Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The death of the moon

This past Sunday I called my classmate Moon in Jerusalem from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico.

Moon, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Two ancient holy cities were thus connected by modern technology.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico

From the Pyramid of the Moon, a couple looks down on the Avenue of the Dead. No technology can stop anyone making their own walk down the avenue of the dead -- one reason we have holy sites, I suppose.

Couple viewing Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacán
Couple viewing Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacán

While the moon shines without blocking the light of the stars behind it (as Moon is fond of pointing out), it shines because of the sun, a star like those it shares the sky with. When the sun dies, the moon will remain, but it may not ever be seen again by any conscious being. With no one to see it, will it also be dead? No, a reader protests, it still exists. It is not dead. It simply cannot be seen. Likewise, when our body dies, do we still exist, merely unseen? Or to put the question another way: in the depths of consciousness, do we outlive even the stars?


Last Friday an old Mexican woman working behind a stall in Chicago airport asked me if I drank. She was happy when I said no. She left her husband in Mexico, she says, because he beat her and because he drank. She works long hours and everyday prays for her son. On the plane to Mexico City a Mexican man told me enthusiastically how he was going to visit some strip bars in a town near Cuernavaca, drink a lot of liquor, and sample the local women. All for much cheaper than is possible in Chicago. As he loudly told me of his plans, a woman sitting in front of him with her children asked him to shut up. He went on to recount a time when he was caught driving when utterly drunk by the police near Cuernavaca. A healthy bribe meant he avoided costly legal proceedings. He said you can murder someone in Mexico and a big enough bribe will set you free. If he was aware of how his willingness to bribe contributes to a culture of corruption, lawlessness and hence murder, he did not say.

"As a person acts, so he becomes in life. Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad. Good deeds make one pure; bad deeds make one impure. So we are said to be what our desire is. As our desire is, so is our will. As our will is, so are our acts. As we act, so we become." - Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

"When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. Anger clouds the judgement; you can no longer learn from past mistakes. Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste. But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self." - Bhagavad Gita

Monday, November 20, 2006

The death of two fathers

Someone asked me recently if what I write in this blog is true. Of course it is. I will share a tale with you which you can choose to disbelieve if you like. But I assure you, it is true.

My mother and father separated when I was four years old. I took the loss of my father badly. I missed having a father very much. I remember when he came back to visit our house with a new wife and a small boy wrapped in a white sheet, my half-brother. I felt abandoned.

When I met my step-father for the first time, he was not yet my step-father. He was my neighbor. I told him that I used to have a father, but he went away, and I did not have one anymore. Imagine a five year old boy saying that to a grown man. He remembered it. Later he and my mother got together. I remember the day my mother telling me I could call the man who had become my step-father "Dad". I remember him hugging me for the first time, when we were alone one evening. I felt safe.

I don't remember much from my youth, but I remember these things, for they were of seminal importance to me.

My step-father died of lung cancer in 1996. I was living in Manila at the time. He called me on the telephone on the day he died. I did not know he was going to die that day. I asked him if he was going to enjoy the cricket season that was coming up. He said, with a particular tone of voice, "no I don't think so." Later that day he coughed and coughed, coughing up blood and parts of his lungs into a bucket. He turned a different color and drowned in his blood as my step-sister held him. I attended his funeral in Upper Hutt, New Zealand. When I came back to Manila a week after he died, I went back to my internship on a Monday and there was a letter from him. He had sent it the day he died.

I was at work in 1998, still in Manila, when my mother called on the telephone to tell me some bad news. There was that tone of voice again. I thought immediately "my grandmother has died", but my mother had called to tell me my biological father had been hit by a train and killed instantly. Here is the the part that cannot be true, but is. I had written him an e-mail shortly before my mother had called, but I had not sent it. It was to be my first communication with him in a year or so. I even signed off with "Love" which was not something I did with him in those days. By the time my mother called me, he would have been dead for quite some hours, as the police had a difficult time locating his wife so they could notify her of the tragedy.

My biological father and I were not close. He rarely communicated with my brother and I when we were small boys, and as we got older things did not really improve much.

What I have to say next has no scientific basis that I am aware of. But I will say it anyway. Imagine if I had sent the e-mail to my biological father the day before he died, and he had read it. That would have been nice. But did we deserve that? Maybe it was our own stupid fault for not keeping in contact with one another. Instead, for some reason I had a strong urge to write it after he had been killed, even though I had no way of knowing he had died. Maybe he communicated with me after his death. Maybe in writing the e-mail that was never sent, he somehow read it. Who knows.

One thing is certain: for me the deaths of my two fathers were entirely different in character, but they tell a story that is fair and just. With my step-father our communication on the day of his death reflected our life together, and with my biological father it reflected the life we did not have together.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Loyal Daughters of Notre Dame

It was sometime in 1998, Manila. I was lying on a bed. Some men and maybe a woman were holding me down. I don't remember exactly, as I was not totally aware of all that was happening around me. I was wearing no underwear. A foreign object had been inserted into my anus, up past my rectum and into my colon. It hurt. It really hurt. My screams could be heard from the hallway. My girlfriend at the time, Buena, was debating with herself whether to charge into the room and put an end to things, but she did not. I could hear a female voice--the voice of authority and control in the room--saying again and again, "just a little bit further". I begged her to stop, but she did not. She continued looking at the television screen. The pain was unbearable. At last it stopped, and I passed out.

