Tuesday, September 20, 2011


"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to give in to it."
Oscar Wilde, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

Cupid and Psyche

Must apply myself to the job search
Must make a list of things to do
Must brush my teeth...

     X--who responded with such patronizing restraint to my appeal for a boycott of the Genocide-Avoidance Tour of Sri Lanka, the slender young man in flannel whom I dreamed of taking by the shoulders and shaking some sense into--is a woman.

     This morning I was the recipient of a mass-mailing informing me that X [is a traitor] is a woman.  Also, she's been promoted.

     Not only that, she's neither slender nor given to wearing flannel.  (I had a look on Google Images.) X double-majored in Political Science and Theater Design. 

     Turns out I'm sexist; I presume that women are emotional and empathetic while men are patronizing and restrained.

     Do I owe Ms. X an apology?  Have I been using her as a pin cushion for my frustrations?  She's a woman (like me), artistic (like me), not slender (like me), and she majored in Political Science so she can't be ignorant.  How can she be so appealing--and so appalling?

     Guess what?  She's even even more culpable now.  According to my cultural and highly subjective personal expectations, she should know better.  Do I hold women to a higher moral standard?  You bet.  What good is estrogen without the drive to nurture and protect those we love?

Really, she's not fooling me, and neither is Sree Padma Holt, the director of the ISLE program, who hides behind a curtain of academia like the Great and Wonderful Oz.

     It feels great to give in to temptation and, my love, we're going all the way now.

     If you don't know much about Sri Lanka, don't worry, you're not alone.  You probably know about the Tsunami that devastated parts of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand in 2004, but might not be able to pinpoint it on a map or even recall what language is spoken there.  

     Sri Lanka is a tropical island that dangles like a teardrop off the southeastern coast of India.  It's tiny--about the size of West Virginia--and has to be blown up out of all proportion just to be visible on a map.  There are not a lot of people there, and no one's drilling for oil. You'll notice a "Made in Sri Lanka" tag on a lot of Western clothing that's cheaply assembled in factories there (probably by Tamils).  Major exports are tea, coffee, cinnamon, rubber and coconuts. Technology, not so much.  Its history can be traced back about 3,000 years.

     Like so many other troubled countries, it was once colonized by the British, who named it Ceylon.  After gaining independence in 1948, the country was eventually renamed Sri Lanka, which translates as resplendent isle.  

     It's a tourist attraction because of its pristine, white beaches and a lush, mountainous region containing waterfalls, tea plantations, rice paddies, and a place called Adam's Peak. 

There are areas of great cultural interest, including Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines and religious art and festivals.  People are friendly and the food is divine.  There are, indeed, elephants, monkeys, and snake charmers.

Picturesque, brokeback women picking tea for slave wages
     World-reknowned writers  have written about their experience of Sri Lanka--Michael Ondaatje ("Running in the Family" and "Anil's Ghost" are set in Sri Lanka, where he spent much of his childhood, but he's most famous for "The English Patient"); Gerald Durrell, the naturalist; and Arthur C. Clarke ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), who lived in Sri Lanka from the mid-'50s until his death in 2008.  Roma Tearne, a British artist and fiction writer, has written beautifully and profoundly about Sri Lanka.  She fled Sri Lanka with her parents, a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, in 1964 when she was 10.  

    Sri Lanka is not a melting pot; it has several distinct cultures. The majority of its citizens are Sinhalese and practice Theravada Buddhism.  Their language is Sinhala, which looks like this: 

The largest minority are Tamils, who are ethnically different (even this is debated) and practice Hinduism or have converted to Christianity.  Their language is Tamil.  They look a little different from one another; Tamils tend to be darker-skinned than Sinhalese (also debatable).  Here's what Tamil looks like: 

     The Moors (Muslims), an even smaller minority, are distinct from Tamils but speak the Tamil language.

     In the 1970s the Sinhala Only act was used to exclude Tamils from the police, army, courts and governmental services, a policy of colonization of Tamil areas was extended, "plantation Tamils" were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to India, and access to universities was denied.  Racist policy was implemented by left-leaning parties aligned with the workers' movement, so Tamils had absolutely nowhere to turn.  The Sinhalese had all the resources.

