This soulful and engaging memoir is the story of one woman’s journey of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing through her connection to a loving Buddhist teacher who fully accepts and nurtures her in a way her own mother never did. Finding Venerable Mother is a testimony to the power of faith, forgiveness, and love.
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|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
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About the Author
Cindy’s spiritual journey took on new dimensions when she, her husband, and their son moved to Bangkok, Thailand for three years. She met her spiritual teacher, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkuni, the first fully ordained Thai Theravada nunan encounter that opened her heart and changed her life forever. This deepening relationship led to writing her memoir, Finding Venerable Mother: A Daughter’s Spiritual Quest in Thailand, which chronicles her adventures along the spiritual path.
Her other writings include an article in Sawasdee Magazine in 2007 and essays featured in two anthologies: Wandering in Paris: Luminaries and Love in the City of Light (Wanderland Writers, 2013) and A Café in Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal, Volume 11 (Sky Blue Press, 2014). She currently resides in Point Richmond, California, where she writes and enjoys views of the San Francisco Bay. Visit Cindy at cindyrasicot.com.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Bangkok Bound
I was staring into the computer monitor at work when my phone rang. Even though it was not a complete surprise, my husband’s question startled me. “Want to move to Bangkok?”
Three months earlier, Randall had received a job offer to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina. We’d drunk champagne on Friday to celebrate the news, but the following Monday, the offer had been rescinded.
“Is it for real this time?” I asked.
“It’s definitely going to happen, and fast. I have to be in Bangkok in four weeks.”
It was early July of 2005, which meant moving the first week of August. The thought of moving so fast was overwhelming. What would we do with our house? What about our belongings? I was at the mercy of Randall’s job with no say in the process. Randall was a natural-born risk-taker who often leaped ahead of me and looked back to make sure I was following. I was just the opposite: cautious, easily frightened, and slow to decide.
“How long would we live there?”
“Three years. We could travel to Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Japan. What an opportunity!” Clearly he was excited, while I felt a mixture of fear and hesitation.
Randall had worked a lot of overtime the past year to advance his career at a major oil company. Top-performing employees were rewarded with overseas assignments. The move to Thailand meant a promotion, but it was happening so fast.
“We won’t know anyone, or speak the language,” I said.
“It will be an adventure,” Randall replied. “This is the chance of a lifetime. I’ve been working for the company for twenty-four years, and this is the only foreign assignment available for someone with my qualifications. They owe me one after Argentinaand I’m not going to get another offer.”
I was conflicted. I would have been more comfortable living in South America, since I spoke fluent Spanish. I’d learned Spanish during my junior year abroad living in Madrid in 1971 and felt more familiar with Latin culture. I had many Latina friends and knew I could easily blend into the local scene. I’d heard Buenos Aires was similar to a European city and I’d dreamed of leisurely afternoons sitting in cafés and sipping espresso. I could also envision our son, Kris, thirteen years old, becoming fluent in Spanish and flourishing in a Latin culture. He loved Mexican food and was already studying Spanish in school. In Thailand he would be navigating unfamiliar territory. Like me, Kris was slow to accept change, and transitions were hard for him.
“What about the cultural differences?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about Thai society or customs.” At fifty-four, confronting the unknown felt daunting. And there was another complication. I had a serious lower back problem that I had been coping with for the past eight years. Degenerative discs. I had grown used to carrying an ice pack and a little blow-up chair pillow wherever I went. I managed the pain with physical therapy and medication, but I was worried about the long flight. And what if my back got worse in Thailand? I trusted my doctors in the US but didn’t have a clue about the Thai medical system. Where would I turn if I needed help? This might have been a concern living in Argentina too, but I would have felt more confident about navigating their health system.
“Let me think about it and call you back.” I said. “I just need time to think,” I said. Randall’s silence spoke volumes about his impatience.
I swiveled my chair to the window, phone in hand. It’s true that we’d been talking about living abroad for twenty years, but we had never actually done it. On our last vacation, we’d chartered a sailboat in Tonga and swum with the whales. It was all very exciting, but that had been a two-week vacation, not a long-term commitment.
I paused to consider my options. Maybe Randall could live abroad and I could stay here with Kris. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t imagine living alone again after twenty years of marriage. When mutual friends in my folk dance group first introduced us, I was lonely and looking for a companion. An avid cyclist, sailor, and hiker, Randall was five-eleven, lean, and fit, with thinning brown hair and striking light blue eyes that gleamed when he was outdoors in nature. I was five-seven and slender. I liked my appearancedark brown hair, hazel eyes, and angular features like a woman in a Modigliani painting. Even through Randall was seven years younger than me, just twenty-seven at the time, he seemed older and more responsible than most men I had met. He was not afraid of commitment and wanted to settle down.
Initially I was terrified to make a commitment. I wanted the intimacy but was afraid of losing myself in a relationship. Eventually I followed my heart. I loved him and wanted to be with him. After six months we moved in together, and a year later we married.
“You hate your job.” Randall countered [[stet]]the empty conversation.
