Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

14 May, 2010

Birthdays and Prayers. Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today my best friend celebrates his birthday in a state, New York, which denies him and many of his friends basic rights and benefits that the rest of us take for granted.

As I think about that, I am reminded of a Fall morning many years ago, when I sat in a class on Black Women in the Americas, at Bates, and was told that we were going to watch the romantic saga that brought Vivienne Leigh to independent theaters worldwide. “Gone With The Wind? I love that movie!” I exclaimed. My friend, an African-American woman, stared at me, aghast: “But it’s so racist!” Thanks to our subsequent discussions, Mammy and Pork took up a full screen in my mental map of the movie, revealing a subtext that I, a foreigner, had missed in my awe over Scarlett’s waist and the beautiful green velvet drapes.

Recently, I revisited that moment in light of the debate over same-sex marriages in New York, and the attacks that have been made on those who have tried to bring equal rights to everybody in this country as well as those initiatives that seek to export our basest impulses overseas. In an article for the NYT early this year, Jeffrey Gettleman talks about three American evangelical Christians, who went to Uganda to give a series of talks about “curing” homosexuals:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

The end result was a law, introduced by a little known politician with ties to the U.S., called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will impose a death sentence on people exhibiting homosexual behavior. The role of individual Americans, (usually those with an agenda of proselytizing thrown in), in instigating and supporting bigotry in other nations, particularly in the recent past in African nations against gay individuals, is bad enough, but we have troubles closer to home.

Here’s the current status of human rights with regard to gays in the US: five states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont and the District of Washington DC, allow legal marriage between same-sex couples, along with the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon. Previously, the state of California granted the same legal right to marriage for same-sex couples, and then rescinded that right although it continues to grant the right to the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, although only those who were married before November 5, 2008, are allowed the designation, “marriage.” In NY, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed.

So back to that movie. I first saw the driveway to Tara projected on a screen at a private screening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from the movie, I watched a young man, Michael, who was wearing blue shadow on his eyes and had his arm around the shoulder of his boyfriend. My parents – an educator and a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service – were deeply involved in the arts community, and Michael, new to the fold, became a good friend.

I went from 7 to 17, with a dawning realization that our home was a haven for my parents’ non-heterosexual friends. Neither my brothers or I or any of our friends ever questioned their presence under our roof. Uncle Eustace, trained in England and a Brigadier from the Royal Army, a fine actor who played Alfred Doolittle with aplomb, cheered us up when my father lost his job, and commandeered an army ambulance to get him to intensive care when he had his first heart attack. I called Uncle Tony when I needed a ride somewhere. There he would reliably be, a very large gentleman in a very small red Morris Minor, on time and ready to shuttle us where we needed to go. Uncle Damian, Director of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, cleared both my American husband and me for our International Drivers Licenses. These men and women joined the many others who created the social backdrop to my childhood, coloring it with their generous spirits and purposeful lives.

It has been bewildering to me therefore, to watch each wave of fearful and vitriolic reactions to bills ensuring that the rights extended to all citizens and legal residents are not withheld from those who choose to consummate their romantic relationships differently than others. Much of the debate has been centered on God. As a practicing Buddhist who attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian missionary school, reads both the Bible and the Qu’ran, worked for the Quakers, and conducted research on the Jewish and Druze faiths, I have come to see that there really is no God who is not present in every person. Among the words of wisdom that have guided me in how I raise my own three daughters, are the words of Jesus who said, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It is difficult for me to understand how some of God’s followers have taken it upon themselves to decide that they must judge other human beings. Not for the massacre of innocents or the pursuit of material gain at the cost of destroying all creation, but for how two consenting adults choose to conduct their private lives.

In trying to understand the motivation behind these assaults, I go back to that class I took as a young adult. Ignorance is usually at the root of our most repugnant and non-inclusive political positions, but it is also at the root of our blindness to what life might be like for someone other than ourselves. I learned, by seeing that movie through my friend’s eyes, that it both left things unsaid and stated other things loud and clear. It did not diminish my enjoyment of the chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett. It did not make me stop grabbing the unyielding soil of my garden from time to time and declaring that “as god is my witness I’ll never go hungry again!” It did make me understand her experience, it did enlighten me about American history. It broadened my mind, it made me a better human being and it made us real friends, the kind whose friendship is based not only on shared activities and interests but deep empathy.

Surely our lives should be defined by the people we stand up for, not by those we seek to destroy? One of the early Quakers, William Penn, once said that “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it,” which is not unlike the verse in Colossians, Chapter 2:13-19: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

May my friend wake up someday soon to a home that recognizes that which is holy in every living being. Happy birthday, Charles.


