I have used this photograph as an image of serenity, though I was not feeling serene when it was taken.
This was our third day touring the sites of Angkor during our recent trip to Cambodia, the day we were to meet our guide at 4:30 a.m. so as to witness sunrise over Angkor Wat. When we woke up, my wife, Pat was too ill to go; I explained this to our guide, Mr. Sam, deflecting his desire to know every detail, and we set out. We were among the first to arrive at the site, Mr. Sam put down a sheet of plastic for me to sit on, and I settled down, facing directly east, overlooking a pond, in the dark, the first hint of dawn barely perceptible around the edges of the sky, calming myself for a hopefully meditative experience.
But then tourism intervened. Initially using the route we had taken, then from various directions, following flashlights and tour guides, came the crowd. It was not that they were so loud, but they were constant and kept coming, phones on, texts and posts flying, the occasional, “oh, there it is!” the only evidence of what we were there for. I tried to stay in my own space, my own purpose, noticing the frogs waking up and the bats and birds swooping over the water, snagging their breakfast. My judgmental attitude, a character defect that dogs my days, came up with myriad rebukes about coming 10,000 miles to see be there, 910 years since it was constructed, the sacred rites still performed at Angkor Wat; of course, I did not say any of them but must admit to the occasional irritated glance over my shoulder when the conversations seemed to me to be too loud or inane.
Then I noticed the young person next to me, to whom I had offered part of my plastic sheet an hour before, but to whom I had otherwise not spoken. They were as intent on the sights and sounds as I was, experiencing them through young eyes and recording them on their phone. Neither of us spoke, I glanced to the right occasionally to see them still focusing on the historic and cosmic drama happening in front of us; I have no idea if their focus was spiritual, historical, cultural, artistic, or touristic, but amid the hubbub around and behind us, we shared an unspoken brief experience of significance.
It did not last long. As soon as the sun was up, Mr. Sam moved me to where we could get the best photographs, and then, as we wandered off to a spot on some ancient stone steps to have breakfast, he instructed me to stand, sit, kneel in various places so he could snap my camera and send me home with perfect mementos of the visit. Today I am glad he did; his eye was excellent. But, still, at that moment, my desire was to sit, let the others disperse, and recenter.
Serenity, as the dictionary defines it, includes clarity and brightness as well as calmness and tranquility. When I later reflected on the events of that morning, including the tour of that magnificent structure, I received a bit of both. My thinking that I was a better, more serious traveler than the other people interfered with my purpose of experiencing the holy and the beautiful, and I only have myself to blame for that. I am slowly learning to let things be as they are and to be content, but it is a difficult lesson for this competitive, performance-oriented baby boomer.
I suspect that each visitor to Angkor Wat that morning had the experience that they needed or desired. I have kept the memory of my irritation because it reminds me that the only person who interfered with my serenity that morning was me. May I learn and obtain serenity to accept what I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and wisdom to discern the difference.