I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The monsoons have started. All the trash-filled fields have turned overnight into swamps or lakes. Some kind of bullfrog sounds like sawing wood or braying is under my window. It and the frogs seem to have fallen from the skies. They weren’t here before, were they?
When Brendan and I live in the same house, I am much happier. The keening ache that has become so habitual, I don’t even notice it, stills at last. I become aware of it only when he comes back into my everyday life. Like the summer rain and the sun that returns, he nourishes.
You don’t live apart from your only child from the time he is six and not suffer serious damage. Not if you have a heart, I think.
When Brendan was six years old, his father and I separated. I was just finishing my dissertation and felt as though I had to choose between my was-band and my dream of becoming an English professor. I had supported him financially and emotionally as he went on the academic job market; had moved with him from one position to the next and postponed my education until he was settled, working and earning money to keep the house up; had sold my mother’s jewelry to put a down payment on our house in Arlington, Virginia; and financed my return to graduate school out of my private funds. But once he got tenure he made it clear that he would not be making any sacrifices for me. In fact, he resented the time I devoted to my studies.
He encouraged me to enter a different profession. In retrospect, I see that he was probably right. It probably would have been better to have gotten a job in government relations or nonprofit work. I could have stayed in Arlington and would have made a lot more money and felt a lot more appreciated and respected than I did in academia. But I didn’t know that then.
I had a dream and I wanted to pursue it. I luckily got a good, tenure-track job my first year out on the market, which was hard to do then because there were so few jobs and so many Ph.D.s applying for them. The only trouble was that the job was in Missouri, and we lived in Virginia. To make a living, I had to move. I wanted to bring Brendan with me, and fought a bloody battle with his father for custody. I wasn’t trying to get full custody. I was fighting for joint custody. This I got, but the compromise, which I truly believed was best for Brendan, was to leave him in the home he had grown up in, at the school where he felt comfortable, for two years. After that, he was supposed to come live with me. But when the time came, I took a half-year sabbatical in Washington, D.C. and went on the market again, searching for a job closer to him. I got the job at the University of Pittsburgh and postponed Brendan’s move to my household, again thinking first of his best interests. When the moment finally came for Brendan to come to me, his father balked. I insisted.
The chair of my new department promised me that Brendan would be able to go to the University School, and Michael, my was-band, reluctantly agreed that it would be a good place for him. Nevertheless he remained so angry about having to give him up—even though this was something that he had agreed to and that had already been postponed for an entire year—that he dropped his son off with his clothes in a cardboard box and not a single pair of shoes.
So Brendan came to Pittsburgh, but lo, the school that he was supposed to go to said that they did not have any room for him. I appealed to my chair for help, because I knew that he had had enough clout to get the son of another professor, who only taught one semester a year, in. He claimed he could do nothing for me..
Had I known that Brendan would be put onto a waiting list, and not admitted into the university school, I would not have taken the job. I would have stayed in St. Louis, where there was an excellent school with room for Brendan. I did not prefer this option because my aim had always been to keep both parents in my son’s life.
So now I had him with me but no school to send him to. The local public institution was a magnet school, and Brendan would have to pass a test in German to get in. He took lessons and did very well, but not well enough to pass the test. So he was bussed halfway across the city to a school where he felt afraid of the children.
He was there on 9/11. A plane had gone down outside of Pittsburgh, and all the teachers and students at the university were sent home. But I could not get word from Brendan’s school about his whereabouts until many hours later. Everyone has his or her own memory of that terrifying day. I remember people on bicycles, foot, and in cars streaming away from the city. We believed we were under attack, and fled all tall buildings. I could not find out what had happened to Brendan. The school did not answer calls. He didn’t have a cell phone. He was only 9.
Furthermore, bullies tormented him on the bus and at school. It was clear that the district was not going to do anything about it. I took him out of the public system, which was very poor, especially in comparison to the Arlington schools, and enrolled him in a private, Catholic academy just down the street from me. My teaching schedule—given to me by someone who knew I had a school-age child—kept me on campus for an hour after school let out. So he was home alone for a little over an hour each day. I cycled home as fast as I could and got it down to 8 minutes.
