November 24 – Hanoi, Vietnam
I woke up at 1am this morning and was reminded that sleep continues to elude me. This goes beyond jetlag. I’ve had sleep issues for years, but they got much worse after John died. Now, I can only sleep 3-4 hours a night. The exhaustion manifests as new wrinkles, dark under-eye circles, and a cranky disposition. And yes, I have seen a doctor about this, many times in fact.
I had a joyless day in Hanoi yesterday, as I have already written. I wanted to be drawn in by the beauty of SE Asia – smells of incense and shrimp paste, honest smiling people who genuinely want to help you, cheap massage on every corner, incredible food, beautiful temples, and more. I wanted to feel things that I have felt on past trips, but for yesterday, it wasn’t meant to be. In fact, I was so downtrodden that I genuinely considered staying in the hotel spa all day. I gave myself permission to hide, should that be my path.
Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning, my mind went to something the Dali Lama said, something that I come to often. He said that sometimes the act of putting a smile on your face will make you happier, even if you put it on your face solely for that reason, even if your mind knows that you are tricking yourself. Now, while I can’t say that I was smiling, I did put on my brave face and made myself explore the city yet again. I first made my way to the Vietnamese Museum of the History of the Revolution. This museum detailed the struggle of the Vietnamese against the French Colonialists and the eventual path to independence. There were many aspects of this resistance that reminded me of the movement in India against the British colonialists (something I happened to read a bunch about just last week). In both cases (and at many other times in history all over the world), many were slaughtered horrifically and mercilessly, and many became widows. Widowhood is something that I understand. Again, the Dali Lamas words came to me – he often wrote that, in order to find more peace with your own suffering, it is helpful to put yourself in the shoes of those who have suffered more. So I closed my eyes and let myself touch the pain of many who have come before me. I filled with sadness and compassion and allowed myself to remember that, while I have lost so much, I still have so much, and I never want to take all of the gifts in my life for granted.
Next, I made my way to the Vietnamese Women’s History museum. The visit began with an exhibit on marriage – rituals, customs, etc. I walked in and was immediately hit with this quote, in large letters, on the wall at the entrance –
“Wife and husband are as inseparable as a pair of chopsticks.”
The old me might have felt the need to debate this statement, might have over analyzed the words and argued that, while one chopstick is useless by itself, I am not useless by myself. The me of this moment, however, felt no need to analyze or debate. I just allowed myself to feel. In that moment, the quote rang true. John and I were a pair, a team. We were two puzzle pieces – in no way identical, but in every way complimentary. I have always been a strong and independent person, but that fact does not in any way diminish the pain of my loss. My other half is gone. It is as if an arm has been cut off – eventually with time and therapy the hemorrhaging will stop, the wound will scab up, and I will learn to use the other parts of my body to compensate, but there will always be scars, and my body will never be the same.
Later on, in the museum, there was an exhibit about street vendors in Hanoi. Apparently, most of the roaming vendors are women who come in from small villages in order to supplement income. I watched videos of women talking about how they have family land on which to cultivate crops, but the land only produces enough rice to feed their family for 3mo out of the year, and so, while their husbands labor in the fields, they leave their children with others and travel to Hanoi to sell food and other goods on the street. One woman talked of how her husband had died (he broke his neck in an accident while laboring) and so now, in order to provide for her children, she leaves them to work in Hanoi for weeks at a time, staying in a room in a guesthouse that she shares with other street vendors – one room, 10 women. I saw and felt the pinched pain of widowhood on her face.
After I left, I was approached by a roaming vendor hawking baked treats out of a basket. In Hanoi one is approached by perhaps 10 -20 vendors a day, so mostly I ignored them, but this time I paused. She wanted to sell me some tiny treats for $2.50, which I’m pretty darn sure was at least 5x what they should have cost. In that moment, I peacefully let her milk the westerner and gave her the money. It was only $2.50 to me, but so much more to her. I had learned that these women make about $20 a week, working six 12+hr days. Who knows, maybe she was a widow too. Perhaps I should have given her even more than I did.
My grief is an ocean that constantly threatens to suck me down into a dark vortex of sorrow and loss. However, the grief also deepens me. It gives new meaning to things I might not have noticed before, new ability to understand the pain of others, and new compassion for every single human being around me. All of us feel pain, all of us seek joy. We are all the same.