So this time I’m hanging them up in my bedroom, along with all the other clothes that smell clean until I hang them outside to dry.
28 June 2011 Eve
Just back from the orphanage. Maria, who is starting her fifth year of medical school, went with me to check up on Krishala, who was ill again today. The report on Krishala’s stool sample came back and informed us that she has ameobic dysentery, which is extremely common among children in Nepal. The headaches are harder to explain. She probably needs to see an eye doctor, but Gehlu wants to clear up her other problems—viral tonsilitus and now dysentery—first. So the doctor gave her some paracetamol, which Americans call acetaminophen. Maria and I went over to find out if Krishala was getting the proper dosage of the medicine she needs, and also to see how she was doing.
We arrived at a completely darkened house. The children were eating dinner at candle- and flash-light. Maria, who I have come to like very much, is as drawn to the children as I am. Indeed, everyone who has met them falls in love with them, because they are all extremely affectionate and cheerful. But Nirmala, the youngest, is the most endearing of all. She smiles all the time, and her eyebrows jump up as her eyes ignite when she looks over at you. I call her my little laughing Buddha. “Eh-bhui!” she erupts, bobbing up on her toes or, if she is sitting, onto her haunches, whenever something piques her interest or enthusiasm. Or she starts and points and says “U!” when she sees something she likes. She likes to look at photographs of herself and her new family. She loves to be held. Maria loves to hold her.
Maria also determined that while Krishala is getting the medicine she needs, she has only been given half the amount that she should take to get well. So she and I will go to the pharmacy tomorrow to restock. We don’t know why there is not enough medicine for her. We assume that Gehlu, who picked it up, did not understand that she needed more. We will remedy the situation, but worry about what would have happened to Krishala if we had not been here. We worry about what will happen to all the children when we leave, as we must.
This morning I held Krishala on my lap, because she was sick. So naturally all the children wanted to sit on my lap, and I spent the morning under a heap of loving little bodies. Surely it is impossible to feel unloved and unneeded here.
Today I learned something that made me very sad. Each of the children have suffered from neglect, poverty, cruelty, and forced labor. But Krishala’s body shows the blows that fate has dealt her more than the others. Today I found out that she is 10, not 8, as I had believed. She is much smaller than the other ten year-old, Anura, and smaller even that Gorima, who is indeed 8, or thereabouts.
Why is Krishala so small? Because she has been malnourished. Remember, Krishala is the one who came to the orphanage cleaning up after and serving everyone, because she had been an enslaved servant for most of her life. Her father was a drunkard who squandered the family property and sold all of their land to support his carousing. He desperately wanted a son. When his wife gave birth to the tenth daughter in row, he abandoned the family, and the girls were sent or sold out to work. She is ten years old. She looks six. She is woefully behind for her grade in English, in math, and in science. She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she has spent nearly no time in school. Rupus, the six-year-old, appears to speak better English than she does. But she comprehends a lot.
Sometimes I rock Krishala in my arms and sing lullabies to her. She goes quite still and closes her eyes, drifting back into a baby state in which she drinks in my maternal love for her. She needs desperately to do this. So does Anura, who hangs on me or hugs me or Bimila, like an infant. These children have not only been starved of essential nutrition, they have been starved of essential love, the acceptance, the nurturing, the contact between skin and skin, and eye and eye, that well-loved babies receive from their mothers and fathers.
Thank goodness for Bipin, who looks after them with love because he has been well loved by his mother. He clearly identifies with their plight. His own father disappeared when his mother was pregnant with him. He speaks excellent English, for his age—also 10—and translates for his mother. I communicate with her through him.
Tonight we handed out some of the presents we had bought the children. Maria gave them a skipping rope, and I had brought a soccer ball. Bipin said that it needed air, and told me where I could get it pumped up. We’ll go to the shop on the way to school tomorrow morning.
