Upheaval and Restructuring

Apr 25, 2016 | Nepal, Transformation



A year since the Nepal earthquake, and I am finally feeling like myself again, feeling whole again. Healing is a slow process.

At first I didn’t even realize how broken I was. My focus was entirely outward—on the safety and care of the clients I needed to evacuate from the country, on the staff I’ve known for years who were suddenly homeless and afraid for their families, on the friends (Western and Nepali) who were shaken and scattered and still rallying to help others, on the sacred geography and temples utterly destroyed, on the people bereft of everything and trying to survive. Regardless of anything that is happening with me physically or emotionally, I have an ingrained ability to set it aside and show up for what needs to be done. It’s a lifelong habit, and in those first two weeks in Nepal, it served me well.

But I am a sensitive creature and feel things deeply, even if it doesn’t always show on the surface. A 7.8 earthquake is a traumatic event to live through—the constant aftershocks and the witnessing of suffering perhaps even more so. What happened externally was reflected internally: like the earth, I experienced a tremendous upheaval. Fractured and restructured, my internal landscape was reshaped into a foreign territory. It has taken a long time for me to understand, to map the new geography within me, and longer still to be able to navigate it effectively. I watched other people (Western and Nepali) cope, adjust, and recalibrate, while I struggled to find even the most basic sense of equilibrium. Many days, it felt like failure.

When I first came home, I tried to step back into everyday life. I quickly found myself at odd angles to everything, unable to function in the most basic situations. I’d go out to see my friends and have trouble getting through the evening or even holding up a conversation. At a party, I felt paralyzed, odd and stiff, watching time and events unfold, but unable to really participate. I think I spoke occasionally. I didn’t understand myself, and I kept trying to get back to normal. Running, which I love, and which has helped me cope through the hardest times of my life, was suddenly an impossible and demoralizing task. I would put on my running shoes, go out the door, drag myself along to the park, persist for half a run, and return home worn out. Yoga was also a strain. I lay down in child’s pose in the middle of a class until I recovered enough to get up and leave. I didn’t go back for a while. I had never been so physically broken but relatively healthy. Then it got worse. A few panic attacks, an oppressive lethargy, an inability to be around more than 2 or 3 people at a time, trouble focusing on work, on reading, on anything. I couldn’t even explain it to people.

What I needed was stillness and quiet. It took me a while to realize (though it’s not so strange after such an experience) and even longer to be okay with it. The amount of stillness and quiet I needed felt extreme, so extreme that I initially dismissed it as unreasonable. Going to a quiet dinner at a friend’s house, going camping in the woods — it should be fine, right? In reality, I could tolerate very little stimulation and movement. I finally created more space to withdraw and be still, but I had no idea what to do with myself. I’m an introvert who can usually entertain herself for hours, but this was different. I didn’t want to do anything. A walk on the beach, read a book, make a phone call? No. Meditation class, art project, a massage? It was all too much. I would lie on the couch and stare out at the clouds. I would sleep all night and then nap 3 hours in the day. I somehow kept my working life functioning, but only in person. I turned off my email (after being instructed to do so for my own good). I shut off my digital life completely. I would go out to take a walk and come home 3 blocks later. I would have days where I could accomplish something useful. I would have days where I watched the sunlight creep across the floor and felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more – more for myself, more for Nepal. I felt a constant, weighing pressure to help in Nepal.

My closest friends were amazing – they fed me, hung out with me, nurtured me, and gave me space to be as broken as I needed to be for a while. They fed me even if I couldn’t hold up a dinner conversation, they loved me when I was awkward, they took over managing a few parts of my life (including all things fundraising and Nepal), they watched me cry and gave me a hug and reminded me that they loved me. This is what friends are for. Other people in my life couldn’t understand how to support me or didn’t want to. Sometimes life is like that too.

It felt like forever, but it wasn’t so long. A few months. It was a slow recovery after that, a gradual rebuilding of my tolerance for the world, but I’m not the same person that I was before. My internal landscape is forever changed. And that’s okay—I’m getting to know this new self and better learning to live within it.

