Prayer Flags

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(HOST) Those of us with children tend to worry about them, especially when they’re traveling. Commentator Vic Henningsen reflects on a ritual he followed when one of his children was far away.

(HENNINGSEN) Some years ago my teenaged daughter returned from the Himalayas with a roll of Tibetan prayer flags – brightly colored cloths the size of small bandannas, inscribed with Buddhist teachings. Their movement in the wind is considered auspicious.

On a bright October morning, the two of us strung a small section of eight or ten flags along the lowest branch of an apple tree in the field above our house. Red, green, blue, yellow – they made a bright statement against the brown, white, and green that mark seasons in a Vermont hayfield.

I found myself visiting them often, for they became my tangible connection to a child far away in strange lands.

The philosopher Francis Bacon said that a man with a family has "given hostages to fortune" and he’s right. Every parent knows the anxiety that comes with a late night phone call or an overdue flight. It’s increased when your child is an adventurous soul, willing to travel far in search of her goals. A Dad gets nervous when all he gets is the occasional postcard from New Delhi, Lhasa, or some small village in Ghana. Even when she migrated to the relatively more familiar climes of Italy – Florence, Bologna, Venice – my daughter still seemed very far away.

As she continued to do things that frightened me, it was a comfort to check on the flags every so often. I became superstitious, feeling that as long as the flags flew, she’d be OK, no matter where she was or what she was doing.

You’re not supposed to alter prayer flags once you hang them – their gradual decay is a reflection of the natural order of things – but I confess that, as the years went on and the flags grew ragged and drained of color, I’d re-tie the shortening string and re-set it on the branch. It was a comfort to touch something she’d touched; to remember the beautiful autumn day when we fastened them there together.

I’d do a lot of thinking up there in the field, sitting under those flags fluttering bravely in the breeze, looking out at the mountains. I’d wonder about my daughter; I’d wonder whether my parents had a ritual like this when my siblings and I were exploring the world; or if my grandparents had a similar touchstone when their sons were off at war.

As repeated seasons thinned the flags, her wandering began to follow the more predictable pattern of the art historian she’s become. About a month ago she called me to say that she felt pretty settled – she liked where she was and what she was doing and she was going to stay put.

Later that day I hiked up to check on what was left of the flags.

And they were gone.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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