We’ve moved into “anytime now” mode. I regard every kick, every cramp, every shift the baby undertakes with new fascination, and I nap as if I’m making a career out of it. Ryan’s been reading bedtime stories to my belly, and the dog never strays more than a few feet from my side. It’s a dear time, quiet and unhurried. Hard to believe one can be pregnant for forty weeks; harder still to believe its possible to feel this good at the finish line.
A few weeks ago, our birth class instructor asked us to do birth art. Despite our mutual enthusiasm for art, we felt a little odd about doing art about birth after a guided visualization sitting on the floor in a tiny room crowded with 14 other people. I had trouble focusing on an “image of birth,” and midway through the instructor’s visualization, I realized I’d spiralled off into a reverie about our trip to India last summer, and was contentedly imagining sunrise over the Ganges, and mornings drinking black tea in our little room in the Himalayan foothills. When the birth class instructor told us to pick up our art supplies and render our images, I was thinking about mist and blue water, and green leaves and bamboo silhouettes in the fog.
“What are we supposed to be drawing?” Ryan whispered in my ear. I grinned at him. “Dunno, really. Our concepts of birth?”
I figured the soft colors floating around in my head were as good a thing to draw as any, so i peeled the wrapper off a blue pastel and swirled the entire length of the crayon in concentric circles. Realized that in thinking about water and mist in India, I’d begun to picture our birth tub in my head, and the place its going to be set up in our living room when I go into labor. Realized that in thinking about greens, and plants in mist, I might also be thinking about the maple in full leaf right outside our livingroom window, and how I would perhaps be able to see it from the birth tub. Started playing with the green pastels.
Looked over to see Ryan sketching out a square pool of water and a tree, and realized I knew exactly what he was drawing. Realized, somewhat startled, that we were in fact, drawing the same thing. Sort of.
I was drawing my conception of a tranquil birth space, one situated in our cosy little house with a pool of water and windows looking into the trees. Ryan was drawing a similarly tranquil birth space, also featuring a pool of water and plenty of trees, one also rooted in memories of our travels in India last summer. His was a place where a birth had already occurred : a sacred and well-marked spot outside of the tiny village of Lumbini, Nepal, where a woman named Maya Devi gave birth to a son she named Siddhartha, sometime around 500 BCE. Siddhartha would become known as the historical Buddha, and thousands upon thousands of pilgrims would venture to the site of his birth in the centuries that followed.
ruins of ancient monastaries on the site of Siddhartha's birth
The site of the birth, partially excavated, is protected from the elements by a simple roof and unadorned walls, and a wooden boardwalk allows pilgrims to circambulate the site in meditation. We visited Lumbini in the monsoon, and the air inside the birth-site smelled of damp and dust. We stood at the site, staring up at a carving of the birth scene, installed on the site many years later by a Buddhist emperor paying tribute. Maya Devi labored standing up, supporting herself from a tree branch, with her attendants close by. In the carving of the birth scene, the infant is shown just before the mother, seated on a lotus blossom. I stared up at the carving of the laboring woman, and noticed that so many pilgrims had touched their hands to the stone in reverence, her face had been worn off, as had the face of the infant Buddha. They were a mother and her son, not royalty or spiritual leader incarnate. The birth that happened here was, for all intents and purposes, as ordinary as it was sacred, a quality I felt certain the Buddha would underscore were he here to converse on the matter.
I wandered back outside to stand in front of the pool, built to commemorate the pond in the woods the mother had bathed in after giving birth. The water was still, disturbed only by the occasional raindrop and the slow-moving ripples of turtles swimming beneath the surface. A giant bodhi tree branched out over the pool, grown from a cutting of the tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. A little girl and her father were tending the shrine under the tree, and offering incense to the pilgrims in exchange for donations.
We spent three days in Lumbini. In the calm and quiet of that little village, and hours upon hours spent wandering the massive peace park dedicated to the Buddha’s birthplace, we had conversations about our visions and fears and hopes around becoming parents together. We shared delicious food in a restaurant in which we were the only customers at nearly every meal. We listened to the rain, and bought incense and umbrellas from the tiny shops on the street. By the time we left, we had decided we were ready to bring a child into the world.
When I saw Ryan drawing the pool at Lumbini, our time there, and the significance of it, came flooding back to me in a wave. The next day I had prints made of the tree and the pool, and I hung them around our house so we could be reminded of that tranquil place as we bring our son into the world.
Dove back into my India journals to re-experience the memories more vividly… excerpts below for anyone who wants a little vicarious time abroad.
