Laxmi Update

27 June 2011

I continue to worry about Laxmi.   We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper.   It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind.  This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job.  I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her.   I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker.  But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.

Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself.  She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress.  Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables.  Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.

Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman.  She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.

Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore.   Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable.  The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status.  The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings.  Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female.  What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview?  The damage it does to women’s self-esteem.  A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.

Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options.  After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother.  He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her.  Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece.  I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family.  Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola.  Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest.  Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.

She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer.  She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month.  He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon.  Laxmi is now living with a friend.  Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.

I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center.  My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room.  What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves?  Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money?  Yes.  It is.  But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.

Here is my still-evolving philosophy:  It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity.  But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity.  I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly.  Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works.  So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me

I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah.  I will defer to them in most cases.  But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.

So, what will happen to Laxmi?  I don’t know.  I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf.  What I received went to her.   People tend to prefer to help children and young people.  There is no social security system in place in Nepal.  She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her.  I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life.  I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her.  She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her.  I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.

Naked Truth

Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

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

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

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

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

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

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

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

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

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

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

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

Edgy

So for three days now I’ve been rewriting the introduction and it is not going well.  I have written I think one paragraph that I like.  And I honestly do not know what else should go into it.  Enough introduction.  I am so heartily sick of writing the introduction.

The sun starts to hit the table where I work, in my brother’s kitchen, at about 3 pm, glaring off the screen and making it pretty uncomfortable to work.  I took a long break and drove up into the Grand Mesa National Forest, which you can only access by miles of dirt road.   Pretty awesome.  The road starts out through a valley bordered by a rim of rock that runs along the hills, winding through ranches with airplane-sized watering tractors, and long bunches of cedar and scrubby brush, and then heads upward so steeply that even my brother’s enormous truck slipped on the gravel at times.  I hadn’t put it into 4-wheel drive yet, trying to save gas.   After about 10 miles the ranches dropped out and there was just open sagebrush sea and scrub, and up ahead in the far hills a forest of gold.  And then I was in the aspen, all apricot shimmer and white trunks, and nearly hit a very black cow and its calf.   On I drove over a road that got markedly worse, so bad that I had to slow down and roll over the rocks and valleys at 1 mile an hour.

I reached Bailey’s Reservoir at about 4.  It is really just a lake nestled into the skirt of a small and barren valley.  Beautiful, but dark.  The sky was overcast, threatening to rain.  There was one bright yellow aspen against the black-green firs.  The ground was rust brown, mottled with cow-pies.  Little breeze.   I was away from the road, away from the truck, and tucked back into the woods, just the way I like to be.  Not a sound except for one weird cry that could have been a coyote or a crazy human. I guess it spooked me, because I didn’t want to stay there.  Maybe it was too quiet, deafeningly silent, after that.  There was no breeze, and I was too far away from the cows to hear them.  I regretted I had not brought the dogs.  It was so quiet that my brain started to make up sounds–to hear the buzz of the highway, or cars, or other kinds of urban noise.  These phantoms passed away.  An airplane thundered pass and it took a long time for the sound to fade.  But then it did, and all was silent again

I drove further down into the valley and headed back home.  Then I began to feel irritated with my cowardice, turned around, and headed back up to the lake.  But I couldn’t stay there.

I turned around again and drove downhill about a mile, across a rugged washboard road, got out, propped an easel against a rock, sat, and looked.  I could see way down across the Grand Mesa and out towards the West Elk Mountains and the flat land where Highway 92 runs from Hotchkiss to Delta.  I was way up on 3100 Road.

Even though I enjoyed the softness of the aspen trees that had already shed their leaves feathering up against the evergreens, and the broad swathes of gold behind them, and the valley spilling out below me; even though I was happily straddling a granite boulder like a horse, I couldn’t simply sit and be.  Too edgy.  I needed to move, get back, reach home before dark, before the rain.  Plus in this spot I could hear the cattle lowing, and they annoyed me.

They annoyed me more on the way back down, because they all seemed to have decided to go somewhere on the road at the same time.  Dinner?  There must have been thirty or forty of them, all told, on the way back.  All different colors, browns and tans, creams, and russets and blacks, bulls and cows and calves.  They frequently stopped right in the middle of the road, turned their enormous bodies sideways and stared at the headlights.  When I finally got through them all, and drove a little further down the mountain, I saw one pure white young cow grazing among the aspen.

I also saw hawks, and chipmunks, and deer.  I think they were deer.  Could have been elk.  One froze by the roadside, so I stopped and looked into her eyes until she decided I was no threat and moved on.  She had enormous ears.

Once I had a dream that three animals came to me, and when I awakened I fancied that they were my spirit animals, or totems.  They were an owl, a jackal, and a doe.  I saw the face of the doe this afternoon.

I’m making soup with last night’s creamed corn (I made it from fresh cobs), tomatoes that come from my brother’s garden here, caramelized onions and carrots, and sweet potato.  The broth is water-based. Since I’ve sworn off all processed foods I couldn’t use a cube, so I took a chicken breast out of the freezer and popped it in to the slow-cooker.  I made this before I left for my drive.  When I got back the chicken was tender enough and cool enough to shred with my fingers.  I poured another cup or so of water and about half a cup of wine into the broth, and it has been simmering for the past 40 minutes or so. I will have to let you know how it turned out.

Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”