He’s right about that, I thought. I was sick of my job as a nonprofit fundraiser for a mental health crisis center. I had settled into a fundraising career out of convenience, doing the same monotonous job day after day. I’d been there five years and had recently contemplated leaving. Still, I liked having the routine of working. In Thailand I wouldn’t have a job because spouses of employees weren’t allowed work permits. What would it be like to have nothing to do?
“If we moved to Thailand, you wouldn’t have to work,” Randall continued. “You could do anything you want. I’d kill for that opportunity.” Looking around my office, I realized he was right. I was stuck in a dead-end job with no prospects for change on the horizon. I looked out the window. I took a deep breath and summoned my courage. Even with my doubts, I yearned for change. Maybe this was the opportunity I was looking for. I felt a rush of adrenaline, and my heart was pounding.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I said.
“Yes.” I am the type of person who, once I cross the threshold of my fear, becomes very focused. It’s like a light switch has been turned on, and I can see everything more clearly. Randall knew this about me. Even though I was still nervous, I wanted to live in a foreign culture. Randall and I were in agreement about that, but we approached our decision-making process differently. Once aligned, however, we made a formidable team. And once I made a solid commitment, I moved forward with purpose. For the first time I felt a trickle of excitement.
“It’ll be fantastic!” Randall said. “You won’t regret it.”
“We’ll need to discuss this with Kris tonight. I’m not looking forward to that.”
“It’ll be okay,” he said.
Eager to leave my job, I walked downstairs and gave my boss two weeks’ notice.
I left work that same day at about four thirty to pick our son up from middle school. Kris ran toward the car when he saw me. At five-five, he had sandy brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a mischievous demeanor. Tired after our respective long days, we were both quiet. I turned into the driveway and let Kris out before pulling into the garage. He headed to his room to play on his computer. I didn’t fuss at him to do his homework since I didn’t want an argument before dinner. I dropped my things by the front door and headed into the kitchen.
Randall walked in at about six thirty, and I called Kris to the table. Randall and I both wore serious expressions.
“What’s up?” Kris asked, observing our concerned faces.
“We have something to tell you,” Randall said. “You know how I’ve been wanting to get a foreign assignment? Well, since Argentina fell through, they’ve offered me a job in Thailand. Your mom and I talked about it, and I decided to accept the offer.”
“We’ve always wanted a chance to live abroad.” I interjected. My tone was upbeat, hoping to persuade him.
“What?” Kris exclaimed. “I don’t want to go. I won’t know anyone.” He pushed away from the table. “What about Austin? I don’t want to leave my best friend.”
“We can arrange for Austin to visit this summer,” I said, hoping that bargaining chip would make him feel better. “We could take a vacation, and you could show him around.”
Randall put his elbows down and leaned forward against the table. “You’ll make new friends,” he said. “It’s a chance for adventure, a chance to see the world. We may not get another opportunity like this.”
“So you’re saying we have to go?” His voice rising. “Do I have any say in this, or are we going no matter what?”
“We’ve made our decision,” Randall said. “We’re moving in August. I know it’s quick, but your mom and I are sure we can make it happen.”
“You don’t care about me!” Kris stood up and pushed away from the table.
“Well, that went well,” I said sardonically.
Next thing I knew, Randall was knocking on Kris’s bedroom door. I don’t know what they talked about, but when they emerged from behind closed doors, Kris looked resigned. After all, he was our son, and like it or not, we had been talking about this for years. He had known about Argentina and probably guessed that a move was inevitable. No longer upset, he seemed quiet in his resolve. Perhaps he was taking his time to adjust to the idea.
We each took a serving of salad, bread, and cold chicken, and we ate in silence.
The following week, I concentrated on finding a school for our son. The most likely choice was the International School of Bangkok (ISB), since most expat families sent their kids there. ISB began classes the first week of August, so I immediately submitted his application.
In addition to selecting a school, we had to prepare our house for rental, which meant clearing out all the furniture and the garage, a near-impossible task in just three weeks. I thought about all my mother’s things packed in boxes in the garage. She’d died five months earlier in January at age ninety, and I still wasn’t ready to sift through her belongings.
“What are we going to do with all the boxes in the garage?” I asked. “Everything will have to go into storage,” Randall said. “I’ll get one of those big dumpsters, and we’ll toss out as much as we can.”
“Just make sure you don’t throw out any of my mom’s stuff.” Grief has its own timing, and I was still too sad to make any decisions about what to keep and what to let go of. The move simply meant I could delay the process, which was reassuring. I could always decide later.
We met with a property manager to lease our home. Randall planned to fly to Bangkok with us and stay for a month. Then he would fly home to pack up all our belongings to be transported in a shipping container. It would take about six weeks for the container to arrive.
Before I knew it, August 7 had arrived, and we headed to the San Francisco Airport for a mid-morning flight. A cloud of gray fog hovered overhead. I was both nervous and excited. The Airporter shuttle was waiting for us in the driveway. I paused to look at our house and asked Randall, “Are we sure all the doors are locked?” Randall sprinted from the van and did one final check around the house to make certain.
