What’s that saying? “When in Rome do as the Romans?” So…. when in Cambodia, do as the Cambodians? Well, I don’t think I saw any Cambodians indulging in $5 massages, skewers of charred cockroaches yes, but I think that treat is reserved for special occasions, like birthdays or when celebrating little Rahke surviving her first trip on top of daddy’s shoulders while he drove the family motorcycle through traffic! But of course, being an American in Cambodia (pretending to be a Roman?) where else would I find myself but laying on a mattress next to three other friends, wearing a pair of massive (in case a sumo wrestler stops by?) cotton pants and a t-shirt that said “I love Cambodia.” I had two massages while in Cambodia (I know…I am a bit of a diva) and the second one was AMAZING, but on my first massage, I think I got the poor girl who must have opened the shop at six am or something, and was understandably suffering from carpel tunnel by the time we laid down at 8:00 pm; she seemed wiped out before she even began. And whenever I would crack my eyes to look to my right or to my left my friends were getting the rub down of their lives; their eyes shut luxuriously as occasional low moans slipped out like a sigh as days of traveling were smoothed out of their tense muscles.
Meanwhile the only muscles my masseur had vigorously worked happened to be the only muscles I didn’t want her to work. I had gotten a fairly nasty sunburn on my shoulders while snorkeling and explained while pulling down my shirt and pointing to the blistered red skin, “Painful!” Well, I can only assume she thought I meant painful as in “Tight! Work it baby!!” And since my shrieks of duress seemed to be taken as compliments, and also because I am wildly non-confrontational, the massage progressed predictably from the torture phase to the laying catatonic while she straddled my thighs and administered random karate chops to my head phase, which naturally led to the press on what I can only assume were strategic pressure points on the insides of my hips phase, (probably something to aid with my digestion or make me more fertile…surprise Russ!) this phase made me nostalgic for home; reminding me of the time I volunteered at the scout expo to be a first aid patient and the scouts practiced applying pressure to stop the “bleeding” of a “bullet wound” and after all twelve of them tried and I was still “bleeding out,” they wisely moved on to practicing tourniquet merit badge tying on me with Sam, the runt of the scout litter being called on to rip his t-shirt into strips for the cause, “Stop being selfish Sam, Do you want her to die right in front of you?!!”
But at some point the tourniquet merit badge phase ended, (I’m not sure how long it lasted… I may have temporarily passed out when she found my neck pressure points) and as I regained consciousness I noticed all movement had stopped, the room seemed fuzzy around the edges as air filled my lungs again and I noticed my t-shirt had ridden up a bit, and in the humidity laced dark my masseur was quietly and intensely studying my stomach. She slowing began tracing the silvery length of a stretch mark, I was a little embarrassed at first, but then I looked up into her beautiful mocha face, her wide unblinking doe eyes starred back at me as a smiled spread like a sunrise across her lips and she said in stilted English, (while patting her size -0 stomach) “We are the same!” Then she bent and fascinated, traced another stretch mark, I resisted the urge to say, ‘Honey, we could be here all night!” and pausing she asked shyly, ”How many children you have?” “Three boys” I said holding up three fingers. “How many children you have?” I asked pointing at her. She smiled and scooted up a bit onto my lap into a more comfortable conversational pelvic straddling position, “I…. 3” she said, holding up three fingers. “How old” I wondered, “One girl 9 year, one boy 5 year” and then she paused and once again begin tracing another stretch mark — “and one baby boy one year,” she said slowly, “baby boy killed, husband killed one year in car accident.” “They died one year ago?” I restated, shocked. “Yes,” she continued as she starred earnestly into my eyes, “Now every day I alone.” Well, what else could I do but sit up (no small task when she was straddling my lap) and even though I didn’t know the customs of Cambodians, I hugged her anyway, and looking into her melty chocolate eyes said the first thing that popped into my head, “Yes. We are the same.”
In Cambodia all the markets are made up of a string of rickety shacks, where people sell their goods. They sit on their stalls a pile of rice noodles resting next to their bare feet, they refold scarves and stack raw meat, they smooth t-shirts and call as you walk by, “What you want lady? You like this scarf lady? Pure Cambodian silk lady. You try? What color you like?” While browsing I kept seeing shirts that said, “Same Same” on the front, and “But Different” on the back. Apparently the phrase is used a lot in Thailand and has spread to most areas in Asia, and can mean just about anything depending on what the user is trying to achieve, for example, Question: “Is this a real Rolex?” Answer: “Yes sir, same same but different.” Meaning, it looks exactly like the same thing, and in so many ways is the same thing…but it’s not actually the same. “Same same…but different.”
