Returning Home From Nepal


August 5, 2011

Doha, Qatar

Brendan in the Doha Airport, Qatar

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

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

Anura's mark on my palm

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

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

Same day, about 24 hours later:

New York, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On mothering and loss


Sometimes I regard the mother-aspect of myself as a separate, stunted, crippled, neglected entity.  This is how I view her:

She is thirsty for mothering.  Her mother died during her pregnancy, a pregnancy she rushed into as a way to connect with her mother.  She lost her mother before she could become a mother, before she could establish that bond, the bond that seemed still uncertain, incomplete, not cemented.  Their  relationship had always been fractured, difficult, perhaps because her mother could not care for her when she was a baby.  Her mother and father both worked long hours, and she went to babysitters.  And then in her adolescence and college years, she rejected her mother.  She became an ardent feminist and went around saying stupid things like, “I’d kill myself if I was nothing more than a housewife and mother.”  She felt she had failed her mother by denying her all those years.  And now she wanted to reclaim her, validate her choices, demonstrate her gratitude by learning from her, becoming her daughter all over again by becoming a mother.  Her mother saw the ultrasounds, but never saw Brendan, never knew him, never held him.  This loss—this was the loss that she could not bear.  She had set her heart on seeing her mother cradling her own child, the child who looked exactly like her, and loving that child as she had never loved her.

I thought the only way I could truly appreciate and connect to my mother was by sharing the experience of mothering with her.  But I lost my mother before I became a mother.  That loss hurt as much as the loss, only temporary, of my child during those crucial years when he lived with his father.  I had taken a job, the only job offered to me, far away, 16 hours by car.  I could only dream of bathing, reading to, and cuddling my 6 year-old son.  I thought I was a terrible mother for having left him, and used to collapse on the kitchen floor in a flood of pain and grief.

I am still grieving the loss of my mother. I am no longer grieving the years I lost with my son.

I never abandoned him.  I had to take the job that I had worked so hard to get. I found another teaching gig closer to him at the University of Pittsburgh as quickly as I could.  I stayed in touch with him as best I could.  I visited, I came back again and again and again even though the greeting was gruff and the time short.  I would drive four or five hours down to see him for 30 minutes.  After dropping him off at his father’s house I would often have to pull to the side of the road to weep.  I did the best I could.  I never gave up.  And I know now that I am a good mother.

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.


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.

Krishala, again


28 June 2011 Eve

Just back from the orphanage.  Maria, who is starting her fifth year of medical school, went with me to check up on Krishala, who was ill again today.  The report on Krishala’s stool sample came back and informed us that she has ameobic dysentery, which is extremely common among children in Nepal.  The headaches are harder to explain.  She probably needs to see an eye doctor, but Gehlu wants to clear up her other problems—viral tonsilitus and now dysentery—first.  So the doctor gave her some paracetamol, which Americans call acetaminophen.   Maria and I went over to find out if Krishala was getting the proper dosage of the medicine she needs, and also to see how she was doing.

We arrived at a completely darkened house.  The children were eating dinner at candle- and flash-light.  Maria, who I have come to like very much, is as drawn to the children as I am.  Indeed, everyone who has met them falls in love with them, because they are all extremely affectionate and cheerful.  But Nirmala, the youngest, is the most endearing of all.  She smiles all the time, and her eyebrows jump up as her eyes ignite when she looks over at you. I call her my little laughing Buddha.  “Eh-bhui!” she erupts, bobbing up on her toes or, if she is sitting, onto her haunches, whenever something piques her interest or enthusiasm.  Or she starts and points and says “U!” when she sees something she likes.  She likes to look at photographs of herself and her new family.  She loves to be held.  Maria loves to hold her.

Maria also determined that while Krishala is getting the medicine she needs, she has only been given half the amount that she should take to get well.  So she and I will go to the pharmacy tomorrow to restock.  We don’t know why there is not enough medicine for her.  We assume that Gehlu, who picked it up, did not understand that she needed more.  We will remedy the situation, but worry about what would have happened to Krishala if we had not been here.  We worry about what will happen to all the children when we leave, as we must.

This morning I held Krishala on my lap, because she was sick.  So naturally all the children wanted to sit on my lap, and I spent the morning under a heap of loving little bodies.  Surely it is impossible to feel unloved and unneeded here.

Today I learned something that made me very sad.  Each of the children have suffered from neglect, poverty, cruelty, and forced labor.  But Krishala’s body shows the blows that fate has dealt her more than the others.  Today I found out that she is 10, not 8, as I had believed.  She is much smaller than the other ten year-old, Anura, and smaller even that Gorima, who is indeed 8, or thereabouts.

Gorima (8), Krishala (10), and Anura (10)

Why is Krishala so small?  Because she has been malnourished.  Remember, Krishala is the one who came to the orphanage cleaning up after and serving everyone, because she had been an enslaved servant for most of her life.  Her father was a drunkard who squandered the family property and sold all of their land to support his carousing.  He desperately wanted a son.  When his wife gave birth to the tenth daughter in row, he abandoned the family, and the girls were sent or sold out to work.  She is ten years old.   She looks six.  She is woefully behind for her grade in English, in math, and in science.  She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she has spent nearly no time in school.  Rupus, the six-year-old, appears to speak better English than she does.  But she comprehends a lot.