The kids at the Catholic school bullied Brendan even more than the public school kids had, partly because the principal humiliated him, who was then in the fifth grade, by forcing him to sit with the second-graders for math. I tried yet another private, secular, alternative school, which only had room for him in the fourth grade class. I interviewed the hoity-toity establishments in town and quickly discerned that I lacked the cash to get or keep him in them. In short I considered every alternative available to me and then some.
Brendan became very depressed. He started to say alarming things such as “I wish I were dead,” and “I’m just going to throw myself in front of a train.” He grew more and more morose and withdrawn, and did not want to talk to his father when he called. The was-band, being more childish than his son, threw a fit about it and, in a churlish fit of spite, dis-invited Brendan from Thanksgiving with his grandparents, whom Brendan loved and wanted to see. His own father actually instructed me to inform Brendan that, if he would not come to the phone, then he would never speak to him again. I knew that I was both stronger and wiser than the was-band, and that if Brendan were to have both parents in his life, I would have to make the sacrifice. I drew strength from Lao-Tzu, who said the master is strong because she bends like a willow. In a storm she bends all the way to the ground but does not break like the oak, who foolishly barrels up to difficulty with his manly chest.
I also knew that Brendan was struggling so much on the social level at school, where he was being savaged, that he was in danger of a serious breakdown. He would not thrive here. When we talked about it, he was visibly relieved but he also said, “You’re nicer,” and that a part of him felt very sad about going, but another part knew that it was for the best. He missed his friends and the school in which he felt relatively strong and confident.
I was renting a crap apartment on the edge of a very active graveyard. Burials at least once daily. Not a happy place. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to Pittsburgh because the per capita percentage of depressed people is so high. They say it’s because it rains a lot. The chubby kid across the street was treated terribly by his dreary hippie, unthinkingly politically correct parents, who continuously pointed out that he was their adopted son of a crack addict who had ruined him in the womb.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve come to love Pittsburgh for all kinds of reasons, but I hated it then. After Brendan went back to Arlington I hated it more. I used to collapse on the kitchen floor and weep. Or I’d go lie down on his bed and breathe through the pain, try to accept not fight it. I came completely undone. I went into the darkness. Those years in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, during which I could not physically mother or protect my child, where the hardest and most painful in my life.
The university had a lot to do with that. One of my friends, who was a brilliant philosopher who had her pick of the top jobs in England and America, swore that the institution itself had infected her with a virus, from which she later died. True story. She was a Platonist and a feminist, and fussy old patriarchal bastards ran the department. Another friend, the head of the women’s studies program left the university because she was so pissed off at her colleagues, who had slapped the wrists of a married guy in her department, a medium bigwig in the tiny academic pond, when they found out that he had been handing out lucrative scholarships to the female students he was fucking. The woman who replaced my friend in Women’s Studies was and remains mad, insane, crazy, ooby-shooby.
Worst time in my life, but it’s over. Through persistence, diligence, and many tears, I kept the bond. We like as well as love each other. And here we are in Nepal. We went up to the top of the house after everyone else had gone to bed, and listened. We hugged, and then joked with one another as we parted. His room is directly above mine.
The night air is throbbing with frogs. It rained hard earlier but the rain has ebbed. It is pleasantly temperate, neither too warm nor too cool.
I had a magical day with beautiful and affectionate children, as well as with a group of women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have a fantastic sense of humor and are genuinely down-to-earth. I’m learning Nepali as fast as I can so that I can talk to them, hear and tell their stories. But Nepali is hard. It’s written in the same script as Sanskrit. Spoken Nepali is a lot easier but the language doesn’t really make sense, I think, until you learn the script. How did I get here? It’s a long story and I’m trying to tell it. What am I doing here? Writing is supposed to help me figure that out.
Here is a verse from the second chapter of the Dhammapada,
A practitioner delighting in diligence,
Seeing dread in negligence,
Advances as a fire—
Every fetter, coarse and subtle, burns.
I am not sure I am practicing diligence or not. I am staying up way too late to write and edit this blog, and I am taking tomorrow off to go with Brendan to Thamel to buy sandals for him and books for me. I need a Nepali-English dictionary, and some guide to writing Devanagari. It is neither necessary nor wise, anyways, to adhere to strictly to any teachings.
