Saturday, February 28, 2009

Acceptable in Thy Sight

A Big Thank You to Jeannine Sisson for the doll images!
A thousand pairs of dead doll eyes stare while tick-tick, tick-tock, rhythmic and relentless, at least 50 clocks, all precious collectibles, march forward in time. Every annoying tick punctuates my nervous sense of self. Aunt Gerlinda looks over with her soured puss, “They will be here any moment,” she needlessly reminds me.

Although I know that she is on the verge of graciously introducing me to her society, the seeds of disapproval and mistrust between our family lines were sewn long before I was born. I rarely concede that even a simple comment might actually be sincere. I smile back and try to look appropriately appreciative.

Every hoity toity female member of Lerner, Ohio’s elite will be here shortly to parade their Sunday best and sample the tomato aspic and Waldorf salad. They will admire their communal collection of antiques, including the hair of Victorian predecessors who, with nothing but time, made idle hands useful, twisting and braiding, curling and twirling their own hair into beautiful floral displays. This time, Aunt Gerlinda is hosting the soiree. It is an opportunity to show off the newest dolls in her collection, especially the tiny hand painted dolls made of grains of rice that another more “well bred” and exceedingly thoughtful niece sent her from Thailand.

Uncle Phillip looks embalmed in his chair far across an ocean of oriental carpet. His eyes closed in deep meditation. No doubt he has chosen the ticking of his clock collection as a focal point for this meditation. He will be transported far beyond the cackling of decrepit women of his own age to a place in his youth where there are women with jeweled blossoms and glittering gateways. A bit of drool is sliding down his chin. It is anyone’s guess why he chose to remain in view.

Aunt Gerlinda pays no more attention to him than any other piece of furniture. Instead, dear Auntie is absorbed in putting the final touches on her table decoration which features George and Martha Washington China faced dolls, in exquisite detail, stiffly propped in a bed of red white and blue carnations with matching bunting. It seems the perfect scene for a wish-they-might-be blue blood ensemble.

It is widely known that small town circles revolve around a chosen few. All offspring of these few are the ‘in crowd.’ They in turn will mate and beget the next generation of the ‘elite clique,’ and so on. This is why I am here. It is my duty to my children to make a favorable impression on the elder gentry of the Ladies Meeting Club so that my girls might have a chance of becoming cheerleaders and consequently the girlfriend of some boy who is destined to be important. Because I am new to this town, I will forever be an outsider. However, because I am also related to a pillar of the community, I have the hope of being part of the social scene of Lerner as will my progeny. This point is repeated to me often by that very same pillar.

All the preparations have been made, and there is nothing more to say to my aunt that would engage either of us. In these few mind-numbing moments, I become acutely aware that my shoes are uncomfortable and that I have to pee. I turn toward the powder room. Before taking a step, the door bell rings. I try to look graceful as I change course and cross the foyer and open the gigantic leaded glass door. For some reason my steps are unnaturally slow. “Welcome. I am Gerlinda’s niece, Julia.” I extend my arm to help the blue haired woman in. She takes my arm. “Yes, dear, we have been looking forward to meeting you,” she responds in an inviting way. One down, I think optimistically, about 40 more to win over. My aspirations are not high; a simple non threatening interaction is all I am hoping for.

While I am standing at the door I see the street filling with large ancient automobiles. Women with professionally coiffed hair and extravagant hats are emerging from each vehicle. I hadn't expected this group to be so punctual. I guess that I will have to find time for a pee later, although I note an increasing urgency. As the youngest and newest to this event, and because I am the host’s niece, I am also the greeter, and fetch and carry girl for the day. There are caterers, but everything else is up to me. After standing at the front door for what seems like an hour, I find that I am running to and fro trying to politely do their bidding. The urge to pee is really starting to become a problem. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

“Julia, come and sit down. There is someone I want you to meet.” Aunt Gerlinda motions to the burgundy velvet chair between herself and someone who looks glamorous for an old woman from a small town. “Julia. This is Nesha Brown. She is married to Doctor Brown. Nesha is certainly one of the most interesting people you will meet in these parts. She traipsed all across Europe in her youth.”

