It Never Gets Easy

Whitney Fleming

© Copyright 2006 by Whitney Fleming

Photo of a ward at Mother Teresa House.
A piece that explores the experience of burning out, questioning your own motivations, and finding your flame again. In this piece I talk about feeling the need to stop all service work and reevaluate my own motivations for wanting to be involved. During this process I have to embrace the possibility that international service work might not be my true passion. By letting go I find my way back on new terms with more compassionate awareness.

 “Did you cheat on me while we were apart?” He asked again; our bodies entangled underneath the bed sheet, skin to skin, after late-night lovemaking.

 “I will tell you the truth if you tell me the truth.” A gentle smile washes over my face. We had already done this cleansing process several times since I’d been back in the last six weeks. He was the one that was suspicious of me; this was another attempt to alleviate that suspicion.

“O.K.” He held my body against his and waited for me to go first. I drew in a deep breath and began:

 “It was very hard for me to be away from you for 7 months. The States and the Philippines are so far a part, two worlds away. I did become attracted to one of my friends but nothing ever happened. Nothing: no hand holding, no cuddling. The Philippines is where I want to be, with you.” My eyes remained deep in his so he would know I was speaking the truth. The 2am crescent moon offered little light but I didn’t need much to remind me what his golden brown skin looked like against my milky white. I was ready to marry this man; why would I have cheated? My smile remained as I let my hands wander to his face, over his dreadlocks, and back between our bodies where his heart beat could be felt. My thoughts rambled on about how all couples go through hard patches; how jealousy is natural; how, in the end, this would strengthen our relationship and…

“I had a one week affair two weeks before you got here. She was a traveler, you don’t know her.” He did not choke on his words, he had, in fact, been aching to say them to me for two months. When they came out it was a sigh of relief that followed with dense silence trailing behind.


 Then a ball, a human body, folding itself inward again and again and again; tucking my tears against my bellybutton leaving my raw spine exposed. Curled up against the cold white cement wall, inching away from the warm body that held me moments ago- every inch counts. This body is all that is left. I have been here before; my bones were made to be manipulated by others, to turn to dust without ever knowing the freedom of love; without ever understanding how I missed I all the signs.

 Arms are around me holding me tight, so tight that my breath is confused between in and out- too tight. Why is he holding me, touching me? He held her- touched her. Touch. So much touching and holding; so much closeness. I’m suffocating. “Forgive me, Forgive Me.” he cries as he tries to peel me away from myself. When words stumble out of me they are choked and direct;

“Stop! Stop Touching Me. You Disgust me… you fucking Gold Digger!”

The 12 hours that followed were elastic. Some spanned a lifetime, permanently etched in my memory forever: Jad’s eyes saturated in rage, aimed at me huddling in a corner still crying, shielding my body from things- our things- hurling across the room at me: lamp, suitcase, computer, fan, clothes. “PACK, YOU F---IN B---H!!! PACK!!!”

I don’t understand. I think my arm is broken. I don’t understand.

 Some compact into one desperate breath, an acute shift of your internal plates that leave a crevasse open to the elements, permanently altering me forever: I stand; “IF YOU WANT TO  HIT ME, THEN HIT ME!!!” I am not his victim. I will not be victim again.

There are moments that alter us so greatly, that warp our perception of the world so entirely, that we are left stripped bare- gaping at the world for the first time all over. These moments seem to happen when two factors collide: first, an unknown external sneak attack- something life altering happens that is outside of your control; second, the unknown internal sneak attack- you were miserable already but had learned to reside in ‘content’. When what I thought was concrete in my life gave way, I was forced to begin stripping my inner definition of happiness. At the time I was living in the Philippines, far away from close family and friends who begged me to come home to their loving support. I stayed because this fear of the unknown, of the stripping process, scared me, and because I saw this rare opportunity to challenge the comforts I used to define myself. I also stayed because going home to my parent’s house with a battered heart with the prospect of waitressing again was particularly depressing.

My internal plates had shifted and their new placements exposed my self in ways that I had not anticipated. I felt phony and angry. I felt empty as I served children food at the soup kitchen and drained when I went to hug them goodbye. I realized instantly that I needed to find a way to process it or it would erode my heart, in the moments when I let my anger consume me I was cold and bitter, aged by years already. Somewhere in that process was a need, not want or desire, to stop all service-like work. I had been depleted for a while but the breakup with Jad was an excuse for me to walk away. My heart was no longer engaged.