I was wondering if some of my readers, especially my family and friends, would consider sending play clothes and toys to the children. They have very little to wear after school and, as I mentioned before, nothing to play with other than one another. If you have any decent hand-me-downs, especially dresses, jeans, tee-shirts, shoes, socks, and jackets, and could send them to me here in Kathmandu, you would be doing a great good. And toys—there don’t seem to be any nice, sturdy ones to buy here. Today I brought small rubber balls and stickers, which were a huge hit, but not very educational or comforting. Maria and I asked the children what they wanted. All the girls said dolls, dolls with black hair. The dolls for sale here are cheap, tawdry, and white. They all have blond hair and blue eyes. The boys wanted cars. Bipin specified that he wanted an electric car with a battery.
I continue to worry about Laxmi. We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper. It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind. This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job. I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her. I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker. But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.
Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself. She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress. Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables. Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.
Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman. She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.
Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore. Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable. The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status. The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings. Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female. What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview? The damage it does to women’s self-esteem. A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.
Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options. After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother. He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her. Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece. I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family. Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola. Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest. Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.
She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer. She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month. He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon. Laxmi is now living with a friend. Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.
I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center. My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room. What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves? Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money? Yes. It is. But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.
Here is my still-evolving philosophy: It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity. But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity. I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly. Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works. So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me
I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah. I will defer to them in most cases. But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.
So, what will happen to Laxmi? I don’t know. I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf. What I received went to her. People tend to prefer to help children and young people. There is no social security system in place in Nepal. She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her. I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life. I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her. She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her. I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.
Friday, June 24, 2011
Bad scare this morning. As soon as I got through the orphanage gate, Bipin rocketed himself at me and landed with his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck. Rupus was right behind him, and then Gorima, Nirmala, and Anura were on me. Only Krishala stayed behind. She was sitting on a mat in front of the door. She has been complaining of headaches and stomach trouble for the last few days, and I have been worrying about her. Now she was very ill, hot with fever and a racing heartbeat. I don’t have a cell phone, so I had to walk over to Sugandha’s house, where I hoped to find Pete, one of the fifth-year medical students volunteering here as part of a third world medical course. He had already gone to the hospital, so I borrowed Sugandha’s phone to call Kat and Maria, Pete’s classmates, who came straight away. In the meantime, at my prompting, Bimila had called Tej, who called Gehlu.
Kat and Maria examined Krishala, who had a stiff neck, a fever, and extreme sensitivity to light. These are classic signs of meningitis, which can kill within hours. Gehlu came a few minutes later, propped her up in front of him on his motorcycle, and roared off to the hospital. We checked there about an hour later, but could not find Krishala. Hospitals and clinics are notoriously bad here (the doctors don’t come in when it rains, for example), and we could not get a straight answer from anyone. The staff could not seem to understand why we were concerned about a little Nepali girl, not another westerner. Finally we tracked down Gehlu, who could tell us nothing because the results of the tests had not come back yet. He told us that the doctor did not think it was meningitis, however. We went to check up on Krishala, and she did seem a little better. There was nothing that we could do until we got the lab report.
I taught my class at the women’s center. Deelu, who is very wonderful but also very demanding, insisted that I start to teach them math, so from now on Fridays will be math days. I hated math when I was a kid, so I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed teaching it. Most of the women can do easy addition and subtraction, but only a few can multiply and divide. I gave the two advanced women more difficult problems to solve. In addition to other topics that I never thought I’d end up teaching, I’m instructing the women in basic business skills. I’m trying to show them how they can make money by borrowing, investing, and repaying, and reinvesting. Like all things in Nepal, it will take time to get this program underway. We are beginning from a rudimentary level.
Nothing moves quickly. I’ve been pestering the landlord to turn on the water and clean the apartment where the women’s center is for over a week. Shreezanna, who directs the sewing classes and manages the center, simply laid a plastic floor covering over the cement and set up shop. I want to wash the floors first, but I need some help. The whole center is still really dirty—the kitchen is covered in construction dust and the toilet is filthy. I had brought a bucket and some Lysol-like stuff and started to clean the bathroom during our break. Devi, Menuka, and Rayphati would not allow this. They snatched the bucket and rags out of my hands, and within twenty minutes had all the tile, ceramic and chrome gleaming. This was a miracle, since the toilet is a squat-style contraption on the floor, and workers had ground the dust and dirt into the groves where you stand to go. Their cleaning was truly remarkable. The Nepalis are nothing if not industrious, but it can be difficult to get them to start or finish a project.
