Compassion and Capability


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namo Buddha (Hail to the Buddha) and Nepali Women


At Namo Buddha with Menuka, Susshila, Dilu, and Ambica

3 July 2, 2011

Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read.  They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon.  They think of him as a “wise man.”  He is buddamani, sage.  So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others?  Because they are Nepali.   The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.

2 July 2011

Women Together

I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica.  They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close.  It is raining, of course.  This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it.  It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine.  The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.

I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends.  I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.

As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations.  Not all women will admit or talk about it.  Some women are ashamed to be women;  some deny and some repress.

Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women.  We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave.  If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes.  What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.

Taking Busses

We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses.  Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors.  These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods.  Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants.  In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked.  Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that.  The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.

The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun.  Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire).   My book is wrong about the word for sunny.  Gamlagyeko is the correct term.  It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.

I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere.  Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain.  A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat.  A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder.  Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings.  Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road.  This is Banepa.

….

We have boarded a crowded bus.  The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed.  Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long.  We have gotten on our third bus.  The women told them that we were going to someplace far away.  Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off.  They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home.  Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease.  Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend.  Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.

At least she has a seat.  Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap.  The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour.  Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive.  I don’t know where the bus driver is.  Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient.  Ah, here is the driver.  He has started the engine, but still we sit.  At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.

We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style.  Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.

The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside.  It looks and smells delicious.  I dare not touch it.

We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet.  But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal.  The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect.  No damage is found, and we crawl forward.  I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka.  It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.

Namo Buddha

We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks.  We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here.   Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.”  There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door.  After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee.  Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm.   We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa.  This is Namobuddha, then.  This is looking better.

Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea.  We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all.  Menuka pays for the tea.  Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry.  Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.

After we eat we visit the small stupa.  I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go.  I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers.  Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf.  I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine.  He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head.  He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.

We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter.  Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva.  I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.

End of journal.  Continuation of the Story

We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags.  Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines.  The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow.  We wait for our companions.  They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs.  She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead.  His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva.  After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself.  The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift).  Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.

I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept.  She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was.  I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her.  I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.

From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money.  Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves.  Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer.  Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head.  All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine.  Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels.  I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need.  Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.

We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.

Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa

The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries.  Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.

We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all  of us.  Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process.  There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers.  We linger for a long time but not long enough for me.  As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.

Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:

Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…

Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem.  The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.

Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging.  The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.

The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.

I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha.  I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time.  It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.

Here the journal ends.

Returning home through the language haze 

The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home.  This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected.  Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road.  I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights.   I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary.  While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language.  They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali.  But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.

To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks.  It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.

Dogs and Men

Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love.  The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient.  To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors.  He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog.  I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning.  Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing.  She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do.  The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.

Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it.  If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families.  A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet.  She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected.   Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.

Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures.  One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced.  But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.

Finally it was time to go.  Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.

All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say.  I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself.  We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!

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.

under the radar


I hang out with a group of women in their forties and fifties.  A few of us in their sixties, and a few in their twenties.  What do we have in common?  You could mention loss, heartache, trauma, success, strength, chutzpah, charm, beauty, brains. You could say we are women who are awake.  What holds us together is our willingness to see one another.  To take the time, and to screw up the courage, to look one another in the eyes and see what’s there.  And to drop the masks, for a little while, to let go of the strictures and be as we are.

Okay, not everyone can or will do this.  There are probably only a few of us doing it.  And even we are only trying to drop the masks, the space-suits that we wear around ourselves and call our personas, our identities.   Isn’t it because we know that these identities are not who or what we really are that we spend so much time playing?  trying on different roles, parading, posing, acting, exaggerating, being the fool?  Isn’t this play-acting the origin of religion, of drama, of literature, of philosophy?  Or is it the other way around?

Last night I arrived in a low-cut dress and it seemed that everyone was ooing and ahing and making a big deal out of my  breasts.  Okay so I like my breasts.  Lucky that way.   But then my friends, whom I adore, and who delight me, got to talking about women they knew who had had implants.  The gauntlet had been thrown.  What else could I do but say that mine were “real and they’re spectacular.”  Ybethy got it instantly.  She’s quick.

But I got more revenge.  In a lucid campaign to prove that everyone’s breasts were beautiful, I started taking pictures.  At first I didn’t tell them that I was doing this.  I just aimed low.  But after a while it struck me that the photos would be better if I could prepare the subjects of these photos in advance.  So I asked the girls to pull or push or stick up their “girls.”  At one point I even reached in and tugged them up…all in the name of art, of course.

I think that was the moment at which someone said, “You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?”  I nodded, even though that term was not quite right.  I’m not averse to being lesbian, I just don’t think this word, big or little l, is the right term.   And no I’m not thinking tribade or some other alt. label.  There isn’t an acceptable term for what I am, or for what most people are, because our sexuality is not only what we can conceive of ourselves to be.  It is yet also something more, something in between the categories but really not exactly OF the categories.  Something in excess of them, if also them.

So I said I was “somewhere on the continuum.”

“Bixexual,” she said.

No.  Still not quite it.

“Something like that,” I said.  “I’ve always been this way.  I was born this way.”

And I wanted to tell the whole story.  But I caught myself before spilling out the whole drama, which she wouldn’t have heard.  I stopped.

How often do you meet someone who hears you?  Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say?  And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say.  Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter.”

If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens.  He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time.  Mortal.  Fragile.  Fallible.  But infinitely valuable, and good.

And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise.  Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind.  Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.”  And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.

You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person.  You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak.  You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love.  Because you love them.  You need to hear them.

You want to hear them.  But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really.   They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me!  You never listen to me!”  Stinging words.  But it is okay.

We are so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we take on the nervousness as a mode of being and lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently.  Nervousness is just a habit.  If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion.  It’s healthy to be skeptical about our thought patterns when we are under a great deal of stress.

But we also need to play.  We need to get up and dance in a bar with our girlfriends, who miraculously can belt out all the words to all the songs on the jukebox.  We need to laugh. It takes so much energy to pretend to be the people who we are not actually that we need to go on vacation a lot.  That is to say, our brains need to take breaks.  It’s so taxing to be continually processing and analyzing and enduring the incredible tedium with which we preserve our adopted personas.  We should cut ourselves some slack, but we should also cut ourselves loose.

I think I just figured out what is really meant by the expression, “cutting loose.”  It means cutting your marionette strings and being willing to flail about for a while, mimicking and soberly attempting to digest the various paradigms for understanding reality, but finally deciding to take another path, to a better destination.

Not death.