The burned remains of the Jaffna Library
     As we've seen over and over in other countries, when young people have no reasonable options, no voice, and no hope for the future, they are often willing to die for their cause. The Tamil Tigers was started as a separatist militant organization in 1976 by Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Their campaign for an independent Tamil state grew into a civil war.  

The Sri Lankan army
     The Tigers hid themselves in the jungle and pioneered the use of "suicide belts."  High-profile attacks included the assassinations of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi , but they were well-known for bombing buses and trains full of civilians.  Human rights organizations calculate that the Tigers have killed as many as 8,000 Tamils whom they considered to be traitors to their cause.  The Tigers recruited (or kidnapped) a male child from every Tamil family in order to help fill their ranks and level the playing field.  If families had no male children, the Tigers made do with girls.

The Tigers
     The Sinhalese, as far as I can tell, began to cultivate their own, perverse persecution complex.  "We are such a tiny island, we are a venerable, vulnerable culture threatened with extinction at the hands of these Tamils. The Tamils have India, we have only this little island."  

     The Sri Lankan army sought to systematically destroy not just the Tigers but Tamil culture.  The library in Jaffna was burned, Tamil cemeteries were razed, and Tamil language was already taboo.  Although atrocities (kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder) were committed by the Sri Lankan army against civilians throughout the course of the civil war, the last days were particularly sadistic.  Tigers and civilians, including women and children, who held white flags and were promised their lives would be spared were rounded up on the beach between the sea and the jungle and shot, stabbed, and mutilated by the thousands.  

     In July of this year, BBC aired a documentary called "The Killing Fields" on their Channel 4 news with eyewitness accounts and videotape of the carnage. (I keep meaning to watch it, but I can't bear it yet.)  In my search, I noticed several Sinhalese blogs devoted to discounting the facts of that documentary.  Here in the United States, I keep my eyes open for any news of Sri Lanka and the Channel 4 documentary never made it here. 

     The Tamil people were caught, unbearably, between the single-minded brutality of the Sinhalese government on one side, and the single-minded brutality of the Tigers on the other.  India quietly sent arms to the Tigers, but did not advocate publicly or do much to further negotiations between the Tamils and Sinhalese. There was no place for Tamils to run, no place to turn, nowhere to hide. 

     Imagine if the Nazi regime had remained unopposed in its effort to solve "the Jewish problem"?  The current "post-war" situation in Sri Lanka is somewhat analogous to that scenario.  The remaining Tamils are utterly defeated and in a perpetual state of terror and intimidation while the United Nations has been lightly brushed aside. Privileged American students have continued to study in Sri Lanka through the ISLE program since 1982, which was the year I went. Fall term has begun; American students are studying the rich, multi-ethnic culture of Sri Lanka right there, right now, as I write this.  They study the Sinhalese language and Theravada Buddhism.  They stay with Sinhalese host families and call it "immersion." They learn Kandyan dancing and visit an elephant orphanage.  I've been told they read about the "ethnic conflict" before they get on the plane to Negombo, but not while they're in Colombo or Kandy. They learn to love this gem of an island, and receive the hospitality of its people, at what cost?  I'm still paying.

     X, my alter-ego, my other half, yang to my yin, you're a real heartbreaker.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Adjusts my Heart Chakra

Meditation has been at the top of my list of New Year’s Resolutions for the last five years.  You’d think for all the hours I log in at Starbucks flipping through Yoga Journal and Shambhala Sun I could spare 10 effing minutes to officially sit and do nothing.  Oh, God--wouldn't you think that for all the hours and days that slip away while I do ziltch, I could formally dedicate 10 minutes to the task and get some credit for it?

Avoiding meditation is such an engrossing pastime that I actually had to be hospitalized and tricked into doing it.

Because of some arrhythmias, a couple of days ago I had to drive out to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to have a cardiac MRI.   This test is nothing, just a little pre-test for the real ordeal of having a cardiac electrical panel, which requires catheterization, and possibly the implantation of a cardiac defibrillator.