Life has a way of teaching you its lessons, regardless of whether you feel ready or interested. The experience of living through this earthquake has taught me so much about myself and about life. I have learned to listen, not to what I think I should feel, or what I would (or would not!) like to feel, but to what is actually happening inside me at any given moment. I have learned to be present in the moment in a new way. I have learned yet again what the people we love bring to our lives. I have learned that my heart and my body have their own pace–and it has little to do with my head. I have grown more perceptive. I have seen my own history and formative experiences with new insight. I’ve developed greater patience and compassion for others. I’ve developed a new level of need for quiet and solitude that seems to be semi-permanent. That’s just the short list.

A year after these earthquakes that caused so much devastation, hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in temporary huts and struggle with the basic needs of their lives. I was lucky, and deeply grateful, that I could return home to the safety and peace of my apartment in San Francisco, waiting there solidly for me. I can’t imagine what it means to lose most of one’s possessions and all of the stability that a home brings. I am moved again and again by the resilience and spirit of people in Nepal. People have lived in shelters cobbled together from plastic and bamboo and tin, lived through the stifling heat and rain of the monsoon and through the freezing cold of winter, lived through births and deaths, planting and harvest, all without much hope that it’s going to get better anytime soon.

Life is harder than I’ve ever seen it in those mountains, and somehow people persist. The spring winds came this month, lifting tarps and tin off makeshift structures and sometimes carrying away what little roof there was. A year into the future, and the failure of Nepal’s grossly inept (and corrupt) government is shocking:

— $308,880: total funding Nepal has offered for reconstructing homes (of the $4.2 billion pledged in aid or the $6.6 billion needed to rebuild)

— 661 Nepalese families have received reconstruction funding (of the more than 800,000 whose homes were damaged or destroyed)

— Less than 5 percent of homes rebuilt so far

— Number of projects approved by Nepal’s reconstruction agency: ZERO
(source, source)

Yes, you are reading those numbers correctly. Now the weather shifts again and people face another monsoon summer in what could barely be called a shelter. Some people in the richest areas—the capital and the tourist trekking areas—have been rebuilding, but the villagers who had little and lost everything are hardly of concern to those in power. In some of the harshest realities, natural water sources have dried up from the compression and expansion of the earth. Water shortages are a serious problem in some areas, with people now walking hours farther to carry water home. After over 10,000 landslides from the earthquakes, the country is still at far greater risk for landslides than before. Girls are at greater risk for child marriage or trafficking into brothels. Children are homeless, and child labour is widespread.

Nepal has been my spiritual home since I first landed there in 1999. I was immediately and forever attached to the country, the people, the mountains, the fields, the monasteries, and the temples. In some ways, it feels as though my spiritual soul has been shattered in ways that can never be repaired, much like the destroyed 18th century temples that lent Kathmandu its magic. Every time I talk with friends in Nepal or read the news, my heart is heavy with the monumental challenge of rebuilding homes and lives for hundreds of thousands of people. Many days I still can’t bring myself to read the news in my inbox.

The past week or two, I’ve been acutely aware of every day bringing me closer to this anniversary, this milestone. Words have eluded me for nearly a year, but tonight the words arrive. Reflecting on my personal experience can feel self-indulgent when I think of how many people have lost family and sustenance and live immersed in that reality every day. But this is all I know how to do: open my heart from the experience, share it for whatever value it might hold, as much for myself as for someone else.

Everyone feels trauma differently, but for all of us it is a process of upheaval and restructuring. It is a process being repeated hundreds of thousands of individual times on a very personal level for everyone who lived through these earthquakes or a similar event. It is being repeated on a grand scale by the towns, the culture, and the nation where it happened – each of them changed by it and navigating beyond it as best they can. Families, villages, schools, hospitals, communities, economies, faith, fortune, and the politics of the nation—everything has been lifted up, dropped down, broken, and pushed back together. The process of becoming whole again goes well beyond rebuilding infrastructure. It is a slow process of healing, internally and externally.

I offer this Buddhist prayer of love and compassion… a wish for each person, a wish for the nation, a wish for the world.

May you be happy and joyful
May you be healthy and strong.
May you be safe and protected from harm.

May you be peaceful and free from suffering.
May you be courageous in facing life’s difficulties.
May your true nature shine through as a source of light for everyone around you.

~April 25, 2016