breaking the spell

a sabbatical retrospective

It’s time to write about the deer staring me down when I pulled into the driveway yesterday. Or the pain and joy of teaching freshman composition again, for the first time in 30 years. I still have an interesting life, even if I’m not in Kathmandu.

I spent several months chronicling my sabbatical, with a modest measure of consistency—at least a few posts each month. Although we were only in Nepal for five months, almost a year ago I began thinking about my goals, even outlining a plan B if the country did not open up to travelers. It did, but not without some drama over our VISA and COVID tests.

I tried to write about it all: friends, food, politics, healthcare, mountains. And then we returned, and I have hardly written anything at all. It’s not that nothing has happened. It’s not even that I have nothing to say, about visits with family, about new projects and old responsibilities that occupy my time. I could argue that I lacked the time, or energy, to say it. We’ve been very busy. But at some level, I haven’t wanted to break the spell. I wanted to tie up my series of sabbatical posts with one last, grand, post-sabbatical retrospective. And today I realized I can’t put it behind me. Ever.

Three days a week, I teach Script Writing at 7:45 am. (Putting a bunch of creatives in a 7:45 class is a little crazy, no?) As they worked through their concepts for a 10-minute short film, I placed my concept in a lounge at the airport in Kathmandu.

Yesterday, after class, I presented an online workshop to graduate students in Kathmandu, answering questions posed with a respectful deference I would never expect (or likely receive) from my own graduate students here in the USA. I’m not saying students here are not respectful; I’m just noting there are cultural differences in the ways they demonstrate that respect. So, a sabbatical, at least a cross-cultural one, is not something you leave behind, especially considering the technologies we have to stay in touch. The work you went to do is not the point. The ongoing opportunities, insights, and relationships—that’s the point. And this comes with transformation that is not instant, but ongoing.

Like my frustration with the political theater here. I just came back from a world where families have to find their own oxygen cylinders for their loved ones in the hospital, and daily wage earners go for months without any financial assistance at all from their government. The needs here are real, of course, and I don’t belittle the help people need or dismiss the pain of disease and loss. But the way both political parties here play and perpetuate problems for political advantage should only remind me of a nascent republic in South Asia. It should not grieve me for the loss of the more mature and civil one in which I grew up. Perspective is part of the transformation.

Patience is another aspect of this. Supply chain hiccups, like late Amazon deliveries or Starbucks being out of your favorite syrup, are less annoying when you just spent time in a country where most homes and businesses don’t even have street numbers. Fed-Ex and Amazon are not going to come. Neither is the mail. We had great organic produce delivered to our apartment in Kathmandu, but I had to stand down by a major road nearby, sometimes in the rain, just so they could find me. Maybe the produce was great because things are more delightful and valuable when you wait for them. Since I’ve been home, I’m trying to feel that way about my Saturday newspaper, which every week does not arrive until Wednesday.

But patience or perspective are insignificant compared to the beauty and dignity of the people themselves. Almost every day, a friend from Nepal sends a message, often in broken English and sometimes with a photo. Here, when someone asks “how are you?”, we are usually just making conversation. But when someone on the other side of the world asks, putting themselves out there in a language that is not their own, they are looking for real connection. I’m learning to treasure these questions, trying to think of how to make these connections go deeper and last longer.

You don’t leave experiences and relationships like these behind. They are permanent wrinkles in your networks. Permanent pictures in your head. Permanent calls to stewardship and joy. Understanding this, I can live in the present. Even write about it. My work and friends here also require thoughtful attention. They also evoke both bewilderment and delight.

But the past anticipates the future. In some way, Nepal will be part of it. But so is that class full of anxious and eager freshmen.

Oh, deer.

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