“Gerlinda, fleeing from the Nazis is hardly the same as traipsing across Europe.” Mrs. Brown corrects with a slight but dignified frown. Aunt Gerlinda looks a little embarrassed rather than offended by the correction. I shift so as to relieve the considerable discomfort I am experiencing.

“It is a pleasure to meet you Julia. I have been looking forward to a fresh face among us. Please, tell me how our little social club impresses you.” Mrs. Brown’s expression is full of genuine interest.

“Well, it’s just lovely.” I begin. “I mean, everyone has been so sweet to me. I feel like I am with friends already. When you look around this room you can really see that the cream of the crap is here.” Oh my god! I just said crap. A hot flush crawls up my face and over my scalp. Mrs. Brown guffaws. Aunt Gerlinda looks entirely nonplussed. I look back to Mrs. Brown who is overcome by mirth. There is no holding back now; a high pitched laugh has escaped me followed by a loud snort. Mrs. Brown loses her composure entirely and the rest of the room goes silent as the two of us descend into uncontrolled hysterics. The bladder can be tortured no longer. A dark wet stain creeps across the velvet cushion, trickles down the leg of the chair and pools beneath me while every eye, living and dead, is on me.

A Short Fiction, by Butternut Squash

Sandy Sparks was the winner of the 2009 A World of Good, Inc. Design Contest. A big thank you to everyone who participated. If you would like to see the winning necklace you can see it at

Monday, February 23, 2009

Among the Gods, Dakshinkali

This Drawing was created by my eldest, Joshua
It is written that when the master of Yogis, Padmasambhava, performed the powerful Vajrakilaya rites, he made it rain by subduing three kinds of elemental spirits. These spirits, or forces, are referred to as Nagas, the serpentine spirits of water; Yakshas, giant spirits of the earth; and Kumbhandas, sylph-like spirits of air.

Dakshinkali Village Inn, a place I have visited several times, is one of my favorite places in the world. The accommodations are modest, but the beauty is other worldly. Each misty morning when I rise, there is a gardener tending the roses at the perimeter of the courtyard or sometimes on his hands and knees clipping a 8x12 foot patch of grass with a pair of scissors. There isn't much lawn in Nepal. (There isn't much lawn in the world like the oceans of lawn known in the US.) Visitors will rise early and stand barefoot and do yoga on this tiny thick carpet of soft grass. It is supposed to be very good for your health. Sometimes, from the court yard at sunrise, I can see a distant outline of the Himalayas rimmed with gold. Looking to the south-east, I can also see a road cutting through the lush valley and trailing off toward the forests of southern Nepal and the dusty northern plains of India.

There is an absolutely amazing ridge not far below the inn with a narrow path along its crest. Though local people walk here easily with mule trains, I have to crawl on my hands and knees from the mountain trail to reach the ridge because I am, just a little afraid of heights. Once I am on the ridge, I can walk on the path. The path is probably 12 feet across with an additional little bit of scrub brush and rocks on either side. Beyond that, it is about a 500 foot plunge to the valley below. When I walk down the path the ground far below rushes past me in the periphery of my vision on both sides. Each step gives me the feeling of soaring through the air.

The valley itself vibrates with with layers upon layers of ancient history and religions. Since before the written history of Nepal, a goddess cult has been associated with this Parphing area, and the region has been inhabited by practicing yoginis, women who seek spiritual knowledge and mystical insight. Located in a dark hollow at the confluence of two streams is the shrine of Dakshinkali, dedicated to the feminine principle of divinity. Animal sacrifices are offered here to the Hindu goddess Kali, signifying fertility and the reproductive power of the female. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the animals are presented to the priest who will ritually decapitate them with a khukuri knife and bathe the black stone image of Kali, in blood. This is not my favorite part of the valley. It is too dark and blood thirsty for me. But for the Hindu worshipers, it is a great place to enjoy a picnic. Kali receives the spirit of the sacrifice, while the people get to have a barbecue with the meat.