Speaking of projects completed, I got my kurta suruwal back today. It was finished a couple of days ago, but I wanted to have it taken in at the waist. I had bought fabric in Kathmandu and brought it to the women at the center. They charge very little for their services, but they also double the price in order to benefit the women who are learning to become seamstresses. So, it cost 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) to sew each kurta and suruwal, but I paid 400. These women will likely be the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of the micro-credit program that I’m setting up.
After class, I took a bus—the wrong one, of course—into Kathmandu to meet Kat and Maria for lunch. I ended up walking for long stretches without having any idea where in the city had I gone, asking people in my broken Nepali the way. Finally, one young man in a motorcycle helmet told me to get on a bus that was just pulling up, and so I did. It took me a little closer to my destination, Thamel, but I still wandered and begged for directions for another half hour or so. Getting lost is never really a problem, because people are friendly and kind, and taxis are plentiful. I don’t like to spend the money on a cab, since the buses cost about 15 cents and I’m trying to get my bearings by walking. I finally arrived at the restaurant, La Dolce Vita, a touristy joint that claims to serve the best Italian in Nepal.
It was great to be eating penne pomodoro with what looked like real basil leaves on top, but I won’t be going back there again. I could not finish my meal because I got sick halfway through it. I thought I had simply eaten too much and needed to walk it off. When I started to collapse on the street, Kat and Maria rushed me into a café, where I threw up into an airplane sick-bag that Kat miraculously whipped out of her backback just in the nick of time. Then they lay me out on three chairs and pressed a cloth with ice in it to my forehead, wrists, neck, and cheeks. I felt like a complete idiot. There I was, pale white woman with golden hair in a green and red kurta, having a fainting spell. Somehow it seemed so cliché. But Kat and Maria insisted that this sort of things happens all the time. When I sat up I was still quite nauseous and dizzy, but Kat produced an anti-emetic from her magic bag. They said I had become dehydrated, which made some sense. I still wanted to blame the food.
Of course the monsoon broke just as we tiptoed out into the road to go home, and there were no taxis available. When you don’t want one, taxis pull up and pester you every five minutes. We took a bus, but had to change at Ratna Park, where we waited like beggars in the rain for the bus to Pepsi-Cola. After we were thoroughly soaked we snagged a cab, which cost us another 400 rupees, leaving both Kat and Maria broke. They had each changed $20 and spent every cent. It is true that one can live here very cheaply, but not if one is going to tourist restaurants and taking taxis and fainting in cafes where bottled water costs 10 times the price it should. At any rate, by the time we got home the anti-emetic had kicked in and I felt a lot better. I took a shower and headed over to check on Krishala. The report had come in and Gehlu had rushed her back to the hospital. She did not have meningitis, thank goodness, but rather a viral infection of her tonsils. I found her shoveling dhal bhat into her mouth with the other kids at the kitchen table. On the refrigerator were the medicines that the doctor had given her. She was fine and would get better.
There is an even happier ending to this story. While Kat and Maria were examining Krishala, they noticed that the children have no toys whatsoever, not even so much as a ball to throw. They told their parents, who now want to donate some money to buy toys. They are planning to give the toys to the children at a party. Since so few of the kids know when they were born, Kat and Maria want to celebrate all of their birthdays at once. They want to have cake, and candles, and lots of presents individually wrapped. It’s a grand idea. I wish I had the money to get each of them something really wonderful, bicycles, for example. I would love to teach them how to ride. If you have any ideas, or want to give, please let me know.