Did you know that Buddhism spread from Nepal to India and the Tibet? The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in what is now known as Nepal in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. He rejected the Hindu belief in a creator god and the caste system. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, my hosts and neighbors, developed a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism with a strong emphasis on tantra. The Buddhist part of that blend faded as orthodox Hindu immigrants from what is now India swarmed into the Valley. Buddhism declined severely from the 18th through the 20th century, but was revived by Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, has a more structured set of beliefs and practices than the native strain. Has my exposure to Buddhism through yoga helped to bring me here? Absolutely. I’m thrilled, moved, awed by the physical nearness of the great Stupa, Boudanath, one of the holiest Buddhist places on earth. I expected to feel this way. What I had not anticipated is how much I am also drawn to Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu sites this side of the Ganges. Because I’m not Hindu (i.e., white), I can’t enter the shrine, but I did witness the majesty of the place, with its deer park, Mrigasthali Ban, supposedly the site where Vishnu appeared as a stag, and the burning cremation pyres and the orange-swathed bodies on the bank of the Bagwamati River.
Bhisal took me there, and explained that he had recently attended a funeral on the very site where a body—heaped with wood—was burning. Knowing this made the sight all the more serious and disturbingly beautiful. Bishal also told me that there was a Buddhist burial ground in the jungle on the east side, where the monkeys live.
I like the idea of advancing as a fire, burning away all impediments in my path. But I’d like to do more than destroy and consume. I’d like to be in the light and to be the light, but I don’t know how I feel about the concept of burning up everything, including myself, even though I understand that what ceases to be is dross, not the gold inside each being. Something valuable remains, but this is not simply the spirit, separated from the body. The spirit cannot live without the body, body and mind are mutually informing and enlivening parts of a unity, yin and yang, not opposites, but component elements.
I brought a camera to the orphanage this morning. The kids loved it. First they each wanted to pose wearing my hat. Bipin then got hold of it and rushed around snapping shots of the house, his mother, Bimila, and us.
He also took this one of the open refrigerator and gave me a test: “What is this food?” He asked. I really wasn’t sure. I guessed oranges, apples. “No!” he cried, delighted, “It is EGG!” Later on, Anura had the camera, and she photographed this chart on the wall of their class- and play-room. It has a nice new carpet, all over which I spilled tea on the first day, during a game of ring-around-the-rosy. Bimala, Bipin’s mother, brings me a fresh cup every morning. On my second day she suggested that I drink it down right away
VSN runs three or four orphanages. The largest one holds 16 children, who I understand are all terrified of their “mother,” the woman who keeps the house, bathes, feeds, and clothes them with funds that VSN volunteers and donors provide. A few years ago, a young Dutch couple came to volunteer for six weeks. While they were here, they raised over $2,000 from family and friends for VSN in general, which was just getting started. They later raised enough to found and support another orphanage, where my co-volunteer and friend, Dalina, works. She brought a lot of craft projects for the children to do, and she also brought cases filled with pens and pencils. The children showed their delight by opening them, peering inside, and zipping them closed again. They have never had anything to call their own. The children’s mother, who is very strict, insists that they spend every minute of the day studying. She took the pencil cases and contents away and locked them into a closet. She said that the children would break them. Dalina said she didn’t care; she had brought them a gift and wanted them to have it. She complained so much about it that the housemother relented and gave them back. But she still would not let them play games. Here were five-, six-, and seven-year olds sitting straight in their chairs, never fidgeting, because they were afraid. After Dalina’s prodding, the housemother allowed her to do craft projects with the children for 30 minutes every day.
The “mean” housemother is not as unkind as she sounds. From her perspective, the children have one chance to save themselves in this society in which family and village connections mean everything. They must excel at school, and excel they do. The children from this orphanage are at the top of their classes at the Career Building International Academy (CBIA), which VSN also runs. This school is a private school, sustained by tuition from parents in the neighborhood. VSN volunteer fees sponsor the orphan children. Most Nepali schools emphasize discipline and rote learning over creative analysis, and they do not seem to have the concept of recess. When school lets out, the fields fill with kids who have shed their uniforms for play-clothes. Keep in mind that the fields are also covered with trash, which is occasionally burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air. They play where they can. There is a slightly cleaner football (i.e., soccer) field where and exciting match between high schools took place this afternoon.. I love to walk about the neighborhood at this time a day. Every child cheerfully hails me because I am white, piping “Hello! Hi! How are you?” They are very friendly.
