OCA #22 SUMMER 2016 WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM
It was a strangely cool 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 animism: they laid me down in the tör of a yurt, wrapped me in heavy woollen shïrdak rugs, and then, lifting my head, had me drink an entire chainik of green tea. Then all save one, a mysterious man who called himself a baqshï, a healer and a shaman, exited.
Middle-aged 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 people’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 embodied feeling 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 stage of my ömür, my life-path. 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, nearly a year later, it very much feels as though heaven is now as much the dirt trails and the broken pavement of Bishkek beneath my feet as it is the vast Central Asian night-sky overhead. For the great force of 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 (if, as my analogy would suggest, also quite exhausting).
All at once, in September 2015 I found myself with a steady job, a steady salary, a steady place to live, and even a steady girl, all here in Bishkek. The last traces of adolescence seem to finally being knocked away like so many pebbles on a mountain slope, and long-awaited adulthood appears up ahead, a pass through jagged edges and cascading waterfalls.
Still, my ömür snakes before me, twisting and turning; I must find my way. Where shall I end up? How shall I get there?
Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to be connected with transcendental things – ideas, forces, mysteries far greater and far older than the individual human being, entities and concepts and realities that were here long before me, and will be here long after me. Yet, I am awful at science, and hence endeavours such as geology and cosmology are beyond my reach. However, lately I have been realising that perhaps not all transcendence is outside of us.
As an adult, embarking upon a career as an inquirer or investigator – a teacher, an academic researcher, a journalist (perhaps one day, were I to attempt to make real one of my wildest notions, even a private detective?) – I am beginning to find that the human mind somehow has a quality, like the shaman’s notion of the earth itself, of originating from something far older than our own individual consciousness, and like a geological or cosmological force, something of it will still be “there” long after we are each gone, slowly taking newer and more powerful shape. Yes, perhaps inward is also heavenward.
What, then, was adolescence? I would say that it 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.
Yes, the next stage of my ömür seems clear in its ambiguity, and I now trek forward, toward the vaunting Alatoo mountains, soon to descend into the valleys and gorges and caverns hidden therein.
text by Christopher Schwartz