I had a bank account of $6,000.00 and I was already half way around the world. I needed to go somewhere that no one knew me. If I was going to strip myself I needed to do it in a place that hadn’t defined me; be around people who had not stereotyped me. I would travel to Thailand.

I spent two months traveling around Thailand, traversing between complete self indulgences: back rubs on the beach and drinking past sunrise. And deep internal contemplation: a ten day silent meditation retreat. The more I thought, the deeper I looked at my own motivations for wanting to do humanitarian work, the more confused I got. Instead of answers I was coming up with questions: how does one cultivate the right motivation to live compassionately? Is my life’s passion service work? What is passion? They seemed to work backwards instead of forwards. I felt desperate to know the answers. When I make a quilt I will stay up for three days till it’s finished, long term projects have never worked for me, I was hoping that my mind was just a quilt that needed mending and I could do it all in one intensive gulp. If there was any land that could offer the magic of the mind it was India. And so off to India I was.

* * * * *

 “Jesus Whitney! Why India? Why can’t you just stay here?!” My mom’s voice was a whine. She fidgeted with her fingers and looked down when she spoke. She was asking questions she already new the answer to, her tone had no hint of confusion.

“Mommy,” I know what comfort words to use “I need to go because it scares me. I want to land without a guidebook, without a map, without expectations and checkpoints or tourist traps. I’ll be fine.” She was sitting at the kitchen table as I puttered around and made lunch. I walked up to her and threw my arms around her shoulders. “Listen, I’m going to go to Dharmsala in northern India for the first month. I’ll figure things out when I get there. Besides, what’s going to happen in a town full of Tibetans monks listening to the Dalai Lama talk all day?”

 I am Red-eyed and wired from another sleepless night in a van full of hairpin turns and shoulder-to-shoulder room. I have been in Dharmasala moments when the woman I am traveling with leaves me on the side of Temple Road in the striking morning sun and warns,

“Watch your stuff.”

The Indian man, overhearing her heeding advice, chimes in, “Yeah, cause we’re all cheaters. We all want to steal from you.”

 The woman, twice my age, turns with confidence and dryly says, “ I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We all need to be careful.” With that she is gone. His new target is me.

“You think we will steal from you, cheat you? If I wanted to do this I would not come here.”

I am disoriented and distracted, I am suppose to be meeting my friend in minutes and the amount of walking traffic is commanding my attention.

“ I’m sorry if the comment offended you. I have no problem with you. I’m sure you can be trusted.” I add a smile and offer the explanation in a soft tone but had not intended it as a segue into a conversation.

“Where are you from?”

 Exhausted, knowing what kind of reaction my answer will bring, I hurry the word out of my mouth, “America.” The five men openly laugh and exchange glances, “Perfect.” He roars.

 “Now you are the one being judgmental. I have only just arrived. My friend offered advice and you are attacking me for it.” My voice is tense but it is only reflecting a fraction of the tightness that is edging its way through my body. The man gives me a slight smile, knowing that he has gotten to me, squints his eyes, blinks once, and turns away.

The first hour in Dharmasala…Free Tibet –one love-check-out-my-prayer-flags’ country, and I am being accused of being judgmental because of something that is said to me. I take out my book and try to read but I can’t. Instead I just watch; Watch monks and foreigners alike shuffling through the narrow street, heeding the beeps of vehicles. I just listen; languages I don’t understand mesh and mingle, creating an authentic voice of its own, dogs bark, tire roll past, vendors exchange coins. I just smell; Incense and food roll together and waft into me.

As I am sitting I see my friend Michele. We met in Thailand at Suan Mokk meditation center. Her sense of humor collided with mine. Although we sat in silence for ten days before we used words to communicate I knew I liked her. She could never sit rigid through the whole mediation sessions and often giggled at the same inappropriate times as I. She was real.

We talked only hours, her telling me about her plans to return to India, me captivated by this adventurous woman who would still be traveling by herself two months later. We melted with ease. Our conversations came naturally and continually, flowing like a water bottle that has just toppled, you rush to catch it but you have already spilled too much.

