Ann Armbrecht wonderful memoir blending creative writing, narrative, pilgrimage and anthropology, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, is now available in paperback. Here's an excerpt, examining women's lives in rural Nepal, particularly focusing on "…what these women's ways of living have never let them forget."
Raj was plowing when I walked down to the field, and as he greeted me, he looked at the mud on his clothes and at his bare feet. “You don’t plow like this, in your country, do you?” he asked. “You use machines, and don’t have to muck around in the mud. Isn’t that right?”
I was as embarrassed by his questions as he was by the mud on his arms and hands. I answered as I always did when asked questions like this: yes, we farmed differently, but that did not necessarily mean that what we did was better. I said something about soil erosion from mechanized farming and then told him that I had come to help with the planting. He nodded and went back to plowing.
I took off my sandals, which were too heavy for the ankle-deep mud; climbed over the edge of the field into the muddy water; and asked his mother how I could help. She handed me a clump of seedlings and told me to plant next to Altasing’s wife.
I waded through the mud and began to plant as quickly and as carefully as I could. Altasing’s wife greeted me and immediately started to ask questions. As soon as I answered one question, she asked another. In between questions, she told me to plant closer to the edge, or Raj’s mother would yell at me.
We worked steadily for some time, interrupted every now and then by Raj’s mother coming to see how we were doing. She shouted at her daughter-in-law to spread the mud around the terrace more thoroughly. She ordered her husband to get to work. And she yelled at me to plant the seedlings closer to the edge.
Raj’s mother scared me. Whenever I visited Raj Kumar's house to speak with Raj, she offered me jad only after Raj had insisted. This beer was thick and slightly sour. It was the only beverage the family drank. Offering it to guests was the hospitable thing to do. As Raj’s mother handed me a bowl, she always commented that all I did was talk and write; that I did not have to “work,” as they did; and that I had not done anything to deserve this beer. I always accepted her words and the beer without comment. She was right. My work was a luxury to the villagers, especially the women, who hardly ever had a chance to sit around and talk. There was nothing for me to say. This was the first time I had gone to help in the family’s field, and I wanted to prove that I was able to do her kind of work.
After what seemed to be a long time, Raj’s mother called us over to the edge of the field, where she had prepared some jad. We gathered in a small circle on a huge boulder. The women talked about how many terraces still had to be planted and where they would work the following day. Raj’s mother passed me a bowl of jad, along with everyone else. She urged me to drink it so she could fill it again.
I often joined the women in the fields, helping with digging and planting and cutting and carrying, doing whatever I could to create something for us to share. Although I was slower and clumsier than they, they welcomed the free labor and the novelty of having me around. During breaks in the work, when we gathered on a rock or under a tree, the women, old and young, would reach for my hands and rub their fingers slowly across my skin. They would turn my hands over and feel the palm, pull the fingers up to their eyes, and comment about how smooth and white they were. Then they would hold up their own hands and feet, which were tough and dark, next to mine. They looked at one another and shook their heads. They lived by their hands, they would say, and I lived by my head.
The women in Hedangna want skin like mine. They want some padding in their lives, want to be able to stay inside for a while and let their bodies become smooth and white and soft. I want skin like theirs, dark calloused skin that lets them walk through their lives barefoot, enduring, not avoiding, the sharp pain encountered on the way.
I was raised in a world where what was valued was what I could know with my mind. I was educated away from my home, taught that there was more to be gained by moving forward than by staying put. I left my home to understand what it took to stay at home, went halfway around the world because I wanted to learn what it meant to live with my hands and my feet and my heart—to remember what these women's ways of living have never let them forget.