After a bad bout of the johhny-jump-ups I’m back to work and beginning to settle in. I rise with the rest of the Nepalis, at 5 or so, puddle around on the rooftop garden having tea in my pajamas and then get myself into the shower. On clear mornings I can see the Himalayas looming up behind the Kathmandu Valley hills like a huge, benevolent spirit. I study Nepali for about half an hour and then gather up whatever I’m bringing to the orphanage, and walk two minutes to the west to its gate. There I am greeted by beautiful, cheerful children who throw themselves on me, all six of them wanting to hug me at once. They grab my hands and pull me into the house.
On the way to this delightful destination, I pass intensely thin and dark-skinned women throwing bricks into enormous baskets that hang from straps around their foreheads and balance on their back. They are building a house. Sometimes they stand at a plastic barrel brimming over with water and cement, mixing the water into the sand by hand. Or they are shoveling dirt. They labor in the mud or on rocky ground in full sun from early in the morning until sundown. They wear ragged, faded saris and tie their hair back with the scarves that wealthier women wear properly draped across their chests. They work for men and receive very little to live on. They did not go to school. They have no marketable skills, no property, no support system. If they fall ill, they die. I think about this as I pass them on my way to work that never feels like work in the morning. I salute them with Namaste as I go, and they return the greeting. And then I thank the universe that we have the chance to save Gorima, Nirmala, Anura, and Krishala from their fate. Because of VSN, its staff, and its current and former volunteers, they have a clean and pleasant house, nutritious food, and a good school. They have also been very lucky to find a home with Bimala, who is loving, patient, and kind to them. All of this costs money, and without donors from abroad these kids would end up breaking and hauling rocks or worse. Many Nepali girls are sold into servitude or sexual slavery by parents who can’t afford to keep them. They spend their lives in windowless, dank rooms submitting to rape. Anura, Gorima, Krishala, and Nirmala are lucky. Today I brought earrings for the girls and nothing for the boys, so I’ll have to find something tomorrow.
Well, I’ve got it. My grandfather called this condition the Johnny Jump-Ups. I’ve had mild intestinal discomfort for the past week, and thought I had beaten it. I even ventured into the big city by bus for the day yesterday. But I have been confined to my quarters for the entire day, and have not felt so exhausted for a very long time. I can’t eat anything. Earlier in the day I made the mistake of having some salty crackers, thinking to replenish lost salt. I have been quite nauseous and feverish since then. So here I am in bed with my computer, my link to the world.
Click here to donate to this wonderful woman: HELP LAXMI NOW
I’m very worried about Laxmi, the woman who has been working at Sugandha’s house. As I reported before, she was living with relatives in Pepsi-Cola until quite recently. They moved away, leaving her homeless. I do not know why they did this to her. It is unthinkable for a Nepali family to abandon one of their own and yet it happens all the time. Most of the children in the orphanages have been abandoned or rejected by their parents, usually their fathers. Husbands abandon their wives when they become pregnant, or if the children from her body fail to be male. In this powerfully patriarchal culture, women do not count for much.
Laxmi came to the attention of VSN only because she has been attending English lessons at the orphanage, where the women’s group has been meeting. She is my age, 50, very gentle and kind. When she first arrived she had a strong, full-bellied laugh and a direct gaze. Now, only a week later, she is withdrawn, downcast, and somewhat frightened. She is also very, very anxious. Sugandha arranged for her to live with her sister, but the sister’s generosity has expired, and Laxmi again has no place to sleep. In my very broken Nepali and her weak English, I discerned that she will spend the night at a friend’s house tonight, and that the friend’s house is very far away. Before she could set out on this journey, she needed to eat. She receives two meals of dhal bhat (rice and a watery lentil soup) per day, at 10 am and at 8pm, after the volunteers have eaten. For this she spends the entire day, beginning at 6 am, cleaning and waiting upon the family. She has no source of income. I would like to help her find a secure place to live and a more reliable and dignified way to earn a living.
