The Beauty of Being Very Quiet


man-writing-with-quill-penWhen I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English.   We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes.  She also served as a babysitter from time to time.

The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children.  They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture.   One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen.  I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert.  I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space.  I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.

I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary.  It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable.  It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening.  I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.

This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa,  in the Sütras of Pantanjali.    Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill.  Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.

As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe.  I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment.  This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.

The Path: Dream. August 7, 2013


Entered then upon this path
you’ll make an end of dukkha.
Freed in knowledge from suffering’s stings
the Path’s proclaimed by me.  (Buddha, Dhammapada)

 

DSC01194I have a new lover, an orthodox Jew, a professor, a good, kind, honest, gentle man. We spend a lot of time in my apartment, which is in Paris, or Prague, or Berlin, or London, where I am on fellowship.  As usual, I have brought far too many books.

I lug shelves and shelves of books around with me in my dreams, and here is another room filled with volumes I rarely open, but feel a need to have around me.  They comfort me.  They also slow me down.  Moving is difficult.

My new lover manages to travel through the world with far fewer tomes than I do, and I respect him for this, believing that he is more intelligent and wiser than I am. Yet one of his students catches him saying, “I have had to speculate because there are no books on drugs,” and points to an enormous, cracked black leather tome above his head.  The spine reads “Drögen” or “drugs” in a language we don’t know well but which my lover knows well.  I am awed by him because he speaks French and Polish and Spanish and Hebrew and German and Arabic fluently while I am losing my German and French.

We are thinking about getting married.  I overhear his parents saying,  “it’s all right, but they just don’t have that spark,” the joyfulness that has kept them together for so many years.  It is true.  We don’t delight one another, but we are pleased to be together, and we are good for one another.  And he is warm, good enough.

It occurs to me that I have never seen his apartment.  I know very little about him.  He agrees to invite me over to spend the night, but this throws the whole family into a whirl.  Suddenly sisters and female cousins turn up.  I begin to suspect that they live with him, and maybe also his mother.  It will be all right, but people and schedules will have to realign for this enormous occasion.

Meanwhile I feel like going for a walk, a long walk.  He suggests that I take the path across the mountains, from which there are beautiful, sweeping views, over to the ocean and my homeland.  I love the idea and set out.

I see him ahead of me on the path, which runs through a crowded city street.  He is with a friend, a male friend.  I call out to them, “wait for me!  I’m coming!” But I am too slow and they are soon lost far ahead.  I hurry to catch up but never do.

The path changes from a narrow dirt line worn by thousands of feet in the grass; it winds through forests, where it sometimes runs in red brick or yellow stone obscured by soil and pine needles.  It crosses streams and stretches across hills waving tall, pale grasses, rising up through lonely, rocky mountain passes and swerving so steeply up muddy slides that I can barely summit them.  It threads through cities and towns, where I lose track of it, because it has been paved over.  Again and again I ask, “where is the path? I am looking for the path, have you seen it?”  Most people have never heard of the path, but occasionally I meet someone who caught sight of it, behind her, or “over there,” or “just on the other side of that hill.”  I stumble around lost and anxious until I find it again, its reassuring red brick partly hidden in grass or debris.

The path grows longer as I travel, always alone, although many others, including my lover, have taken it before me. But it is much longer than I thought it would be, and far more dangerous.

Children ram their sleds into me as I stagger up into the mountains.  They are boys, nearly naked, and they have three, sometimes four, long, bony legs twisted all together, like tree roots tangled across the path, obstructing my way.  I fear them.  They effortlessly race up the mountain that I, toe-hold by fingernail, crawl up.  The summit is too slippery and steep.  I can’t make it.  One of them catches my outreached hand and pulls me to safety.

I travel on and on, losing and finding the path, fearful and fretful most of the time, calm when my feet tread steadily and surely on the path.   I know I must stay on the path.  The path is my only hope, the only way home.  To the people I meet on the path, I say, “I must find the path,” or “I am following the path.”

