Returning Home From Nepal


August 5, 2011

Doha, Qatar

Brendan in the Doha Airport, Qatar

We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone.  We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight.   It’s a nice airport, extremely clean.  We’ve gotten used to grime.  There are trash cans!  I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms.  Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.

What else is different.  People are diverse.  There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners.  Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect.  Not too many women walking around in abayahs.   I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls.  We only had one day together in our identical clothes.

Anura's mark on my palm

Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna.  It is my most precious ornament.  Like all things, it will not last.  It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands.  Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone?  No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast.  A new volunteer will come, I am sure.  This does not console me.

Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport.  He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him.  He would have been fine without me, I think.  I have no way of knowing that.  No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face.  You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.

Same day, about 24 hours later:

New York, New York

Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan.  When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad).  Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.

I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted.  I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours.   Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me.  He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.

He just opened his eyes and laughed.  A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English.  I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…”  Welcome to America!

I have spoken to Tim now twice.  I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival.  We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones.  It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual.  Still, it felt strange.

He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests.  It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival.  I asked him how he accomplished this.  He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful.  I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.

Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month.  So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight.  This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now.  I’m worried that he house will feel very cold and empty without him there.

Brendan said, “Don’t worry!  Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”

It is true.  With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof.  Plenty of company.   Thank goodness for Brendan.

I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now.  My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say.  But it is certain that I have changed.  I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.

One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country.  Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white.  Some of them will be black.  Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!

I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks.  I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.

I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.

I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala.  It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning.  It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.

Can we talk about race? On Obama and Tony Porter.


There is a lot that is right about Tony Porter’s “A Call to Men” speech, also a lot that is wrong.  See also the website. What is right is the message.

I like what he says.  I preach what he preaches.  I want my son to hear this.  I want him to memorize every word.  But I’m bothered by the racial undertones.  How do you respond to them?  Did you notice them?  Did they bother you?  Do you know why?  I’m trying to figure out why they bother me.  ESPECIALLY because I like the message.

What creeps me out is that the deliverer, the prophet, is preaching to mostly white women of a certain class.  It’s called “A Call to MEN” and here’s this black guy calling to an audience of mostly white women.  The camera searches and searches for the random dark-skinned women, as though to say—“see!  he appeals to black women!  we can prove it!”   What’s up with that?

Alas, he corresponds in some ways to racist stereotypes that liberals have.  We aren’t a bit surprised to find out that he grew up in the “tenements” of New York City, since, after all….he’s Black, and that’s a romantic image for us Northerners, in a sexy West Side Story way.   But also he’s astute, and right (as in correct, as in just) and he is in fact delivering the truth about gender relations.  He’s a boundary-transgressing animal.  He makes us uncomfortable.

His message about gender may be a truth that has been obvious to  you since you were born, or maybe only after a revelation, in a college film class, for example.  You got a dose of “good news” which meant not “the news that Christ was born,” but rather, “a refreshing dose of rationality in a sea of violently emotional and sometimes frighteningly violent thinking, a.k.a. the Truth, or its closest approximation so far.

News.  He spreads it.  It is good.  But the context in which he dispenses (his seed?) troubles me.  The gender relations of this gender-conscious video bother me, actually, much, much more than its race relations.  I thought I was going to see a rally from a man to men, some kind of masculinist ideology-fest at which men were reinforcing with one another, muscling themselves up in defense against the feminizing threat of wimpy-ness or small-penis-nes.  So I tuned in.  It sounded fun.  But what I got was this quite different animal.

What do you think about it?  Can we talk about race here?  Does the race problem cancel out the feminist message?  Do you think it is important to talk about race and gender at the same time?  I do.

I mean, surely that was one of the greatest things that our president did for the nationwas to talk about race relations (A More Perfect Union), which have been brutal, indecent, and hard to comprehend, in our country since its founding.