MRIs can be weirdly relaxing:  you’re treated like you’re entering a spa, with fuzzy socks and a cozy blanket and headphones with your choice of music.  (I always choose Clapton because it complements the banging  of the MRI.)  You slide into a dim tunnel and glance at a strategically placed rearview mirror, feeling the room magically open up again within the enclosed space.  You shut your eyes and you may even doze for 20 minutes somewhere between “Layla” and “Waiting for Another Lover.”

Cardiac MRIs are a little different.  For one thing, they take a full hour.  You still get the blanket and fuzzy socks, but this time the headphones are for transmitting instructions. 

Electrodes are stuck onto your chest and your trunk is covered with a heavy bib.  As the tunnel begins to slide over me I feel secure; it's almost like being swaddled.  But there's no rearview mirror and there's no missing the fact that the wall of this tunnel is almost touching the tip of my nose.  As I fondle a bulb the technician put into my right hand to squeeze in case of an emergency, my knuckles rap against the wall of my little coffin.

No sooner have I closed my eyes than my pilot, the technician, begins her instructions.

“Deep breath in…Deep breath out--all the way out…Now hold.”   

The banging, which seems to come from everywhere and nowhere in particular, continues for about 15 seconds while I struggle with my breath.  An image appears, unbidden, of Niagara Falls, of being stuffed into a tin garbage can while Kodo drummers bash me from all sides  during my free-fall. 

“And breathe.”

I’m sure I breathed about 5 seconds before she told me to, but I did it very quietly and hoped no one would notice--just a little whiff here and there--although I may have actually gasped right before she finally told me to breathe.

Still, I reason, it's in my best interest to be compliant.  If I can't hold still and not breathe, a useful image of my heart function might not be captured and I could be in this tunnel all day. That, and if I don't do something right now I'll have a panic attack.

“Deep breath in…Deep breath out--all the way out…Now hold.”  

It's the fucking Kodo drummers again every time I close my eyes.  I let my gaze rest at some vague gray area just beyond the tip of my nose and picture a sunny meadow with a high blue sky and a couple of cheery clouds puffing along, but I feel silly and defiant.  It's a sham--I'm still in the fucking tunnel, I'm just playing cheap mind games.  My mind wanders to images of torture and what might be the best approach for endurance. Why the hell didn't I ever read John McCain's memoirs?  

In the gap between John McCain and the banging of the Kodo drummers I recall that the room still exists.  I'm not able to see it, but I'm sure it's still there.  And slowly, like a balloon rising above the hospital complex, I'm surrounded by a cool, blue sky. It was there half an hour ago, surely it's still there now.  And up I go, blue traveling softly into black where a 3-D galaxy of stars reveals itself.  Behind the noise of the machine, surely there's silence.  I'm merely at the center of a gradually radiating spaciousness.  

Right, but what about the breathing?  Now that I'm no longer anxious, I can follow orders.  When I hold the breath, I freeze and count, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three..." until my pilot instructs me to breathe.  The dramatic banging becomes insignificant background noise as I count.  Around the time I start feeling disembodied and free, as if I could follow these simple instructions forever, without thinking, I'm directed back to my body.

"You're going to feel it as we push the dye through your IV now."  

A stinging sensation travels swiftly up my left arm, blooms on my lips with a foul taste, and loops around my heart, settling down between my legs before abruptly dissipating.  It's like a guided tour of blood vessels, arteries, and nerve endings, but instead of using a visual guide, we're using heat, instead of seeing, we're feeling.

Startled to be back in my body again, I still manage to follow directions, inhaling, exhaling, holding.  That pause of no-breath is curious; counting is still moving through time with awareness, but pausing is eternal.

When the tunnel slides away, the technician takes my hand.  An hour has gone by without me.  I sit up and the room is bright. People in green scrubs walk by behind a pane of glass, chatting loudly, while others fiddle with a control panel.  I expect to be relieved, of course, but I'm surprisingly alert, refreshed, and calm.  That sense of synchronicity follows me for a while.

At my request, the technician shows me some images on her screen.  Frozen  gray shapes with blackish outlines erupt into sudden movement and then freeze again.  This heart--my heart--has been working flamboyantly behind the scenes all the time.  Hidden, beyond my control, rather hideous, but there it is.  Sure, it may be flawed, but what a wonder it is!  Beating and pausing, conducting electricity and doing a pretty good job of sustaining life, while I count and fret.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ayubowan ආයුබෝවන්

Dear Ms. Heckscher,

Thank you for your frank response. I understand your concerns.