I don’t know how the children I am teaching will do. I expect very well, since they are l very bright. Like children the world over, they have short attention spans. I play games with them. It is actually quite challenging to work with them, because I don’t have a blackboard or a whiteboard to write on, no books with which to teach—not even picture books—and only a room with a new carpet and a few sleeping mats ranged around the walls. We always begin sitting down in a circle, but the children want to tumble backwards, or get up and go to their room to bring me something. Yesterday Anura offered me hair oil and Bipin sprayed deoderant under my arms. “Are you trying to tell me I smell?” I asked. “No,” he replied and sprayed all the other children’s pits.
I allow them a lot of freedom because I know how controlled they must be in school. I incorporate movement into our lessons to keep them smiling. Yesterday I taught them Simon Says. When they get too rambunctious, I switch to modified yoga. Breathing deeply and regularly, they learn “in” and “out.” They tumble and wiggle again, just as Brendan did when he was little. Bimala, their housemother, indulges them, too, thankfully. They have finally come to a home in which they feel how much they are loved.
Don’t be fooled by their smiling faces and cheerful, loving dispositions. These kids have seen desperation, death, violence and abuse for most of their short lives. I’m still finding out their story, but as far as I have gathered the children were rescued from other, terrible, dark, dirty, and crowded hovels that pass for orphanages, where they received very little food, and almost no protein. VSN found them and brought them into this family home, where there are a mother, a father, and two children, 10 and 13.
Krishala is eight and very shy. I have to coax her to speak. But she always knows the answer before everyone else, and is starting to get more confident with me. It is hard for her, Gorima, and Anura, since they are far behind their classmates, who have always had mothers and fathers and who have been going to this very rigorous school for years. Gorima is the joker, the coyote of the crowd, always making mischief. If I have a pen or a book in my hand, she grabs it and examines it carefully or insists on writing out her numbers to show me what she knows, or drawing a flower to give to me. Since I had been so permissive with my hat, she assumed that it would also be okay to pull the glasses off my face. She put them on and laughed. Then Krishala snatched them away from her, and we had our photo taken. Of course we had to do another with Gorima wearing the glasses. And then Bipin, Bimala’s outspoken and self-assured son, wanted them on. I couldn’t tolerate this for much longer, since these frames were outrageously expensive and I had already had to replace them once, when my dogs found them on the table at home and chewed them up.
Gorima is surprisingly solicitous of me. I have a wound on my hand from a bicycle that I tried to unhook and bring down from the garage ceiling back home. It fell straight down. I ducked, but the gears cut into the back of my left hand. It’s hard to keep a bandage on it, and the cut has become slightly infected. I’ve ignored it, but Gorima would not. She found a bit of dirty plastic tape on the floor, and pressed it on the wound. Then Bipin brought me a clean bandage, which one of the other volunteers had brought from home, removed the tape, and bound up my hand. It was a little band-aid, for children, from the US. It had cats on it and tt fell off the first time I washed my hands. But Gorima’s concern for me got me to take the wound seriously, and after dinner at Sugandha’s house, I allowed on of the other volunteers to attend to it. She’s a fourth-year medical student in Newcastle, England. She cleaned it properly and applied a much sturdier plaster. Because of Gorima, my wound will now heal. Maybe she, too, will go to medical school. Her fate will depend on the success of the VSN project. As long as volunteers keep on coming, and if donors from around the world help to support the project, she will have a chance.
See how beautiful they are. If Nirmala, Gorima, Krishala, and Anura had not been rescued by VSN, they very likely would have spent their lives in sexual slavery. Krishala and Nirmala, in fact were found enslaved as servants. When Krishala first arrived at the orphanage, about three weeks ago, she went around cleaning everything because she had been made to do so. I will get more details very soon. Sugandha does not know their story as well as Gehlu, who brought them to Pepsi-Cola. VSN has been good to Bipin and his mother, too, as well. She has no husband—another story to find out and tell—and had been living in a hovel before VSN rented a flat in a beautiful house. Bipin, who is constantly doing headstands and somersaults, thinks he’s living in a palace. He and his mother sleep in the same room with the other children. They have two other rooms—the children’s play and lesson-room, and a kitchen. They also have flowers in pots in the front courtyard, and Bipin always thinks to bring me a flower when we play ring-around-the rosy.