“All good,” he replied.
We shoved our suitcases into the trunk and climbed into the back seats.
On the drive to the airport, I breathed a sigh of relief. The past month had been a marathon of attending to details, renting our home, applying to the International School, and most important of all, saying goodbye to friends. I felt as though I were moving in a waking dream. Everything happened so quickly; nothing seemed real. I just went through the motions, completing one task after another.
Now that we were actually leaving, it dawned on me: We’re moving to Thailand. Soon I would venture into a whole new world, confronted by new sights, smells, and surroundings. I couldn’t contain my excitement, a combination of nerves and adrenaline, as we sped toward the airport. For the first time in years, I was genuinely happy, grateful to Randall for all he provided and hopeful about the future. I glanced at my husband seated next to me and my son who was engrossed in his Game Boy. I loved my family. A feeling of warm appreciation swept through me. I smiled and nudged Randall on the shoulder. “Let the rumpus begin,” I said, quoting a favorite line from Where the Wild Things Are.
Twenty-six hours later, the plane landed in Bangkok. A company driver had been assigned to meet us at the airport. He was Thai and had been given instructions to drive us to our temporary home at the Emporium Suites Hotel where we would be living the first month of our stay. I sat in the back seat staring out the window, eager to take in the scenery. The expressway was lined with tall coconut palms. Huge fronds swayed in the breeze, and bushes burst with orange blossoms. Skyscrapers towered in the distance. We drove past a curious statue of a woman with the upper body of a female torso and the lower body of a bird with two thin legs and talons. I later found out this was called a kinnara, a mythological creature thought to look after human beings in times of trouble or danger.
Downtown Bangkok was one huge traffic jam. Motorcycles clustered at stoplights, and cars were stacked bumper to bumper. Sidewalks were layered in black soot. I rolled down the window of our air-conditioned car and was greeted by a steam bath. The air was dank but not as grimy as I had imagined.
At the hotel, men dressed in brown silk pants and coats and wearing white gloves opened the car doors and bowed. The receptionist offered us glasses of sparkling chilled red liquid that tasted like hibiscus tea. Hot and tired, we gulped them down. The lobby was a bit chaotic with people moving in every direction, and there was some confusion about our reservation. I was too exhausted to think and let Randall do the talking. Thankfully, the situation was resolved, and the bellboy grabbed our luggage. He motioned for us to follow him and led us to an elevator in the lobby where we climbed up to the twenty-seventh floor and stepped into a hallway that was dark and a bit eerie. We found our room, and I shoved my key card into the slot. I opened the door to a long rectangular room, the living room, which was light, spacious, and airy.
“Welcome to the Emporium Suites, your new home,” Randall said, beaming. I wandered around the apartment. To the left of the living room was a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, closet, and bath. Opposite the master suite was a smaller bedroom with two single beds and a bathroom attached. “This looks like your room,” I said to Kris and motioned him to bring his suitcase in.
He immediately flopped on the bed and said, “I’m hungry. When can we eat?”
Randall called me over to the far end of the living room. Half the wall was covered with glass windows. “Look at the view.” The park below was perfectly sculpted with diagonal walkways intermingled with lush tropical flowers. Tall buildings surrounded that oasis. We unpacked a few things and ventured downstairs to look for a restaurant. It was late afternoon. We left the downstairs lobby and discovered that the hotel connected to the first floor of a large shopping mall, also called the Emporium. It was a dazzling display of bright lights, rows of shops, and noise. We discovered a food court on the sixth floor which offered Thai food, Japanese food, and even a Dairy Queen.
“Let’s hit that for dessert,” I said smiling at Kris. He didn’t respond. Maybe he was absorbed in looking at his new surroundings. Maybe he was just hungry.
We found a Thai restaurant whose menus were written in Thai with colorful photographs of plates of food. I pointed to a bowl of soup with a sunny egg floating on top. Kris ordered chicken and rice and Randall ordered a bowl of noodles. When the waitress delivered the noodles, they were topped with what appeared to be wispy insects opening and closing their tiny, paper wings. Randall picked up his fork, poking at the flapping wings, pausing before taking his first bite.
“Dad, don’t!” Kris called out, waving his fork in the air. “It looks like bugs, and it might be alive!”
Randall stared, perplexed. The flapping died down, and it was obvious the wings were thin, dried strands of lettuce that fluttered open with the heat and moisture. We all laughed as Randall ate the “edible beast.”
By the time we got back to the apartment, it was nighttime. The sooty air had been transformed into a soft netting of darkness, and blue and red lights shimmered on top of buildings in the distance. Our first phase of the journey completed, we headed off to bed. I was exhausted, too tired to think. We each retired to our bedrooms hoping for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, Monday, Randall left early for his first day at work. I barely heard the alarm. Half awake, I looked around, confused. It took me a minute to remember where I was. The apartment was pitch black, and the clock said five thirty. Randall was already in the shower. He hadn’t missed a beat. We’d barely arrived, and he was headed off to his new job. He had a sturdy constitution and seemed immune to jet lag. Meanwhile, I could barely keep my eyes open and fell back to sleep.