She was sleeping with a Tibetan boy, introducing him as a light and fun topic at first, saying it was nothing serious. After listening to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, she continues to tell me about him. It becomes clear to me, and eventually her, that the relationship is only distracting her from the experience she was hoping to have during the teachings. I go back to our room to sleep. She goes to break it off with him.

They both come in and wake me up at 8pm for dinner. I have only slept an hour, making that a total of four hours of sleep in the last twenty-four, my eyes sting and I am disoriented. We all go out and have dinner together. She tells me through moving lips and silent words that it’s over between them and that she’ll tell me all about it later. I am excited to hear the story. I love stories; about travel, about love, about the love of travel, and about love while traveling.

We walk back to the hotel and they hesitate outside. I am exhausted and head straight to the room. We have two single beds that are mashed together, creating one big bed with a crack down the middle. They both enter the room. I am a bit confused but don’t mind as long as nothing happens while I’m in the bed. We all got ready for bed, Michele in the middle. The night lingered with Michele and me enjoying each other’s humor and then I faded off to sleep. The lights went out. I drifted in and out of sleep and dreams, groggily waking to whispered conversations and shuffles of the covers. I woke to a striking white light, like the first drops of a cold shower in early morning, an alarming presence. She asked him to go out in the hall so they could talk. Whispers turned to hard tones. They came back in the room and he got his stuff and left. I rolled over and asked what had happened. She shot me a look that insinuated that I knew all too well what had just happened. She stayed in silence and then walked over to the bed.

 “Just tell me what happened between you two. I know he liked you.” Apparently she had moved to the floor in the middle of the night, finding it hard to feel comfortable between the boundary that raced down her back and the new boundaries they had just compromised on earlier that night. She told me that she heard “rustling sheets and he acted so differently around you while we were at dinner. Are you serious? You didn’t notice that he was interested in you?”

 “I had no idea how he acted to begin with, I have never met him before. I thought he was just a happy guy.”

Her eyebrows sank and her bottom lip begins to quiver, “Please just tell me the truth.” She puts her hands over her face, as if it would shield her heart from the answer that she has convinced herself of.

“I will tell you the absolute truth. Nothing happened. He never touched me. He never whispered anything to me. I didn’t even know that you had left the bed.”

 “The reason I thought something happened is because I tried to get back in the bed but… LOOK”, she grabs the sheets and shows me a concentrated wet spot “… it’s all wet. If you guys didn’t do anything then he was masturbating next to you.” We sat awake for hours under the crescent moon shining through our silk curtains and swapped war stories, of love, of travel, and of illness. She taught I was beautiful, jealous of my petite figure. I thought she was stunning, jealous of her voluptuous curves. Funny, we are only mirrors of each other, perfect in every way to someone else.

We decided that we would share a room for the next month in McLeod Ganj, an electric town. It sits one town higher than Dharmsala and the Himalayas hang in the background as a booming reminder of how insignificant we really are. It’s a place where monks talk on cell phones, where you jostle for walking space with cows, where tourists hug beggars. McLeod Ganj brought a well needed rest from partying and consumerism. I consumed tea- lots of tea.

Every day Tapestries and tarps eclipse the sun, raining down on those late comers that sit under their periphery. Inside the compound, where His Holiness talks in a language I do not understand with a presence I do, hundreds gather sitting on cushions on a cement slab in the large outdoor space. They told me it was crowded inside, too crowded, for the taste of many. Most of my friends prefer to sit outside the compound where you can not see the Dalai Lama but you can still pick up a translated English radio signal of the talk.

As I sit and listen, slip into meditation, slip back into the unknown language, I realize that it is not too crowded for me. The energy is vast and radiates from all the shoulder blades that line the distance between Him and me; like ripples that lead to a sunrise. Flies hovering, eagles soaring, backs straightening, heads bowing; the smell of sweet butter tea and body odor mingle all around me; when I go to his talks this is what I see. I could tune into the radio and watch him with my headphones on, and I do often, but when I don’t it’s the time that I feel most immersed in this teachings.

After His Holiness finishes his talks I gather with a diverse group of friends and have tea. Tea is never polite. Everyone has opinions about compassion and how to spread it, about baggage and how to loose it, about love and how to find it.

“Yeah you need to meditate to cultivate compassion.” The monk raised his tea to his lips and cools it before slurping a sip.

