Sarah’s Journal

We stride out to take our daily walk. Two humans, two dogs; one in a pram, the other on four legs. We navigate a careful two metres around other pedestrians. I smile, say “morning”, try not to appear rude at this shunning. Spring and winter yoyo from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. The wind buffets the crows as they circle above me. A sharp chill this morning brings a sudden rattling shower of hail. Gigi endures me taking a photo of the small white meteors of ice on her back. They land on her black fur, chime with the increasing strands of grey. I continue to observe the daily miracles of weather, nature and season, despite the topsy-turvy world we now inhabit.

Children's anxiety about pandemicMy neighbour Etta Cater (aged 7) was reading ‘What’s Worrying You’ by Molly Potter. Etta showed me the book. “The page that I find very useful is called ‘What’s Under the Bed’”. She noticed that there wasn’t a page on Pandemics. So, with her Mum’s encouragement, she was inspired to draw one. I have been writing my own article to address grief in these times, but I think Etta’s nailed it. She names some of the feelings we might be experiencing. “You might feel bored, scared, sad, like it will never end, worried or upset.” It’s really helpful for people to know that feeling these things is normal “when you’re on lock down”. These are just some of the feelings that come up with loss, change or anxiety. Etta also knows that it really helps to chat to someone when something is bothering you. She is aware that people might be living in places with different access to space to play in. She also reminds us, “remember it won’t last forever”. Her top tips are, “if you have a garden, play with your family.” Or if you don’t, “play a board game”. Thanks Etta for reminding me that parents and children everywhere are trying to cope with different ways of life.


Papaya, you deliver pleasure with your juicy flesh. Your perfectly ripe, too sweet-ness is matched with the tang of lime juice. Over-ripe, you become sickly. Under ripe, green and firm, I feel cheated. Unless you are shredded in sweet, spicy sauce and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Behind your yellow unpromising skin lies your gorgeous flesh. Not pink, not orange, but on the cusp where salmon meets sunrise. Cut in two you make a six pointed star, bursting with black seeds. Or longways for vulval symbol of abundance. Any sense of not-enough is banished by the joy of your taste. I slurp and squelch into your intimate parts. Bowel mover, your casket of seeds eaten whole rid the gut of worms. You are ‘papaya’ to me now, but I still recall our first meeting. Nervous, shy 8 year old, I am presented with ‘paw paw’ by my parents’ old friend in the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in Tobago. Overwhelmed by the strangeness of everything, I discovered that fruit grows on trees in strange shapes and unfamiliar colours. Picky eater, even then it was love at first bite.

You burst into our lives like a cabaret artiste. Each spring you put on a show of florid pastel pink. You wave your petals provocatively at us, trouncing all the other plants and trees near by. With exhibitionist style you ruffle your frills like a can can dancer, revealing glimpses of muscular brown limbs. In twilight you blaze as though electricity, not chlorophyll pumps through your veins. Then we are compelled to watch as one by one you drop your petals. All modesty relinquished, we wait for your shame-free naked form to be revealed, just in time for a new costume of leaves to grow. I wait for this annual lap dance, for this invitation to be wordlessly near to you, for a brief chance to admire your display.

We have recently come from a village where each family makes incense. I remember the dark room with a fire that scents each fist of incense sticks with lingering wood smoke. Through a doorway on the street we walk into a temple. Here is a coil of incense burning on an altar. It burns before a statue, the image of a teacher or temple guardian. Temples lie behind the street facades. A parallel world exists behind the financial exchanges of cafés and shops. These red and gold shrine rooms offer a different kind of exchange. A stick of incense, piece of fruit, bar of chocolate or can of beer is offered. These gifts are to give thanks, and the giver asks in return for a blessing. This particular statue, may be an unknown teacher to me, but a little gratitude feels necessary. Today, we are all alive and well. We have much to be thankful for. It feels important to be in right relationship with ‘the unseen’. I bow my head, light incense, give thanks, say a prayer and ask for my own blessing. We may be away from home, but hope that our ancestors and guides are with us on our journey. I trust they are keeping a protective eye on us.

Away from the cavernous temple hall, with PA system and meditating monk, I climb upstairs to the balcony. From here I can see the roof, and look down on the umbrellas of women who grill sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. Turning a corner, I find a secluded shrine to Avalokiteshvara, which pulls me in. Many shiny gold arms wave at me. I catch my breath in this quiet spot, find the space to pay attention to my own practice. This involves saying thank you for the things that spontaneously spring to mind. I thank those who guide and help me. I speak an intention. Then I ask for blessings for all beings. A very versatile bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, (pronoun they) are known with many names, including Kuan Am in Vietnam. They are represented as male in some traditions, female in others. One head, five, or eleven, symbolise the many ears to ‘hear the pain of the world’. On hearing, they are willing to bear the pain of the world. They have many hands, usually 2, 4, 22 or 1000, which may carry useful tools to deliver acts of kindness. Their hands symbolize reaching out with love in infinite ways. This personification of compassion, represents the archetype of kindness. Avalokiteshvara shapeshifts taking the most suitable form to each situation, when appearing in the human realm. For me, trying to be kind starts with myself. Then expands outwards, to use my surplus energy to be in service to life. This small rupa seems to be talking to me. I’m listening.
O’Brien, Barbara “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva” Learn Religions Feb 11 2020