Sometimes I rock Krishala in my arms and sing lullabies to her.  She goes quite still and closes her eyes, drifting back into a baby state in which she drinks in my maternal love for her.  She needs desperately to do this.  So does Anura, who hangs on me or hugs me or Bimila, like an infant.  These children have not only been starved of essential nutrition, they have been starved of essential love, the acceptance, the nurturing, the contact between skin and skin, and eye and eye, that well-loved babies receive from their mothers and fathers.

Thank goodness for Bipin, who looks after them with love because he has been well loved by his mother.  He clearly identifies with their plight.  His own father disappeared when his mother was pregnant with him.  He speaks excellent English, for his age—also 10—and translates for his mother. I communicate with her through him.

Tonight we handed out some of the presents we had bought the children.  Maria gave them a skipping rope, and I had brought a soccer ball.  Bipin said that it needed air, and told me where I could get it pumped up. We’ll go to the shop on the way to school tomorrow morning.

I was wondering if some of my readers, especially my family and friends, would consider sending play clothes and toys to the children.  They have very little to wear after school and, as I mentioned before, nothing to play with other than one another.  If you have any decent hand-me-downs, especially dresses, jeans, tee-shirts, shoes, socks, and jackets, and could send them to me here in Kathmandu, you would be doing a great good.  And toys—there don’t seem to be any nice, sturdy ones to buy here.  Today I brought small rubber balls and stickers, which were a huge hit, but not very educational or comforting.  Maria and I asked the children what they wanted.  All the girls said dolls, dolls with black hair.  The dolls for sale here are cheap, tawdry, and white.  They all have blond hair and blue eyes.  The boys wanted cars.  Bipin specified that he wanted an electric car with a battery.

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.

Many sources of love


Street in Kathmandu

June 13, 2011

9:30am

Just back from the orphanage. There are currently four orphans there, Anura, who is 10, Gorima, 8, Khrisala, also 8, and Nirmala, 5. Two more are coming. We played a lot of games because they wiggle and squirm a lot and it is hard for 5 and 8-year olds to focus their attention on one thing for more than a few minutes. Unbelievably, children as young as five years are forced to sit very still for long periods of time in school. Nepali educational philosophy, as far as I can tell from the other volunteers working here and my teacher, Bishal, holds that children should be rigidly disciplined and made to memorize great reams of material. They are very good at listening and rote learning but not at creating or innovating.

I taught them Ring-around-the Rosy today, and we all laughed a lot when we hit the floor on “down.” This is how I am teaching them “down” and “up” and “around.” When they begin to get too excited, I have them breathe “in” and “out.” Poor little Nirmala was completely unfocused by the end, and I really can’t imagine how the children sit at attention for hours on end in the schools. They all waved goodbye to me very affectionately, and I was glad that I could tell them that I would be here for a long time. Working with loving and beautiful children, children who would otherwise almost certainly end up trafficked and enslaved as prostitutes, fills me with light and happiness.

One of the things I meant to mention in earlier posts is how wonderful it is to be here with Brendan, who is very good company. He still gets mad at me occasionally for treating him like a child (in his opinion), and I am trying hard not to “matronize” him. I take great comfort in his presence here. He loves me, and is unlikely to announce, out the blue, that he is finished with me and will be looking elsewhere for a more suitable mother. This alone is quite reassuring in light of recent events.

He started working at a different orphanage today. He and the two German girls, Sarah and Eileen, will be painting it in bright colors over the next month. He has already met the children, and on that day he came back from them as radiant as I felt this morning. Now I must return to my Nepali studies. The second book of the Dhammapada begins

Diligence is the path to the deathless

Negligence is the path of death.

Those who are negligent Are as the dead.

Understanding this distinctly,

Those who are skilled in diligence

Rejoice in diligence,

Delighting in the pasture of the noble one.

I could easily spend four or more hours a day studying the language, but in fact have only one or two hours to devote to it. I am getting better at asking for things in shops, and the children are also teaching me. They find my Nepali accent utterly abominable. There is much work for me to do here, and if I work diligently, I believe my heart will grow lighter. What I am trying to express is, there are more than one kind of love, and I look forward to a period of sensuous but not sexual connections with other people.

The Author on her Book


I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad.  These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness.  I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.

I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child.  I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth.   It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.

I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.”  For  years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done.   But it was never finished!  I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either.  I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten.   It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.

No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.

Or so the chain of associations seemed to go.  My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back.  I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.

Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution.  In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.

Still, I am melancholy.  My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it.  I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it.  But I do not know quite how, just yet.  I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that.  Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems.  Or I’ll publish it privately.  Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room.  Or have it compressed and made into a bench.  Or shred it with cheese and make omelets.  Or beads.  Or stepping stones to the next destination.