Thursday, February 12, 2009

Displacement Vector

Dear Mr. Smith,

Let me be frank—I do not remember much of what I was meant to have learned in your class, and it was not long after our paths crossed that my life diverged definitively from science courses of all sorts. I have some vague recollections of time spent in lab, swinging pendulums to and fro and trying to figure out how to power a small car with a mouse trap. But I would be hard-pressed to explain the significance of any of those experiments. So I was surprised, to say the least, to find myself standing atop a mountain in northern Cambodia last weekend, thinking about Newtonian mechanics.

We had gone to Kulen Mountain as part of a birthday celebration and set up camp next to a waterfall, a site that Khmer people consider sacred. The night had been colder than we expected (the group dreamed, collectively, of woolen socks), so despite a beer-infused barbeque the previous evening, it wasn’t hard to rouse ourselves at 5 a.m., clamber into the back of a pickup truck, and set out in pursuit of the sunrise. After a jouncing, tailbone-testing drive and a scramble up a steep incline, we arrived at the site of a former monastery just minutes before the sun climbed above the thick wall of trees.

And then I started feeling horrible. The place had a craggy, severe beauty to it, with Buddhist statues and shrines dotting the rocky landscape, but I felt anxious as soon as I got out of the truck, wound tight inside for no discernible reason. Our Khmer friend Dine told us that the monastery had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and used as a base, and that it now attracted few visitors because of the rough road. A sad story, to be sure, but hardly a novel one for anyone who has spent much time in Cambodia. And it wasn’t that I was envisioning the murder of monks as I watched the sun break free of the horizon; it wasn’t so much the history of the place as the place itself that was disconcerting, somehow out of kilter. I didn’t speak much on the drive to our next destination.

At the top of a massively wide set of stone steps, surrounded by frangipani trees and bougainvillea, lay the reclining Buddha, a carving so big I could have used his big toe as a pillow. Certainly the statue had played silent witness to much strife and human suffering in his hundreds of years; even his original diamond eyes had been pried loose at some point and replaced with non-descript black stones. But the entire feel of this place was different, soothing instead of enervating, placid instead of desolate. It was as though a foul smell had just been blown away by a sudden breeze.

How can I possibly capture the magnitude of that change? It’s not the first time I have felt it in Cambodia. I know many people who love the ancient ruins of the Bayon temple just north of Siem Reap. I am not one of them. The place is famous for the giant stone faces that stare out into the distance, and as I stood among them I felt immediately dizzy, lightheaded. It’s not that I got creeped out because the eyes were looking at me, or anything like that. The place just felt somehow bad to me, as though the air was choked with sadness. Yet as soon as we moved on to the next site (the Terrace of the Leper King, which you might judge, on name alone, to be more off-putting) I felt fine again.

Though I have certainly felt happy or sad or awed or contemplative at tourist spots in America, it is not the same as what I experienced on the top of that mountain. Perhaps you cannot truly feel a place if you are too much a part of it. I am reading Jonathan Raban’s book Old Glory, about his voyage down the Mississippi River. There is a deep pleasure in recognizing the state fairs and fishermen that the Englishman describes, even when he is poking fun at them. Never do I see the American Midwest so clearly (or miss it so much) as when it is mirrored back to me by an outsider.

I bristle at the New-Agey notion that I am picking up “vibes” from certain places, but I struggle to come up with better explanations. I hoped, out on the mountain, that maybe a man of science like Newton would be able to help. In physics, displacement is the vector that measures the change between the initial position and the final position of an object. At Bayon or in the ruins of that monastery, am I simply feeling a vector that has been drawn too long, like a violin string stretched to the point of breaking? Was there something about the reclining Buddha statue (a shape, a smell, a shadow) that made it somehow more familiar to me and therefore more comfortable? Because how can we help but feel our endpoints except in relation to where we started? But that does not mean that I can compel myself to stop drawing out vectors in my wake. It only means that I hope to be able to see all of it someday (the initial position, the final position, the directional line in between) with the same clarity as the ones I drew with the help of rulers and graph paper while sitting in your classroom.

Shannon Dunlap

1 comment:

elizabeth said...

of course i completely understand the displacement feelings. totally get it. thank you for putting words to the feelings.