26 December, 2009

Tsunami: Five Years On

lisasinhalabanner5Five years ago today, I was still fast asleep when the 2004 tsunami swept over large parts of my island country, Sri Lanka. A friend called me from Washington DC, where she was working, to tell give me this cryptic message: “There was a tsunami in Thailand but don’t worry, your brother Arjuna is fine.” In a house where a TV existed but was rarely turned on, I had no idea what she was talking about. The first time I heard my oldest brother’s voice was when I listened to Lisa Mullins talking with him on The World. Somewhere in my archives I have the link to his interview and to the interview that preceded his, which is mine. It was an encapsulation of our two realities – mine, on the other side of the world, and his, having faced the tsunami. I’ll post the links when I fine them, but here is an excerpt of what he said:

When the first wave came in, we were happy that we were seeing something that was really strange, but it was a very mild wave. Then the sea receded back, and we didn’t know what that meant. It was like someone had pulled the plug on the ocean, and crags and outcroppings of rock inside the sea were visible for the first time in years. We just watched it, and I was taking photographs of it. Then came this massive wall of water…The night before, I had been dancing. It was Christmas. We danced into the wee hours of the morning. With everyone, everyone bonded. There were Finns, there were Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, there were Brits, there were Japanese – I actually won a dance competition. The next morning it was like it was a whole big family of 150 people…I was on top of the continental ridge on the Rocky Mountains when 9/11 happened. I saw only one thing. What I saw, was what I heard – silence. You know what that the silence was? The silence was that all the planes had dropped out of the sky – and in America, at any given moment, if you look up into the sky, there are at least 10 planes up there. There’s a drone, that nobody really notices, until the drone stops. My nation is silent right now.

Over the next year, thanks to a phone call from the then pastor at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Waterville I directed the Sahana Project, sahana-churchdisplaya tsunami-relief effort from the state of Maine. When I say I directed, it was mostly a matter of traveling around Maine speaking to people about my country and receiving in return, not only the donations that people sent in, but acquiring a clear understanding of how easy it was, in every situation, to find our common ground. Easy even when I was talking about Catholic convents teaching Buddhism to Buddhists to the Congregational Church in far Northern Maine, in Rangely. mtmerici-kidswebsitepixEasy when talking to the sixth graders who raised $2000 on their own by giving up their class trip and soliciting their donations. Easy when chatting with the high school students who gave up a dollar for the privilege of wearing a baseball hat to school. As easy when speaking to Maine fishermen who go out to sea in frigid waters unlike their Sri Lankan brethren, as it was to speak stars2to the hundreds of people who sent in books and toiletries for the kids of the village we had decided to rebuild on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka, and the ones who sent celebratory gifts, individually tagged, with personal letters, to the thirty-five families who were moving into their new homes a few days before the first anniversary of the tsunami.

I recollect all this today because of all that was right about the Sahana Project. It had a fiscal agent, the UU Church, and it had a volunteer board comprised of individuals who had a history of commitment to community causes, juliabluhn-2including Mark B. Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby. It had someone “from there,” i.e. myself, who could talk not only about the need at hand but about the country and culture, and make it a real place for the donors. It had a small state where people were willing to trust in someone’s word, to believe that if I said I was going to use this money to rebuild a village, that is what would happen. It had a local organization in place, namely the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, willing to channel all of the funds collected toward rebuilding and none of it for administrative or operating costs. It had someone we trusted, my brother, to liaise between the Greens and us.

thornton2It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to watch civic organizations, community groups, private and public schools from Mt. Desert Island to Waterville to Kennebunkport, colleges like Bates and Colby, businesses like the Flatbread Company in Portland, churches and individuals who often did not have much in common with each other, come together to place their bit of the puzzle in the frame. Was ever a village rebuilt with such love? thomas9I don’t know. What I do know is that those thirty five homes contain the music of the zils and hip-scarves of belly-dance troupes, the laughter of Maine-born kids and the compassion of adults from age 18 to 90 who may never see what they made possible.

