Dhammapada, 1:1-2


All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a corrupted mind,

And suffering follows

As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led my mind,

Made by mind

Speak or act with a peaceful mind,

And happiness follows

Like a never-departing shadow.

Buddha, Dhamapada  1:1-2

The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience.  Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds.  But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences.  The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world.  So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself.  She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love.  She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.

The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.

 

The Place that Grants all Wishes


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

Boudhanath

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

What are my wishes:

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

2. I wish for true companionship.

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

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

That I love my son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha says,

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

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

The Decision to Come Home, Part One


August 8, 2011

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

The Decision to Leave:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brendan at Nagarkot in his Space Dolphin Shirt

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


Grown-up Breakups and the Green Tara


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

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

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

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

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

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

You say to yourself:

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

And then you admit:

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

Which leads to the happy thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Tara

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

I have been crying.

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

Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:

Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You should make your way steadily, alone.

In the childish there is no companionship.

From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada

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

Later on the Dhammapada reads,

If one cannot find a mature friend,

a companion who is wise, living productively,

let him go alone,

like a king abandoning conquered land,

like an Elephant in the forest.

A life of solitude is better–

There is no companionship with a childish person.

Let one go alone and do no damage,

Like an elephant in the forest.

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

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

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

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

Hold On, Be Strong,

When it’s on, it’s on.

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

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

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

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

Pull yourself out of misfortune

Like an elephant, sunk in the mud.

Shanti (Peace) Pagoda, Pokhara, Nepal


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad and Good Guides in the Forest

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

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

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

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

Rahda and Krishna?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That I am weak.

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

Dearest Timothy, Namaste:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.

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

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

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

Peace,

Kimberly

Before Leaving for Pokhara


7 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Pittsburgh to Doha


I’m taking my son, Brendan, to Nepal, for two months this summer.   At first he was really excited, but now he tells me that he does not quite understand why he feels so miserable about leaving the United States and going to teach English in a Buddhist monastery.  He worries that he will not know what to do in the classroom, and it does not help that he has received very little information about the age his students will be, or which monastery he will be teaching in, or what he will be expected to do.  He is afraid that he will not enjoy the work,  that he will be lonely, and that in the two months that he spends in Nepal the world that he knows at home will go on without him. I suspect that he unconsciously fears that he will be different when he returns.

Although he was thrilled and enthusiastic when I first proposed the trip, he has balked every step of the way since it started.  After he packed his bags, he sent me a text saying that he did not want to go.  We talked about it and he felt better.  He even returned to his silly self when he filmed me at the airport:

We flew to JFK .  Over a very nice, very expensive dinner, he tried to talk me into letting him fly back to Pittsburgh.  His distress was real, and deep, but I knew he would regret not going ahead with the trip in the long run, and I could also see that he wanted me to hold firm and help him keep to this path.

Sometimes the path is very painful, frightening, and hard.  Two weeks before departure, my boyfriend Tim, who has lived with me for the past three years, abruptly broke up with me, out of the blue.   I was driving on Route 8 North at the time, with two loose dogs in the back seat, and I only managed to keep the car safely on the road because my biological response to profound and catastrophic situations is to shift into a robot-like rationality and calm.   Later on, when the initial danger has passed, is when I fall apart.   I am still falling apart a little bit.

I knew we were going through a rough time, but I also thought I knew that we loved each other dearly and would work through it.  I didn’t understand how unhappy he was because he never told me.   Looking back on it, I cannot say when he changed, or when what had been abiding love for me transformed into courtesy.  He says he still loves me, but that he only now realizes how important it is for him to be with someone who is more like his mother, a devout Catholic and avid sports fan.  I’m an atheist and I can’t stand American football.  I thought the fact that we loved each other in spite of our differences was the important thing.

He has been very nice about it all, very sincere, very courteous.  He will stay in my house while I am gone and look after our dogs.  He drove us to the airport and told me I could ask just about anything of him.   My mind boggles.  What had been a certain reality wavered and evaporated, like a mirage in the desert.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who hold  such grudges,

hostility is not appeased.

He berated me!  He hurt me!

He beat me! He deprived me!

For those who forgo such grudges,

Hostility ceases.

