Getting home after a Holocaust: Dream, August 21, 2013


I was at a picnic, and all my neighbors and friends and family were there, even my son’s father.  The weather was so lovely and we were all having such a lovely time, that it saddened me to know that I my son was at home, probably sitting in the dark, feeling lonely and miserable.  So I left the happy scene and headed for the house, just a few blocks away.

Suddenly I was driving our old 1967 white Mercedes, and people started massing into the streets.  I slammed on the brakes, barely missing an old man.  Up ahead I saw tiny grey clouds wafting up from the ground all around us.  A policeman stopped me at an intersection, and, crouching down, shouted for everyone to take cover.  I didn’t feel very frightened as I hunched behind the steering wheel.

The ground shook violently in a thundering explosion. Something had blasted part of the road away.  The policeman stood up and ordered everyone to stay away from the punctures in the asphalt, but I had already started to drive ahead, through the tunnel where I thought I saw enough good road to get me  home, to Brendan, to see if he was all right.  No policeman would separate me from my child.

nuclear 2

But my car wheels grazed one of the steaming potholes and the whole surface gave way, pulling my car down with it!  I scrambled out the window up onto the side of the sinking car, and, using my mountain-climbing skills (which I seem to need in many of my dreams lately), I pulled myself up the enormous, concrete wall and up onto a ledge.  Unfortunately, the earthquake had pushed the road far, far beneath me, probably ten stories down.  Trapped!

The policeman was rescuing a man stranded int about 5 stories down with a cherry picker.  He was directly below me.  “Help! Help! Help!” I shouted at him.  He seemed to ignore me but soon came zooming up to bring me down.

I got into a bus with a number of other women and men, each of them as dazed as I was.  We talked about our symptoms: racing hearts, shaking hands, difficulty moving, hazy, slow thinking.  “We’ve been traumatized. This is normal,” I said.  Brendan’s father was on the bus, too.  I threw my arms around him and cried, “I am so grateful that you are here.  We must always stay together.”  We would look for Brendan together.

They took us to a police station where officious men and women made us take a test.  Each person had to do a different thing. To me, they said, “look into this light and speak as fast as you can.”  They didn’t tell me what they wanted me to say, but indicated that my fate depended on my words.  I burbled out my accomplishments, my virtues, my job experiences, my talents, anything I could think of.  Someone else had to type as quickly as she could on an old-fashioned keyboard that was difficult to operate.  Some people were not allowed to take the test.  I could not see where Brendan’s father had gone to.

I must not have done well because they sent me to a labor camp processing radioactive pigs, where workers typically lasted for no longer than 5 years.  “It’s better than dying now, isn’t it?,” one of the officious people asked me, not expecting an answer.  Less than a minute after I arrived, I stumbled into one of the boiling vats on the assembly line and began coughing up blood.  A man with hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes in a strangely puffy, yellow face, held me as I retched.

I learned that the earthquake had jolted me far forward in time, and that the entire planet had fallen under the control of giant casinos.  All other businesses had failed, and now the gaming industry ran all public and private institutions.  Even though I had a Ph.D. and many years of teaching experience, I had not attended a casino-run university, and, therefore, my qualifications had no value.

Somehow I got home to the house, after all, years later, and found Brendan.  “You are safe!  You stayed here!” I cried out joyfully.  “No,” he replied.  “I left.  And I traveled for years and learned many things.

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

Cannonball through the heart


9 July 2011

Now that I know how to look, I can see how poor the people are.  Here is a woman shoveling wet sand into an enormous wicker basket that she carries with a strap around her forehead.  There is a man washing his face at an outdoor tap.  A man in a crisp pink shirt and shorts stands reading the newspaper at a shop.  Children in clean white uniforms stand in the mud, waiting for the school bus.

We have stopped for ten minutes on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu.  The landscape is hilly and the streets are broad.  A young, barefoot woman in a dirty sari carries a toddler on her shoulders.  There is a series of sheds built of brick with metal roofs held down by rocks.  They might once have been shops, like the row selling chips, water, candy, soft drinks, and ice cream.  People appear to be living in the sheds above, where the metal pull-down doors are up halfway to let in the light.

On the outskirts of Kathmandu

I’m thinking about Tim.  I’m forgiving him, understanding and even admiring him for having the guts to follow his heart and his faith.  Yet I’m also furious.

Evening:

It’s like a cannonball through the heart. Will I heal?  The pain is sharp, bitter, and unrelenting.

Monsoon Season in Nepal


The monsoons have started.  All the trash-filled fields have turned overnight into swamps or lakes.  Some kind of bullfrog sounds like sawing wood or braying is under my window.  It and the frogs seem to have fallen from the skies.  They weren’t here before, were they?