I am more comfortable with the monastery on the hill above the inn. Parphing monastery, built in the 11th century, is devoted to the feminine aspect of Buddha, Vajrayogini, or the Divine Mother. Worship of the divine mother in this area goes at least as far back as the 3rd century BC. High on the mountain side above Parphing monastery is the little cave of Lang-le-sho where the famous guru Padmasambhava and his consort, the beautiful Nepalese princess Sakyadevi, lived together and attained simultaneous enlightenment in the 8th century. In an exulted state of mind, upon emerging from the cave where their meditations took place, Padmasambhava placed his hand against the rock face of the mountain, leaving impressed forever in stone a miraculous hand print. (In my mischievous mind, I see him standing outside the cave with one hand on the rock and the other holding a lit Marlboro.)

On one of my first trips to this area, the owner of the Village Inn took me up to Lang-le-sho and I placed my hand where Padmasambhava melted the rock. It really does look like someone's hand melted the rock. From there we climbed higher above the cave, reverently passing by a circle of 6 or 7 monks whose deep resonant chants were humming in concert with a very large singing bowl. At the top of the hill, we stood among trees covered in multicolored prayer flags as we admired the incredible view of mountains, villages, winding rivers, terraced fields and rice paddies spreading for miles through the valley below.

The owner of the inn is a great story teller. That night after our climb he spent a few hours talking with me. First he showed me a picture of himself with Steven Seagal, a movie star who has been recognized by a contemporary guru as a reincarnate lama or "tulku." Several people seeking mystical insight have stayed at the inn and often they hold spiritual retreats on the property. In the middle of his story telling, the electricity went out. We lit a candle and, while the rats played in the rafters above our heads, the innkeeper told me about having seen witches flying out over the valley. He then told of a festival for the goddess in which men who carry her palanquin are dragged up and down the mountainside with their feet no longer touching the ground. "If you see the eyes of the goddess staring at you from the palanquin," he said, "you will die." Someday, I would really like to see that festival.

*For those of you hoping to go to Nepal with me this October, I will undoubtedly try to take you here. If you are interested in joining us, contact me through

I used Wikipedia to check facts for this article, but most of this information comes from the Dakshinkali Village Inn. Please do not use my stories for historical facts without researching them further.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Design Contest, A World of Good Inc.

Sue Swanezy, winner of the 2008, A World of Good, Inc. Design Contest

Hi Everyone!

It's time for our annual design contest. We need your vote. Voting will take place from February 20th through February 27th, 2009. We only accept 1 vote per email address and no automated responses. Your email address is used only for this vote and then discarded. You will not be on our mailing list unless you request to be.

Please view the contestants, click on Contest Entries. Thanks for participating!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Among the Gods

Batsala Temple, 17th century,
in Bhaktapur
'The town of Devotees.'

My friend Shyam told me that before there was electricity in Kathmandu, his grandfather could see gods and goddesses walking in the streets. He said that the light makes the spirits less visible and wondered if the electricity itself has somehow changed the atmosphere in the valley. I am curious, could it be that it is only the changes in beliefs from past generations to the present that have made the spirits less visible? What becomes of gods and goddesses when their worshippers move on to new pursuits?

I would not say that people in Nepal have given up their belief in divine beings and spirits, but there is certainly a skepticism that comes from the intruding modern culture. Where people used to talk with casual certitude about their beliefs and visions, now they the start with, "Well, I don't really believe in the powers of the Jhankri (Shaman), but when I went to see one, he was able to make me float for a few seconds, and I had no control over my own body. I was bouncing all over the bench that I was sitting on. It was very scary." This is was what a waiter at the Kathmandu Guest House told me.

It seems to me that everyone in Nepal has one of these stories. They usually laugh about it calling them silly superstitions when I ask, but then they tell me about a floating ball of light that crossed their path or a house that was haunted because the deceased's body had not been removed in the proper way by cutting through the floor boards where the body was lying and lowering it down to the first floor. One friend told me about the time that he saw a male and female banjakri by the river. A banjakri is a mythical being, something like the yeti. These creatures are said take children away from their villages and teach them mystical things. When the children return years later, they become Jhankris. I asked my friend what the creatures looked like and how he knew that one of them was female. They were brown, hairy like monkeys, and a little shorter than men with backwards feet. He knew that one was female because it had breasts.

