What am I doing? What did I get myself into? It was hard to hear my own thoughts over the fear wrenching my gut and hovering in the corners of my mind, as if a power greater than myself thought it amusing to play twenty-one questions with my anxiety. Everywhere hurt. I had bruises in places I’d never touched, my muscles forming at a quick pace to match my movements. There’s no easy way to get somewhere in Nepal. The mountains have no intention of becoming less than they are, so if they lie between you and your destination, you go over them. Okay, I decided, I can do this. I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. I can do this.
Coming over the final hill resembled magic, unfolding the secrets of every stride it took to get there. The monastery was exquisite, breathtaking — right on the side of the mountain, overlooking a valley that seemed almost painted in layers. Layers upon layers of rolling green hills, prayer flags sweeping every corner of the sky’s backdrop, and statues of goddesses offering protection. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be some form of growth: the rows of carnations, Tibet’s peak towering in the distance, the continuous hum of mantras, even the smiles peeking out above red robes.
I could breathe again. Just like that, my eyes gave way to tears, a reflex I couldn’t control or see coming. Instinctively I whispered to myself, “I’ve been here before.” The words gnawed on the ends of the breath I was still catching, a heaviness and truth escaping at once. When the head nun greeted me, I could swear she felt the exact same thing I did. Her gaze lingered as she grabbed my arm, holding my hand and squeezing it for longer than I was expecting, with a smile on her face like she knew something I was just starting to figure out.
The space between her hands allowed for a soft awakening, a redefining of home. The space between all their hands — the nuns were always holding my hands. There were over sixty of them from the ages of five to ninety in the monastery, and at the end of two weeks, I could recognize each one just by remembering their laughter when they’d reach for my grasp.
My time in the Himalayas encompassed magically transformative experiences that only the depths of those mountains could provide. There was an undeniable theme threading through my trip: fostering deep connections with these older, incredibly strong, independent women. Wherever I went, whosever hands I took, there was at least one of them that grabbed at my heart, too — making departure feel, in a way, like premature birth. Looking back on it now, they seem to me gracious reflections of every woman I am capable of embodying. On the surface they shone like unique counterparts of the moon and the sun, but within them hummed a universe of love that any fool could uncover in their sleepiest hour. They were me, and I was them.
My last early morning prayer with the women of Bigu seemed to wrap its arms around me, an attempt to coax me away from the packed bag stubbornly reminding me of reality. I stayed long after the prayer’s end, lying down on the floor and just soaking in the temple. There are no cameras allowed inside, and I realized, lying on the temple floor on my last morning, that there is something very special about a place so sacred no one can see it without making the journey. The nun who was in charge of keeping it clean was tidying up, and when she saw me lying there, she giggled. When she called to me using my given nickname — “Half Nun,” after my partially shaved head — the sound was amused, elongated. I told her how beautiful everything was, and got up to watch the lighting of the candles and re-organizing of the blessed scriptures— a daily ritual for her, so delicately rhythmic. We were talking and laughing, and she tried to keep my eyes dry: “No Miss, no leave, Bigu beautiful, no?” Yes, Bigu beautiful. “Miss! No leave! Okay? Thank you!” I laughed. As I turned to walk out, she stopped me, and in broken English told me how beautiful she thought I looked when I laughed. Yes — Bigu very beautiful.
In Nepal, there is no direct translation for “goodbye” — I’ve asked, but it simply does not exist. The closest you can get are almost proverbial phrases: “keep sitting,” “stay resting,” or “go slowly.” Go slowly. Maybe I didn’t ask the right people, or perhaps if I did a thorough search I’d be mistaken, but I can’t help taking it as a sweet comfort, a blessing. Go slowly. I think there are parts of that place that were already embedded in my whole self, pushing me to challenge what I already was, and take ownership of the strength I was always meant to have.
As I threw on my pack, heading out of the nunnery and down the mountain, my ears picked up voices from out in the fields, wishes from their red-robed owners. “Miss! Go slowly!” “See you again, Miss!” Feet already far too aware of the rocky journey ahead, I realized what a loss it would have been if I’d given up the challenge of this particular mountain. How could I ever have made room in my heart for such colorful laughter if I’d kept it clean of fear?
So I say, go slowly. Because in your most hushed and unaccompanied silence, there is a power all your own, just beyond the wake of strife, waiting to show you what life looks like from the top.