Al-Anon


Just back from my first al-anon meeting.  Mostly women, mostly 40+.  One woman, whom I liked especially, let it be know that her husband was in the next room with 37 years of sobriety.  How depressing.  They’ve been going to AA meeting for 37 years, and that is why they are still married?

What bugs me most about the whole AA/Al-anon program is the god stuff.  Every single person who spoke today talked about god.  One woman said that the only way she could get through each day was by praying, to god.  Who, she then said, has everything planned out, and therefore all she needs to do is trust in “HIM” and things will be fine.

What a philosophy!!! To believe there is a “higher power,” a being, a MALE being, who has set it all up exactly as we find things, and who loves us, and that is why we are all suffering so much.  More unbelievable is the notion that one has only to trust in this god, and “let go” and all will be well.   In other words, one has absolutely no other responsibility for one’s existence and that of one’s children and loved ones but to thank god endlessly for being there.  The utterly illogical assertion that this god has also allowed things to go absolutely haywire intentionally–the wars in the Congo, where children are raped and forced to murder daily; child sex trafficking in Pittsburgh and other fine cities in the U.S.,; wars from which our young people return irrevocably damaged by trauma; the Holocaust; the genocide of the Armenians; the persecution of women who dare to think for themselves in countless countries across the globe; the devastation of the environment and wildlife; the slaughter of elephants for their tusks and wolves for sheer greed and bloodlust–all of this has been preordained and meant to be…and we humans should simply sit back and thank god and feel grateful for all that “HE” has done for us.

There is absolutely no evidence for a creator of any kind, and the concept of a god, or gods plural, is mythological.  So I find it exceedingly taxing to sit among a group of credulous human beings who tell me that all my problems and worries will be taken care of if only I have faith in what I could never possibly believe in.

I tried to open my heart and mind and listen to these people.  When they mentioned “god” I consciously attempted to make the leap between my notion of breath, or ruha, or life-spirit that abides in the universe, being, with their concept of god.  I found many of their comments moving, especially when they referred specifically to their individual worries.  They did not share much in this vein.  Most of the discussion tonight appealed to me quite a bit, since it concerned their thoughts about what the phrase, “one day at a time,” means, and nearly everyone spoke about their efforts to stay in the present and to be happy with what they could be happy about, in spite of all their cares.  I was moved to tears on more than one occasion.

I could not join in with them, not even on this abstract heart-open to open-heart space level, with them, when they recited the Lord’s Prayer at the end.  I know this prayer by heart, as they say, and can speak it without thinking, as I did when I was five.  But now that I am in my fifties, I’ve had a long time to think about it.  Aside from all the “thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” business, which is perfect hogwash, there is also the particularly disturbing line, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those…”, which is often translated as “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  The language is financial, having to do emotional and social/spiritual obligations that have, since the very earliest Church fathers, such as Augustine, been construed in terms of money, property, exchange.  The ancient idea is that god, this mythical deity, allowed humans to live in exchange for their perpetual bond to him (this deity having been imagined as masculine, since the culture that produced this myth was patriarchal), which would only be paid off, redeemed, as the term went, when the human fulfilled his or her duties sufficiently to be reunited with the father, had paid off the original debt, which came about at birth.  It’s a fairly bizarre way to understand the relationship between humanity and a creator, but the concept has been with us for a long time.  It comes from our history of enslaving one another, and selling girls or women to men as “concubines” or “women” (there is actually no word for wife or marriage in the early scriptures). Not a pretty history.

I’ve written extensively about this in my unpublished manuscript, not that that makes any difference right now.  The point is, all of my intellect rebels against the mythological beliefs that underlay al-anon.  Believing in a creator god who has benevolently dispensed all that has come to past, including my son’s tremendous lostness, forlornness, and profound pain, psychological distress…this is not going to help me.  This DOES NOT HELP ME FIGURE OUT HOW TO HELP MY SON OR MYSELF.

Still, I’m not giving up. There are no secular groups in Pittsburgh.  I need to talk to other parents who have gone through what I’m going through.  I need help.  My partner doesn’t want to talk about it.  He doesn’t want to talk about anything “dark,” as though by refusing to countenance grief and sorrow these emotions will simply never occur.  I’m profoundly lonely.

Kafka in Kathmandu


2 August 2011

Kafka in Kathmandu

What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals?  I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day.  At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate.  One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone.  Someone had stolen them.

I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them.  Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking books, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot.  My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.

I found myself walking less and less.  After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I.  I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable.  The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.

Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO).  My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city.  The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.

We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall.  When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier.  They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,

“Hello, name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”

Neither of them said a word.  I repeated my statement.  They mumbled something in return.

“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.

They responded again but I could not comprehend.  Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building.  We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings.  I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.

