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.