By the time I woke the second time, the morning light had filtered in. I glanced at the clock display again; it was seven o’clock. Still tired, I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the living room windows to take in the view. In the park below, women were performing Tai Chi. Every fifteen minutes, a new group of women arrived. The first group lunged forward in sweeping dives with long silver swords. The next group held bright red fans that swirled gracefully as they twirled, swooped, and hopped through the movements. I stood there mesmerized. In that moment of calm, it dawned on me: This could be a really fantastic experience. Just then the apartment phone rang. It was a hotel phone with multiple extensions, and a flashing light accompanied the ring. Who could be calling us?
“Welcome to Bangkok,” Randall said. “Just wanted to check in with you.” His voice sounded chipper, his excitement palpable.
“I’m amazed we’re here,” I said. “Seems like we just left for the airport. I have to wake Kris soon. His interview at the International School is in two hours, and I have no idea how long it will take us to get there.”
“You’d better go. Talk to you later.”
I walked across the living room to Kris’s bedroom and knocked on the door. No response. I heard the hum of the air conditioner going full blast. I knocked a little harder and walked in. He was fast asleep.
“Hey, buddy, you need to get up.” Kris turned over in the sheets, his eyes barely open.
“Did you sleep okay?”
“Not so good. I was awake most of the night.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “We have about forty-five minutes until the driver comes to pick us up.”
“Kris sat halfway up in bed, his T-shirt rumpled. He trudged into the bathroom.
“Let’s have breakfast,” I said, closing the door behind me.
Twenty minutes later, we took the elevator to the first level where breakfast was being served. The room was full of Asian people with a few Western families sprinkled in. The buffet was a different fare than we were used to. They served noodles and rice, dried fish, and a soupy looking porridge dish. Kris made a grimace. “I can’t eat this food.”
“Look over here.” I pointed to steel trays heaped with scrambled eggs and bacon. “Want some?”
“I hate eggs. There’s nothing here I like.”
Fortunately, there was a selection of kids’ cereal. Kris emptied a box of Froot Loops into a bowl, and I opted for coffee and a plate full of fresh mango, papaya, and green guava slices. After breakfast we walked down to the lobby to meet the same driver who’d picked us up at the airport. We had arranged to have him take us to ISB, located in a compound called Nichada Thani. Outside, the early morning air was warm, not blazing hot yet. When the car pulled up, Kris sat in the back seat, and I climbed into the front.
Traffic in downtown Bangkok crawled. It took about half an hour to travel ten city blocks to the expressway. I had no idea this would take so long. It was already eight thirty, and our appointment was at nine. I took a deep breath, anxious to arrive on time. Eventually we turned onto the freeway where traffic moved at a fast pace.
Exiting the highway, we turned onto a side street lined with wooden shacks and vendors selling barbecued meat cooking over an open fire. Mangy looking dogs roamed the streets. A doctor had warned us before we left not to pet stray dogs because they might be rabid. The dogs looked thin and tired; they were pink, hairless from the heat, but didn’t appear to be aggressive. The driver turned off the side street and we drove through a main gate where a sign read, “WELCOME TO NICHADA THANI, A PLANNED COMMUNITY.” We drove past chalky white, two-story stucco houses lined up side by side. The immaculate green lawns reminded me of a country club. I knew the school was in the compound, but we hadn’t located it yet. Security guards in beige uniforms stood at the entrance to every street and saluted us military style each time we drove by.
“Wow,” I said. “This is weird.”
I had never wanted to live in a “planned community,” so isolated from the Thai people. Would living there be just like our home in the suburbs? I knew a lot of the employees where Randall worked lived there, especially those with school-aged kids, because of its convenient location. I promised myself if we did decide to live there that we’d get outside of Nichada on the weekends.
We drove around what appeared to be a huge man-made lake and passed a Starbucks. How strange to have a Starbucks out here. The driver pulled up to the front entrance of the school. I asked the guard where the main office was, and he answered in Thai, speaking to the driver. We continued straight to a row of buildings. The driver pulled up to the curb where an easel board read “WELCOME RASICOT FAMILY.” I glanced at my watch: nine fifteen. I hated being late and tensed up slightly. A rush of hot air met us as we stepped out of the car and walked down the hallway to the main office. Once inside a receptionist guided us to a sofa in the waiting room. The admissions director arrived within five minutes and introduced himself.
“How was traffic?” he asked.
“Not great. Sorry we’re late.”
“Late is the new normal,” he said with a smile. “No worries.” I was reassured by his relaxed attitude. “I’ll show you around first, and then we’ll head over to the counselor’s office for the interview.” Kris and I joined him as he started the tour.
The school looked like a college campus with new buildings. “All air conditioned,” the director beamed, pointing to the classrooms. We walked past the gym and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. I had to admit this was much nicer than Kris’s public school at home. We couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but here the company would pay the tuition.