We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room  At a large wrap-around desk in the center  a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.

“Yes?” she demanded crisply.

“Room 32?”  I asked.

She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive.  We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English.  Room 30, 31, 32 this way.  We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms.  Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length.  We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter.  I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.

“What is your name?”  the official asked.

I told him.  He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.

“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged.  Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.

“You look for your package,” the man ordered.

We obeyed.  After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished.  But no.  The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter.  He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.

We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes.  The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.

We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk.  He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book.  He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form.  Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.

She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse.  Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta.  We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.

We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog.  In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.

“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.

We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive.  Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter.  This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me.  We waited.  Mr. Shrestha failed to show.

I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait.  Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.

Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared.  He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package.  Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.

“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.

But no, he did not hand them over.  Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31.  Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked.  We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax.  I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.

We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.

As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”

“Never quite so much as today,” I said, laughing.

O Nepal.  How I miss you.

Compassion and Capability


I feel a strong, emotional connection with Kat and Maria, best friends who are just beginning their fifth year of medical school in Northern England.  They are very grounded in their femininity, very earthy, compassionate and capable.  Both of them are strikingly beautiful, although quite different, like the sisters Rose-White and Rose-Red.  Kat has pale, milky skin, light blue eyes, and long, waving golden hair.  Maria has olive skin, large, luminous dark eyes, and long, thick, black hair.  Kate is delicate, somewhat nervous, and compulsive, while Maria is steady and athletic.  They are both skilled, intelligent, strong and able to bring about the good that they seek.

Maria and Kat with Joost, Brendan, Pete, Angela, and Sophia in between them

They remind me of best friends in my family history.  My grandmother, Solveig Kristoffersen immigrated from Oslo, Norway to Rosebud, Alberta, Canada, and  went to nursing school with Hilda Hanson. Solveig later worked as a nurse in British Columbia and California, while Hilda became a midwife and eventually opened her own obstetrical clinic in the tiny farming town where she was born. Solveig married Hilda’s quiet brother, Alfred at a double wedding with Hilda and her beloved.

 

Hilda, Alfred, and Solveig on their honeymoon, heading from Canada to California

Observing Kat and Maria at the beginning of their careers has given me a lot to think about.  I’ve been asking myself where my zeal for scholarship disappeared to.  When I was 23, as they are now, I was living in cold-water flat with a poorly functioning coal oven at the top of a pre-war building in Hamburg, and applying to graduate school in Comparative Literature.   I got accepted at Columbia U, Washington U and Berkeley.  Washington U even offered me a scholarship.   I chose Cal because I was so homesick. I should have gone to St. Louis.  At Berkeley I suffered a catastrophe that set me back.  One of my professors, who was and still is very famous both for his scholarship and his habit of sleeping with his students, raped me and then threatened to destroy my career if I told anyone about it.

Yes, it was rape.  He pushed himself on me and I said no.  He said, “you American women say no when you mean yes” and then did what he wanted to.  I deadened my mind.  I was 23 years old and taking a course with him.  I wrote a crap paper on Pride and Prejudice. He gave me an  A.

I dropped out of graduate school for 8 years, during which time I wrote legislation and speeches for a U.S. Congresswoman, and became the Assistant Director of Government Affairs and Director of State Affairs at New York University, taught part-time at Vassar College, got married, and had a baby.  I returned to graduate school when my son was 2, whizzed through the program and got a job my first time out on the market.

My marriage did not survive my academic career, and my academic career did not survive my separation from my son.  I became so depressed living apart from him that I could not focus fully on my work, even though I spent all my time doing it.  My manuscript is about 600 pages long.  Much of it is quite good.  I loved writing it but could not figure out how to finish it, nor could I see the point of publishing it, other than to jump through the hoop I had to clear to get tenure.  No one would read it.  It no longer seemed to be a means to effect positive change in the world.

I left the university and started to volunteer full-time as a legal advocate for women whose boyfriends, husbands, and fathers routinely demean and beat them up.  Now I’m trying to get a women’s center going in Nepal.  It’s not quite the glamorous life I had imagined.  I fantasized about saving Nepali girls from the clutches of slave-traders and pimps, policing the borders and invading illegal orphanages to rescue forgotten children.

Yet every morning I help little girls who used to be slaves get ready for school.  They greet me at the gate of the orphanage, kiss and clutch my hands and pull me into play with them.

Pittsburgh to Doha


I’m taking my son, Brendan, to Nepal, for two months this summer.   At first he was really excited, but now he tells me that he does not quite understand why he feels so miserable about leaving the United States and going to teach English in a Buddhist monastery.  He worries that he will not know what to do in the classroom, and it does not help that he has received very little information about the age his students will be, or which monastery he will be teaching in, or what he will be expected to do.  He is afraid that he will not enjoy the work,  that he will be lonely, and that in the two months that he spends in Nepal the world that he knows at home will go on without him. I suspect that he unconsciously fears that he will be different when he returns.