I have donated an amount of money to set the women’s group up in their own headquarters. These funds will pay a year’s rent on a large flat. I want this place to become a shelter for women like Laxmi, women who have suddenly found themselves cast out, good women who need help.
Right now the apartment stands empty. We need to bring in furniture, a counter-top gas range, a refrigerator and basic household items. Most important of all, we need beds, mattresses, pillows, and sheets. It is vital that we provide a safe harbor where Laxmi and others like her can recover from the trauma that they have undergone, and begin to rebuild their lives.
I am still in the process of bringing this project about, but Laxmi cannot wait. She needs your help now. Any amount that you can give will go directly to her. She is a very strong and capable woman, but she has suffered a severe setback and needs support to get back on her feet again. Please give as much as you can. Your money will help her through this crisis. There are no overhead costs. Every cent will go this deserving woman who needs your help. Please click to HELP LAXMI NOW
This afternoon I concluded my two-hour English lesson for the women’s group with an 10 minute meditation session. All twelve women very agreeably got down onto the floor with me. I kept trying to tell them that, for once they were the teachers and I was the student, but they simply copied everything that I did. If I sat cross-legged, they sat cross-legged. When I sat up on my knees, so did they. Only Susshila refused, thankfully. She is fairly old and portly by Nepali standards and wanted to lean against the wall. This gave everyone the option to sit as they pleased.
Deelu showed me how to hold my hands for chanting Om–arms outstretched on my knees, thumb and forefinger touching–and we got started. We actually ended up chanting Om a few times, sustaining the sound for much longer than I had expected. Then we theoretically lapsed into silence. We were not quiet for 20 seconds, when Susshila and Sova started to chatter in the back of the room. Rayvati began to smile, and I cracked up. This got the rest of the room laughing. And that was my experience meditating with Nepali women.
The monsoons have started. All the trash-filled fields have turned overnight into swamps or lakes. Some kind of bullfrog sounds like sawing wood or braying is under my window. It and the frogs seem to have fallen from the skies. They weren’t here before, were they?
When Brendan and I live in the same house, I am much happier. The keening ache that has become so habitual, I don’t even notice it, stills at last. I become aware of it only when he comes back into my everyday life. Like the summer rain and the sun that returns, he nourishes.
You don’t live apart from your only child from the time he is six and not suffer serious damage. Not if you have a heart, I think.
When Brendan was six years old, his father and I separated. I was just finishing my dissertation and felt as though I had to choose between my was-band and my dream of becoming an English professor. I had supported him financially and emotionally as he went on the academic job market; had moved with him from one position to the next and postponed my education until he was settled, working and earning money to keep the house up; had sold my mother’s jewelry to put a down payment on our house in Arlington, Virginia; and financed my return to graduate school out of my private funds. But once he got tenure he made it clear that he would not be making any sacrifices for me. In fact, he resented the time I devoted to my studies.
He encouraged me to enter a different profession. In retrospect, I see that he was probably right. It probably would have been better to have gotten a job in government relations or nonprofit work. I could have stayed in Arlington and would have made a lot more money and felt a lot more appreciated and respected than I did in academia. But I didn’t know that then.
I had a dream and I wanted to pursue it. I luckily got a good, tenure-track job my first year out on the market, which was hard to do then because there were so few jobs and so many Ph.D.s applying for them. The only trouble was that the job was in Missouri, and we lived in Virginia. To make a living, I had to move. I wanted to bring Brendan with me, and fought a bloody battle with his father for custody. I wasn’t trying to get full custody. I was fighting for joint custody. This I got, but the compromise, which I truly believed was best for Brendan, was to leave him in the home he had grown up in, at the school where he felt comfortable, for two years. After that, he was supposed to come live with me. But when the time came, I took a half-year sabbatical in Washington, D.C. and went on the market again, searching for a job closer to him. I got the job at the University of Pittsburgh and postponed Brendan’s move to my household, again thinking first of his best interests. When the moment finally came for Brendan to come to me, his father balked. I insisted.