I cannot see him, but I feel the presence of my lover watching over me.  The journey is perilous but he has stationed helpers and friends along the way.  I meet with many challenges and tragedies and frequently fall into despair and weeping and pain.  Yet every time I think, “this is the end, I will not make it, I will die here,” someone who knew my lover appears and helps me to find the path again.  Thus I travel alone not friendless.

I need clothing to stay warm and come into a store where I acquire a short, knit dress that I wear over a long, cotton gown.  Underneath I have a long-sleeved white tee-shirt.  One of my lover/protector’s friends pays for them.

I have to defecate, but there are no conventional toilets in this country, which is vaguely France.  One has to squat in a shower-like room that has no door for privacy and very little toilet paper.  It is embarrassing. I think I have only pissed but one of the people I am with points to a pile of blood and feces on the floor where I squatted. I do not think it is mine.  I thought I had finished with bleeding, I say to myself.  I am unconcerned and leave the people and wander through an ancient city jumbled with gothic churches and shining, chrome office buildings, open plazas with tables and chairs and gardens, narrow alleys and dark, massive, 19th-century apartment buildings.

Running from robbers, I turn into a bakery, where I see cakes and wonder if there is anything less sugary to eat.  I need food.  I have money but the shop-owner refuses to take pounds or dollars.  I have only a few francs.   One of the men working there pays for me and invites me to  drink a small bottle of wine with him.   The baker gives me some tickets for trains and buses in that country.

The best way to follow the path is to walk on it, but it is allowed to travel by train or bus that runs alongside the path from time to time.  Resting on a bus, I glimpse the path disappearing across a high grassy ridge along the cliff, near an ocean.  The  bus travels swiftly inland, away from the coast.  I plead with the bus driver to stop and let me off. “Be careful!” he calls out to me as he pulls away.

Two suspicious cars I spotted from the bus as we passed them now pull down the road I am following back to the hill where I think the path lies.  They trail behind me and then stop, blocking my way.  Three men and two women with dark hair and mean eyes jump out and confront me.  “Where do you think you’re going?”  I am afraid to tell them.  I don’t remember how I escaped them–perhaps I dodge into the bush.

I worry about the time passing but know that somehow my lover, who now feels more like my protector, my guide, even my god, will enable and empower me to reach my destination.  The angry people from the cars are still behind me. The boy with the tree-root legs who helped me before suddenly appears beside me, running.  “We have reached it!” he shouts and then throws himself into a portal that looks like a television screen that swallows him instantly.  I jump towards the screen but stumble.  The car-people are breathing in my ear.  I leap once again towards the screen and find myself on the other side, where I find the boy and an old gentleman with a neat white beard.

We have reached the destination but the path does not end.

The old gentleman clothes us in silver and gold chain mail and we are transformed into fat round little spheres with legs and arms and square heads.  Then we morph out of our suits and are ourselves again, and but our little, warrior selves are still running around our feet in their chain mail.  Then they transform into woven gold stallions with woven silver knights astride them.   It symbolizes our achievement, or advancement to some spiritual plateau.

I am running a dress shop and put my woven gold and silver figure on my desk, but the desk it dirty so I go into the back room to get paper towels and water to clean.  I tell my employee, a middle-aged woman at the front desk, to watch the shop.  She leaves the room, however, and a robber comes in and steals the statue.

I don’t know who has stolen it but one of my friends intervenes and helps me to catch a couple speeding away on a motorcycle.  They crash and the statue comes rolling out from under their clothing.  We take them to court.

While dreaming these scenarios I awakened several times, knowing that I had not finished the dream and desiring to return to it.  When I finally awakened, my mind was filled with a deep longing for “the path.” I had a splitting headache and a severe, allergic reaction to the red wine I drank the night before.  I felt angry with myself for drinking so much and wished that I had found a better way to cope with my discomfort the previous day, when, instead of dealing directly with my worries about my son and sense of loneliness and confusion, I went to a bar with a girlfriend.  There I saw a lot of my old drinking friends, and it was truly lovely to see them again.

It seemed to me that this was a simple dream about needing to stay on the path of health and well-being, aka, the path on which I choose to sit with my discomfort and pain instead of numbing myself with wine.

Still, in recounting it here, I see much mysterious symbolism, and many other messages that I wish to consider.