Although he was thrilled and enthusiastic when I first proposed the trip, he has balked every step of the way since it started.  After he packed his bags, he sent me a text saying that he did not want to go.  We talked about it and he felt better.  He even returned to his silly self when he filmed me at the airport:

We flew to JFK .  Over a very nice, very expensive dinner, he tried to talk me into letting him fly back to Pittsburgh.  His distress was real, and deep, but I knew he would regret not going ahead with the trip in the long run, and I could also see that he wanted me to hold firm and help him keep to this path.

Sometimes the path is very painful, frightening, and hard.  Two weeks before departure, my boyfriend Tim, who has lived with me for the past three years, abruptly broke up with me, out of the blue.   I was driving on Route 8 North at the time, with two loose dogs in the back seat, and I only managed to keep the car safely on the road because my biological response to profound and catastrophic situations is to shift into a robot-like rationality and calm.   Later on, when the initial danger has passed, is when I fall apart.   I am still falling apart a little bit.

I knew we were going through a rough time, but I also thought I knew that we loved each other dearly and would work through it.  I didn’t understand how unhappy he was because he never told me.   Looking back on it, I cannot say when he changed, or when what had been abiding love for me transformed into courtesy.  He says he still loves me, but that he only now realizes how important it is for him to be with someone who is more like his mother, a devout Catholic and avid sports fan.  I’m an atheist and I can’t stand American football.  I thought the fact that we loved each other in spite of our differences was the important thing.

He has been very nice about it all, very sincere, very courteous.  He will stay in my house while I am gone and look after our dogs.  He drove us to the airport and told me I could ask just about anything of him.   My mind boggles.  What had been a certain reality wavered and evaporated, like a mirage in the desert.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who hold  such grudges,

hostility is not appeased.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who forgo such grudges,

Hostility ceases.

So reads the first chapter of the Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings on the way.  No good, no peace, no happiness will come to me if I complain and wail and moan about what my boyfriend, whom I loved very much, did or did not do to me.   I am suffering, yes.  My heart aches.  But how I respond to this particular experience will determine how I will feel in the next few months and the more distant future.  I choose to let go lovingly.  As the Buddha says,

In this world

Hostilities are never

appeased by hostility.

But by the absence of hostility

are they appeased.

This in an interminable truth.

I am here on this journey with my son, my only child, in order to give back to him some of the attention and care that I could not give to him for most of his life.  His father and I divorced when he was six, and due to a set of unfortunate circumstances Brendan spent all of his school years in his father’s house.  I lived far from him and saw him only once a month, sometimes for only a few hours, during that period.  When I dropped him off at his father’s house, into which I was rarely invited, I wept at the side of the road in my car.  Because I diligently worked to have a relationship with him, we are very close now.

We had a very easy 13-hour flight to Doha in exit row seats on Qatar Airlines.  Best airplane food I’ve ever had.  Both Brendan and I slept most of the way.  Then we took a taxi to our elegant hotel, an old-fashioned Arabian manor with hand-carved mahogany doors and marble floors, right in the middle of the souq.

Shortly after this video, Brendan broke down again.  I thought he was having an allergy attack, but he was crying.   We are both limping along at the start of our journey together.

He needed some time along so I wandered out into the souq, a warren of covered walkways and open air courtyards, cafes and shops.  I quickly came back because I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone at night, and a few men had made comments to me.   I asked Brendan to come out  with me.  I wanted him to see how beautiful it all was–the men in long white robes and headdresses, the women in sleek black abayas sitting in the outdoor cafes smoking hookahs—the coffee shops and the spices in bulky burlap bags, the men lounging over their dinners and beautiful women in turquoise headdresses.  Our hotel sits at the edge of the souq, where the bird-sellers hawk feathered and furry creatures, stacking cages of chicks on top of kittens.

He came out and we walked here:

Then we settled down into an outdoor cafe, where I ordered hummos and tabbouleh, which were delicious and fresh, just as spicy and lemony as Tim’s concoctions, and maybe even a tiny bit better.  I also ordered what I thought would be a minty-apple drink, but which turned out to be a hookah.  The smoke made me light-headed and slightly sick to my stomach.  Brendan sank down into his funk again while I prattled on about how lovely it was to be out in the Arabian night admiring the parade of tourists and locals.  We came back to the hotel.  Brendan retreated into the familiar comfort of the internet and I wrote this blog.

It is now 3:22 am, Qatar time, and the muzzeins are singing beautiful prayers into the darkness.  Brendan has scrambled out the door to look over the balcony towards the sound.  Here is a video of the view that he is looking at.

