Sunday, July 24, 2011

Visiting Kumudini Hospital

Nurse, mother and child at Kumudini*
My visit to Kumudini Hospital in Mirzapur (about two hours south of Dhaka, if the roads are clear and there are no major "jams") began with a friend I met at the swimming pool... she invited me to join the water aerobics class, and then, knowing of my interest in NGOs, kindly invited me to come along when, on Friday, the hospital hosted an open house for dignitaries.
Her grandfather started this hospital in Mirzapur. He built it with his own funds, after coming up the river to in a houseboat from India in the 1930s. The village has grown into a town, and the hospital has both a school for girls and a medical school, which trains promising young women to be doctors and nurses.
People can get medical care here for free. Kumudini charges a nominal fee for medicine — between 5 and 10 taka — less than the cost of a short rickshaw ride in Dhaka, about the price of a banana.
I talk to an older male doctor there, who, when I ask him if he likes his work, says, "Money's nothing compared to knowing you're really helping the people." 
Men's Ward at Kumudini Hospital*
We walk through the wards, full of patients — bed after bed, like the post-WW2 open-ward hospitals I've seen in films. In some ways patients seem more exposed in their suffering, but also less cut off than the small, two-person hospital rooms I'm used to. Those patients who can sit up watch us curiously from their beds. Some are not so alert. One frail older man is so thin and desiccated that I'm really not sure he's not dead. I don't want to stare, but out of the corner of my eye, I watch to see his chest move, just to be sure. It does. It's almost imperceptible, but he's breathing. I don't know what to do with his frailty but to acknowledge it and to wish him good health in this place. The ward has a multitude of open windows, when there is a breeze it is a joy.
The hospital incorporates many faiths. Catholic nuns run the nursing college, many of the patients here are Hindu (a minority in Bangladesh, about 9% of the nation's population) in addition to Muslim. One of the nuns, the third of her sisters to become a nun, speaks to me about the joy that this service, teaching and nursing, has brought her. I get her number so we can talk more.
I talk to a young female doctor who had done her training there, and is now entering her internship. She loves the work, she says, and is thankful for the opportunity. She exudes an air of quiet confidence and professionalism that I think is a clear byproduct of this place, which invests in women, and allows them to invest in their community.

*Photo credit 1: winners/?cat=NTP&place=HM1
Photo credit 2:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Snakes and Dragons: Breathing in order to Walk Down the Street

Though I'm embarrassed to say it, after several days in a whole different country, with an entirely different way of dressing, a complex set of cultural norms to learn and experience, and no small amount of political upheaval, my first blog post is about, well, me.
I haven't been sleeping. I'm full of anxiety. I've been really sick with a chest cold. I love my sister's apartment and it makes me happy to share the space, even though she's far away. My Google web sites are showing up in Bengali/Bangla because I had to change the timezone on Google calendar.
And it's hard right now for me to leave the house. Not just because I'm sick -- because I'm anxious. I try to leave the house early in the morning, as a kind of vaccination for the rest of the day -- if I do it once, I can do it again. The guidebooks tell you as a white person here you're always the center of attention, that especially for women it's worse and, of course, more dangerous to be on your own. I get so anxious thinking about it that it's better just to do it. A walk down to the river with some people staring is not nearly as bad as the books make it sound. You really do get to greet almost everyone. People smile. You get to read people's faces, see what they bring to the interaction, without any words. This lady asked me to take a picture with her kids.
Generalized anxiety is like a set of boa constrictors, which never quite kill you but choose a different part of your body and squeeze and squeeze until you're all worn out and scared. And if anxiety is snakes I guess fear is dragons -- enormous obstructions that stand in a path you might take and breathe fire at you until you either give up, or steel yourself to walk through the fire.
I've meditated once since I've been here, a simple vipassana. This I find very nourishing. While I am labeling thoughts and focusing on breath, it becomes clear where my mind is, the patterns it is falling into.
At the end of this vipassana, realizing how much anxiety and fear were present for me, I decided to do a bit of tonglen meditation: breathing in the heavy and icky, breathing out light and effervescence.
I have always done tonglen with some degree of reservation. Pema Chodron describes the practice as breathing in the crap of the world without resistance -- as she puts it, the practice "dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves." I strongly resist the idea of breathing in the crap of the world. I never know how to breathe in the heavy, polluted yuck that exists in the world without allowing it to stick to me. Sometimes when I do tonglen, I keep that thick, heavy feeling all day.
But this time I read Pema's passages on tonglen differently -- she really sees this, too, as a place to confront our inner demons. "Start where you are. This is very important. Tonglen practice (and all meditation practice) is not about later, when you may get it all together and you're this person you really respect... You don't have to transform anything... That light touch of acknowledging what we're thinking and letting it go is the key to connecting to the wealth that we have." (Start Where You Are, 1994, Shambhala, 35)
The beauty here is that whatever you do for yourself, you do for others, and vice versa. Breathing in my snakes and dragons, being with them, their fangs and fire and scales and terrible constricting bellies, I had to breathe in fully. And, the next moment, I was still there, breathing. The snakes and dragons weren't gone, but they weren't freaking me out so much. Chodron writes, "When the resistance is gone, so are the demons."
I always thought that finger-wagging phrase, "Wherever you go, there you are" had a deterministic and judgemental cast to it -- I have often interpreted it to mean that my wanderlust was sort of an ill-disguised attempt to try to escape myself. The puritanical schoolmaster in me tells me to stay where I am, don't try to get fancy, don't focus all that energy on getting away.
In fact, "wherever you go, there you are" is an amazing and expansive truth --  wherever you go, you find opportunities to work on different things about yourself, you get to know different things about yourself. Different pieces of you are exposed to the light. Wherever you go, you discover new and beautiful and crazy things about you. There you are.

Here's a funny thing from today... I asked a friend if we could go to a bank, and we ended up at an ATM in Baridhara. There's a smiley guy who sits at the little ATM kiosk and opens the door for you. All day! He sits with the bank all day. There are no tellers, no bank managers, just this guy and the ATM kiosk. And he was pleased as pie to see us.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The air smells like cut watermelons

The air smells like cut watermelons,
light, slightly sweet, like a rare day in July
bringing picnics and lightning
the air is not heavy, but will be heavy soon.
In this moment, action --
we must swim and eat and call to each other;
we find truth in movement,
we try brave things without thinking,
rounding a bend in the road at full tilt
stopping short at the top of the hill
as the deer at the bottom
makes us catch our breath.
Truth is there, too,
in the frozen stock-stillness.
The grown-ups do not swim and
your mother cautions against it as
my father says, "oh let them go,
won't be many more days like this one,"
and he is right.
When the rain falls
like a host of small golden spiders
with the sunlight behind them
everything seems greener, and
your mother collects her Tupperware,
your father gathers his keys, says,
"it's about that time,"
you wave through the window
of the station wagon, and
still my father sits, watches,
ankle crossed over ankle, in silence,
hands clasped at the back of the neck,
and after a while,
I go and sit by him,
and he puts his arm around me
and he smells like dust and thought
and after a while, we gather our things
and go home.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


singular how the chest
speaks even when the mouth dursn't
when the mouth dares not
or has not gathered its pebbles for stacking
when the mouth is busy eating or talking,
musing, wishing, speculating, explicating, formulating,
still the chest rises to the throat,
it is this ripe cherry truth blossoming out,
plump, created with no especial intent --
it is merely itself, literature,
The Mayor of Castorbridge,
we may ask questions if we choose,
or sit and look on, mute --
after all, questions are strategy --
and tell me the agenda of a cherry.