On Pantanjali, the Self, and why I practice and teach yoga


The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe.  In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says.  This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.

The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning.  In other words, the “I” is the sum  of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be.  One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken.  Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya.  But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization.  Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go.  It leads into more suffering, not away from it.

In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while.  A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body.  Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.

Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being.  Some days I am strong.  Some days I am weak.   Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing.   When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable.   Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.

The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.”  Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings.  My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.

Image

Gelek Rimpoche

Tibetan Buddhist lama Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek relates a wisdom from seventh-century Indian pundits, who said “You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not.  If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it.  If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy?  The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.”  Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him,  Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable.  Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean?  Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.”The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.

The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about.  We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma.  We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow.   If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.

We don’t have to do this.  Why do we do it?  Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity.   If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.

The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.

I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence.  My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).

No.  For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.

As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,

The Buddha was not a mystic.  His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.  He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.”  Buddha did not found a religion.  He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.

This is how I understand yoga.  Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.

My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.

The Place that Grants all Wishes


I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:

Boudhanath

Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful.  They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.

What are my wishes:

1.  I wish to heal.  Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.

2. I wish for true companionship.

3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.

The first wish is nearly granted.  I am a good mother if hardly conventional.  I have done my best.  This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead.  It requires a sacrifice.  I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment.  But it is time to return.  The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me.  It called to me and I came.  There was much to learn.  Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:

That I love my son.

That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.

That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.

He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me!  This makes me laugh.  Bravo! I am shouting.  Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!

I like Boudha.  I could spend a long time here.  It is a good place.  I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora.  I liked riding my bicycle here.

I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour.  He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald.  He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists.  He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest.  He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board.  His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again.  He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it.  He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.

I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:

“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”

“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”

The Buddha says,

“It is whole.  All is well.  The bond, the bridge, is sturdy.  Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons.  You will never break it.”

The sky is so beautiful tonight.  Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas.  Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.”  Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.

The Decision to Come Home, Part One


August 8, 2011

I’m still jet-lagged and consequently did not put myself to bed last night until 5 am.  The dogs woke me up a few hours later. I let them lay on the bed with me but they couldn’t settle.  So I’m pretty tired right now, plus slightly loopy due to the anti-histamine I just took.   I haven’t mentioned that the stress of coming back, or something I ate, or the fabric in my new kurta, or all of the above, gave me a lovely and acute case of hives, which itched like mad on the long flights home.  Brendan had stomach problems in Nepal, but I had skin problems.  Maddening mosquito bites or bedbug bites or some other noxious insect attack.   And while Brendan is happily scarfing up food as fast as he can, I’m still trying not to scratch the tiny red wheals that have appeared all over my legs and arms.  I should be sleeping, or taking a cold bath, but I have a lot to recount and want to do so before I forget too much.

The Decision to Leave:

From the point of view of my friends and colleagues in Nepal, I made the decision to return to the States with Brendan rather abruptly.  In fact I had been deliberating for many days.  It was a hard decision to make.  It was hard to leave the women’s center and much, much harder to leave Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala.   But I had very strong reasons to go. The most significant reason for returning with Brendan is that we had started out together on a two-month odyssey and needed to come back together for the odyssey to complete.

When I first got to Nepal I was smarting from the break-up.  I didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to face the pain directly, and I also saw how much work there was to do.  I didn’t see how things were with Brendan, in his mind and heart, didn’t recognize how important my presence was for him.  This blindness amazes me in retrospect.  He doesn’t like me talking about him in public, and that is why I haven’t revealed much about how I have come to see in him.  He’s a very strong, intelligent, and complicated young man.  He doesn’t get much attention from his father but never speaks an ill word about him.

I have to find a different way to tell the story.

Brendan developed a great deal of self-confidence and maturity during out time in Nepal, but he is also in a place in which the support and loving presence of his parents is vital.   I had responsibilities in Nepal, but my responsibilities to my son vastly outweighed them.  He was visibly relieved when I announced that I would go back with him, and cheerful, thankful, and great company on the way home.  Going back with him was good for me, too.  Here is what I wrote in my journal on 26 July, while I was still pondering what to do.