The chair of my new department promised me that Brendan would be able to go to the University School, and Michael, my was-band, reluctantly agreed that it would be a good place for him. Nevertheless he remained so angry about having to give him up—even though this was something that he had agreed to and that had already been postponed for an entire year—that he dropped his son off with his clothes in a cardboard box and not a single pair of shoes.
So Brendan came to Pittsburgh, but lo, the school that he was supposed to go to said that they did not have any room for him. I appealed to my chair for help, because I knew that he had had enough clout to get the son of another professor, who only taught one semester a year, in. He claimed he could do nothing for me..
Had I known that Brendan would be put onto a waiting list, and not admitted into the university school, I would not have taken the job. I would have stayed in St. Louis, where there was an excellent school with room for Brendan. I did not prefer this option because my aim had always been to keep both parents in my son’s life.
So now I had him with me but no school to send him to. The local public institution was a magnet school, and Brendan would have to pass a test in German to get in. He took lessons and did very well, but not well enough to pass the test. So he was bussed halfway across the city to a school where he felt afraid of the children.
He was there on 9/11. A plane had gone down outside of Pittsburgh, and all the teachers and students at the university were sent home. But I could not get word from Brendan’s school about his whereabouts until many hours later. Everyone has his or her own memory of that terrifying day. I remember people on bicycles, foot, and in cars streaming away from the city. We believed we were under attack, and fled all tall buildings. I could not find out what had happened to Brendan. The school did not answer calls. He didn’t have a cell phone. He was only 9.
Furthermore, bullies tormented him on the bus and at school. It was clear that the district was not going to do anything about it. I took him out of the public system, which was very poor, especially in comparison to the Arlington schools, and enrolled him in a private, Catholic academy just down the street from me. My teaching schedule—given to me by someone who knew I had a school-age child—kept me on campus for an hour after school let out. So he was home alone for a little over an hour each day. I cycled home as fast as I could and got it down to 8 minutes.
The kids at the Catholic school bullied Brendan even more than the public school kids had, partly because the principal humiliated him, who was then in the fifth grade, by forcing him to sit with the second-graders for math. I tried yet another private, secular, alternative school, which only had room for him in the fourth grade class. I interviewed the hoity-toity establishments in town and quickly discerned that I lacked the cash to get or keep him in them. In short I considered every alternative available to me and then some.
Brendan became very depressed. He started to say alarming things such as “I wish I were dead,” and “I’m just going to throw myself in front of a train.” He grew more and more morose and withdrawn, and did not want to talk to his father when he called. The was-band, being more childish than his son, threw a fit about it and, in a churlish fit of spite, dis-invited Brendan from Thanksgiving with his grandparents, whom Brendan loved and wanted to see. His own father actually instructed me to inform Brendan that, if he would not come to the phone, then he would never speak to him again. I knew that I was both stronger and wiser than the was-band, and that if Brendan were to have both parents in his life, I would have to make the sacrifice. I drew strength from Lao-Tzu, who said the master is strong because she bends like a willow. In a storm she bends all the way to the ground but does not break like the oak, who foolishly barrels up to difficulty with his manly chest.
I also knew that Brendan was struggling so much on the social level at school, where he was being savaged, that he was in danger of a serious breakdown. He would not thrive here. When we talked about it, he was visibly relieved but he also said, “You’re nicer,” and that a part of him felt very sad about going, but another part knew that it was for the best. He missed his friends and the school in which he felt relatively strong and confident.
I was renting a crap apartment on the edge of a very active graveyard. Burials at least once daily. Not a happy place. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to Pittsburgh because the per capita percentage of depressed people is so high. They say it’s because it rains a lot. The chubby kid across the street was treated terribly by his dreary hippie, unthinkingly politically correct parents, who continuously pointed out that he was their adopted son of a crack addict who had ruined him in the womb.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve come to love Pittsburgh for all kinds of reasons, but I hated it then. After Brendan went back to Arlington I hated it more. I used to collapse on the kitchen floor and weep. Or I’d go lie down on his bed and breathe through the pain, try to accept not fight it. I came completely undone. I went into the darkness. Those years in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, during which I could not physically mother or protect my child, where the hardest and most painful in my life.