“But that doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, how is sitting there, focusing on nothing going to make me a more compassionate person? And more importantly how is sitting there, cultivating compassion, going to help anyone else?”

The even mannered monk cracked a smile. “You know, one of the best things about Buddhism is that we never try to sell it. Why don’t you mediate on compassion tonight and see how you feel. Go up the hill to Toshita, there will be a guided meditation on compassion tonight. They have one every night.”

As I settled on my cushion I felt at ease. I had been in McLeod Ganj nearly three weeks and the constant hummm of prayer wheels, of the Dalai Lama’s words, of early nights and bright mornings had begun to settle my core in a way I had never felt.

Our guide begins in a British accent by asking us: “Why do you mediate?” Her long sun bleached hair hangs loose down her back and it seems to be flickering in the candlelight as she reminded us of all the loved ones in our lives, and unloved. She speaks of peace and joy and the serenity that mediation brings to these moments. She thanks us for “helping peace prevail.”

 ‘So Why Do You Meditate?’

 My eyes fall shut and my breath becomes life- it becomes my focus: Alicia, 10 years old, beaten to death for a $20 necklace in the Philippines. Her body becomes life- becomes focus. A single tear grows and falls, chiseling an unmistakable line: the weight of a single tear; the thought of a single body; the weight for my compassion; the thought for all that I do not see.

Twenty minutes in she thanks us again for “choosing to be here.” My breath deepens; ripples were no longer inside me but waves of compassion gashing together feeling a need to leap up and embrace dogs, children, friends, students. Ten minutes later, “Now thank yourself.”

Me? Embrace the girl who’s scared of the dark; embrace the teenager that learned why one should fear men; embrace the young woman who saw Alicia’s body?

Compassion: embrace me.

 * * * * *

 I stayed another three weeks, spending ten of those days at a silent retreat at Toshita. I thought I was finally getting somewhere, that I was beginning to heal, and that I was ready to go back to service work. Before Toshita I had sent Jad an email, we had had no contact since the night he told me which was over six months ago. With my new sense of security I felt settled and wanted some closure.

“Dear Jad, I know you did not tell me the whole truth that night. I deserve to know now.” When I got out of the retreat I read,

“You are right. You did not deserve what I did to you. I was having a three month affair with a girl named Carmen. We are now engaged to be married. I am sorry. I wish you were the one for me, but you’re not”

That night I sat on the rooftop of my guesthouse and meditated under a full moon. With each inhale my stomach became queasier, till finally I opened my eyes and threw up.

For the next eight hours of moonlight I was incapacitated. I shat in my pants three times, thinking I was going to puke and surprised when it came out the other end, finally I had to give up and lay naked. I had thrown up so much that bits of blood and bile where the only things left. As I lay naked on the cool cement floor underneath the moonlight I challenged myself to isolate the most excruciating part of this experience. Was it the act of throwing up, or the waiting for the next wave to hit, usually a 15-minute gap? As I reached the toilet, a hole cut into the ground, I realized that the action of being sick was liberating. If felt good to at least be trying to rid this rancidness from my body. And it was the laying and waiting, the contemplation that I allowed my mind to have, which created the pain. The lesson of humility was learned that night as I crawled naked between toilet and cement floor, a humanness that I hadn’t felt in a long time. There was the application of pain and the allowance for tears and laughter, for the hurt from Jad messed with the love for humanity.

Jad had offered me closure and I took it. It took another week for me to be strong enough to travel. I decided that I would head to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. It had been a lifelong dream to volunteer there. I took a month or so to get there, stopping here and there, meeting so and so. But throughout my travels I continued to mediate on compassion. I continued to believe that I was grooming myself for selfless service. I became less irritated with people and I became more confident with myself.

 * * * * *

 “Can you bring this medicine to bed #8 and this one to… bed #45.” The volunteer had been working at The Home for the Destitute and Dying for five months. She was not a nurse but had been taught enough about the medicines to distribute them. It was my job, along with five others young women, to bring the medicine to the women, to change them when they dirtied themselves, to bring them water, to give them love. There is a women’s and a men’s ward with sixty beds available in each. The beds are set up in one long hallway, thirty on each side. The patients are people that are found in the street ready to die by other volunteers. They range in age from 4 to 90.