Am still feeling restless, dreading the time when Brendan will return, wondering how he will do by himself in Pittsburgh, and worrying that he will not do very well.  I miss him.  He’s here, but in another house, and I miss him.

My need to come back with my son had much to do with what I felt obligated to do for him, help his get a good, strong start to his sophomore year in college, often the most challenging year.  It would have been hard on him to come back to Pittsburgh and move into his room while Tim was still living in the house, and then to go down to college alone, on the bus or the train.   But I also needed to be with him, to spend more time with him.  He is good company, as I said before.  He comforts me.  Perhaps because I spent so many years longing for him, the terrible years when he lived in his father’s house and I could hardly afford to visit him, perhaps that is why I have such a powerful desire to be geographically close to him.

 

Brendan at Nagarkot in his Space Dolphin Shirt

I have a son, 20, not yet fully grown, who I need to take care of. Or rather I need to take care of myself by being a good mother to him.  The mother in me needs to spend time with him.


Grown-up Breakups and the Green Tara


Shit, that was rough.  It didn’t seem so during the event.  I met my ex-boyfriend for dinner at our neighborhood extra-cool restaurant, ostensibly to thank him for all the wonderful things he did for me before I got home.  He stocked the fridge and pantry with all my favorite must-have items (greek no-fat yogurt, blueberries, pineapple, lactaid, brie, triscuits, whole wheat bread with sunflower seeds, diet iced tea in bottles, veggie burgers…), cleaned the house, left all the expensive appliances that he had paid for, including the t.v..  He picked us up at the airport and was welcomed us home warmly. It was so nice of him.  I am lucky to have him in my life, lucky to have known him.  I am grateful but I am also suffering.

Tonight, at dinner, he told me I looked beautiful and that I was an incredible woman. And that he really wanted to hold onto me as a friend and to be there for me as a friend.

I am indeed incredible.  I strain credibility.  I have let him go gracefully. I have not recriminated, I have not ranted, I have not insulted.  He has been nothing but kind in leaving me.  He remains my best friend, the person who supports and encourages in emails, the person to whom I tell many but no longer all of my concerns.

Sometimes in small moments I wonder if all this niceness isn’t coming straight out a seriously deserved sense of guilt.  Mine as well as his.  I was no wonder of rectitude, after all.  He left me for another woman, after all.  He denied this at the time and I entertained the tiniest shred of hope that this was true.  But tonight I asked him outright if he was dating the women he told me he was interested in before he broke up with me.  He outright admitted that he was seeing her and that it was really nice.

I’m so nice.  I said and meant that I hoped he would find love and that I wanted him to be happy. I do.

It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.

You say to yourself:

No way is she better than me.  I mean, his taste has really declined.

And then you admit:

…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.

Which leads to the happy thought:

And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.

I have been looking for him for such a long time.  This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move.  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine.  Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.

I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse.  Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution.  These are my problems.  Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace.  I chose grace.  Why chose anything else?

Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable.  I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it.  I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through.  I’m trying to keep my eyes open.

I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States.  Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different.  My body and mind have changed.   I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe.  I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull.  If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.

I like being in my house by myself.  I love it here.  The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched.  The Echinacea is blooming into the heat.  The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.

Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room.  I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.

For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon.  “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world.  Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another.  Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.

Green Tara

Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action.  A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.

I have been crying.

Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say.  For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping.  But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards.  You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted.  It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying.  Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack.  Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.

Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:

Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.

I’m in my house.  Today is my father’s birthday.  I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father.  My father has come to rest at home in me.  That is a metaphor.

I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him.  Many regrets.  Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.

Awesome job, Dad.  And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about.  I cared about you.

Switching away to JOY!!  I have everything I need right here.  My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and

 I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.

The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning.  I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea  and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors.  I can dance around naked if I please.  It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.

If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself

You should make your way steadily, alone.

In the childish there is no companionship.

From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings.  By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children.  He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”

Later on the Dhammapada reads,

If one cannot find a mature friend,

a companion who is wise, living productively,

let him go alone,

like a king abandoning conquered land,

like an Elephant in the forest.

A life of solitude is better–

There is no companionship with a childish person.

Let one go alone and do no damage,

Like an elephant in the forest.

