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.

The Children at the Orphanage

Nirmala. She is 5. Three weeks ago, she and her sister, Krishala, were rescued from a village house where they were enslaved as servants.

I brought a camera to the orphanage this morning.  The kids loved it.  First they each wanted to pose wearing my hat.    Bipin then got hold of it and rushed around snapping shots of the house, his mother, Bimila, and us.

He also took this one of the open refrigerator and gave me a test:  “What is this food?”  He asked.  I really wasn’t sure.  I guessed oranges, apples. “No!” he cried, delighted,  “It is EGG!”  Later on, Anura had the camera, and she photographed this chart on the wall of their class- and play-room.   It has a nice new carpet, all over which I spilled tea on the first day, during a game of ring-around-the-rosy.  Bimala, Bipin’s mother, brings me a fresh cup every morning.  On my second day she suggested that I drink it down right away

VSN runs three or four orphanages.  The largest one holds 16 children, who I understand are all terrified of their “mother,” the woman who keeps the house, bathes, feeds, and clothes them with funds that VSN volunteers and donors provide.  A few years ago, a young Dutch couple came to volunteer for six weeks.  While they were here, they raised over $2,000 from family and friends for VSN in general, which was just getting started.  They later raised enough to found and support another orphanage, where my co-volunteer and friend, Dalina, works.  She brought a lot of craft projects for the children to do, and she also brought cases filled with pens and pencils.  The children showed their delight by opening them, peering inside, and zipping them closed again.  They have never had anything to call their own.  The children’s mother, who is very strict, insists that they spend every minute of the day studying. She took the pencil cases and contents away and locked them into a closet.  She said that the children would break them.  Dalina said she didn’t care; she had brought them a gift and wanted them to have it.  She complained so much about it that the housemother relented and gave them back.  But she still would not let them play games.  Here were five-, six-, and seven-year olds sitting straight in their chairs, never fidgeting, because they were afraid. After Dalina’s prodding, the housemother allowed her to do craft projects with the children for 30 minutes every day.

The “mean” housemother is not as unkind as she sounds.  From her perspective, the children have one chance to save themselves in this society in which family and village connections mean everything.  They must excel at school, and excel they do.  The children from this orphanage are at the top of their classes at the Career Building International Academy (CBIA), which VSN also runs.  This school is a private school, sustained by tuition from parents in the neighborhood.  VSN volunteer fees sponsor the orphan children.  Most Nepali schools emphasize discipline and rote learning over creative analysis, and they do not seem to have the concept of recess.   When school lets out, the fields fill with kids who have shed their uniforms for play-clothes. Keep in mind that the fields are also covered with trash, which is occasionally burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air.  They play where they can.  There is a slightly cleaner football (i.e., soccer) field where and exciting match between high schools took place this afternoon..  I love to walk about the neighborhood at this time a day.  Every child cheerfully hails me because I am white,  piping “Hello! Hi! How are you?” They are very friendly.

I don’t know how the children I am teaching will do.  I expect very well, since they are l very bright. Like children the world over, they have short attention spans.  I play games with them.  It is actually quite challenging to work with them, because I don’t have a blackboard or a whiteboard to write on, no books with which to teach—not even picture books—and only a room with a new carpet and a few sleeping mats ranged around the walls.  We always begin sitting down in a circle, but the children want to tumble backwards, or get up and go to their room to bring me something.   Yesterday Anura offered me hair oil and Bipin sprayed deoderant under my arms.  “Are you trying to tell me I smell?”  I asked.  “No,” he replied and sprayed all the other children’s pits.

I allow them a lot of freedom because I know how controlled they must be in school.  I incorporate movement into our lessons to keep them smiling.   Yesterday I taught them Simon Says.  When they get too rambunctious, I switch to modified yoga. Breathing deeply and regularly, they learn “in” and “out.” They tumble and wiggle again, just as Brendan did when he was little.  Bimala, their housemother, indulges them, too, thankfully.  They have finally come to a home in which they feel how much they are loved.

Don’t be fooled by their smiling faces and cheerful, loving dispositions.  These kids have seen desperation, death, violence and abuse for most of their short lives. I’m still finding out their story, but as far as I have gathered the children were rescued from other, terrible, dark, dirty, and crowded hovels that pass for orphanages, where they received very little food, and almost no protein. VSN found them and brought them into this family home, where there are a mother, a father, and two children, 10 and 13.

Krishala. Until about three weeks ago she was enslaved as a servant. She is eight.