I sit beside your punctured hand. Always so stoic in the grip of pain, it makes it hard to know how severe the sensation is. You avoid needles, often faint during blood tests. I know that this is a new edge for you. Still, you remain sanguine. I sit beside you reading. You are plugged into headphones. Your father is leafing through documents. We are all simultaneously recalibrating. “How serious is this? How long will this last? What are the implications?” We have handled medical emergencies abroad before. We are a flexible team. We know the ropes here. But riding on a bus in the middle of nowhere while sepsis began to crawl up your arm has shaken us. Now we have found a good hospital, doctors, and the relief of an IV drip. But we all saw death around a bend on the road, and it sent us a message. I see the vulnerability in the flesh of your hand. I feel the bond of family. We are navigating another rite of passage. Love is the only thing that seems to matter.

I am a ‘thanotourist’, as in thano meaning death. (‘Thanatos’ is the Greek god of non-violent deaths.) I am interested in places associated with death. I want to know more about funerary customs, in order to recognise the old ways, and find new ways that might serve us better. In Vietnam, I see the highly decorative boxes of grave goods that can be purchased, to accompany the dead. These symbolic artefacts are offered at funerals for the deceased to take to the next life. Decorative boxes include paper clothes, shiny accessories – shoes, watches, necklaces and glasses. The people who are left behind do their best to offer respect and auspicious gifts for the grave. Here, a culture with many customs and superstitions around the dead meshes with Communist Party tradition. Hence the former leader, Ho Chi Minh lies in state while party members and tourists pay their respects. His body, embalmed rests waxen in a highly polished mausoleum on a high dais, which sits on a sunken floor. Guards with twinkling bayonets stand frozen below, eyes ahead. I file past on a raised walkway, listening to the pin sharp silence of this heightened ritual.

The American war in Vietnam has a complex and dark history. It began in 1954 as a war for independence with the French, after a brutal period of French colonial rule. It ended in 1976. Robert Macnamara, former US Defence Secretary at the time, later wrote, “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” For me, trying to understand something of the consequences of foreign powers drawing borders and funding factions teaches us both the importance of recognising what has happened, but also to see how it continues to cast global shadows in the present. The intelligence/counter intelligence and propaganda techniques of that time pre-figure our era of ‘fake news’ and political marketeering. Seeing Ken Burns 10 Part documentary series ‘The Vietnam War’ and reading John Pilger’s ‘Heroes’, then seeing the documentary photographs in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), combine to build a picture of the era for me. However, it is meeting real people whose relatives were killed on one side or the other; and meeting people whose disabilities are a direct result of the use of ‘Agent Orange’ shock, but connect me to the real after effects. There are still areas where land mines or chemical residues cause serious harm. We visit the area, which was marked the ‘DMZ’ between designated North and South Vietnam. This was officially the De Militarized Zone, but known locally as the VMZ or Very Militarized Zone. Near by we bend down to enter long narrow tunnels in the clay soil, where local villages took shelter from bombing raids. We try to feel our way into imagining the terror, hunger and confusion experienced at the time. We feel the hard metal of iconic tanks left behind, inhumane in purpose.


At the (not mentioned in our Lonely Planet) temple, we find heaven and hell. Ten kilometres or so outside the city of Da Lat is a fabulous Buddhist temple complex. It takes the ancient traditional art form of mosaic making, and uses it artfully to decorate the concrete structure. (Breton is the Vietnamese word for concrete, borrowed from French. It is used liberally in every context from city to farm, as the nation expands and grows upwards.) The curved surfaces of broken china – often with delicate roses or tableware – are tessellated into patterns to form brightly coloured three-dimensional dragons, demons, clouds and birds. It is a wonderful visual feast. Buddhas are halloed by neon mandorlas. There are giant bells to ring and plastic welcome mats. In typical Vietnamese fashion, there are street food sellers, shops selling elaborate Tolkein-esque furniture, huge marble statues, communist party posters and corners for mops and detritus. Under the giant Buddha covered in dried flowers there is a gift shop selling marble knick-knacks where an unexpected opening leads to a visual representation of the ‘hell realms’. I am not a Buddhist scholar, so my understanding is limited, but these realms represent metaphorical states of mind created by ordinary human suffering. In turn, the causes of suffering are generally covered by hatred, greed or ignorance/delusion. In this context I get the impression this is a more literal hellish representation of the torture that follows vices of the flesh. Theology aside, the display is a ghoulish romp through the underworld. Demons torture souls, skeletons eyes bulge with red lights. It is a spooky feast of horrific delights that is designed to make even the virtuous squeal.