It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else.  Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions.  She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”

If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far.  You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret.  You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable.  You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it.   And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up.  So you keep to the path, watch over your mind,  and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.

Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person?  Not a really young person.  Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company.  But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber?  After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient.  You grit your teeth, you endure.  You are not looking about you.  Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation.  The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them.  Walk steadily on.”

These are not the Buddha’s words.  I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”

Hold On, Be Strong,

When it’s on, it’s on.

The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song.  Thus everything he says has a double meaning.  He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.”  Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s  also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain.  He’s also not campaigning against weed.  He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it.  We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.

So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means.  Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication.  He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change.  The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha”   Tupac says something similar.

To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality.  You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it.  And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution.  It solves nothing and it’s childish.

No one is coming to save you except yourself.  It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering.  Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can

Pull yourself out of misfortune

Like an elephant, sunk in the mud.

Shanti (Peace) Pagoda, Pokhara, Nepal


If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy.  I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours.  I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below.  I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it.  I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.

There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go.  He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress.  The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest.  I turned around and looked for a boat.  When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.

I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off.  But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before.  This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.

I crossed a trash-filled stream  on a metal suspension bridge.  Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water.  The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella.  I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool.   Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”

Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.”  This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye.   Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply.  But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so.  If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck.  I love this greeting!  Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you!   It  feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another.  Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.

In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me.  She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked.  “Do you like Nepal?”  “How long have you been here?”  “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand.  I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence.  I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately.  She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.”   The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together.  As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me.  I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled.  I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.

After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little.  I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road.  My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment.  She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command.  I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content.  I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me.   Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay.  You are going with me? I can go alone.”  She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road.  The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.”    I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone.  The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there.  I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack.  I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine.  She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer.  We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest.  It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.

I began to worry about her health.  It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on.  Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds.  Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from.  A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for.  To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English.  This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa.  They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys.  Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion.  Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.

They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed.  They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers.  To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa.   They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep.  One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others.  After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself.  The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them.  I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle.  Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa.  The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms.  To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart.  The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.

Bad and Good Guides in the Forest

We climbed for an hour or two.  My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey.  That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be.  Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often.  I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.

I began to flag.  I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy.  Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips.  Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill.  I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me.  I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips.  I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream.  I would not have made the final trek without it.

I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill.  I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye.  All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money.  “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.

I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world.  There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch.  One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera.  I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.

Rahda and Krishna?

There were also a few groundskeepers.  Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above.  All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time.  I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk.  I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure.  The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it.  The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.

I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda.  The doors are locked but I can see through the screens.  The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen.  There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps.  There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest.  This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.

I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara.  I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me,  It is always this way with a breakup.  One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding.  Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough.  The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.

I would like to be friends with him.  Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend.  I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection.  I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked.  Many of my needs were unmet.

Things changed.  They do that.  I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses.  There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.

Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another.  I loved the easy way we lived together.  He comforted me.

My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.

Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart.  I do not know how to do it.  How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive?  Why am I holding a grudge against him?  What am I afraid of if I let give up this war?  Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear?  What do I fear most of all?

That I am weak.

How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him?  By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:

Dearest Timothy, Namaste:

My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up.  I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.

I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.

I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.

I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.

I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.

I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.

I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.

I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.

I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea.  I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret.  I also know that these fears are not my fault.  That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance.  I meditate to survive them.

I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another.  Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me.  When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us.   I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.

Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you.  You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard.  You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email.  You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did.  You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft.  All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend.  Thank you.

Peace,

Kimberly

Before Leaving for Pokhara


7 July 2011

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola.  The Nepalis blame the rain.  I blame the pollution, but who cares?  I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged.  Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a abrass band that struck up a cacaphonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me.  I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses.   I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted.  What I needed was a a good, solid rest.

I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes.  What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself.  It struck me that I was wasting time.  There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost.  I am riding that wave.  But I can’t let it overwhelm me.   I am so incredibly lucky, after all.  Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria,  I am also here with my son, my only child.  I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him.  I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult.  We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels.  We will only be here for another four weeks.  Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.