Nepal still has a living goddess everyone can see, Kumari, the goddess Taleju, who inhabits the bodies of pre-pubescent girls. I met a woman, a Shakya, from Patan where these girls are chosen. She told me that it was a great honor to be considered as a potential Kumari. In the place where Kumari is enshrined, tourists and locals come all day long and make donations to catch a glimpse of the little girl inside or to have a wish granted. Someone inside sees people making a donation and encourages the goddess to go to the window and look out. It makes me sad to think of a little girl trapped inside all day in her beautiful decorations, constantly harassed into peeking out the window for the tourists. The woman who was almost a Kumari told me that she was envious of the job, gifts are given to the child's family and almost no one believes the myth anymore that if a former Kumari marries, her husband will die.

The Nepalese are not the only ones with good ghosts stories in Nepal. Westerners also have told me inexplicable tales of shaman and spirits. Peace Corps volunteers and hikers have said mysterious illnesses and physical wounds were cured by the local shaman who interpreted their dream or simply laid hands on them. And one couple from New Jersey told me about a shrine that they tried to enter while they were hiking where they were both pushed back out of the door by an invisible force.

It is so easy in the modern world to explain away the inexplicable. Everything has a physical or a psychological explanation. But I have doubts about worshippers in any religion who constantly pray for miracles while at the same time explaining away with science the miracles they witness. For me, science points to even deeper complexities in the miracle that is life.

Go here to see a picture of a former Kumari Learn more, fantastic description of Kumari on Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Modesty and Public Nudity

Me Dancing at the Bon Odori in Japan
A Public Water Tap in Bhaktapur, Nepal
The taps are used for everything. They are for watering your goats, brushing your teeth, washing your clothes and filling your vase of water to take home for cooking and cleaning. Here is a man washing himself in January.

By the time that I was five years old, I had already developed a strong sense of modesty and would not even look at my own naked body in a mirror. It's hard for me to say where this idea came from other than to say that it was the Puritan ethics of my family in the context of my culture.

I don't think that I really knew what public bathing was until the first time that I took a public bath. At the time, I was a 15 year old exchange student living in Japan. One evening, I had attended a summer festival called the Bon Odori. All the women, including myself, were dressed in a brightly colored yukata, a cotton summer kimono. We danced traditional dances in the muggy streets for hours. After a happy, sweaty evening of dancing, I went with my hosts to a public bath house. The bath had a male and female section divided by a low wall. To my great concern, the man who took the entrance fee was sitting up high above the wall where he could see easily into both sections. When I pointed this out to my hosts, they said, "Don't worry, he doesn't look." Even more disturbing to me, was that 4 elderly women saw me struggling with my yukata and rushed over to peel my clothes off, leaving me naked and the center of attention. As the women kindly folded my clothes for me, they couldn't help looking at my pale white body, long blond hair and blue eyes. A young teenager near me came over and took a strand of my blond hair as it floated from my brush to the floor and wrapped it in a handkerchief to take home with her.

Though I was deeply embarrassed by the situation, I didn't have the sense that anyone else in the room was at all concerned about their nakedness. They soaped up and then rinsed thoroughly with buckets of water while they sat at little stools facing the walls. Then they walked across the room, naked, and entered a scalding hot communal bath to soak.

In the US, public bathing is extremely rare. Contrary to the images shown of American women on television and in movies around the world, most of the American women that I know are really very modest even among the members of their own sex and family. In the community where I live now, most women, young and old, hide behind curtains to change clothes in the women's locker rooms at the gym. It is a strange kind of modesty though. The same women who hide to change their clothes, might then appear in public with very sexy low cut blouses and short skirts.

On the contrary, cities in much of Asia are so crowded, it is difficult to achieve perfect privacy. There are just so many people that you must get used to seeing one another in all kinds of situations. Many of the places where I have traveled in Asia, such as Bali and Thailand, seem to be modest and have dress codes where your shoulders and feet must be covered in certain situations, yet women there can be seen walking bare-breasted down the street. It does not seem to be sexual to anyone but foreign tourists from repressed countries.

