The Middle Distance 8.2.13: The Serendipity of Yes

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6min 46sec
Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa
Photo by Sean Cayton
Photo by Sean Cayton

Out here in the middle distance, the light is sometimes so harsh and bright that we want to draw the shades and just rest in cool darkness. The impulse to retreat has never been stronger than in these years approaching old age.

At home I am safe, is my mantra. At home I know who I am.

I have noticed this tendency in recent weeks as the end of summer approaches way too fast and fall promises a demanding work schedule and reentry into a more active and crowded life. Long days. New faces. Trips along congested highways. Challenges I’d rather not face, though I know I have to.

Before the summer ends, I’m trying to see friends and loved ones I’ve missed and to make the most of the garden harvest and long, quiet evenings. Last night I cooked vegetable curry Nepalese style for the Nepali son who entered my family in 1998 as an exchange student and has been a brother to my sons and daughter ever since. Transplanted from Kathmandu to Colorado, he stayed, worked hard, completed degrees, married his true love from home, and now is the father of an 18-month old as brown as a nut and curious as the day is long, his father’s miniature shadow.

When this man, then a boy of 18, first came to live with us, he was amazed by the vegetable garden in my back yard. In his bustling, crowded native city half-way around the world, the vegetables his mother cooked every day in a pressure cooker came from a nearby produce stand. He showed up in Colorado in August — just in time for a harvest of green beans, squash, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes — and one afternoon offered to cook curry in the manner of his mother.

With steady patience I would soon come to know as his hallmark, he carefully washed and pared each ingredient. The English names were unfamiliar but the shapes and colors were universal. We gathered spices from the pantry: turmeric, coriander, cardamom, cumin, cayenne, garam masala. It took him a while to name and for me to understand the names of others we didn’t have — fenugreek and asafetida — but we made do without. As he simmered garlic and ginger and added vegetables to the pan, he summoned his mother’s method in precise detail. He had watched her carefully. His homesickness was palatable.

The scent of that curry filled every corner of our cavernous house. My grease-spattered notes from that day reside in a recipe file on the cookbook shelf.

Watching his little boy exploring, last night in the garden, I thought of the world I’ve seen through my Nepalese son’s eyes, just because on one busy, distracted day I automatically said yes to a request for him to come and live with us. I didn’t consider what that might entail and it never occurred to me that he would be in my life permanently. But he came and stayed, and eleven years later, in December of 2009, I traveled to Kathmandu for his wedding.

Because I’d said yes, I found myself the honored American guest among a big extended family swarming around each minute ceremonial detail of this intricate marriage ritual. I found myself on city streets crowded with thousands of pedestrians, braying taxis, buzzing motorcycles and rattly Tuk Tuks, tiny motorized three-wheeled vehicles, and rickshaws propelled by the long-boned legs of excruciatingly skinny, good-natured men.

I found myself at the foot of some of the world’s most intricately carved palaces and temples. One day at sunset, in the misty dusk, I entered the huge city square surrounding the Boudhanath Stupa, the one with the seeing eyes that rise above the city, the one that, as legend has it, shelters a bone of Gautama Buddha. A teeming crowd of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns and local Nepalis and pilgrims and tourists walked clockwise around the temple, hands reaching out to spin one of the thousands of brass prayer wheels around the perimeter of the stupa. The sky grew dark and all around the square, thousands of ghee candles began to sparkle, replacing the sun’s light.

In short, I found myself in a world I could never have imagined and would never have seen except for the serendipity of saying yes.

In the garden, the tiny boy is swamped by the elephant ear leaves of the squash plant. His father pulls out his cell phone to show me a picture — the squash he is growing this summer in his own back yard, beneath the harsh Colorado sun.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.