1. spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power (often followed by by, of, or with): The army fought as if possessed. The village believed her to be possessed of the devil.

2. self-possessed; poised

I’m possessed by all kinds of things, notably the crazy idea that I should spend Sunday planning the lesson for my six upcoming classes. Every Sunday is the same: I procrastinate, get sidetracked, and finally resist this sensible activity like a kicking and screaming child. Part of this can be understood: in my case, a lot of teaching is intuitive; it falls into place or progresses logically from something specific that happens in class. When it comes to planning, my best ideas come to me while walking around the track on the athletic ground at school. I just can’t sit down and DO IT. Does this make me evil? Buddhism says that the misery we experience comes not from our experiences but our resistance to them. Amen. So here I am blogging instead of planning.

The spring weather is gone; it was a faux spring. Now we have cold, wet, clammy weather, but the cleanest, purest air I’ve breathed since being the mountains of western Sichuan. Thank goodness for small favors.

My childhood was marked by a love of the absurd, and, from my earliest memories, an overwhelming desire to get away. My first destinations were inside my own imagination, then I started expanding: I decided that I wanted to be French and live in Paris. I finally went there, said “OK, so I’ve seen it,” and moved on. My twin obsessions, books and travel, have for a long time now been directed to the “mysterious” Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, and parts of India such as Ladakh. I’m not alone in this; my current reading is about a woman who was possessed to undertake journeys both spiritual and physical into these regions, Alexandra David-Neel. She was also French. Mais oui.


 Alexandra David-Neel


Alexandra David-Neel, French by birth, English by education and American in temperament … led a youthful life as a student radical, had a career as an opera singer admired by Massenet, became a feminist journalist who flirted with Mussolini, tried conventional marriage in which she failed, journeyed to India, Tibet, and China, where she studied, traveled, and wrote despite famine, plague, and civil war, and where she was effortlessly at home.

The woman shed her past lives like a serpent does its old skin; in each life she buried the previous one, concealing its traces. In her very last incarnation, as the Eastern savant, she effaced her whole previous history. Why?

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. xii [Woodstock, NY: the Overlook Press, 1998]




This was a woman for whom the word “gutsy” might have been invented. Before I came to China I read her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. In the past couple of years I have read and re-read My Journey to Lhasa. It’s a never-ending source of wonder to me how a 55-year-old woman, in the 1920s, could walk cross China and into Tibet, in the dead of winter, accompanied by her adpoted son, after having been turned back four times previously (Tibet was strictly closed to foreigners). She survived, and became world-famous as the first European woman to set foot in the holy city of Lhasa.

Her prose is straighforward and down-to-earth, but it’s her matter-of-fact, never-say-die sang-froid that always gets me. If you read my posts faithfully, you’ll remember the word phlegmatic (unemotional), but sang-froid adds a French twist, and literally means cold blood. It’s self-possession or imperturbability, especially under strain.

More than once I had considered the idea of crossing the Po country …. Many maintained that the Popas were cannibals. Others, more moderate in their opinions, left this question unsettled. But all united in affirming that anyone foreign to the Po tribes, who entered their country, was never seen again.


So I hesitated a little before risking this adventure, when the words of the general decided me – “Nobody has ever been there….” All right. I would see these ranges and these passes! Truly it would be “an interesting road to Lhasa”!

My Journey to Lhasa, p. 120 [Boston: Beacon Press, 1983]

She also could have a wicked sense of humor, and hated phonies:

Once, annoyed by the antics of the fakirs, she lay down on a vacant bed of nails. She explained to a passing British tourist that she needed a nap and was lucky to find a handy couch.

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. 59


I’ll mention one more person who seems to be possessed by travel, specifically in someone else’s footsteps. In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock is a photoblog showing how eastern Tibet looked in the 1920s and how the same places and people look now. Based on the explorations of Austrian-born botanist Dr. Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China from the 1920s to 1949, it’s written by Michael, who lives in Sydney, Australia. It’s worth a look.  


Joseph Rock


The lighter side ofpossession

It’s one thing to be moved by strong feelings or even obsessions, quite another to be moved by supernatural powers.

 Of course, demonic possession is a natural for “shocker” films, lending itself to over-the-top performances and neat tricks like head-spinning and demon-channeling. My favorite performance in this category is Vanessa Redgrave’s in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).


    Since some of these films took themselves much too seriously, it was nice to see them lampooned from time to time in the favorite magazine of my youth, MAD ….    



(many thanks to Frankenstein’s Fun House on Flickr for the images – click on photo to visit)

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