So I’ve noticed something funny — nonsensical — about myself when it comes to money. I will stay home and eat in, rather than spend money to go to a restaurant, but I will not hesitate to pay for my cat to have her teeth cleaned to the tune of what it would probably cost to go out to dinner a dozen times.
I’ll suffer buyer’s remorse about a $25 dress that I am not sure is actually cotton, despite the shopkeeper’s assurances that it is, after I’ve dropped (literally) thousands on Buddhist artwork that, practically speaking, I don’t need. I’ll buy the CDs for my favorite musicians, just to support them, even though I can’t possibly listen to all the ones that I already have.
I don’t mind overpaying for something if I like the vendor and I really want the item. If I’m not sure, and the vendor is too pushy, I’ll go to six different shops to compare the prices and get the best deal.
I won’t buy something that I want from a vendor whom I don’t like, even if I like it. Perhaps it is hereditary. I know that my mother walked out of a car dealership once because the dealer took one look at her, disabled and dressed in an old denim skirt, and decided that she wasn’t worth waiting on. She, of course, had enough cash on hand in the pocket of her ratty old skirt to pay for the vehicle outright.
For me, shopping is not just about getting good value for my money, although I certainly like to do this. It is about getting things that I like while supporting the people who managed to come up with the item the sight of which pulls at my heartstrings, or the people whose music inspires me to choose love over fear.
Sometimes I wonder if I will run out of money before I die, but this concern only appears to be a passing one. I do not live as if I do not have enough. Sometimes I wonder if I am living as if I have more than I actually have, although I pay my credit cards off every month. This is, of course, not counting my ever-growing student loan for medical school that I am expecting the feds to forgive in 2021. I sure hope they do what they have promised to do. It’s difficult to know what is enough when you don’t know how much time you have remaining during which you might need or want, and the two of course are not synonymous, to buy something.
When I came to Nepal, I had only one shopping agenda — to get myself a big and beautiful bronze statue of Shiva, one of the three supreme gods of the universe who dances with snakes and who overseas transformation and change, and an equally nice statue of Ganesh, the god with four arms, and the head of a one-tusked elephant, who is considered the remover of all obstacles, a patron of the arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom. He usually carries an axe to cut off all our attachments and his preferred form of transport is a mouse. Face it, if I’ve got the god who will make sure I don’t get lazy, and the god who will remove all obstacles to my getting wherever my non-lazy self needs to Iget, and keep me smart and unattached while doing this, both in my back pocket, what else do I need in life?
So what did I do when I passed the shop in Pokhara displaying a magnificent bronze Ganesh, embellished with tiny mosaic squares of turquoise, lapis and coral? Well, I walked right in only to be faced with an equally gorgeous version of Shiva. I don’t think I have ever see these statues with stonework before. It is breath-taking. Nima, the owner of the shop, is a young enthusiastic salesman. He was delighted when he realized that I actually had some money to spend on my heart’s greatest desires. He calls me ama now, which means “mother” in Nepali. He raved about how good his karma was that I came to him, and offered me my treasures for prices that he insisted were below the norm for sales to Europeans. This may or may not be true, but I liked him, and I liked his shop.
Together we set about perusing his little store to see what else might interest me. That was not a problem. Wooden carvings of Krishna and Hanuman jumped into my arms. Another embellished bronze statue, also of Krisha flew off the shelf. A hand-painted Tibetan chest like ones over which I have enviously drooled on the rare occasion of encountering one in the states, complete with a giant Tibetan singing bowl that, when struck, gave out such a deep resonance that it made my heart skip a beat, followed. Not one but two prayer wheels, with the beloved Tibetan mantra om mane padme om emblazoned across their sides spun their way into the ever-growing pile of deliciousness on the floor between us.
A Buddhist gong that, when it was struck, reverberated with such intensity that the entire shop shook if you hit it several times in quick succession so as to layer its next cry upon its previous ones. I’ve never heard anything like it before. It made me want to clap my hands and jump and down with glee, which I did. Two hand-painted cats, of course, I could never leave a cat behind, and metal vases for people at home whom I knew would not be impressed by a statue of a Hindu god, were not to be left behind. And so my entire vacation allowance was spent, on trinkets that pleased my eyes and opened my heart. The truth is that I will get more pleasure seeing these beauties in my house than I ever will get from the memories of the actual vacations that I took last year for about the same price. I am clearly a material girl in a material world, I cannot deny it. While others take pleasure in photos, it is art crafted by unseen hands from around the world that are my delight. It is they, not photos, that have the power to transport me back to the places from which they come and reawaken my memories as if it were only yesterday that I was there.