After the tour, we met with a counselor, a friendly woman named Sally who welcomed us and invited us into her office for an interview. I was nervous because school had already started the week before, and I had been warned that it might be difficult to get in.
Kris’s gift was verbal adeptness, and he fielded all the questions with no hesitation.
“What do you think about this school?” Sally asked.
“I like it,” Kris replied.
“Why don’t you come in the day after tomorrow? I’ll sign you up for all your classes. In the meantime, you can buy your uniform and some school supplies in the student store downstairs.” I high-fived Kris after the interview and asked him, “What do you think? Do you want to go there?”
“Sure,” he said. I was impressed by his confidence. He seemed relaxed, no longer unsure of where he was going.
On the ride home, I was relieved. My concern about selecting a school for Kris had just been resolved. My next task would be to start looking for a place to live. The company had paid for a month’s temporary housing at the Emporium, but after that we had to move. I paused, took a deep breath, and looked out the car window at the glittering temples, my mind careening to grasp that I was actually here in Bangkok. As the car sped along the highway, my heart fluttered with hope at the prospect of new beginnings.
Kris had his first day at ISB on Wednesday of that week. The school bus picked him up at five thirty in the morning and dropped him back home at six at night, giving me plenty of time to think about where we were going to live. On the one hand, I liked the appeal of living in Bangkok because it was a cosmopolitan city. On the other hand, I knew that living in Bangkok would mean a grueling bus schedule for our son. It was an easy choice: we’d move to Nichada Thani so that Kris could be closer to school. I balanced my concerns about living in the planned community with the realization that Nichada would be full of people like us, newly arrived expats who didn’t know anyone. Perhaps it was the best location to make new friends.
Over the next two weeks, I searched for a rental with the help of a housing specialist available through Randall’s work. The houses were all white, modern-looking, and primarily two-story structures. There were very few rentals available since most families had relocated before the school semester began. I managed to find one house I liked and arranged for Randall and me to take a tour our second weekend in Bangkok. The houses had names, and this one was called Maison Lan.
The house was twice as large as our 1,500-square-foot, ranch-style, suburban home in Northern California. Upstairs were three bedrooms, including a master bedroom with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a balcony that overlooked a small pool in the backyard. The yard was enclosed by a wooden fence draped in pink, white, and yellow bougainvillea. Beyond the fence was an open field covered in tall grassy reeds and broad-leafed tropical plants. There was a perfect spot in the upstairs bedroom where I could put my writing desk and look out at the view below.
Downstairs were a small kitchen, dining room, and living room with sliding glass doors that opened up to the back patio. The kitchen had not been updated and had a tiny gas range and refrigerator that looked like they belonged in a studio apartment. The cupboards smelt musty, an old wood scent combined with stale food odors. A door on the right side of the kitchen led down to an open rectangular space with a tiny adjoining room.
“Look at this,” Randall said, pointing to a small space that was slightly bigger than a large walk-in closet with a single bed and washer and dryer that practically filled the entire area. To the left of it was a tiny bathroom. I looked inside. There was an open Thai-style toileta hole with two footrestsin the corner and a showerhead in the center with a drain hole below it.
“Who is this for? I asked.
“It’s for a live-in domestic worker.”
“You mean a maid?” I asked.
“Everyone has one,” he replied.
This took me by surprise. The thought of a maid conjured up the image of an indentured servant, and I felt guilty just considering the idea.
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live in such a small space. It’s positively claustrophobic,” I said.
I also couldn’t fathom having a stranger live in our midst. I was shy and private, especially in the mornings. I liked to have my coffee and write in my journal before I faced other people. I couldn’t focus on that right now, so I set that thought aside for later. We decided to rent the house, especially since there weren’t any other houses available, and this one seemed fine.
Once we made the decision to rent Maison Lan, I sprang into action again. Randall and I met at the bank near his office to draw a check for the initial payment. I had to open up accounts for gas, electricity, and Internet. The housing specialist advised me to set up each account in person at Seven Eleven [[stet]]rather than talking on the phone to avoid any communication issues. I took her advice, but these were time-consuming tasks. Next on my agenda was to buy beds. Our shipping container wasn’t due to arrive for another month, and we needed places to sleep. I was worried about having the mattresses delivered before we moved in. Fortunately, the house was vacant a few days before we arrived, and the landlord allowed me to schedule the delivery of the beds ahead of time.
We checked out of the Emporium Suites and headed for Maison Lan on a Saturday, almost one month to the day after we had arrived in Bangkok. It had been a whirlwind, and I was proud of myself for having solved two major hurdles: finding a school and renting a house. Our new home felt a bit eerie without much furniture, and there was a slight echo to the cavernous rooms. I was looking forward to our furniture delivery. Since I didn’t want to face unpacking everything on my own, I began to think about hiring help. I wanted to talk to other moms to find out more about how to go about hiring domestic help. Fortunately, the school had a lot of social activities for parents, and now that we lived close to campus, it was easy for me to be more involved.