I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs.  He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town.  Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys.  We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead.   We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived.  My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view.   I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.

We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning.  The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses.  No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet.  Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends.  It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days.   We all need the break.

How did I get here? What am I doing?


June 15, 2011

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.

A cremation at Pashupatinath. The body is carried to on a bamboo stretcher, which will also burn on the pyre.

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.

Good Morning Nepal


This little boy, who is probably older than he looks, demanded that I take his photograph. He lives near Durbar Square.

Today is the first of my real working days here in Nepal.  For now, my schedule will be:

7am  Orphanage—where there are six children who have been rescued from the street.

9am –Breakfast of dal bhat and water

11am—Women’s Center, where I will be teaching very poor women how to speak conversational English

1pm—short break

2pm—Teaching at a local private school

As most of you know, I feel passionately devoted to working on behalf of women around the world, and my goal here is to make a small dent in the lives of Nepali women.  I had a conversation with the director of the program (Volunteer Society Nepal, or VSN) yesterday, and it seems that he would like to develop the women’s center.  I asked him if he would be interested in starting up a microcredit loan program, and also if he had interest in expanding the Women’s Center, which is currently housed in an orphanage (and that is why it only runs for two hours a day), into a full-fledged shelter for battered women and their children.  He sounded very enthusiastic about these ideas.  I have decided to stay for five months in order to help to expand the women’s portion of their program.  They already have started a sewing class to help women learn to become self-sufficient.  I have bought material to have two kurtas made by a seamstress who works there.  Half the proceeds she receives will benefit the women’s center (WC).

One of the women who attends English classes at the WC also works here, for Sugandha and Sova, as a cook.  She just brought me a cup of delicious Nepali tea, milky and sweet.  This was very sweet of her since usually the volunteers do not get their tea until 7am.  It is now 6:30am.  She speaks very little English and I speak very little Nepali, so we mostly smile broadly at one another to express our affection.  Last night she gave me a delicious hug in the kitchen.

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.

Naked Truth


Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”

The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair.  I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind.  She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.

She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:

This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.

Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering.  She is wisdom.

A story  tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”  Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)

Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman.  Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)

Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason.  But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight.  She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it.  She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics.  Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,

All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,

Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.

Current anti-woman legislation and the rise of Christian extremism


Bush Decides Upon "Handmaid's Tale Look" for Women in Photo Op

Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices.  The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life.  They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:

  • The Pence amendment:  the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions.   The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
  • H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
  • H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: ” In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
  • H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment.  It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.

Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures

  • South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic.  On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion.  The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion.  If this bill passes,  State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
  • Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen,  who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation,  L.B. 232,  this week.  Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
  • Virginia:  A state Senate bill introduced today would effectively close 17 of the 21 abortion clinics in Virginia by redefining all facilities that provide first-trimester procedures “hospitals” and subject them to a slew of cumbersome and unnecessary regulations.  These providers are already subject to state regulations but this bill would impose burdensome stipulations that similar medical providers in the state do not have to meet.  This legislation is likely to pass.
  • Pennsylvania:  The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion.  If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts.  The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does.  Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country.  We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
  • Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death.  A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
  • Florida: Republican candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville and devout Baptist Mike Hogan confessed, in a Catholic Church in Mandarin that he would not bomb an abortion clinic “but it may cross my mind.” The congregation applauded.

We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred  (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring.  Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.  There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men.  None of then were the men we knew.  The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).

The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t.  On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people.  They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction.  On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else.  They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices.  Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility.  Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. “What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked.  “Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate.  Moore thundered:

I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.

This legislation imposes the views of a small but increasingly powerful minority of Christian extremists who are only too happy to keep Black women and children down, a small but powerful minority of Christian extremists who believe that God is male and that this deity intended men to have most of the privileges and power in the world because men, more like god than women,  are fundamentally superior to women.   This legislation is not merely the expression, , but also the weapon, of frighteningly hierarchical ideologues whom we tolerate and ignore at our peril.
Wake up from the “bad dream dreamt by others” and take action against religious extremism in America today:

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen


Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: "Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party", cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.   I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.

It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.