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 T 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 it 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.

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.

When I first lost him, 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 over-exericising, over-eating, 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  beyond it.