That very first week in our new home, I attended a “meet and greet” coffee for new parents where I met another mom named Nancy. She had lived for three years in Bangkok and had recently moved to Nichada so her daughter, now a sophomore at ISB, could live closer to her friends. Nancy and I shared a lot in common. We were both Jewish, with a dry sense of humor. We were both unemployed wives of working husbands, each with a single child in school and looking to make new friends. We arranged to take an early morning walk around the lake.
The morning we met, she wore a full-length Indian skirt with a bright yellow cotton top. An artist, Nancy was short with a compact build and had cropped dark hair with flashes of silver. Her face was intriguing. She had beautiful blue eyes. When I asked her a question, she would become quiet, purse her lips together, and tilt her head slightly before weighing in with a response. At her side was an adorable dog, Mathilda, a wire-haired terrier.
On the walk, Nancy talked about her maid. “We went to the beach over the weekend and came home to find her boyfriend had stayed overnight. I could tell he’d been there because they’d eaten all our food, and I found his T-shirt in the laundry. I didn’t give her permission to invite her boyfriend over. I fired her, and now I’m looking to hire someone new.”
“Why do you want to replace her?” I asked. “Is it worth the trouble?”
“I had a great maid before, but she moved back to Myanmar. Her name was Tulsa. I taught her how to cook the things we liked, and she picked it up fast. She did thorough housecleaning, so I didn’t have to worry about anything. And that left me with so much free time, I joined a quilting group, had time to work on my art, and started traveling with friends. Everyone here has help. It lightens your load. Try it. You’ll see.” Nancy’s argument was persuasive, but I still had reservations.
“Don’t you feel guilty having all that free time when your husband has to work?”
“Not a bit,” she replied. “It’s not like I didn’t make sacrifices to get here. I had to leave my friends and familyall my connections behind in Connecticut. Besides, while he’s at work, I manage things at home. He has his responsibilities; I have mine.” Nancy’s reasoning made sense, but I still had concerns.
I would have to train the maid to cook the food we liked. What if she was a terrible cook? I worried about taking responsibility for another person. And I was still wrestling with my guilty conscience over our privileged status. I wondered about salary. “How do you know how much to pay her?”
“It’s standard to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $13,000 baht per month, which is about $250 to $325 a month.” I was surprised it cost so little. For the same price I paid to have a house cleaner come once a week in the States, I could hire full-time help here. The wage differential seemed unfairto be paying the same amount but getting so much more.
“Didn’t you feel strange about having so much when the person you hired has so little?”
“Not really,” she said. “Look at it this way, you’re providing a job for someone with little education and no skills. It’s a win-win for both of you. Take Tulsa. With food and rent covered, she could send more back to her family in Myanmar.”
“Was it hard having a stranger in the house?” I asked.
“I got used to having her around, and there’s the advantage that these houses are so big. If I want privacy I just go into my studio and shut the door. It’s a balancing act, but for me it’s totally worth it.” I had to admit that the idea seemed more attractive, the more Nancy shared with me.
At this point we rounded the corner to Starbucks and decided to get a cup of coffee. We sat on an outside deck so Mathilda could stay with us. I asked Nancy where to advertise if I wanted to hire someone.
“There’s a bulletin board outside Villa Market. Everyone posts notices there when they’re looking.”
I was already familiar with Villa Market. It was an overpriced supermarket that offered many expat delights including French cheeses, German sausages, and California wines, specialty items that you couldn’t find in local Thai markets.
Later that evening, I thought about what Nancy had said. I was seriously considering hiring someone but still felt some guilt about the inequity of someone less fortunate having to perform menial chores so I could go off and enjoy myself. Eventually, I rationalized my guilty conscience with the frank admission that I was a lousy housekeeper and would probably be happier if I didn’t have to clean at all. And come to think of it, it was pretty great to be able to provide work for someone who could support their entire family. I felt strongly that I wanted to hire a person who came during the day and left at night rather than a live-in maid.
The next day I posted an ad on the bulletin board at Villa Market. Almost immediately my cell phone started ringing. Many women called, but their English was so poor I could hardly understand them. One woman was easy to understand and came for an interview. She was tiny at five-two, and had short brown hair, ruby lips, and a wide smile. Her body was compact with broad shoulders and strong arms and legs. She looked at me intently with soulful, dark brown eyes. Her name was Durga, and she had immigrated to Thailand from Myanmar. I instinctively trusted her.
We went inside to talk, and I found her English excellent. A thought flashed through my mind. Maybe I could live with her. I debated about showing her the living quarters. Why not? We walked through the kitchen to the compact live-in space.
“You could live here?” I asked, pointing to the tiny bedroom.
“Yes, madam, I can live here. Cheaper for me to live here than rent an outside apartment. That way I send more money back home to my family.” Standing halfway up the stairs to the second-floor bedroom, Durga turned around to face me. “I don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder,” she said. Then she relayed a story about her previous employer.