In Nepal where it is a sin for a Hindu man to sit next to a married woman, I have seen a woman casually pull out her breast to feed her infant with men seated nearby. She did not bother to lay a scarf over her shoulder. Similarly, many people do not have showers in their homes in Nepal. You can often find people bathing in the cold water at public taps. Women fold themselves in and out of long sheets of cloth in such a way that they can remain covered while they bathe in front of the whole village, and me, as I pass by.

Incase you would like to see a picture of a Japanese 'Sento' public bath, you can visit here It shows the lay out of a bath house exactly like the one that I was in. It was not a spa, it was really just for bathing.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Street Children and the Modern Day Fagan

A Little Girl Playing with a Cart in Bhaktapur

Children in Nepal are loved and well treated when the means are available to care for them. The Nepalese have a wonderful ritual of giving babies a full body massage every day with oil. They say that it both strengthens their bodies and improves their minds. But not every family is able to care for their children the way that they would like to. Many children are sent to work from the early ages of 7 or 8. Up in the mountain villages, there are often no schools and so sending your child to work seems to be the only realistic option.

During my first visit to Nepal, the boy who cleaned my room was 8 years old. I thought that he was the son of the guest house owner. It was many days before I realized that this was his job and he had no relation to the family that owned the guest house. One night, I came in from a very late evening at a restaurant and this little boy got up from his sleeping place on the floor in the lobby to open the gate for me. I have learned after several trips to Nepal, that a generous employer lets the help sleep inside the door, on the floor, rather than out on the door step.

There have been many cold nights in Kathmandu when I have returned late from a party or an evening with friends. Though it may be 11 pm or later, I find children on the streets. Some are with their mothers sleeping in a cardboard box. Some are with their fathers still trying to sell cigarettes one stick at a time, even though most of the tourists have long since turned in for the night. Once in a while, I will see a child all alone sleeping with a pack of dogs for warmth.

Early in the morning, when the light comes over the mountain peaks, women go to the shrines and ring a bell to offer prayer for the well being of their families. Dogs begin to bark. Unable to sleep, I walk the streets of Kathmandu, now empty of tourists. I pass the shop doors, like garage doors, pulled to the ground and locked. In the center of the tourist district, there are always a dozen or more street children sleeping curled up next to one another on the door steps of these closed shops.

Sometimes, I would buy food for the homeless children or purchase a drawing from them. Once, I saw a boy about 7 years old playing with his younger sister. Both of them were dressed in rags. The boy's pants were tied on with a rope but there was no zipper to close his pants and he wore no underwear. I was embarrassed for his exposed penis, even though he was playing without care and took no notice of me. I took these children to a clothing shop and bought them both new outfits. When they were dressed, they ran off. About an hour later, I saw them again in the same rags that they had been wearing before. My Nepalese friend told me that not all of the children that I saw sleeping alone on the streets were without parents. Often the parents also had no home and had simply set up camp on a different corner. I don't know what became of the clothes that I bought for the children. Perhaps a parent saved them for an important occasion, or maybe they were sold back to the store for the more needed money.

There are a few children I have met who have learned to beg very efficiently in several languages. They start with English and then look at your coloring and try German, French, Spanish, even Japanese, whatever seems to suit you best. Some of the children have stories about shop keepers who will take my hand-out and turn it into bread and milk for them as they need it. They tell me that giving them a direct hand-out is no good because the other children might steal it from them. Sadly, I have heard that story many, many times now. What I have come to understand from talking with people who are trying to help these kids, priests and charity workers, is that some of the shops are fronts for modern day Fagans who keep the kids hooked on drugs and give them instructions on how to work the emotions of the unsuspecting tourists. This may be one of the reasons that giving hand-outs is against the law in Nepal. How often this happens I can't really tell you. I do know that a few children, age 10 or so, have pitched a whispered 'hashish' and 'marijuana' to me as I passed by them.

One of my saddest days in Nepal was a morning that I woke and found there were no street children left in the tourist district. When I asked the shop keepers where they were, they said that the children had become a nuisance. The shop keepers had gotten together and paid for security guards to keep the street children out.