So reads the first chapter of the Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings on the way.  No good, no peace, no happiness will come to me if I complain and wail and moan about what my boyfriend, whom I loved very much, did or did not do to me.   I am suffering, yes.  My heart aches.  But how I respond to this particular experience will determine how I will feel in the next few months and the more distant future.  I choose to let go lovingly.  As the Buddha says,

In this world

Hostilities are never

appeased by hostility.

But by the absence of hostility

are they appeased.

This in an interminable truth.

I am here on this journey with my son, my only child, in order to give back to him some of the attention and care that I could not give to him for most of his life.  His father and I divorced when he was six, and due to a set of unfortunate circumstances Brendan spent all of his school years in his father’s house.  I lived far from him and saw him only once a month, sometimes for only a few hours, during that period.  When I dropped him off at his father’s house, into which I was rarely invited, I wept at the side of the road in my car.  Because I diligently worked to have a relationship with him, we are very close now.

We had a very easy 13-hour flight to Doha in exit row seats on Qatar Airlines.  Best airplane food I’ve ever had.  Both Brendan and I slept most of the way.  Then we took a taxi to our elegant hotel, an old-fashioned Arabian manor with hand-carved mahogany doors and marble floors, right in the middle of the souq.

Shortly after this video, Brendan broke down again.  I thought he was having an allergy attack, but he was crying.   We are both limping along at the start of our journey together.

He needed some time along so I wandered out into the souq, a warren of covered walkways and open air courtyards, cafes and shops.  I quickly came back because I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone at night, and a few men had made comments to me.   I asked Brendan to come out  with me.  I wanted him to see how beautiful it all was–the men in long white robes and headdresses, the women in sleek black abayas sitting in the outdoor cafes smoking hookahs—the coffee shops and the spices in bulky burlap bags, the men lounging over their dinners and beautiful women in turquoise headdresses.  Our hotel sits at the edge of the souq, where the bird-sellers hawk feathered and furry creatures, stacking cages of chicks on top of kittens.

He came out and we walked here:

Then we settled down into an outdoor cafe, where I ordered hummos and tabbouleh, which were delicious and fresh, just as spicy and lemony as Tim’s concoctions, and maybe even a tiny bit better.  I also ordered what I thought would be a minty-apple drink, but which turned out to be a hookah.  The smoke made me light-headed and slightly sick to my stomach.  Brendan sank down into his funk again while I prattled on about how lovely it was to be out in the Arabian night admiring the parade of tourists and locals.  We came back to the hotel.  Brendan retreated into the familiar comfort of the internet and I wrote this blog.

It is now 3:22 am, Qatar time, and the muzzeins are singing beautiful prayers into the darkness.  Brendan has scrambled out the door to look over the balcony towards the sound.  Here is a video of the view that he is looking at.

The first lines of the Dhammapada are:

Preceded my mind

are phenomena,

led by mind,

formed by mind.

If with mind polluted

one speaks or acts,

then pain follows,

as a wheel follows

the draft ox’s foot.

The words are profound and simple.  Our minds–both our individual consciousnesses and the ancestral/cultural consciousness that we each inherit–shapes, forms, and interprets the mental objects, the phenomena that we encounter in this life.   It is not the other way around.  We are not blank slates, not clay tablets that life writes itself upon, but rather intelligent and emotional beings who interpret everything that we encounter.  Therefore it is important to free ourselves from the bad habits that we have inherited or learned.

We unlearn bad habits–delusional thinking, hatred, violent, attachments to passions–by meditating and becoming more conscious of how we respond to phenomena, and more conscious of how we wish to respond.

Both Brendan and have begun this journey in pain.  Some of that pain is unavoidable.  The Buddha taught that all beings experience pain.  He also said that he taught one thing and one thing only: pain and its cessation.

The first of the four noble truths is that we cannot avoid pain.  What we do have some control over is how we respond to the pain that we feel.  We can either behave and speak in ways that will prolong the pain and increase our suffering, or we can behave and speak in ways that will lead beyond the pain to a sense of ease.

The Buddha said,

If with mind pure

one speaks or acts

then ease follows

as an ever-present shadow.

Neither Brendan nor I know what we will encounter on this journey.  We know that we will be living with a Nepali family, but we do not know where that family home is, or how many people are in it, or when we will begin living there.  Tomorrow we fly to Kathmandu.  We are scheduled to arrive at midnight, and our very kind Nepali host will meet us there, so late at night.   We have much to learn, but we also have much to unlearn.

Naked Truth


Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

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

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

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

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

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

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

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

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

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

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

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