Visiting Sri Lanka for the opening ceremony in 2005, I wrote back thus:

(We) drove down the path that is being re-constructed by another group, with assistance from USAID, to the site of the old village. The road is bordered on both sides by the sanctuary, so there were a lot of wild birds to be seen, though the peacocks weren’t in sigh perhaps because it was late in the day. The drive to the ocean was also lined on the last stretch with the devastation that is still very much in evidence. Rasika (the matriarch of the village), named the people who had lived in each of the homes, and the ones who had died. The homes were either shells, entirely gouged out – literally plucked by the roots – or just foundations. There were roofs hanging like cloth from the sides of frail structures. It was unlike anything I could have imagined – even with the photographs. The village was between the estuary and the ocean, with parts of the marshy sanctuary in between. The villagers therefore were really hammered from both sides. The ocean rushing up the estuary as well as the ocean coming straight at them. I picture it being something like a volcanic eruption of water, with the villagers trapped in the middle. Seeing all this, I cannot fathom how the young woman who was two days away from delivery her baby, managed to escape with her young, three year old son. In fact, I think that if not for the trees in the sanctuary, we would have had no villagers to help at all.


Just a few months ago, I had a note from the UU Church that there was, still, a further $10,000 left in the account that had been set up. Although the village was now rebuilt (the picture here shows the village at the time of the opening ceremonies; there are now thriving home gardens there),img_3363 and many other projects completed with the aid of USAID (which built a road leading from the new village beside the bird sanctuary to the old within it, by the sea), and the Norwegian Development Fund as well as other groups, there was still some left over, and it was sent to the Greens to use for one of the community development projects at Kalametiya. It was easy enough for us to get the money to them; my brother now works for the Greens, having given up his job in the for-profit sector.

0000-166-2Sri Lanka has gone through many changes. In 2004, the current President, Mahinda Rajapakse was not in power, but, as the Minister from Hambantota, and passionately committed to the protection of the country’s resources, it was he that blocked the efforts of multi-national hotel corporations from securing the pristine coastal area next to the sanctuary and, instead, handed it to the Greens. A year later he was President and the country embraced a new effort to address a thirty-year engagement with terrorism. Back then, in the aftermath of the tsunami, there was a time of goodwill toward each other that helped us all disregard the effect of terrorism. Jeff Greenwald wrote an essay, A Full Moon Over Sri Lanka, for which speaks of that time and of the ways in which Sri Lankans cope with tragedy.

Today, five years on, there are still parts of the country which need to be rebuilt. There are parts of the country which also need to be de-mined and resettled and reunited. Success in all of these endeavors will not come because of speeches, declarations and focus-groups, even among the erudite and professional diaspora communities. img_3459It will come because of individual human beings doing what is right, because of compassion, trust and the ability to recognize the vastness of our common ground.

8 June, 2009

The language of cancer

srilanka08-1151I had wanted to write this blog post a while back. But it seems that every new day during the past several weeks has brought with it yet another layer of meaning that, in its development, mirrors the layers of skin, tissue, musculature, nerves, blood vessels and so forth that are beyond my physical reach.

I’ve always subscribed to the “there’s a reason for everything” POV. Perhaps it is the Buddhist philosophy that has guided my life, or the culture of “what is to be done, this is how it is” that underlines life in Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I was cursing because a sprained ligament put an end to my dance classes, but it was that same toe that forced me to consult with a neighbor and find a doctor to call my own in a new town, a year after I’d moved here. And it was that doctor who brushed aside the usual excuses to insist that I get a mammogram.

The world reflects, in its quirky way, the things that are tipsy within us. I had to go back three times before I could get that mammogram. The first time I was a week early. The second time I did not have my paperwork. The third time I was lucky and I had a new friend behind the radiology desk at Lankenau Hospital. I had only had one mammogram before that one, and that several years ago, but some instinct must have told me all was not well; leaving those offices, I found myself rooted to the floor in front of the hospital cafe, gazing at sweet pastries and falling apart because I couldn’t think of a single friend near enough and unemployed enough to be available to have tea and cakes with me! And I think it was on my way back home that I met with the inconsequential accident that I talked about here, in a blog post titled Character.

Through the next week, when mammograms were compared and “the sort of pattern we don’t like” was discovered in dots and dashes that appeared like Morse Code on black film lit up from behind, and a biopsy ordered, I strode through my days full of the kind of humor that I always use to keep unpleasantness at bay, “If God was going to give me breast cancer,” I said, “couldn’t I have been given the mother of all breasts first?!” combined with upbeat equanimity, “well, I figure it’s either nothing or it is very early stage and something can be done about it.” It is also a way of postponing having to face up to difficulties, so much so that it wasn’t until I was standing in a shapeless double-gown (for modesty, apparently), and a radiologist with the unlikely name of Dr. Love, was explaining the procedure to come (stereotactic core-needle biopsy), that I felt like I was going to pass out. The guidelines say that “no significant pain” should be felt. But what exactly does that mean? I have always postponed the big howls because I imagine that the “big” pain is still to come, and I might as well not engage in premature melt downs; usually this means that I never get to have the big reaction because by the time I am well and truly ready to scream, it is all over.