ISLE is an academic program, run by a consortium of colleges to provide a better understanding of Sri Lankan life and culture.  We hope to provide students with an opportunity of analytically experience the country.  One who's government, as you detail, has had a horrific relationship with it's minority populations and majority's dissenters.  And, the perspective of minorities including the letter published by Lasanta, the journalist who was a victim of government's brutality is included in Sri Lanka Reader (which we ask students to read before they head to Sri Lanka). We believe now, more than ever, it is important to have bright American students there to study Sri Lanka to understand the political and ethnic dynamics and to understand the people who are supporting or opposing the government and their reasons.  As it is & has been important for study abroad programs to exist in China, Uganda, Rwanda, Syria, Israel ... the list goes on.  ISLE has a diverse alumni group, including a new generation of professors, foreign aid workers, UN professionals, Fulbright Scholars. Many are doing work in Sri Lanka, and/or claim their professions catalyzed by their time at ISLE.  We are proud of our alum and the mark they continue to make on the world, and on Sri Lanka.  We hope that more students are able to get to know and fall in love with Sri Lanka's people & cultures.


                                *                    *                    *

I'm glad you understand how important it is for me to be sure that students learn the facts about Sri Lanka--and not just propaganda about the Resplendent Isle's claim to be the longest continuous Buddhist civilization--and that ISLE Program alumni have gone on to do important humanitarian work.  Because of the conditions in Sri Lanka, it's more than just an academic program.

Thanks so much for specifically addressing my concerns, X.


                                *                    *                    *

Of course.  As an ISLE alum, and a deep lover of Sri Lanka, I absolutely understand your concerns.  Thanks again for reaching out.


And yet...what I really want to do is take X by his very thin  shoulders and shake him. What I really want to say is, "Show me your outrage!  You say you love Sri Lanka--then prove it!"  What I want to hear him say is, "I'm sorry you've lost Rajah."

I feel I should be appeased by now--if I'm reasonable, I have to admit that his response was far better than I'd ever dreamed.

But what does reasonable have to do with it?  I'm so uncomfortable with the idea of these students and professors studying a culture as if they're studying another species, tip-toeing around a genocide that is still taking place.  (The photos you see here are taken directly from the ISLE program's brochure.)

X talked about academics as if it was a shield against all criticism.  "This is an academic program."  You wouldn't read about concentration camps prior to studying Baroque music in Nazi Germany and then claim the program raises awareness of the holocaust.  Am I being unreasonable?

Sree Padma Holt was too busy to write to me herself.  "Padma sends you her regards."  Is it unreasonable to hope that the director herself addresses an ethical question about her program that's being raised by a former student?  It's a small program and I did address my letter to her--not her PR guy.  (And why do they need a PR guy?)  Should I be ashamed that I wonder if Padma is Buddhist and where she stands, personally?

X justified the ISLE program by reminding me that people study in Israel (i.e., despite the ongoing Palestinian situation).  If I'm reasonable, I say, "Of course, X.  Why should Sri Lanka be held up to a different standard."  If I'm reasonable, I don't suggest that perhaps it's unethical to study Middle Eastern Art in Israel if you are pro-Palestinian.

So this adds a troubling new twist for me.  I don't want to be dismissed because someone thinks I'm unreasonable or crazy or a pest, so I say, in essence, "Thanks for taking my naive question seriously,"  and I close shop.

And how does this tie in to procrastination?  Am I afraid to declare that raising awareness about Sri Lanka is, in fact, a priority for me?  Am I afraid to be an activist?  Afraid to be an activist about an unpopular issue?  Is worrying about genocide a hobby?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What I Did Today

Today I did not get a job, but I had a love-in with Pablo.  It looked like this:

...and this:

I wonder, if I meticulously document examples of procrastination with photos and text, will it add up to a life of action?  How does a life of conscious procrastination differ from other lives?  When does consciousness lead to change and when is consciousness an end in itself?

Is consciousness without action enough?

I also didn't make it to the gym.