Of course, being a pragmatist as well as a dreamer, I did consider, for a moment, shopping around. Maybe I could bargain Nima’s prices down if I did. But I hadn’t seen another Shiva like the one he had, and his store was teaming with Europeans eager to spend their money, although probably not on Shiva. And, most importantly, I liked him. What sealed his fate and mine, more than his proclamations of our mutually good karma, was that he agreed to keep everything for me until I returned to the states next year so I could be at home when they arrived and would not have to inconvenience any further my kind friends who are already handling a myriad of “housekeeping” details for me while I am away. He said he would keep them at his home and then he invited me to come to see that they were safe at his house, and to stay with him and his family, whenever I wanted.
Two days later found us traveling north, out of Pokhara, to visit his home and see that my artwork was already safely stored there. He showed me what would be my room, one wall of which was a plate glass window overlooking a pristine valley of green. The air was clear, and there were two temples nearby to which I could walk when I returned for a visit….
….as long as you don’t go after dark. You are my mother now, I must take care of you…
I mean, who wouldn’t want to buy their artwork from their son? Even if he is charging more than it’s worth, which he may or may not be? I will never know and, in the larger schema of things, does it really matter? Presumably, his art has been cared for with the same enthusiasm and love with which he was sharing it and his home with me. This means, of course, that it will bring his kind and joyful karma into whatever room I place it once it arrives stateside. You can’t buy good karma with money. You can only recognize and embrace it when it shows up in your life.
I met his Nepali mother, a small gray-haired woman of 80 years, and we smiled at each other. She understood my namaste but not my taipai sancai hunuhuncha (formal, how are you?), which confirmed what I already knew — my Nepali sucks. But… if I do come to stay with them, perhaps she will teach me how to say something that she can understand.
It was interesting to me that the first person to invite me to his home was not any of my colleagues, but a humble shopkeeper although, from the looks of his newly built house, business is good. The reality is that, in addition to being a material girl, I am also a small town girl. I like having big cities around, but I don’t like living in them. I grew up in a small square mile district about the University of California at Berkeley, with its own little row of shops — grocery, pharmacy, dentist, a few others I can’t remember. San Francisco was a stone’s throw away, but home was a quiet enclave located just beyond its hustle and bustle. So is my new home in Florida located in a quiet retirement community, a hour from Orlando and Tampa in either direction. In Vermont, I felt a little too isolated from the the wonders of a larger city but in Kathmandu I feel so overwhelmed that I do not go out, except to take the dog to the park across the street from my house. Even there, I am trying to carve out a small world for us inside the park that is separate from the big bad world “out there”.
It is obvious to me that I would have been happier in a smaller town like Pokhara, and it saddened me to hear from the teachers with whom I worked yesterday that previous participants in my program had been located in this city. So the question of karma does occupy my mind these days. Why am I not living in Pokhara? Why did I never teach English in Rwanda when all I wanted to do was just that? Why was I placed in the second most polluted city in the world where I feel lost and misbegotten?
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are two answers to this question. One is that I have had back luck because I am working off bad karma from the past. I did something bad, and now I am paying for it. This is how most people understand the concept of karma. But the other possibility is much much more intriguing. And this is that, yes, I did do some bad things in the past, possibly some very bad things, but because I am doing better things now, I am only suffering relatively minor inconveniences such as living in a polluted city for a year, or being out-of-work, rather than suffering the greatest karmic consequence of bad behavior — reincarnating as a an animal, a pig, a snake, a rat. You name it, but living in Kathmandu as a human being is a much better deal than living here as an animal. Perhaps even a homeless dog? That would have been the ultimately punishment for me — to live on these crowded streets as one of the 26,000 stray dogs. I should be counting my blessings instead of complaining about air quality.
Well, of course, with karma, one never really knows whether a perceived misfortune is bad luck or good luck. What I do know is that my karma brought me to a shop where the Shiva and Ganesh of my dreams resided, and gave me a Nepali son who has embraced me as his U.S. ama (which is how my presence in his life is recorded in his smart phone). My karma couldn’t be all that bad. And… now that I think of it, perhaps, my canine Lakshmi is a reincarnation of someone who was less lucky than I am and who now, because of our recent joining of hand and paw, which would never have arisen had I not lived in Kathmandu , will have the opportunity to work off some of her bad karma in a loving home. For all I know, the gods put me here because they wanted to give her a second chance and knew that I had a heart that would find her plight irresistible. The fact is, I just never know what the gods are really up to when they arrange my life. Similarly, I never really know what my karma will next bring me.