Visiting with my surgeon soon after, I found myself alone in a room with a stack of glossy magazines which contained information about resources for people with cancer and their families. I picked it up and put it down. Nobody had told me I had cancer, and I was not about to acquire its accoutrements until someone did. Yes, said a friend, later that day, you don’t want to own it. But perhaps it was not bravado but hubris, the kind from which most mortals suffer, living with a subconscious belief in our immortality rather than accepting our daily march toward ceasing to exist in this particular life.

I was on my way out the door to make it to an NPR event with Marty Moss-Coane (Radio Times), when my cell phone rang in my hand. It was the good news, bad news call that I both had and hadn’t expected. It was cancer, or DCIS, which is like cancer’s calling card. Or is considered as such until surgery confirms or disproves that prognosis. I got off the phone and kept on going out that door, into the car and down the road to Bryn Mawr College where I was going to meet the host of a radio show I really liked.

I had determined then and there that I was not going to become Ru The Cancer Patient. If appointments there were, those appointments would be kept. The book tour would go on. I would fly to Chicago as planned. I can and would “work around” this hurdle. But determining such things is a lot easier than living them. Although I wrote brave emails to my agent, editors and publicists, not to mention my brothers, I could not escape the fragility that imbued everything and everybody around me. And late at night it was impossible not to be furious that nothing in my life has ever come easy.

Worse, still, was the fact that I appeared to be an individual with a personality and a way of looking at the world that was only apparent to me. I kept visiting hospitals where the vulnerable corporeal me would sit feigning strength and concentration, listening to my body being described in unfamiliar terms. But Ru the writer could not help but pay greater attention to the particularly hilarious language that was being used to do so.

She is a well-developed, well-nourished woman in no apparent distress…

I am not sure why it wasn’t apparent that I was in deep distress, or that frankly, my nourishment leaves much to be desired on most days. And I would not consider myself well-developed – witness the lack of the mother of all breasts!

She presents today with a recent abnormal mammogram. She denies any palpable masses…

But I have not spoken. And I am not living in the third person. I have a name. I am not a condition, or a case.

The DCIS appears to be contained, and has not left the ducts.

I picture dapper malignant cells, with black top hats and canes, sitting on wrought iron benches, tickets tucked into lapels, waiting for the next train to take them out of those ducts and into the rest of my body. I think of titles for short stories. I realize that all of this can be safely filed under Coping. But it is also my life as a writer that allows me to put the same safe distance between my spirit and my physicians as they have created between themselves and my body, all of us using language as our first tool of choice.

The surgery I don’t recall. I do recall the misery of yet another hapless pre-op nurse attempting to pierce my too-thin veins with their low-pressured blood. I have given up apologizing for the way my body carries me through the world with its barely-there affect holding up a high tempered heart. I recall the various barbarisms that are required before being wheeled in, still trying to be humorous, to an operating room where I fixate on the eyes I can see, kind, brown, calm, the voices that, thoughtfully, call me by my name.

I like my surgeon. She is warm, accessible, beautifully pregnant, and appropriately alive. She is not overly calm, nor unnaturally optimistic. She can say the words “survival rate” without making me panic. She can’t however offer me any reassurances that aren’t based on statistics and I am not a person who does well with needles or numbers. 80% of people who go through the stereotactic biopsy come through with a clean bill of health. I, unfortunately, belonged to the 20% that did not. 70% of those who go through surgery do not require additional surgery. Given the ease with which I crept into that previous minority, it is hard to imagine that I would be that lucky. But while I wait to hear, tomorrow, if all goes well, I continue to look for a narrative that can accompany me on the journey.

It is easy to flail at the blights that come into our lives, to say this or that is unfair, from the beetles that infest our roses to the cancers that invade our insides. I have done both those things. But there’s a part of me that realizes that I have no more right to exist than those cells that found in me, a permissible space. We lay down our roads and then curse the deer. We plant our flowers and then curse the insects. We create a lifestyle, and then curse our diseases. I do not know what particular toxin I poured in, or spiritual lack I became comfortable with might have caused my body to become habitable for a type of cell that nothing in my family or medical history or good-girl living could have predicted. Which is not to say that I believe I deserve to be going through this, but only that there is a reason for everything, whether or not I know what that reason might be.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.