As I begin to walk to bed 8, the women in bed 4 requests water. I motion that I have heard her and I will be back but first I have to drop off the medicine. As I pass bed 6 I notice she is crying, not loudly, silently in great agony. I want to go hold her. I sit with the women in bed 8; she has been beaten by her husband, nearly to death, and thrown out of her home because she contacted hepatitis B. Her face is back and blue and she has to squint out of one eye to see the medicine I am handing her. I continue down the hall to bed 45 but am sidetracked when I realize that the woman in bed 30 is lying naked in her own excrement. I will have to go and clean her up. I arrive at bed 45. I was told yesterday by another volunteer that this woman was gang raped by ten men. They broke her pelvic bone, ripped out her earrings, and beat her badly. She has been here three weeks and her wounds are beginning to heal but she has psychological trauma from the attack. I sit down and spend a few moments with her, as I stroke her back I watch her eyes gaze solemnly out into space. She is clutching the sheet tight, laying on her side, and holding it close to her chest. She is aware that I am there, that I am there to give her the medicine, but she makes no movements. I squat down on the floor and hug her, her eyes meet mine. Now she is ready to get her medicine.

The day continues; bed 25 to bed 3, to bed 4 with water, to bed 30 for cleaning, to bed 6 for comfort. As the day ends I walk to the closet and put the pink flowered apron with vomit and human excrement in the dirty laundry and take out my bag. I head up to the roof where the volunteers convene at the end of the day for tea and cookies.

“So how long have you been here?” I ask Sarah, I know her name but we have never been introduced.

 “I don’t know, about 5 months.” She is looking out into the city below us, watching the lives of Indians take place right before our eyes; baths in the streets, cooking on open fires, children playing soccer with a tin can. I saw her earlier today get upset and walk out crying. I thought she was the strongest out of all the girls that worked there; her mannerism is aloof and tough, not always smiling but always on time and efficient.

“I saw you upset earlier, what happened, are you ok.” Her silky black Asian hair sways as she turns to look at me,

 “It’s just so hard sometimes. I thought that I would get use to it, seeing all this suffering but I never have.” Her eyes dart downward and her gaze returns to the city before us. “It never gets easy.” I give Sarah the space she needs and walk to the other side of the roof and look down.

Below me free rice is being handed out by a NGO. The line is growing and within minutes two women, perhaps 50 years old, begin to fight. First there is yelling, then pushing, then clawing, and tears and hair pulling. As they are pulled apart a woman in a well worn blue sari scrambles to the ground to gather the rice that has fallen during the fight, the other is lead away by a group of women who look to be consoling her. As she walks by she wiggles away from the group and spits on the blue sari woman. The woman looks up and says nothing. It’s as if all her fight is gone, she turns back to gather the free rice on the ground.

When I went to Mother Teresa’s House to register the first day they told me that the best thing that I could bring these people is a smile. I have one readily available and I use it, but under a thin shield (tracing paper thin) I am shocked; I am awed; I am horrified. Everyday some of these women leave, get well, and go back out onto the street to begin again; everyday some new women arrive, with new stories, nauseating wounds, and horrific pains; everyday one of these women dies.

As I hold these women in my arms I feel the solidarity of our human need for love, remembering my own humbleness as I was sprawled naked under the moonlight. As I rub lotion into their paper-torn skin I realize that one day my body will wither away to age, that plastic surgery and firming cream can never beat death. As I try to speak Hindi, making a few laugh, I appreciate the power of humor and languages that transcend words. But my most shocking discovery is that as I look at bed 30, bed 45, bed 6… I am so thankful I am not them. I still have only found sympathy; after months of mediation on compassion, after taking a break and allowing myself to feel anger, not feel guilt, after putting in so much… effort- all I feel is sympathy. To permit myself to feel empathy is to believe that if I was bed 45, a gang raped woman who will return to a life of prostitution, I would go on living. There is a detachment that I can’t escape compounded with the reality that I will most likely never have to. Fear could keep me captive for a lifetime; the temptation to settle for western comforts and thirty minutes of world news. But I know, for I have sacrificed it before, that if I settle in contentment of tempting comforts I will, at some point, be that human ball quivering against a cold cement wall once more thinking: “ but I don’t understand” as I feel the tears drip onto my bare knees huddled into my chest.

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