“When I finished cleaning at three o’clock, I hear knocking at my door. Madam said, ‘Go back and clean this again.’ No time to rest before dinner. I work hard. Do my job. You see.” I gathered she didn’t want me to be overly critical of her, following her around and checking her work. In any other situation I might have been defensive, but I admired this young woman for her honesty.
Though I felt an immediate connection to Durga, I still wanted to explore my options, so I interviewed several more women. They were quiet and spoke with their heads down. Not Durga; she looked me in the eye and spoke her mind.
One week later, I called Durga and hired her as a live-in domestic on a one-month trial basis.
For the same amount of money I paid my once-a-week housekeeper back home, Durga cleaned our house and cooked six days a week, working from nine in the morning to eight thirty at night. The wages were enough for her to support her father and younger brother.
An intelligent young woman, Durga was gifted in languages and spoke Nepalese, Burmese, Hindi, Thai, and English. When the Thai workers came to the house to fix the leaky faucet, Durga translated. She gave our Thai driver directions when I wanted to go on an errand or downtown to Bangkok. She was my eyes and ears in a country I didn’t understand. She was dedicated and cared about her work, and I felt her loyalty right away.
From the very beginning, Durga and I developed a close bond. Normally I wouldn’t open up to someone so quickly, but Durga was kind and caring. One morning, about a month after she came to live with us, I was feeling lonely, thinking of my mother and missing her. I hadn’t realized I had kept some of my grieving at bay in order to manage the move to Thailand. When I walked into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, Durga sensed something was wrong. “You okay, madam?” She looked at me wide-eyed with a tender expression.
Held in the safety of her gaze, my eyes welled up and tears tumbled down my cheeks. “It’s my mom,” I mumbled. “She died in January.”
“Oh, madam,” she said. “That’s why your face look sad. You miss her?”
“Yes.” In truth I felt as if my armor were cracking. I had been strong through so many changes, and now it was time to let go. I looked up and saw Durga’s gentle gaze.
“What about your mom?” I sniffled.
“My mom also die in January. She was sick for long time. I take care of her before she die.” Durga’s eyes misted up. I already knew I cared about Durga, but having lost our mothers at the same time brought us that much closer.
“Do you miss her?”
“All the time.” She turned her gaze down and her lips quivered slightly. I wanted to hug her but held back.
“How old was she?”
“Fifty-six. She sick with cancer.” Durga drew her breath in and straightened her shoulders.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I asked.
“My older sister married and have baby. My brother only sixteen. He too young to work. My father miss my mom so much. He too sad to work. Now I earn money and send it to my father and brother.”
“Is it hard for you to live so far from home?” I asked.
“Yes, but I am happy here. How about you, madam, you happy here?”
“Some days I am.”
“I see madam when she suffering, and I pray for you.”
I was amazed by her generosity. While I thought I was the benevolent “madam,” providing food and shelter to someone less fortunate, she was focused on helping me. Durga looked up at me and smiled. “I get you more coffee. You feel better.”
“Thank you, Durga.” My heart swelled with affection.
She scurried to the refrigerator to get milk for my coffee and brought it to me. “Now I start to work.” And with that she picked up the broom and began sweeping the hard marble floor under her bare feet.
I headed upstairs and sat down at my computer. Once again, my thoughts drifted back to my mother. I missed her, though she hadn’t been an easy person to have a relationship with. My earliest memory was of her sitting in a chair, reading. I often thought she was more interested in her book than me. She ran hot and cold, quiet and withdrawn one moment, angry and upset the next. I could never predict her moods as a child, which frightened me. I yearned for her love, turning myself into a human pretzel in an attempt to please her, always looking outward to accommodate her every wish. If I just gave a little more, maybe I could be that special child my mother was looking for. My relationship with my mother was confusing; I both revered and feared her.
Katie, as her friends called her, was not the loving, motherly type. An ardent feminist, she went to law school and received aJD and then a master’s degree from George Washington University in 1941 when she was twenty-seven, graduating at the top of her class. She worked in the government as an attorney before getting married and raising three children. An independent thinker with a strong moral compass, she dedicated many volunteer hours to political and social causes.
As an adult I’d often looked back and wondered if my mother was depressed when I was born. There were no pictures of my mother holding me as an infant, unlike my sister whom she held close to her cheek with a wide grin. I remember a black-and-white photo of me as a toddler crawling in the warm surf of the Atlantic shore. My mother looked on from the beach, staring into space, as if consumed by her own thoughts a million miles away. Perhaps her dreams of being an attorney lay buried in the sand.
By the time I was four, my older brother and sister were already in school. I started to wander in the woods behind our property. I loved taking long walks with my German shepherd, Bonnie. There was a special place called Sand River, a dry bed with white sand. I would rest there lying on my back, dog at my side, my hand nestled in her soft fur. I liked to stare up at the clouds as they drifted by. Then I would close my eyes and press my palms against my eyelids. Flashes of light appeared before me, and I imagined sitting in a dark treasure chest of sparkling jewels.
In some ways I was similar to my mother. I suffered from bouts of depression and often felt lonely, even when surrounded by friends and family. I was never truly comfortable alone. The fear of abandonment haunted me. Suspended deep in thought, I heard a light tapping at the door.