Boarded a train in Varanasi to Gorakhpur, experiencing our first taste of “sleeper class.” no AC here, and close quarters with other passengers after the busy stops. We sit as still as we can, sweating and watching an exquisite sunset unroll across the countryside, glowing on dozens of kids laughing and throwing their weight into makeshift swings hung from trees with bicycle tires tied together…
6 long hours later, we pull into Gorakhpur… get a room for the night, then hire a taxi to take us to the India-Nepal border in the morning. Walk across the border in the rain, our first taste of monsoon. its a dry year, we’ve been told… we experienced no rain up till now in the other places we have been. It is creating great pressure across the countryside, as farmers cannot plant their rice until there is adequate water.
We get our visas in order and our passports stamped, and hire another taxi to take us the rest of the way to Lumbini, the village on the site where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha, was born. The countryside is rich, verdant green, and the rain is pretty much constant. Our taxi driver leans out the window every now and then to wipe the rain from the windshield with a rag, as the wipers are apparently not in working order. Mango trees, more kids on makeshift swings, tiny brick abodes with bright laundry dripping in the rain and each home with a water buffalo tied in the yard eating from the center of an old tire. Around 11 we arrive in Lumbini, a tiny village with only one main street, and a quiet one at that, more traffic from herds of goats and cows and water buffalo than anything with an engine.
take a tiny, dear room on a 3rd floor balcony, looking out over the rice paddies. discover, as the hours pass, that monsoon has arrived in this part of southern Nepal in earnest. it rains at all times of the day here, sometimes slow and steady, sometimes hard and fast… riotous birdsong all the time, and the power is out as often as it is on. its cooler here than it was in India, which we’re grateful for, but the humidity is still very high. If we get wet in the rain, our clothing does not dry, and we realize we’re going to have to buy umbrellas, as we’ve only got a few sets of clothes each.
In the late afternoon, we rent bicycles from our hostel and pedal down the short road and through the gates of the international peace park built around the site of Buddha’s birthplace. Its late day and we simply want to get a feel for the place, so we pedal down the narrow dirt roads, through tall grasses and past still, quiet ponds and slow moving rivers. There are beautiful monasteries from a dozen countries set back in the trees as we go, and giant white cranes flap slowly overhead every now and then, on the wing from the crane sanctuary at the south end of the park. We are pedalling along a brick path lining a long pond when the monsoon begins again in earnest…
we take shelter for a while under a thatched hut and listen to the downpour, watch it soaking into the dirt road and running down the tall stalks of grass, tiny beads sliding along the fibers of the thatched roof, piling onto each other until their weight becomes too much and they carry themselves downward to splash up again from the puddles below…
calm suffuses this place, and we drink it in. The park alone would be something indeed, but to know the story that is rooted here, the birthplace, literally, of a spiritual tradition dating back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ… a tradition rooted in contemplation, in this very landscape. There is meaning in the damp air and the muddied earth that settles into your bones and asks for your heart to consider it.
Realizing the monsoon isn’t letting up, we venture out from under the roof into the torrent and climb onto our bikes… i pocket my glasses, useless in this sort of rain, and the landscape’s edges blur into softness, green on brick on greysky. we pedal through the mud and the puddles, laughing and grinning like fools… soaked through, and no reason to care, the rain is warm and we’ve got no where to be.
my kind of honeymoon, i holler to Ryan, wiping the sheets of water from my forehead and eyes
he grins back
we splash along the road near the entrance,
locals smile at us and shout namaste as we pass.
In the village, I try to bargain with a woman shopkeeper for a set of black umbrellas. She doesn’t speak much english, and calls her husband out to help translate. Since my negotiations appear to be failing, I decide to attempt the “walkaway,” and tell them I don’t think I should spend so much, and am going to ask my husband. Her husband begins to laugh. “She never asks me what I think. This is her business.” I grin back, impressed by her chutzpah, and pay full price for the umbrellas.
That night, we take cool bucket showers in our tiled bathroom and then spend the evening reading on our beds before the open windows, watching the endless raindrops soaking into the rice paddies.
The next morning, we walk down muddy paths, rain thudding onto our umbrellas and cascading down around our feet. White cranes flap overhead, wide-faced water buffalo feed in the tall grass.
As we attempt to visit monasteries, we are turned back by closed gates and flooded paths, but make our way anyway, by walking. Walking, walking. Two thousand years of pilgrims here, prayers, contemplation in this place. Even though I hesitate a bit to call myself a pilgrim, I begin to feel it in my body, my subconscious. Mind softens, quiets. Feet sting, where blisters are opening under wet sandal straps. We keep walking. The rain keeps falling. Cranes flap overhead. At the monasteries, we shed our shoes and walk barefoot over smooth marble and stone paths, made slick by sheets of flowing rainwater. It feels divine on aching feet. Monks sitting under monastery eves laugh and watch the monsoon. Others chant softly in the temples. We find our own sanctuary from the rain, and unwrap the newspaper from a pile of samosas I’d bought earlier from a street vendor, lost in the sound of the unceasing rain.