Writing has always come easy to me, the words flow, the thoughts link, sometimes I feel I write well, sometimes I don’t write as well as I wish but I can always write and write and write. It’s what got me through my first career as a copywriter in advertising. It is a given in me.
More often than I care to admit, I fall back on the written word, in relationships, work, life, it may be a weakness of mine in a way, but I can write better than I can share thoughts verbally. Perhaps it’s easier for me to form my thoughts and opinions without the other person injecting theirs, or perhaps, it’s that I like the process of writing and tweaking and re-writing when, of course, the spoken word is always just spoken once.
On this trip, I realized that there is a third reason, my father shared himself in his letters, many of which I have read, he always traveled with a typewriter, sending crisply written notes from faraway hotels, often noting he was in his room, listening to jazz, working and writing away.
Whatever my fondness for them, writing a long letter to someone especially in this day and age is the most intimate way I know of to share myself with them and the recipient is often surprised.
I remember clearly, a beautiful woman I loved, folding a letter into her purse.
“No one ever wrote me a love letter before.”
But now, as I prepare to leave Burma and head home for Christmas, for my children, for organizing and paying bills, even though I know I will be back on February 5th, I have been struck quiet, calm, mute. It’s as if there is too much to share, to much to write to much to talk about and in that, there ends up nothing.
The circuits have been overwhelmed, the soul over-plenished, the world overly-perfect and calm and in that, there is nothing to say, the words don’t flow as they usually do, I have had no choice but to simply be.
Partially, it’s that I have unfolded myself, opened up and peered deep down inside, past the layers, the conventional me, and looked at who I really am, where I am from, thought about life, death, legends, truths, lies, my father, my mother, all the parts that make up my life, in a way I suspect few are ever able to do. While parts of it were impossibly hard, it was also one of the greatest blessings of my life to be able to do this.
I was at times overwhelmed at what I found and saw, and the omens and the signs, and the impossible worked out easily, from meeting Daw Aung Suu Kyi, to seeing my father’s house, having the chance to stand outside the hospital he died on the 28th anniversary of his death, to sitting as President Obama spoke, feeling the wood floors of Jim Thompson’s house under my bare feet, floating in a balloon above Bagan, there is so much that came my way, so many people that shared the journey with me.
For the first time in my life, I feel deeply calm and connected. I feel as if I reached inside somewhere unseen in a place I always knew was there, I pulled out the bullet and then watch the wound heal over until now I am stronger than before, stronger than I have ever been.
After my mother died, for the first time in years, I heard my father come to me, and before I got here, this was his part of the world, and Burma was his land. I heard him tell me to come, to walk, ride the trains, hop on a bicycle, see where the winds blew and I did.
Now I understand what he was telling me, what he wanted me to see, what he wants me to be, what he wants me to do. I slowly began to understand over the last month, in Yangon, in Moulmein, on the lake, and as I walked Bagan, and Kalaw and Keng Tung.
It was as if, he knew what I missed growing up without him, the mistakes I made, the times I could have used him and he decided to make it up to me, and he did.
For a year, I heard his voice all the time, when I thought about not going, not seeking, not finding, not taking this moment, this journey.
Yesterday I sat with U James at his house and as we shared our stories, his of his hero mother, of his company and of his former driver, now brother-in-law, the richest man in Burma. I told him of my father, my father’s journey and death.
“You are a good son, you follow your father, you complete his journey, he started on a path and he can not finish it, and now it is your path, good son.” At this point, he paused, smiled deeply, and then just said, simply:
“I see the omens too, I see that you being here, that is the spirits helping us, and I will listen like you listened and I will help you. I will help you.”
And I know he will.
Last night, my last night here after a month, I sat at Shwedagon Pagoda, in the dark, the gold pagoda shimmering in the lights flickered and shining in the lights of the thousands of candles, that had been lit since the sun set, the three thousand year old pagodo dancing in the Yangon night.
I was the only foreigner I saw as I sat down on the marble, feet crossed under me. Closing my eyes, the first thing you hear is the chanting of the monks, low, constant, almost like they aren’t breathing but just pouring the words of Buddha out of them in a constant stream, then you hear the whispers of those circling the pagoda, the shuffling of their feet, then after that, it’s scattered sounds, a car honk down the street, the cry of a child, a bird taking flight.
The marble was cool beneath me, solid, around and above me the night air of Burma is cooler, calmer but still hot and moist. You feel as if you can hear the hundreds of candles you saw as you shut your eyes, you smell the wax burning and the incense. Someone, somewhere, makes a wish and rings the bell.
Slowly even this quiet around you, this peace, fades farther and farther, your breathing becomes louder, becomes you and you feel as if you can sit forever, and you want to, to see what it would be like to sleep like this, wake like this, be here forever.
I sat there, just breathing for almost an hour. I opened my eyes to even more candles, even more people gently shuffling around, the golden Buddhas, the neon lights, the chanting, then as I stood up, the smoke of the candles and the incense blew into me.
The nights in Yangon, unlike every major city in Southeast Asia are still clear, with stars, and you could see the smoke of the incense twist and turn, up into the sky and over and around the Pagoda.
Standing there, I realized, with a smile, that it had been days, maybe weeks since I had heard my father, here somehow, my father had become quiet again. He had, at some point, while I was here, let go and, like the smoke, had drifted up and away into the Burmese night.
28 years of missing and longing and wondering and thinking, 28 years, sometime, somewhere between when I left Boston on September 27 and now, it had disappeared and in its place, there was a calmness, a peace I am not sure I had ever known.
I looked up one more time at the Yangon night, it was quiet, outside and in. The marble under my bare feet even cooler now in the night, I slowly began to join the procession circling the Pagoda walking.
The journey isn’t over, there are places to see, things to learn, property records to check, and much more, but while my father will always be there, now, he is coming with me on my journey.
I am no longer a traveler on his, the voyage is mine, even if he started it without me, I will finish it with him which is I now realize, what he wanted all along.
This is my country now, my land, his last gift to me.
I smiled in the Yangon night as I walked down the marble steps, to pick up my shoes and head to the hotel, my father had one last chance to help, one more thing to show me, one final thing to whisper in my ear, before he floated away again.
To his eternal credit, he did.
And to mine, I listened.
Apay, ajan kjei zu tin ba de.