The Europeans who landed here, in search of gold and slaves, neither of which they found, slaughtered thousands of natives deliberately, with swords, and by accident, with disease, in the 1500s.  So we Americans were founded in violence, pestilence, and fear.  And greed.  Yes, also in hope, in a search for freedom from interference by other people with whom we don’t agree. But that quite liberal inclination to seek liberty was not strong in the first settlers who got themselves established here–they were much more repressive and intolerant than most Americans learn.  With the goodwives looking on approvingly, the venerable Fathers of Massachusetts burned people at the stake.  They whipped Quaker women naked down the streets; they tarred and feathered; they ostracized; they publicly humiliated.

Not all the European invaders were English or Protestant, of course.  They were far more diverse than most seem to know.  They were Dutch; they were Swedish; they were French; they were Spanish.   They were also Natives of that continent, whose ancestors wandered, we think, from the Bering Strait.  They were Asian but also maybe Russian and Sami, too.  When you start moving back, you realize there is no single blood line, no such thing as a “pure” race; no such thing as race.  No such thing as native.

Our family history is rich and complicated.  But violent.

Here’s the problem: The”democratic spirit,”  the spirit for freedom, seems to have gotten tangled up with the spirit for imprisonment.  It seems to have gotten involved with bizarre theocratic notions of American male supremacy, of Judeo-Christian mythology about Adam and Eve; and religious intolerance. You think we’ve evolved?  Today’s Puritans have no compunction about compelling their fellow citizens to accept major infringements of their civil liberties without a whimper.  These people who use “freedom” like a weapon, a blasphemy, these people who claim to be the “moral majority,” who want to put women back into the kitchen and the kindergarten, these “men’s rights” groups and “white rights” groups, these devils who claim to be angels, …THESE are the people who have mastered the game of self-representation, of marketing, of selling the soul, selling the SELF, self above all, in our country?  These people who want to give the top 2 percent of the population the greatest tax benefit?  How did they sell that one?  Why are still selling it?

We’re the center of capitalism, why has the left let the right control this market?  We live here, too.  We, too, know how to sell the self to get ahead.  We’re just as good, we think, at the game.  Except we’re not.  We’re not making any progress lately.   What is wrong with us?

It’s the age of the internet; yet people are lazy.  They mostly want to be fed.  So.  FEED THEM.  Get the slogans out there; advertise, throw all your creativity into the project.  OUT PERFORM them.  What has gone wrong?  Are we stuck in the 18th century? Don’t we know how to sell knowledge?

Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the President.  It matters that we finally elected a man who defines himself as a Black man.  And he is a great man, a well-educated man, an eloquent man, a philosopher, an intellectual (he’s practically French–he’s our Jefferson!).  He’s thoughtful.  He’s a feminist.  He’s by all accounts enlightened in his views about women, race, class, ethnicity.  He gets an A plus for human rights.  He won the Nobel Prize.

I like him.  But why isn’t he standing up against intolerance and bigotry with greater strength?  What, in fact, is the difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims?  None that I can see.

What is good, in Barak and in Tony, is the turn towards the light, the truth.

Too many people seem to think is that the truth is fixed. Therefore. once they find what they think it is, they freeze it in time, and won’t let it move or change with the flow of history and events.  We call these people fundamentalists.

But really the truth is not fixed.  It is continually in flux, like an amoeba or an energy.   It is always changing in response to historical events taking place in a specific environment.  These might be events that have uncertain and potentially cataclysmic, world-altering consequences.   Like, for example, if Ahmadinajhad and his cronies were to get possession of the nuclear bomb and to set it off.  World-altering.  But who would you fear more?  I’m-a-dinner-jacket or Rick Santorum?  Mike Huckabee?  Mitt Romney?  Re-read The Handmaid’s Tale.  Say hello to our possible future.  We have to overcome our unwillingness to embrace the product, to sell “the truth.”  We need positive slogans.

Or do we?  We can’t predict events.  But we can predict the way that we respond to them.  Do we escalate the violence?  Or do we master ourselves?  Could we ever really master ourselves as long as we were trying to dominate an Other? Isn’t this the message and the method?