The first lines of the Dhammapada are:

Preceded my mind

are phenomena,

led by mind,

formed by mind.

If with mind polluted

one speaks or acts,

then pain follows,

as a wheel follows

the draft ox’s foot.

The words are profound and simple.  Our minds–both our individual consciousnesses and the ancestral/cultural consciousness that we each inherit–shapes, forms, and interprets the mental objects, the phenomena that we encounter in this life.   It is not the other way around.  We are not blank slates, not clay tablets that life writes itself upon, but rather intelligent and emotional beings who interpret everything that we encounter.  Therefore it is important to free ourselves from the bad habits that we have inherited or learned.

We unlearn bad habits–delusional thinking, hatred, violent, attachments to passions–by meditating and becoming more conscious of how we respond to phenomena, and more conscious of how we wish to respond.

Both Brendan and have begun this journey in pain.  Some of that pain is unavoidable.  The Buddha taught that all beings experience pain.  He also said that he taught one thing and one thing only: pain and its cessation.

The first of the four noble truths is that we cannot avoid pain.  What we do have some control over is how we respond to the pain that we feel.  We can either behave and speak in ways that will prolong the pain and increase our suffering, or we can behave and speak in ways that will lead beyond the pain to a sense of ease.

The Buddha said,

If with mind pure

one speaks or acts

then ease follows

as an ever-present shadow.

Neither Brendan nor I know what we will encounter on this journey.  We know that we will be living with a Nepali family, but we do not know where that family home is, or how many people are in it, or when we will begin living there.  Tomorrow we fly to Kathmandu.  We are scheduled to arrive at midnight, and our very kind Nepali host will meet us there, so late at night.   We have much to learn, but we also have much to unlearn.

Bikram Day 61, Margaret, and why I love Bruno’s Garage


Margaret is my 1985 Jeep Cherokee Grand Wagoneer.  Here we are crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is an awesome place:

Margaret and Me Crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Imagine her covered with hoar frost and snow, and sporting a festive wreath on her front grill.  The Idaho license plate is still there (in Pennsylvania, you only need one plate, on the back of the vehicle).   Imagine me bundled up in my faux-fur brown coat and incredibly warm and fabulous La Candienne boots.  The Canadians alone seem to understand cold-weather fashion.

Margaret runs great.  Her mileage is 86,000 and I’ve had to make only minor repairs to keep her going.  Still,  for the longest time I’ve been able to unlock the car only on the driver’s side.   Today that barrel broke down completely, and the key would not turn, so I could not get into the car.  The lock was not frozen, but jammed, kaput, fertig.

Therefore, I could not go to yoga.  Instead of sweating it out at 105 degrees, I stood waiting for the AAA guy to jimmy the lock at 13.6 degrees.  Then I drove Margaret down to Bruno’s Garage.  It’s the best, the cheapest, and the most honest place in my neighborhood.

Highland Parkers: don’t take your car to Iezzi’s.  They always jack up the charges by telling you that your car needs extra stuff.  The last time I took Margaret in there for her annual inspection, I ended up $500 poorer.  Did I really need new shocks on all four wheels?  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.  The point is, I don’t trust them.  They never explain why they have done what they do and simply hand me a big bill.  At Bruno’s, the main mechanic, Mike, always shows me the old part, explains how and why it had failed, and helps me to understand why I needed the work done.  I never worry that they are taking advantage of me because I am a woman and relatively ignorant about cars.  Margaret is old enough to be somewhat comprehensible.  I like older cars for exactly this reason.

Yes, I should have taken “the beast” (Margaret’s other name) to Bruno’s, but they’re impossible to get on the phone and always backed up.  You have to drive the car down there, make an appointment in person, and then bring the car back.  Sometimes I forget to bring the car in when I’m supposed to, and have to go through the whole process again.

The great thing about  Mike and Greg, the brothers who own and run Bruno’s, is that they let me leave the car there in an emergency.  Today I figured I’d have to leave Margaret unlocked in my neighborhood until they could fit her in.  They know that it is a bad idea to leave a car unlocked in our neighborhood, so they said they’d find room for her in their garage and fix her as soon as possible.  It took me less than 15 minutes to walk home.   Unfortunately, leaving the car at the shop made me carless, and it was too late to round up another way down to the yoga studio.

To stay on schedule, I’m going to have to borrow a car and do two classes in a row.  It’s not so bad.  At 13 degrees under gloomy Pittsburgh skies, it’s hardly punishment to spend three hours in a hot, brightly lit rooms.  Yes, I’ll be tired.   No, I’m not looking forward to it.  But I know I’ll feel great afterwards.  I always do.