The foreign object in my intestines was a video camera. The woman who put it there was a doctor. The people holding me down were nurses. A person was missing: the anesthetist, who was supposed to make me unconscious before things got underway. He or she had not shown up. I had given my consent to the doctor to proceed with the procedure with a much reduced level of anaesthetic that she herself administered.

Rape is an event that occurs without the victim's consent. I have never been raped. I do not know what it is like to experience rape. But I do know for years after that traumatic experience in the hospital, there was no way anyone was going to put any kind of object anywhere near my anus. I may not ever give consent to it.

Sexual violence attacks the integrity of body, mind and spirit. This is what gives it its power. If it merely attacked the body, its effects lasting as long a common cold, then it wouldn't matter so much (ignoring of course the transmission of disease). Instead, its violation is profound, penetrating not only the body but emotions deep within the mind, emotions we cannot fully understand let alone control.

The raw sensitivity and brutal intensity of these emotions is perhaps known fully only to those who experience it, or immerse themselves in empathy with those who have. I would never have known the sense of violation of being "felt up" unless it happened to me. Of the range of sexual assaults, this is extremely minor. Yet I can never forget the time in San Francisco more than thirteen years ago when I was felt up. For the first time in my adult life I was wearing a dress. It was Halloween, and my costume for one of Castro's famous street parties was tame compared to many others. While leaving a bar with two of my friends, an Australian named Slim and an Austrian named Helma, someone, who I could not identify, placed a hand up the inside of my legs and headed toward my genitals. I tried to turn and around and see who it was, but people were packed in so tightly I could not do so. It was truly a creepy, awful and absolutely unwelcome feeling, leaving me with a sense of violation far more powerful than I would have ever imagined before experiencing it.

When I hear my female friends talk of their fear of being raped, I listen with all my heart and soul. I can ask them to describe how they felt, to hear how their body and mind responded to the fear. But I know that I cannot really know unless I experience that fear myself. My body and mind does not have the memory of rape, only the imagination of it.

This lack of experiential memory, paradoxically, is one reason among many why it is so crucial that initiatives like that of University of Notre Dame senior Emily Weisbecker's play Loyal Daughters are widely seen and discussed. The play, whose theme is sexuality and sexual assault as told by Notre Dame students, gave voice to actual student victims of sexual violence on and off campus. They included a woman raped in a library toilet by a member of the university's famous college football team, another woman raped by two men one after the other, and the attempted rape of one man by another. Their stories were at times graphic, and always real.

Loyal Daughters was performed this week at Notre Dame amidst some controversy, as the President of Notre Dame, Father Jenkins, withdrew his complete support for the play on the grounds that it 'at times takes a "neutral stance" toward consensual sex outside of marriage.' However according to student newspaper the Observor, Weisbecker said 'the goal of the play was not to explain Catholic teaching to audiences or preach right from wrong but rather to give "a glimpse of what's really going on [so they can] make [their] own decisions."'

In his inaugural address as President, Father Jenkins said "We will strive to build a community generous to those in need and responsive to the demands of justice – strengthened by grace and guided by the command to love God and neighbor. . . . Catholic social teaching insists that we embrace the whole human family, especially those in greatest need."

Women and men who have been sexually violated as students, faculty and workers are among those in greatest need of help on our campus. While I fully respect that one Father Jenkin's many responsibilities is to represent the teachings of the Catholic Church authentically, wisely and insightfully, I cannot help but wonder if his withdrawal of full support for the play undermined his support for ending sexual violence at Notre Dame. Would it have been possible for the women and men to tell their stories of sexual violence through the play without representing the reality of the environment in which these acts take place? Had this environment been stripped out of the play, would the audience have been able to relate their own everyday norms and attitudes on topics such as sex and alcohol to the dreadful acts the play reported? It is not enough to know that sexual violence occurs within the Notre Dame community. The play was responsible not only because of what it reported but also because it implicated attitudes many students hold, including those who would not dream of actually committing sexual violence.

As Father Jenkins himself said in his inaugural address, the "first principle" of a Catholic University is that "Knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake." The second principle: "There is a deep harmony between faith and reason." Genuine social change requires not only faith in God, it requires faith in people: in their ability to think critically, examining their values and behaviours so that they can change them. With his deep knowledege of and respect for human nature, Father Jenkins knows this as well as anyone. By withdrawing his full support, whether he wanted to or not he weakened our community's ability to discuss openly our problems and make responsible changes in our lives. He weakened our ability to carry on the kind of conversations "in the dormitories, the dining halls, on the quads, and on long walks around the lakes" that he welcomes. We did not need to be preached to in the play. We needed to see ourselves and know more than ever that we need to make the promise of positive social change a reality.