In a bare bones motel room in the border town of Lashio, Burma, Alexa Mergen learns that an admirable friend shines a light on the wonder of compassion and that compassion requires awareness to be received.
Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) is the adopted home of my friend S. and in her decade there I had not seen it. A citizen of both Germany and America and a tireless traveler, S. has lived for stretches of time in Belgium, China, and Vietnam. She visited me in the half dozen California towns I lived in as well as a farm in Virginia. Yet for all her travels S. has said repeatedly that Myanmar feels more like home to her than anywhere. She is a surrogate niece to a spunky woman in her eighties whom she calls “Auntie” in the Burmese way of addressing people by relational names. S. managed to secure a passport and bring Auntie to the U.S. for a reunion with the soldiers she nursed during World War II. When they visited me in Bakersfield, California, S., Auntie and I hiked in the Sequoia National Forest on a day when millions of ladybird beetles hatched. Later, we dined at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, Auntie and I splitting a plate of catfish and fried potatoes as we listened to country-western music.
Auntie lives in Lashio so, a few days after I arrived in Yangon, we traveled by plane and taxi to see her. A silver-painted fence surrounds her home and she uses the front room as a classroom for teaching English to children. Her nieces and nephews brought us wonderful dishes of spicy noodles and puffed potato fritters, delicacies S. and Auntie chose with me in mind. S. was truly at home in Myanmar, especially in Lashio, and I was glad to see my friend content.
Lashio was less peaceful for me. Just the plane ride unsettled me. In the small plane traveled a high-ranking general who was ushered to the front row seats accompanied by an entourage of officers and a monk. At home I had read about the ruthlessness of Myanmar leaders. In America, political leaders wear plain clothes not uniforms. The general disembarked at a brief stop at Naypyidaw, the new capital of the country constructed in a remote, isolated corner of the dry central plain.
In Lashio, armed personnel with machine guns travel the streets in jeeps. Urban Yangonites had barely glanced in my direction and strangers had approached to practice English. In Lashio, however, people stared. Now I see this was as much due to my lack of ease as my foreign appearance. I was far from any flight back to the U.S., my family, and neighborhood. I was more dependent on S. than I could remember being on anyone in my adult life. I felt isolated and afraid.
Friends find in each other manifestation of the latent qualities they wonder about in themselves. My sixteen-year marriage and stay-at-home ways fascinated S. and puzzled her. I lived vicariously through S.’s stories of scuba diving in Australia, sailing in Polynesia, cross country skiing in Maine, bush-planing into northern Canada with foldable kayaks. It took me years to work up the nerve to say bye to my husband and dogs for three weeks. Every person’s fear fits her uniquely.
I cannot remember how our quarrel started. The worst fights are like that: they require such an arduous journey through the rocky wasteland of accusations, jealousies, anxieties, impatience, and disappointment that the starting point erases. I remember the yellow walls of the motel room, the TV with no reception, bare light bulbs, and the narrow beds with a small table between them meant to be shared. I remember my eyes, which felt hard as marbles and as cold, and S.’s eyes welled with tears; in nineteen years of friendship I had never seen her cry. I remember S. accusing me of suffering from some childhood trauma as an explanation for my anxiety and I remember growing angrier. Then, suddenly, there was a shift in the room. It was as if we had been breaking boulders in hot sun like the ragged and tired people we saw along the highway. And then it was as if a breeze stalled pick-axes, brought silence.
In the Mitta Sutta, the discourse on friends, the Buddha tells his monks to seek seven qualities in friends: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down and out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”
In a moment, S. quit meeting my fear and anger with anger and fear and did not abandon me. She gave me what must have been hard to give to a friend who behaved very badly in the face of her generosity and hospitality. She gave me compassion. “I’m sorry you are so unhappy,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
First we needed time apart and silence. I spent much of that day and the next in the room lying on the bed’s thin blanket reading T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I had brought with me. I walked around Lashio alone, alert but not afraid. I liked the watch shop, a blue plywood box on the sidewalk full of timepieces in various states of disrepair. I counted trash floating in the canal. I listened to temple bells and the chanting of sutras broadcast across the mountain town. I stayed on main streets, reluctant to go near people’s houses and cause anyone else discomfort from my presence. I gradually became acquainted with my fear until I could name the pieces of it: abandonment, mistrust, despair. S. waited. I have seen similar waits in people who work with fearful animals; they sit nearby in readiness for when the creature reaches out.
I reached out at the Chinese Quan Yin temple where gray-robed nuns with black cloth shoes stir the air as they pass. The reds, yellows, blues, golds, and greens of the temple walls absorb anyone’s sorrow or discomfort; I could not stay heartless in the presence of such beauty. The temple is a popular place yet quiet. A wide parking lot, empty of cars, provides a view of the rooftops of Lashio. The city, one hundred miles from the Chinese border, marked the end of the Burma Road during the Second World War and looked so benign from above. With this change of perspective, it appeared domestic and lovely and familiar.
During my visit, S. has been explaining Buddhism and the significance of places and festivals. But in my agitated state information slipped by me like dandelion fluff. Only now, reflecting back two years, do I register, yes , Quan Yin, bodhisattva of compassion, of course. In the temple, Quan Yin sits back-to-back with Buddha. Statues mark past, present and future. People drift up the hill to watch the sunset. I saw S. there. She came over to teach me more about the place, the carvings and statues and offerings of incense and flowers. We walked back to the motel together and I shared T.H. White. The story, if you don’t know it, is about young Wart and the perspectives he is given through the magic of Merlin. At one point Merlin transforms him into a fish: “The Wart was on an even keel now, and reasonably able to move about. He had leisure to look at the extraordinary universe into which the tattooed gentleman’s trident had plunged him. It was different from the universe to which he had been accustomed.”
Back in Yangon a few days later I returned by taxi to the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda where S. had taken me on my first full day in Myanmar. I wanted to walk alone among the statues, people, and bells. A story says the British took the Singhu bell as a trophy after the 1824 war. But, barely on its way, the bell sank into the Yangon River. Some say the bell did not want to leave the country. The bell could only be retrieved with a bamboo raft at low tide when, years later, Queen Victoria agreed it would stay in Burma.
A friendship, like a bell, can be recalled, resonance restored through common tools of congruence, patience, and compassion. The Buddha told his cousin Ananda: “When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.” I am no monk. Or a trained Buddhist. For anyone, though, an admirable friend inspires pursuit of what is noble.