This piece, ‘Clocks’, is about a village I went to when I was sixteen, and my brief three night return. I didn’t know that I was grieving when I begun writing, nor that doing so would allow me to accept and move on. I was so upset with myself for not engaging, and for my anger, which is so out of character for me, especially the small expressions of it towards a child. The process of writing this helped me get beyond that, and beyond the Muang Kut of six years ago. It propelled me past the past and into a future of new experience and joy.
In the big wooden house by the river in Baan Muang Kut, the stilts in the area beneath the house where we eat all have a clock on them. They don’t move, ever; they are still as though they had found their perfect moment and don’t see the purpose in continuing to search for another.
Perhaps if you had asked me if there is any worth in this paused permanence a year ago, I would have answered firmly in the negative. But now, I’m not so sure.
When I first came to Muang Kut, I was starry-eyed, fascinated, enchanted and disheartened by my surroundings. I cried when I saw the room I'd be living in for two weeks, the number of bugs, and the bucket shower with the grime on top.
But I was hopeful and starry-eyed and still so idealistic. I spent my days at a water-tank building site and at the school, and I felt like I was doing something good. I bonded with the kids so well; when I came back three years later, the teachers at the school remembered me as the white girl with the six year old, ‘Baan’, permanently attached to her hip or leg like a wart on a witch’s nose. And I didn’t mind. I had adored her, had photos of her framed in my room for years. I cared for her, and I was one of the favorite and best teachers at the school for the two short days I taught there.
I had always had an image in my head of returning, connection, living in this village that seemed so remote and exotic and interesting. It would make me interesting.
So I came back, with all my hopeful expectations, with less naïve idealism and wonder (the TVs, water heater, and tourists in attractions that seemed to be surrounding the village and pushing its boundaries disillusioned me a bit to how remote I really was). And I was so ready to feel it all again.
What I felt was a big resounding nothing.
Let me amend. Nothing is the wrong word. I felt things, just things far from what I wanted to feel. The first time joy and contentedness had fueled my desire to stay put. Now, bitterness and dissatisfaction filled me with frustration.
Six had been a good age for me all those years ago, but now, with a six year old in the family, living in the same house, I discovered it brought out the worst in me. I found that she didn’t need the gifts I brought, not really, but she happily opened my bag and attempted to take them as her own, seeming to not treasure them quite as I had hoped (the visions of the poor child in raggedy clothes grateful clutching her new coloring book to her chest was quickly washed away). She needed so much attention, even at six in the morning when I was sleeping. I found myself grabbing her, gripping too hard (in my mind, anyway; she didn't seem to notice), quickly turning these motions into a tickle to selfishly seek out her laughter and reassure myself that I wasn’t a monster.
No, I thought, six wasn’t a good age for me after all. Maybe all those years ago I had been wrong; maybe I wasn’t great at connection and engagement and children. But maybe that was because I wasn’t a broken old clock.
I didn’t have the pleasure of pausing my life, staying the same person in the same place. Muang Kut and this wonderful, kind family didn’t have that luxury either. None of us got to choose to remain the same, to live the same experience over again. I didn’t come back to the same village, nor did I come back as the same person. Life, unlike those clocks, moved on. Hands rotated thousands of times. The six year old grew, the cute baby became a rambunctious child; they got a water heater with and a shower.
They were nice. Of course, they were nice, welcoming, giving. One time, they even suggested jokingly that I should hit their daughter because she was crazy, and I laughed and pretended there weren't moments when I was closer to losing my faith in myself than I ever cared to be. But our lives were no longer connected, and I didn’t feel like I was coming home, just like I was visiting, waiting, remembering happiness instead of experiencing it.
I believe everything happens the way it should. The first time I returned, I went to the school, and that little girl I adored didn’t remember me. And I was okay, really I was, but my heart hurt a little. After that, I was able to let go of that relationship, knowing that she would grow and flourish, but that the girl who had cried all the way home in my arms because I was leaving for America, was gone. So was our bond, and I could accept that maybe it was for the best.
Everything ends eventually, but I think for me, and for most, impermanence is one of the hardest concepts to grasp and hardest realities to breathe through. When we love someone, or somewhere, or something, the idea of losing them is terrifying. We want to hold onto that thing that makes us so connected for as long as possible, and in our hearts, when we’re away we hold to it the way it was, forgetting that it, along with us, change.
So when we come back and discover that that person, or place, or thing isn’t the same anymore, or we can't connect to it like we use to, we feel as though it died. We want it back; we grieve it as it remains in front of us.
I denied this change for as long as I could, even though I knew it to be true. I had beautiful dreams of coming back to the big house by the murky brown river and staying like it was my home, teaching at the school, and having it mean something because I would mean something to this place I had once adored. The place that was one of my favorite settings on Earth, only six years ago. It is so easy to forget that a setting implies both place and time, that the locations we love are temporary.
And then I arrived, and I spent so much time being annoyed and angry, really, not because of a six year old who enjoyed acting six, but because it wasn’t the same, because my Muang Kut was gone. And I was sad for no reason, depressed, disinterested. Unwilling to engage.
I needed to move on. I full on went through the stages of grief, and it was time to accept that this place no longer held anything for me, or at least, no more than anywhere else like it.
I don’t envy those clocks covering the stilts, carefully mismatched and placed on each one. They are stalled for eternity, and will one day be tossed away, or disassembled, or perhaps, if they’re lucky, they’ll be fixed, working, rotating along to fulfill their function.
I can only suppose that my function is growth, and without it or change, there can be no joy. And so I cannot find that joy by trying to spin the handles back, or trying to freeze them. I can only find it by allowing the clocks of my life to tick forward towards those times when joy seeps into my very soul, where I find those things and people and places that make me wish I could stop the revolving of hands.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be back to Muang Kut again. I've never particularly liked the idea of a last time for anything. But the pull is gone. My anger and dissatisfaction can seep away into happy memories of a stagnant village where things don’t change, people don’t grow, and peace washes over me. And how exciting it is to know that my joy is not located halfway around the world, but in front of me, in me, where it always was to begin with. Now, I need only wait for those moments where, like the clocks on the stilts, time stands still completely and totally of it own accord.