What struck me in that dimly lit, sweaty massage room (besides the kung-foo hands of Mae as she proved her affection through a series of karate chops between my eyes) was how we are all the same, at our cores the same. The common thread of humanity weaves us all together in tight binding stiches. I knew nothing about the struggles Mae endured, I didn’t know how it felt to lose a child; but I confess, in my midnight moments, I’ve known how it felt to loose part of a child. I understand how it feels to struggle, and that life sometimes swings without gloves; that grief can box your ears; sit on your chest while you cry uncle. I felt a connection to Mae, because we had both been stretched by life; Same same.
For me, my life has been a reconciliation in learning to be compassionate. Sometimes being kind is the easiest thing in the world; it’s natural to want to comfort a toddler whose just tripped, or hug a friend whose been diagnosed with cancer. But there are other times when showing compassion has felt like choking on bile. For example, there was the time Alex shoved Logan in the pool (fully dressed) because (naturally) Logan was a better swimmer than him, and it made him mad. Or when Alex knocked a kid’s birthday cake (yes, the one my friend had slaved over, and stayed up all night to remake it THREE times until it finally resembled Buzz Light Year) to the ground because he had wanted to blow out the candles, and it wasn’t fair that only the birthday boy got to! (Bet you were glad you invited us to the party!) Or a favorite of mine includes the time he threw a mango smoothie from the back of the van to explode against the windshield and cover me from head to toe with vitamin C … (like a forced hydration mask really). And yes, of course we were on our way to get family pictures. And yes our color scheme was white and gray….and shades of orange?
And that was just last week! (I’m kidding 🙂 )
I have learned true compassion for another soul can never be approached on unequal footing; where one person plays the doctor and one the patient, because the tendency to be-little the sick while you wax philosophically about the genius of your medicinal skills is too great, and it doesn’t ring true to the afflicted. But rather, as we approach each other from a perspective of common ground; patient to patient, healer to healer; vulnerable as we pad towards each other, our shirts cautiously raised, revealing our fragile underbellies, the silvery scales of our scars; can true connection take place. Implementing this practice reminds me of something I learned during my first yoga class, because you’ve never been truly vulnerable until you’ve been asked by the instructor to demonstrate the pose “Down Dog Bow” (google it) or tried to stretch your unstretchable body into poses like the “Please don’t trip over me” pose. At the end of the class the instructor bowed to us and said, ”Namaste,” and the class then in turn bowed back and repeated, “Namaste” to the instructor. In Cambodia this gesture is also how you thank someone; hands clasped in front of your heart as if you are praying, eyes closed as you bow your head to the individual you wish to thank. The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a divine spark within each of us; an acknowledgment of the soul in one, by the soul in another. A literal translation means, “bow me you” or “I bow to you.” The spirit within me salutes the spirit in you.
The trick is, that at least for me, real life is distracting and I am hopelessly flawed. I get sidetracked by worrying if someone is going to slip in the trail of sweat I’ve left while attempting to do the bended cat pose, and I react too fast, anger jumping in my veins when I’m worried if we can get the deposit back from the photographer since Mango is NOT on my color of wheel of approved colors for my skin tone. But mostly I get scared (and fear casts a long shadow) because It’s hard to reveal my scars when I’m certain that when I raise my shirt I will be the only one with stretch marks (*I never once have been). Or because like every other person I know, someone has at some juncture pointed and laughed at our weaknesses, which makes us want to curl around our fragile underbellies like a porcupine and shoot anyone who comes close enough to see that we’re not just a ball of stone but a living creature (Please note that my son Spencer –the writer, thinks this is a poor metaphor, hedgehogs curl into a ball not porcupines, and porcupines don’t shoot quills but rather fling them, never-the-less indulge me will you?) It’s easier to take a defensive stance and not let anyone close or justify our mistreatment of others as valid because it’s a protective measure; we swing first, thinking “If I wound you, then you can’t wound me.” But in the end, nobody wants to be a boulder of quills, nobody wants to be disconnected. For me, I’ve learned it’s only when I act with pure, undiluted love towards another that true connection takes place and hearts are healed. Therefore, if we are same same and if the spark of difference is to be recognized and honored then we must all put down our stones of judgment so we can lift up the arms that hang down, and in turn be lifted as well.
We are all on the same team so lets stop lining up against each other. We are all duplicates, synonymous, tantamount, equals; that’s what I learned as Mae explored my most vulnerable spot in a sticky room in Cambodia; we are all the same, and our differences must be respected and learned from. I’m glad I traveled half way around the world because those random Karate chops to my glabella cleared the clutter from my memory so I could remember my shared humanity, because in remembering I found strength. Now if I can just remember to bring a towel to yoga and to keep smoothies out of the car I will be golden.