Krishala is eight and very shy.  I have to coax her to speak.  But she always knows the answer before everyone else, and is starting to get more confident with me.  It is hard for her, Gorima, and Anura, since they are far behind their classmates, who have always had mothers and fathers and who have been going to this very rigorous school for years.  Gorima is the joker, the coyote of the crowd, always making mischief.  If I have a pen or a book in my hand, she grabs it and examines it carefully or insists on writing out her numbers to show me what she knows, or drawing a flower to give to me.  Since I had been so permissive with my hat, she assumed that it would also be okay to pull the glasses off my face.  She put them on and laughed.  Then Krishala snatched them away from her, and we had our photo taken.  Of course we had to do another with Gorima wearing the glasses.  And then Bipin, Bimala’s outspoken and self-assured son, wanted them on.  I couldn’t tolerate this for much longer, since these frames were outrageously expensive and I had already had to replace them once, when my dogs found them on the table at home and chewed them up.

Gorima. She is 8.

Gorima is surprisingly solicitous of me.  I have a wound on my hand from a bicycle that I tried to unhook and bring down from the garage ceiling back home.  It fell straight down.  I ducked, but the gears cut into the back of my left hand.  It’s hard to keep a bandage on it, and the cut has become slightly infected.  I’ve ignored it, but Gorima would not.  She found a bit of dirty plastic tape on the floor, and pressed it on the wound.  Then Bipin brought me a clean bandage, which one of the other volunteers had brought from home, removed the tape, and bound up my hand.  It was a little band-aid, for children, from the US.  It had cats on it and tt fell off the first time I washed my hands.  But Gorima’s concern for me got me to take the wound seriously, and after dinner at Sugandha’s house, I allowed on of the other volunteers to attend to it.  She’s a fourth-year medical student in Newcastle, England.  She cleaned it properly and applied a much sturdier plaster.   Because of Gorima, my wound will now heal.   Maybe she, too, will go to medical school.  Her fate will depend on the success of the VSN project.  As long as volunteers keep on coming, and if donors from around the world help to support the project, she will have a chance.

See how beautiful they are.  If Nirmala, Gorima, Krishala, and Anura had not been rescued by VSN, they very likely would have spent their lives in sexual slavery.  Krishala and Nirmala, in fact were found enslaved as servants.  When Krishala first arrived at the orphanage, about three weeks ago, she went around cleaning everything because she had been made to do so.  I will get more details very soon.  Sugandha does not know their story as well as Gehlu, who brought them to Pepsi-Cola.  VSN has been good to Bipin and his mother, too, as well.  She has no husband—another story to find out and tell—and had been living in a hovel before VSN rented a flat in a beautiful house.  Bipin, who is constantly doing headstands and somersaults, thinks he’s living in a palace.  He and his mother sleep in the same room with the other children.  They have two other rooms—the children’s play and lesson-room, and a kitchen.  They also have flowers in pots in the front courtyard, and Bipin always thinks to bring me a flower when we play ring-around-the rosy.

Anura. She is 10.

Today I showed them videos of my dogs and cat on my computer.  I have been missing my dogs very much, and wondering how I will get through the three months after Brendan leaves without anyone to hug or hold.  Freya and Baldr are very affectionate, like most well loved dogs, and much cleaner and healthier than the dogs around here, who survive on rotting, maggot-infested food and scraps, and who have all sorts of diseases and infestations.  When I’m lonely or sad I can pull them up onto my lap or fall asleep with them at my side.  But here I have no such friends.  Even if I could find a young puppy, clean it up and bring it into the house, which I can’t, I would still have to release it back into the streets when I return home, and that would be cruel.  So I have been feeling sorry for myself in anticipation of future loneliness.  There is no way I’m going to have any kind of romance with a Nepali man.  First of all, they are very short.  Second of all, most of them have very strange ideas about women.  We could never get on.   Thirdly and most importantly, I’m not even close to being ready for a new relationship, and look forward to the time alone.  I will be living more or less like a nun, as I have been, rising early, working hard for the benefit of others, living on simple food and water, and going to bed early and sober. It will be lonely at times, of course, but I will not lack for love.

The orphan children hang on me, crawl into my lap, and all try to hold my hand at the same time.  Nirmala, the youngest, gets the most attention from the other kids, but she also loves it when I pick her up.  In fact all of them want me to pick them up and hold them.  All of them except for Gorima, the dreamiest, shyest one, who nevertheless wants to touch me in some way.  How to express how happy this makes me, how it satisfies the mother in me who was starved of mothering for so many years?  But this story will have to wait until the next post.

Bipin in my hat

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.