Today I showed them videos of my dogs and cat on my computer. I have been missing my dogs very much, and wondering how I will get through the three months after Brendan leaves without anyone to hug or hold. Freya and Baldr are very affectionate, like most well loved dogs, and much cleaner and healthier than the dogs around here, who survive on rotting, maggot-infested food and scraps, and who have all sorts of diseases and infestations. When I’m lonely or sad I can pull them up onto my lap or fall asleep with them at my side. But here I have no such friends. Even if I could find a young puppy, clean it up and bring it into the house, which I can’t, I would still have to release it back into the streets when I return home, and that would be cruel. So I have been feeling sorry for myself in anticipation of future loneliness. There is no way I’m going to have any kind of romance with a Nepali man. First of all, they are very short. Second of all, most of them have very strange ideas about women. We could never get on. Thirdly and most importantly, I’m not even close to being ready for a new relationship, and look forward to the time alone. I will be living more or less like a nun, as I have been, rising early, working hard for the benefit of others, living on simple food and water, and going to bed early and sober. It will be lonely at times, of course, but I will not lack for love.
The orphan children hang on me, crawl into my lap, and all try to hold my hand at the same time. Nirmala, the youngest, gets the most attention from the other kids, but she also loves it when I pick her up. In fact all of them want me to pick them up and hold them. All of them except for Gorima, the dreamiest, shyest one, who nevertheless wants to touch me in some way. How to express how happy this makes me, how it satisfies the mother in me who was starved of mothering for so many years? But this story will have to wait until the next post.
June 13, 2011
Just back from the orphanage. There are currently four orphans there, Anura, who is 10, Gorima, 8, Khrisala, also 8, and Nirmala, 5. Two more are coming. We played a lot of games because they wiggle and squirm a lot and it is hard for 5 and 8-year olds to focus their attention on one thing for more than a few minutes. Unbelievably, children as young as five years are forced to sit very still for long periods of time in school. Nepali educational philosophy, as far as I can tell from the other volunteers working here and my teacher, Bishal, holds that children should be rigidly disciplined and made to memorize great reams of material. They are very good at listening and rote learning but not at creating or innovating.
I taught them Ring-around-the Rosy today, and we all laughed a lot when we hit the floor on “down.” This is how I am teaching them “down” and “up” and “around.” When they begin to get too excited, I have them breathe “in” and “out.” Poor little Nirmala was completely unfocused by the end, and I really can’t imagine how the children sit at attention for hours on end in the schools. They all waved goodbye to me very affectionately, and I was glad that I could tell them that I would be here for a long time. Working with loving and beautiful children, children who would otherwise almost certainly end up trafficked and enslaved as prostitutes, fills me with light and happiness.
One of the things I meant to mention in earlier posts is how wonderful it is to be here with Brendan, who is very good company. He still gets mad at me occasionally for treating him like a child (in his opinion), and I am trying hard not to “matronize” him. I take great comfort in his presence here. He loves me, and is unlikely to announce, out the blue, that he is finished with me and will be looking elsewhere for a more suitable mother. This alone is quite reassuring in light of recent events.
He started working at a different orphanage today. He and the two German girls, Sarah and Eileen, will be painting it in bright colors over the next month. He has already met the children, and on that day he came back from them as radiant as I felt this morning. Now I must return to my Nepali studies. The second book of the Dhammapada begins
Diligence is the path to the deathless
Negligence is the path of death.
Those who are negligent Are as the dead.
Understanding this distinctly,
Those who are skilled in diligence
Rejoice in diligence,
Delighting in the pasture of the noble one.
I could easily spend four or more hours a day studying the language, but in fact have only one or two hours to devote to it. I am getting better at asking for things in shops, and the children are also teaching me. They find my Nepali accent utterly abominable. There is much work for me to do here, and if I work diligently, I believe my heart will grow lighter. What I am trying to express is, there are more than one kind of love, and I look forward to a period of sensuous but not sexual connections with other people.
I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad. These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness. I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.
I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child. I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth. It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.
I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.” For years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done. But it was never finished! I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either. I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten. It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.
No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.
Or so the chain of associations seemed to go. My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back. I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.
Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution. In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.
Still, I am melancholy. My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it. I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it. But I do not know quite how, just yet. I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that. Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems. Or I’ll publish it privately. Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room. Or have it compressed and made into a bench. Or shred it with cheese and make omelets. Or beads. Or stepping stones to the next destination.