For My Friends Who Have Lost Loved Ones to COVID: Calling the Soul

Head over to jadicampbell.com for more posts.

Friends across the globe from all the stages of my life have lost parents, spouses, family members and loved ones to COVID. I have been thinking alot about the ways we are all tied to one another in joy, in grief, in loss, in trying to live together and ease one another’s pain. Here is a story about how a very different culture keeps people they care about literally connected to one another, in a ceremony that creates unity and restores harmony to both the individual and the community. For some reason this post has gotten a lot of views recently. I wrote the essay after several trips to Laos. May it offer some comfort and peace. — Jadi

Note the white cotton threads

When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are the strings, and what is their significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures). And the meaning depends on time and place….

Full moon Vientiane, Laos

The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and their significance depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.

In Laos threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers [1] or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children wearing these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific life events: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane. We witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time. [2]

The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering  missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.

The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”. [3] When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.

Foundation stones are honored

The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism. [4] I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Laos to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.

Dedicated to my friends who have lost loved ones to the pandemic

NOTES: [1] A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered away from the mother during the birth. [2] The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month. [3] Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation. P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s also an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.

©Jadi Campbell 2018. Previously published as Laos White String Bracelets: The Baci Ceremony. All photos ©Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to  viewpics.de.

To learn more about kwan and the Baci ceremony: Laos-guide-999, Baci, UNESCO

My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out. Books make great gifts!

Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was a 2020 Best Book Award Finalist for Fiction Anthologies for the American Book Fest. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the 2020 International Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts. 

The Salt Pits

I’ve moved! You’ll find me (and all of my previous posts) at my new address jadicampbell.com.

When we talk about salt, we talk most often of sodium chloride. This is NaCl, consisting of the elements sodium and chlorine.

There is a charming tradition in Germany of bringing a loaf of bread and salt to friends when they move into a new home. The saying is that if you have those two items in your house you’ll always survive. Bread and salt are still ceremoniously served to guests in parts of northern and eastern Europe.

Mark Kurlansky writes, “Loyalty and friendship are sealed with salt because its essence does not change. In both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain because it is immutable… In Christianity, salt is associated not only with longevity and permanence but, by extension, wth truth and wisdom. The Catholic Church dispenses not only holy water but holy salt, Sal Sapientia, the salt of wisdom.” [1]

Seeing the hard way salt is won from pits changed forever the way I think about this simple condiment.

We were staying for only a few days in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, and spent a day with a guide and a driver to see a bit of the area. One of the spots we toured was a traditional salt harvesting town. A little settlement lives at and from the pits (and has burned down numerous times). Each time, they rebuild right next to the pits.WR_05_03_176

WR_05_03_164Salty waters are brought up from deep underground

WR_05_03_180and then boiled in open metal pans. Their burning fires glowed and sent off intense heat. The briny steam that rose felt like being in some strange circle of Dante’s Purgatory.

WR_05_03_167

WR_05_03_161Once the water has boiled away the salt is gathered in baskets, weighed, and stored in a barn. WR_05_03_175

WR_05_03_172

WR_05_03_174

WR_05_03_173

Workers then bag and tag the salt, preparing it for market.

WR_05_03_184

Salt is a serious business. The salt from this mine is sent to the north where people still suffer endemic goiters.

I thought of the pits of hell, of work so demanding and hot that it left scars. Just being tied to a spot like this must bake you and make you hard. Or so I thought. Instead, I met workers doing their jobs in neatly ironed clothing. The women all had on jewelry. A group of little children trailed us everywhere, laughing and mugging as children do.

WR_05_03_179

Since that day salt has tasted both sweeter and bitterer, or herber as the Germans say. And in that small word I hear the echo of the coming season, Herbst, Autumn. The summer is burning away and fall is coming. May your harvest tables everywhere include bread and salt.

NOTES: [1] Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (Vintage Books, 2002), p. 7.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Uwe’s photos of our trips to Laos and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de. Go to my earlier posts Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient or A Visit to the Food Bank, Part 1 &  2 for more about food.