own neatly organized file filled with hard-won lessons and all the pain of being young and alive. But that, at a certain point, but not for quite a while, they’ll be ready for the Book of Shadows too. 


In the meantime, the generation gap yawns across an impasse that can be crossed only through their own effort. It’s an optional crossing. It can take lifetimes to make it from one side to another.


But to dwell on the eyebrow icicles and frostbitten fingertips of a crisp and wintery royal red blue twilight darkening at the crossroads of a night that lasts for three eternities on a mountain slope as black as charcoal would be to miss the celebration of having reached the crossroads in the first place. The hopeless vigil of shivering and fear, John and me sitting cross-legged with our fluffy North Face coats and earmuffs is both hilarious and tragic, heroic and silly. I’m so glad he’s here with me and I stand in awe of single women I know who are navigating this frozen landscape, the darkness, and the intersection alone. And I know there are others, classmates, and old friends who sit at other dark crossroads not far from ours, hoping to navigate through the death of a parent or a child, addiction, divorce, forced immigration, bankruptcy, or the birth of a baby with health problems. It’s impossible to name all the crossroads that humans have to navigate in the course of their lives or to assign to each of them the importance that passes beyond the file cabinet of deep concerns and rules about how to avoid disaster to the magical realm of where imminent disaster and the dark crossroads leads us in the spiritual sense of things. It’s the spiritual stuff that’s so much more important and profound than our human minds are capable of fully comprehending logically, in words, with our nearsightedness and tendency to focus on the mundane for sheer lack of courage. That, and it’s easier to talk about the facts.


Lydian’s sudden flight from our family combined with the acquisition of this new family member, so foreign and yet familiar is a transition that has been like conjuring the dark ugly demons of the underworld of difficult life lessons with their putrid neck-twisting belly roars and pectoral flexes while simultaneously dancing an uncertain step with delicate and ephemeral angels, their warm and yellow-tipped wings fluttering with grace to an orchestra of tinkle-bells. My gaze with each dip and heel kick is always turned sideways in piqued awareness and distrust for and against that which I’ve dubbed diabolical, the two-plus-two of a do-si-do learned by rote and applied many times in stilted ignorance of all the challenges my parents and John’s parents, our grandparents and all of our ancestors have suffered through while John and I ignorantly continued on with our young lives of determined fact-gathering in an effort to avoid all pain and live life “perfectly”. We would show them all and then they would be so proud of us. 


At this crossroads, all of the stories I’ve ever told before become void and nullified. There are no stories to tell about my childhood, the stupid escapades of my adolescent naivete, the awkward meanderings of entering my early twenties, how I met John and all the stupid mistakes we made together over the past two decades, or even the unfinished story of the past 9 months before the plot moves forward onto a new path.  At the moment that it moves forward, the stories will be transformed. The perspective changed. The stories and all the facts will rise like phoenixes from the ashes and over time, they turn into familial mythologies. Committing a story to words implies that the story has died, but stories are alive like trees and they branch out and root in and provide us with everything we need for survival. And anyway, I don’t get to choose the path this time. It’s not my turn to choose the path for the next set of stories, but rather to hand off the torch and wait patiently for the younger generation to forge ahead. The inertia is full of suspense and prayerful hope that the newest generation will carry the light toward high ground. John and I chose our path once, our parents waiting in suspense given the dim, flickering incense stick that we were carrying and the heavy bags we both brought with us into our young marriage. But I chose to raise kids. John chose to raise kids. And those kids, including not just Lydian and Naing Naing, but also Kylie and Thomas and foster children who meant more to us than they ever realized, choose their paths now with the same fact-seeking effort that John and I once had too. 


I never knew how hard it would be to let go gently without stepping back or pushing away the pain of the younger generations and in the dark of night, Grandma M., long gone, but still with me says, “Grace.”


She’s utterly relieved…I’m finally listening. 

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