Friday, December 25, 2009

Goodwill Towards All

Despite the over-the-top Christmas decorations on display everywhere in Bangkok for the last two months, December 25th is just another work day for Thais. I woke Nan fifteen minutes early and introduced her to the custom of opening presents before dawn on Christmas morning. She sang "Jingle Bells" while tearing open the gift-wrapped boxes to discover a hair dryer from Lin Ping (the baby panda at the Chiang Mai Zoo), macadamia nuts from Winnie the Pooh, a white tee from Santa, and earrings from me. Our tiny tree was festooned with the candy canes I discovered yesterday at Top Market on the shelf near the Hershey kisses which I also bought. Who needs a Christmas ham when you've got chocolate, nuts and candy canes?

Luke always found the holidays hard to take. I understood his disappointment: Christmas can never live up to our fantasies about it. Those of us who try fruitlessly to force reality into the pictures in our head of snow on the lawn, twinkling lights on the tree and sugar plums dancing in our head are doomed to despair. Life cannot compete with a Hallmark card. When my family disintegrated, old habits died hard. I've tried different techniques to avoid the holiday blues. Since my memories and dreams are relentlessly secular, I practiced putting Christ back in Christmas by celebrating the birth of the divine (in all of us, not just in Jesus), attending all the seasonal rites and rituals. Escaping the familiar is another good method. Two years ago I was surrounded by women in saris at an ashram in India. Last year I went to Pattaya where the bar girls wore revealing red Santa outfits.

This year I took a different tack. Outside of the few churches here, Thais have little familiarity with the holiday's religious roots. In a recent survey, many thought that Santa was the father of Jesus. Nan knew "Jingle Bells," but only the title and not the words. I resolved to give her the gift of Christmas. Maybe I could recapture the delicious memories of Christmas past by sharing the newness of it with her. We found a three-foot artificial tree in a box at Tesco Lotus and decorated it with garlands, bulbs and miniature Santas. It was too far from the outlet for lights but we put a silvery star on the top and gave Santa hats to our two stuffed pandas. On the walls we hung "Happy New Year" banners in English and Thai. I've got over 100 tunes on my iPod certified as Christmas music. And yesterday I actually had fun shopping at the Central Pinklao mall for presents that would make her smile (in addition to the black leather purse I bought her as an advance gift a week ago).

Thais are great givers of gifts. Generosity is central to the Buddhist dhamma. They give freely to the monks and to beggars on the streets. The stores are full of these gift baskets which are the traditional New Year's present. They're full of edibles, drinkables and healthy concoctions like "essence of chicken" which is a typical offering for hospital patients. Nan has promised to give me my gift tonight. I gave her a number of affordable suggestions. The other day we shopped for a gift for Jerry's wife Lamyai who celebrates her birthday tonight. Nan thought a scarf would be a good idea (and Jerry told us that Khmer women like to wear them), so we went shopping. It took quite a bit of browsing to find just the right scarf. The color and the material had to be perfect. The store wrapped it and Nan penned a message in Thai from us. Tonight we'll gather with her friends at a large restaurant in Bangkok that features Isaan music and food. Who knows? Maybe they'll play "Jingle Bells."

Baron is visiting from the states, his annual high season jaunt to Thailand. On his first day recovered from jet leg, we went for lunch at Cabbages & Condoms, the restaurant founded by "Mr. Condom," Mechai Viravaidya, which funds the Population and Community Development Association, an NGO dedicating to promoting sexual safety awareness. You'd be surprised what you can do with a condom besides prevent babies and AIDs (this life-sized Santa is one of several curious displays). And the food's good as well. I played tourist with Baron for a couple of days, going with him to a floating market outside the city and to the Jim Thompson House, now a museum to honor the man who introduced Thai silks to the world (but who disappeared on a trip to the jungle in Malaysia in 1967). One evening we went out with friends to hear the joyous rockabilly music of Peter Driscoll and the Cruisers. Baron is staying at the luxurious Ariyasom Villa, a boutique hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 1; I've attended several dhamma talks in their upstairs meditation room. It's not far from his favorite massage parlor (where "happy endings" are not permitted; it's an upscale kind of place).

The week before Nan and I had played tourist by visiting
Wat Boromracha Kanchanapisek Anusorn, a new Chinese Buddhist temple which was only dedicated last year after twelve years of construction. We traveled on a city bus for over an hour to get to Bang Bua Thong, a northwestern suburb of Bangkok, at the end of the line. The spectacular four-story temple has engraved granite columns, brass Buddha statues and carved-wood murals, all hand made in China. A wall of granite imported from China encloses the main entrance, and inside the central building are three Buddha statues, each 18 tons of brass, and in a second structure a statue of a 10,000-handed Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, made of Burmese teakwood and carved in China. Another hall contains 10,000 tiny gold Buddhas. There are also facilities for novices and monks in the Mahayana tradition. The temple complex sits on 11-rai of land and was conceived by Phra Kanajanjin Khamma Punya Jariyaporn, vice-patriarch of the Chinese Buddhist sect, who hopes it will become a learning center for Mahayana Buddhism in Thailand where almost all Buddhists follow the Theravada tradition. The bus trip back took us along a highway lined with garden shops, and, since it was the weekend, Thais were out in full force to stock up on plants, bushes and trees for their homes. We've now got three plants on our balcony which are thriving thanks to Nan's green thumb.

It's not been easy to blog anything this month. Luke's death has cast a shadow over the December holidays. And Nan's mother is in the hospital in Phayao recovering from an operation to remove a tumor from her stomach. It's hard to find good news. The health reform bill just passed by the U.S. Senate seems woefully inadequate and an outright gift to the medical and insurance industries, but, like Obama, it's better than what Americans had before. No one seems happy with the outcome of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. There is no light at the end of the multiple tunnels in the war-torn Middle East now that America's Nobel prize winner has declared that war can be a path to peace. This weekend the red shirts in Thailand will return to the streets to protest a government that represents powerful interests rather than the people. Is real democracy possible, anywhere? And yet, incurable optimists that we humans are, we must demand now and forever, peace on earth and goodwill towards all. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (when we'll be on the beach in Koh Samui).

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