I haven’t seen her in years—a feisty, mama-bear, older woman selling books to tourists in a sleepy Thai town by a river.
Kanchanaburi is not far from Bangkok, famous for its River Kwai and immortalized in the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” inspired by the horrible events surrounding the building of the bridge during WWII.
It’s a serene kind of place to find a hammock and veg out for a few days (or lose track of time entirely), though it can jam up with tourists given its history, proximity to Bangkok, and gorgeous river views.
I used to live in Bangkok, and would make the short trip to Kanchanaburi often, to get away from the screeching city (that I love dearly). It had everything I needed: an airy, if sparsely furnished room dangling over the river; delicious food, and long, winding roads, both along the main drag and along the river—great for ambling walks.
And then there was the bookshop, conveniently located near my guesthouse. You could call this junction where the bookshop met the sprawling guesthouse entrance a “hub” the way a saloon is the hub of a Western movie situated on the frontier to nowhere.
It was perfect.
The books on offer were mostly English, stacked inside and outside the shop like faded jewels in various states of disrepair, and each transported me to a far-off world (including the world of memories), reading many of these same titles back home, which seemed such a great distance away.
The owner also had three ancient computers people used for the Internet. They often broke down, and when she couldn’t fix them, she’d ask her grandson, a boy of about 10 who hung around after school, to get to it. He always triumphed, as long as we could wait for his videogame to end.
She and I would only occasionally chat, notably during one visit soon after being bitten by a rabid dog in Indonesia. I had to get shots monthly for a while, and there was a good hospital nearby. She fussed over my small wound, let me use the computer much longer than I was supposed to, and fed me bananas.
Once, I offered to alphabetize her books, and she happily agreed, plying me with more bananas as I worked.
She was friendly in a no-nonsense kind of way, a tiny wisp of a thing. I never learned how long she’d been running the shop, how she found her way into this business, or how she felt about so many tourists hanging around her town.
One evening, I started out for the bridge later than I was normally out. As I rounded the corner, I saw her outside, taking books off a tall unit of shelves fastened to the wall. I suddenly realized that every single evening, she had to take hundreds of books off their shelves, and store them inside the small shop. Every morning, she had to put them back on the shelves.
Everyday, she was collapsing and rebuilding a significant part of her shop.
I guess I thought she’d merely cover them with tarp, or maybe I didn’t guess anything at all. But I was shocked at this twice-daily task that formed part of her modest business.
This time, I was just back from my first 10-day meditation retreat, a few hours away near the Burmese border. I had spent hours agonizing over how the time would ever pass, and how I would survive day after day doing nothing but follow my breath, which I grew to seriously dislike for at least a few minutes hourly.
I learned that in my raw, unfettered state, I was a person with very little patience; what a thick veneer between my functioning public persona and the caged animal within—that’s how it felt at times, anyway. I feared I would never learn how to treat myself, or others with kindness. Instead, I observed myself constantly wanting to be anywhere other than where I was, even if I didn’t have a clue where.
Now, here I was, watching a woman, for the thousandth time or far more, patiently picking books off shelves—a few at a time—to lock up for the night. She moved methodically, rhythmically, spritely. I don’t want to pretend I know what she was feeling inside or romanticize her life in any way, but to me, it seemed she was embodying a great practice in the art of living.
I was humbled and inspired. What a great teacher to have met.
Sometimes, when I find myself slipping into not wanting to do what I perceive to be tedious or undesirable, I think of this remarkable woman, and remember that patience—which, ultimately, is kindness, compassion, belief and love—can breathe everywhere, if I let it.
Life is our great stage for spiritual practice and growth, and that means that everything in life becomes part of this practice.
How wondrous it can be.