Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, helped me survive an arduous month of playing granny-nanny in two households with newborns, mothers recovering from C-sections, and toddlers. In the early mornings or late evenings, I escaped crying children and traveled to Nepal with Matthiessen’s powerful descriptions of the Himalayas:
Toward four, the sun sets fires on the Crystal Mountain. I turn my collar up and put on gloves and go down to Somdo, where my tent has stored the last sun of the day. In the tent entrance, out of the wind, I drink hot tea and watch the darkness rise out of the earth. The sunset fills the deepening blues with holy rays and turns a twilight raven into the silver bird of night as it passes into the shadow of the mountain. Then the great hush falls, and cold descends. The temperature has already dropped well below freezing, and will drop twenty degrees more before the dawn.
I had little time to sit and meditate for long periods as the author did while his companion, a naturalist doing field research, studied the blue sheep of the high mountains. I did, however, use time pushing a stroller with a napping toddler to free my mind to delight in the peace of a country road—to gaze in awe as clouds swirled and finally released their load of water droplets from the North Pacific onto the hills and vales of western Washington.
Connection with nature fortified me for the three Cs of my life—child care, cooking, and cleaning. While performing my seemingly endless tasks, I thought of the loyal Sherpa porters serving the crazy Americans who insisted on traveling into the mountains in late autumn. In the words of Matthiessen:
The Sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud! “I carry that, sir!” . . . Their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served. . . .They know . . .that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.
Those words buoyed me as I caught up housework left undone by a high-risk expectant mother, did diaper duty, and told endless tales of the three bears to send toddlers to sleep. Another thought from Matthiessen’s book which helped was the advice given by his Buddhist roshi before he left on the trip: “Expect nothing.”
Expect nothing! Such a liberating thought. How often we set ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating rewards and blessings so great that only our imagination could fulfill them. Expect nothing leaves us open to simple joys that come our way.
Despite glimpses of enlightenment while meditating in the lofty mountains, Matthiessen retained his human failings—as we all do. Reading his book helped, but no way could I keep a positive attitude for an entire month. Let’s face it—human beings are not perfectible. We can search, study, pray, and meditate, but we always remain fallible mortals—works in progress. I suspect that the most we can hope for is to catch glimpses of something greater than ourselves and try to detach ourselves from things of lesser importance.