When Brendan and I live in the same house, I am much happier.   The keening ache  that has become so habitual, I don’t even notice it, stills at last.   I become aware of it only when he comes back into my everyday life.  Like the summer rain and the sun that returns, he nourishes.

You don’t live apart from your only child from the time he is six and not suffer serious damage.  Not if you have a heart, I think.

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.

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43


Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.   A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as drinking, or smoking pot, or drawing, or reading, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and get beyond it.

Mothering


With my son, Princeton, circa 1992

With my son in Princeton

My son, my only child, was born months after my mother succumbed, fighting, to colon cancer.  She was 55.  I was 30.  When the doctors diagnosed cancer, I immediately got pregnant.

I had spent a lot of my life up to that point doing everything I could not to become my mother.   I looked down on her “bourgeois” life-style as the tennis-playing, Saks-shopping wife of a successful surgeon.   She never finished college, because she took a job to pay for my father’s medical education.

With my mother

I finished college, spent two years studying in Germany, and then completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.   I had married, yes, but was working as the press secretary for a liberal Congresswoman in Washington, D.C., while my husband finished his dissertation.   Later I took a high-paying job as the director of State Relations as NYU.

Suddenly she was dying and all I wanted to do was experience motherhood with her.  I wanted, needed to bond with her.  I wanted to learn everything she had to teach me.   Nothing mattered more to me.  She bugged the heck out of me but she was still my best friend.  She had cancer.  I set about getting pregnant with the same determination I had directed to getting work.

Shortly after I conceived, I found that she had only a few months left.  I quit my fancy job and moved home.  She lived long enough to see an ultrasound of my son while he was still in a frog-state, bouncing himself off the sides of my womb.  I remember the day.  We had gone from the gynecologist to the oncologist, and the news was good and bad.  Shortly after that, the doctor put her on oxygen.  She died on October 2, 1990.  My son was born May 3, 1991.

My Son in Santa Barbara, circa 1996

Six and a half years later, I left my marriage.   I managed to win joint custody of my son, but the only job I could get in my field was in a different state.   At the time, I never imagined that the separation would last so long.  Ten years.  I came to regret many decisions that seemed at the time to be best.  I made every choice with my son’s best interests in mind.  I didn’t think enough, in retrospect, about my own.  I didn’t realize how poorly I would endure the time I lost with him.

With my son in Pittsburgh

Long-distance mothering sucks.  It requires a huge amount of effort, patience, endurance, and love.  Love in the face of countless setbacks and awful, heart-breaking partings.  Love for another person makes it possible to turn the keys in the engine and drive on after you have just pulled over to the side of the road to weep and wail and rage.  Love bends you like the willow in the storm and keeps you alive for the long road ahead, when your children are older and still need you.  I, after all, still need my mother.

This year my son is living with me under my own roof, and the best part of my day comes at 6 am, when I rise to make breakfast and to pack a lunch for him.   Sometimes I also help him get to work, at 7 am, on time.   I cannot begin to describe how good this is for me, how my heart heals a little more with each sandwich I make.  Being able to be here for him is the best thing about life now.

Becoming a mother without your own mother to talk to is hard, because it isn’t until you have actually had your own children that the questions you need to ask occur to you.  You see your own children doing things that you think you might have done, or that may or may not be normal for someone in your family, and you want to know.  But mostly you simply want to share the experience of mothering with the woman who brought you into the world.

If I spent my young adult years running away from my sometimes suffocating mother, I spend my middle years yearning for her arms around me.

I was born blue.  The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and was choking me.  A metaphor for the future, perhaps.  Our mother was Norwegian, so she was powerful, domineering, and sometimes intrusive.  She was also outspoken and smart and capable and beautiful and funny.

Friends, my sister and mother in Santa Barbara

After she died, our family fell apart.  Dad self-destructed and completely neglected my sister.  I was, as I had always been, at least since she was six, far away, unable to help her.

It is a terrible thing to have a relationship with someone whom you love and want to help, someone who needs your help but who does not know how to ask you.  It is especially difficult when that person is still so young that she or he does not even realize what trouble she or he is in, and therefore does not perceive a need for help, and doesn’t ask.

So this is a strange posting for Mother’s Day.  The message I set out to convey was that this annoying holiday is for once a very happy day for me, and that is for all kinds of reasons.  The foremost reasons are my son and my sister and her twins.

I am also really tremendously grateful to my new friends, so many of whom are mothers of my age or so.  I am thinking of my partner’s sister, who has just lost both her parents, and of my sisters in AM, each of whom could tell a poignant story about loss and mothering, and of my dear friend in Poughkeepsie, who has also lost her mother.  Mothering is painful and rewarding, suffocating and renewing.  I’m lucky to have so many wonderful, vibrant mothers in my life.