Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward


“And through it all she seems secure that downward is heavenward…”

-“Afternoon With The Axolotls” by Hum

It was a late July night just beneath the mountains around Karakol, and my insides were grinding with food poisoning. My skin seeped with hot sweat while my arms and legs shivered as though I had been bathed in freezing snow, and my skull thundered. My Kyrgyz compatriots first force-fed me modern medicine and then gave me a large dose of ancient shamanism. They laid me down in the törof a yurt, wrapped me in shïrdak rugs, and lifting my head, had me drink an entire chainik of green tea. Then all save one, their baqshï, the shaman, exited.

A middle-aged man with a gravely voice, weathered skin, and deep eyes, he leaned over me and, gripping my hands and gently compressing my forehead, began to chant a prayer in Kyrgyz. He invoked the name of the Kyrgyz nation’s ancestor-leader, Manas, and he called upon the cosmos and the divine creator Himself. I remember feeling somehow both inside and outside my pain, almost as though it were a kind of searing pleasure, an embodiedness so intense that I was disembodied. Most of all, I remember feeling cared for. Western medicine can often be so sterile, heartless; this ancient method, by contrast, was so warm, attentive. And it was sublime. I managed to whisper, “Sonun” — “Beautiful” — to my chanting compatriot. I could sense him smile in reply, and he gently rubbed my forehead. I thought to myself, If I die, this is a wonderful way to leave this world.

I did not die, and the next day as I recovered — with more than a few expunges, so to speak — the sage quietly announced to me that I had entered a new cycle of my physical existence. Scribbling numerological codes on a piece of paper (that I subsequently have used as a bookmark in my ornate copy of the Epic of Manas), he explained how the body is a symbol, both in the microcosmic sense of mirroring the universe without, and in an even more microcosmic sense of mirroring the spirit within. Were this not enough, he added, the body is also a symbol of the relationship between these two, between soul and cosmos — as he put it, it is the chain-link between sky and earth.

My chain, he remarked, had been strongly linked to the heavens, with only the faintest tether to the ground. That was rapidly changing. I would still dangle from the stars, but now I would be hooked into the dirt and clay below. I would, in a sense, reconnect with the soil of my ancestors and my deepest origins. And yet, he noted, if one really thinks about it, downward is still heavenward, for ultimately the dust of the earth came from the stars above.

And indeed, since my last blog entry a little over a year ago, it very much feels as though the wheel has turned, and that heaven is now as much the dirt trails and the broken pavement of Bishkek beneath my feet as it is the vaunting Alatoo mountains and the vast Central Asian night-sky overhead. For Change, usually such a taskmaster –slow, arduously so, giving no promise of either success or, if you do finally crawl your way to victory, satisfaction– has come at me like an alpine avalanche. And the torrent of snow has been exhilarating and refreshing (although, as my analogy would suggest, it certainly has been huge and humongous, as well).

All at once, in September 2015 I found myself with a steady job, a steady salary, a steady place to live, and yes, a steady girl. In my brash and imprudent younger days as a blogger, I would have waxed poetically about her, but as I grow older, I find that I will keep that intimacy to myself. What I can share with you, my readers, is that I have begun a two-fold professional journey, one back toward journalism, the other toward education and academia, and both away from the world of non-profit entrepreneurship and NGO work in which I spent most of 2007-2015. Soon, the organization that I have been helping build since 2005 — originally as Thinking East, then as NewEurasia, and now as CypherChaikhana — and which I have led, first unofficially, then officially, since 2014, will have a new leader, and I will transition backward into reporting and forward into teaching and research.

I am now writing every quarter as the regional correspondent for Open Central Asia magazine; I am approximately one and a half years into my PhD on ontology of journalism and its relationship to the concept of collective intentionality; I am in my second semester of my first academic year as a teacher at the Silk Road International School here in Bishkek, instructing world history and “citizenship” (civics and sociology) to grades sixth through eleventh (the final year of secondary school in Kyrgyzstan); and I am teaching my first semester at the American University of Central Asia, serving as the lecturer for news-writing for the bachelor program in journalism. All of a sudden, I have found myself on a much more intelligible, recognizable, chartable professional path, than the one in my soon-to-be former career in the NGO sector.

Ever since I was a kid, incidentally, around the age of my quite awesome sixth-graders, I have wanted to be connected with what I called “transcendental things”, and now, as a kind of inquirer or investigator — a teacher, a researcher, a journalist — I am finally doing that. What do I mean? Well, because I eventually proved to be so awful at science, endeavors like geology and cosmology soon became beyond my reach. But not so the human mind, which somehow has some quality, like the shaman’s notion of the earth itself, as originating from something far older than our own individual consciousness, and like a geological or cosmological force, which will still be there long after we are gone, slowly taking newer and more powerful shape.* Inward is heavenward, although the way inward may be outward.

I will not be leaving my organization completely, intending as I do to graduate to its new board of directors. However, I will finally be out of the grind of grant-hunting, which had come to so sour my experience in the NGO sector. I leave with only somewhat bittersweet feelings, as I really enjoyed our projects, and I loved my team, not only as colleagues, but as friends, cool men and women whose company I simply enjoyed. Still, that was a phase in my life in which heavenward was a fairly straightforward, if very painful, concept: it was up, and only up, stripping off the earth, leaving behind any kind of groundedness, stability, clarity and launching into constant unknown. Now to go heavenward, I must be earthbound — at least for a time, and at least more than I was before.

The next stage of my ömür, my life-path, means leaving that world up there in the stratosphere, where the person I was before Santiago and Haifa belongs — although it was because of Santiago and Haifa that I became the person who could successfully make such transitions as my organization and I have undergone over the last 14 months. Way up there, I have the faith that my friends in my organization will inevitably rocket higher and higher. And perhaps like a character in one of Ray Bradbury’s rare optimistic stories, I will be deeply content to watch that rocket-ship soar above as I now trek forward, toward the mountains and into the valleys and gorges therein.

* This desire to be part of something far larger — and perhaps more accurately, longer-lasting — than me, was and remains a major personal motivation for my membership in the Baha’i Faith. I find its conceptual framework to be perfectly suited to the task of exploring the human interior world, and I find the youthfulness of its community, and hence the opportunities to contribute to what I feel will eventually be a world-encompassing and historically-vital religion, to be very attractive to the ambitious aspect of my character and desire.

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