The university had a lot to do with that. One of my friends, who was a brilliant philosopher who had her pick of the top jobs in England and America, swore that the institution itself had infected her with a virus, from which she later died. True story. She was a Platonist and a feminist, and fussy old patriarchal bastards ran the department. Another friend, the head of the women’s studies program left the university because she was so pissed off at her colleagues, who had slapped the wrists of a married guy in her department, a medium bigwig in the tiny academic pond, when they found out that he had been handing out lucrative scholarships to the female students he was fucking. The woman who replaced my friend in Women’s Studies was and remains mad, insane, crazy, ooby-shooby.
Worst time in my life, but it’s over. Through persistence, diligence, and many tears, I kept the bond. We like as well as love each other. And here we are in Nepal. We went up to the top of the house after everyone else had gone to bed, and listened. We hugged, and then joked with one another as we parted. His room is directly above mine.
The night air is throbbing with frogs. It rained hard earlier but the rain has ebbed. It is pleasantly temperate, neither too warm nor too cool.
I had a magical day with beautiful and affectionate children, as well as with a group of women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have a fantastic sense of humor and are genuinely down-to-earth. I’m learning Nepali as fast as I can so that I can talk to them, hear and tell their stories. But Nepali is hard. It’s written in the same script as Sanskrit. Spoken Nepali is a lot easier but the language doesn’t really make sense, I think, until you learn the script. How did I get here? It’s a long story and I’m trying to tell it. What am I doing here? Writing is supposed to help me figure that out.
Here is a verse from the second chapter of the Dhammapada,
A practitioner delighting in diligence,
Seeing dread in negligence,
Advances as a fire—
Every fetter, coarse and subtle, burns.
I am not sure I am practicing diligence or not. I am staying up way too late to write and edit this blog, and I am taking tomorrow off to go with Brendan to Thamel to buy sandals for him and books for me. I need a Nepali-English dictionary, and some guide to writing Devanagari. It is neither necessary nor wise, anyways, to adhere to strictly to any teachings.
Did you know that Buddhism spread from Nepal to India and the Tibet? The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in what is now known as Nepal in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. He rejected the Hindu belief in a creator god and the caste system. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, my hosts and neighbors, developed a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism with a strong emphasis on tantra. The Buddhist part of that blend faded as orthodox Hindu immigrants from what is now India swarmed into the Valley. Buddhism declined severely from the 18th through the 20th century, but was revived by Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, has a more structured set of beliefs and practices than the native strain. Has my exposure to Buddhism through yoga helped to bring me here? Absolutely. I’m thrilled, moved, awed by the physical nearness of the great Stupa, Boudanath, one of the holiest Buddhist places on earth. I expected to feel this way. What I had not anticipated is how much I am also drawn to Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu sites this side of the Ganges. Because I’m not Hindu (i.e., white), I can’t enter the shrine, but I did witness the majesty of the place, with its deer park, Mrigasthali Ban, supposedly the site where Vishnu appeared as a stag, and the burning cremation pyres and the orange-swathed bodies on the bank of the Bagwamati River.
Bhisal took me there, and explained that he had recently attended a funeral on the very site where a body—heaped with wood—was burning. Knowing this made the sight all the more serious and disturbingly beautiful. Bishal also told me that there was a Buddhist burial ground in the jungle on the east side, where the monkeys live.
I like the idea of advancing as a fire, burning away all impediments in my path. But I’d like to do more than destroy and consume. I’d like to be in the light and to be the light, but I don’t know how I feel about the concept of burning up everything, including myself, even though I understand that what ceases to be is dross, not the gold inside each being. Something valuable remains, but this is not simply the spirit, separated from the body. The spirit cannot live without the body, body and mind are mutually informing and enlivening parts of a unity, yin and yang, not opposites, but component elements.