flash nonfiction

Cohesion Forces in an Avalanche by Kathryn Stam

Cohesion Forces in an Avalanche | By Kathryn Stam

There are people whose job it is to model cohesion forces in avalanches. To build a snow chute in Switzerland, to freeze ice and simulate wet and dry snow, to calibrate the instruments, to measure the centripetal pressures of the avalanche’s head and tail, to graph molecular bonding, to examine precisely how much stress can build before the skier is crushed in a tumbling ball of ice and stone, and any amount of dynamite prevention still makes her a dead skier. Did she do her job to bring a shovel, a probe, and a beacon, the newest model that would allow her to detect the heartbeats of buried victims and flag their location under the unstable mass of ice and snow, branches and boulders? The people whose job it is to sell beacons caution that the plane of the antenna’s broadcast is crucial because it is easiest to find the victim if she is at the correct angle, lying down horizontally.

There are people whose job it is to force other people to carry rice for soldiers, or light the match that sets fire to a Karen village in Burma. To load the BA72 rifles and chase Hser and Prikadi into the hills in their pink plastic flip flops, where they hide all night hushed in tall brush, then sneak toward the Thai border where they will be told they cannot cross because they do not have papers. There are people whose job it is to wait at camp and console new arrivals. Pawsersoe hears they are coming and stokes the fire with a smoldering ear of corn to cook them some sticky rice and bamboo soup. She unrolls a ratan mat and hangs a mosquito net for them. They will sleep next to Tamla Win, who arrived twenty-two days ago but still hasn’t found his daughter Hainey yet. There are people whose job it is to wash wounds with stream water and poultices of morning glory, and wrap them with soiled strips of plaid blue and grey lungi cloth. There are people whose job it is to count the dead Karen as if those numbers mattered somewhere to someone. Whose job is it to tell refugee stories?

At our community center in Utica, NY, my job is to wash the dishes with a rag I make out of a flannel shirt from the donations pile. And to laminate the signs that says, “Don’t move the ping pong table,” and, “no spitting into the garbage, please.” As a writer, our job is something else though. Poet Nick Flynn tells us that “…this is the ultimate purpose of why we are here — to create a scrim that others can project onto, so they can actively participate in trying to make meaning out of this, out of everything….” (Flynn, 2013, 70). I take his words and rush to create a scrim, a ratan scrim, something I might be able to produce from the pile of crap in the back of my silver Toyota Yaris, with the betel nut candy wrappers, a pink booster seat, Hemish’s bathing suit, and a radish that rolled out of the recycle bag into the spare tire well where it waits for a sweltering day to fully realize its fusty essence. My job is to question every assumption and make wild claims, and trust you with this meandering tale. The one word I am forbidden to use is the only word my mind can muster, but seven-minute bursts into my subconscious and other words emerge in purple pulses and threadbare scraps of sound.

When I was twenty-nine years old and visiting a Nepali ashram, Swamiji told me upon first sight that I knew nothing of yoga. We would not do yoga poses because that’s just the superficial thing. Our job was to sit here under the Bodhi fig tree on Chinese plastic chairs, to eat salted popcorn and drink chai and gaze upon the snow-capped foothills of the sacred mountain Gauri Shankar. We breathed in the prayers of Shiva and Shakti that would waft on cantering wind horses, lungta, with wish-fulfilling flaming jewels on their backs.

“But don’t eat the fatty things, Stamji. You are too fatty already. Breath is all you need. The rest is the shallow thing. We will sit here and I will teach you the chakras and the structure and secrets of the universe and God. You will not suffer. You will release your baby, your Thailand baby whose solid body expired after only three cleansing breaths. God goes to God, Seed goes to seed. Look around, this ashram is overflowing with filth and rats but everyone here is happy.” 

Swamiji’s job was to ease suffering. That morning, he would teach me about the four forces of life currents, the forces of life being, and the nineteen elements of the cosmic body. Swamiji’s orange-robed disciple’s job was to flush his master’s deposits down the squat toilet before anyone else could smell or see it.

A few years later, my job was to become a mother again. A real mother who got to go home from the hospital with a real baby, a boy with adult-sized ears, big brown eyes, and flat farmer’s feet like is father’s, and whose job it was to cry, loud, at the top of his tiny little lungs, a beacon to tell the whole floor that he was here, even before the staff rang their baby bell. A most spectacular boy who grows and twenty-three years later is still spectacular.

Inspired by: Bartelt, P., Valero, C.V., Feistl, T., Christen, M., Buhler, Y., and O. Buser. (2015). “Modelling cohesion in snow avalanche flow.” Journal of Glaciology, 61 (229), 837-850

About the Author:

Kathryn Stam is an anthropology professor and creative non-fiction writer who is obsessed with all things Himalayan. She volunteers with resettled refugees and teaches about cultural diversity. She has spent the past several years learning how to slay a few of her most pernicious enemies.