“Madam, Nancy is downstairs.” Durga said.
“Where shall we go today?” Nancy asked.
“Starbucks?” I suggested.
By this time, a month had passed since we’d first met, and we were walking on a daily basis. Afternoons we would go shopping or sightseeing in Bangkok. In the beginning I enjoyed our time together, but after a few weeks of doing the same thing, I grew tired of the routine. I wondered if Nancy felt the same way.
Once we got to Starbucks, I told Nancy I felt as if I were in some kind of rut. “It’s like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day. I get up in the morning and have my coffee. Then Kris and Randall head out the door for school and work. I plan the evening menu with Durga so she can shop during the day. You and I go for a walk and some days into Bangkok, but soon I’m back home again. I look around, stare at the four walls, and ask myself, What will I do now? Do you ever feel that way?”
“All the time,” Nancy commiserated. “I have plenty of DVDs on hand. When I get down, I just pull one out and watch it.”
“I just wake up bummed out, sad, missing home,” I said. “It’s like I’ve lost my anchor.”
“I know what you mean. The days can feel endless. There might be a class you’re interested in. I’m taking photography. The weekly parent newsletter from school posts listings of classes and events particularly for expat moms looking for things to do. You should pick up a copy in the main office on your way home and check it out.”
“Good idea,” I said. We finished our coffee, and I headed over to the office. The current newsletter was sitting on the receptionist’s desk. I leafed through to the last page with class listings. One looked interestingan introductory class on Thai culture scheduled to start the following week and conveniently located on the ISB campus. I loved art and history, and this would be a good opportunity to learn about my new country. When I got home, I signed up for the six-week class.
The evening of the first class, I took a chair in the front row. The instructor talked about the history of Buddhism and the influence of Hindu deities on Thai culture. Before I knew it, the teacher had projected a slide on the screen of a woman with eight arms seated atop a huge tiger. Her name was Durga. She was similar to an androgynous goddess like Athena in Greece. No wonder Durga looked like a tank mopping the marble floors on her hands and knees, or barreling through the house with a broom. With a warrior princess for a housekeeper, I was relieved of all domestic responsibilities, which left one burning question: What do I want to do for the next three years?
The class was interesting, but it was just a temporary solution to my feelings of isolation. After two months, the initial honeymoon period of being in Thailand had started to fade, and a familiar gray cloud of depression began to envelop me. I should have known better. I’d thought Thailand would be one grand adventure that would keep my depression at bay, but apparently I needed more structure. I missed my close friends at home and wanted something meaningful to do. I had expected to feel great, but instead I felt strangely adrift, like an empty bottle bobbing in the ocean.
Somewhere between my former home in Northern California and Bangkok, I’d lost my internal compass. Without the familiar routine of work and friends, I encountered a void. I would wake up each morning with an aimless sense of nothing to do. Ironically, I had chosen a life with few distractions, and it was overwhelming.
I needed to find a more meaningful activity beyond a single class that I could commit to. Expat women had a variety of volunteer options open to themhelping out at an orphanage, becoming a docent at the National Museum, taking on leadership roles in school sports and extracurricular activitiesbut none of these interested me. I was certain about one thing: I was passionate about women’s issues.
I had carried my mother’s banner to fight for women’s equality and developed an independent major in women’s studiesas an undergraduate. My interest in feminism, however, was different from my mother’s. She focused on political concernsshe even named my older sister Eleanor after Eleanor Roosevelt. I had been more interested in women artists and personal expression. That was the early 1970s when the second wave of the feminist movement was in full swing. I was in my early twenties and searching for my identity. I longed to discover the roots of my own creativity by exploring the lives of two famous women authors, Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin. I fell in love with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and took it to heart. I spent hours reading all of Virginia Woolf’s books and Anaïs Nin’s diaries, which explored her innermost thoughts, passions, and struggles to gain recognition as an artist in her own right.
In the spring of 1973, my senior year, I arranged for Anaïs Nin to come and speak at a conference. Like many students at that time, I had corresponded with her and felt she was my friend. I spent hours completing a quilt in her honor to be displayed on the day of her event. It was an homage to women artists, designed and stitched by hand.
The day I met her, she swept into the conference room draped in a floor-length black cape. A petite figure, her face appeared as fragile as a china doll and her pale complexion against the bright red lipstick shocked me. Her hair was dyed a brassy shade of red and styled in a chignon on top of her head. The multipurpose room was crammed full to capacity with young women watching Anaïs at the podium. The quilt I made rested on an easel beside her. Women leaned forward in their seats, mesmerized by the speaker, this tiny bird-like woman who spoke with a whispery French accent.
“The diary didn’t begin as a diary,” she said. “It began as a letter to my father. The whole thingthe letters, pictures, descriptionswas for my father. My mother said I couldn’t mail the letters because they might get lost. She made me keep them, though they weren’t intended to be kept as a diary. I published about half of what I’ve written. I often ask myself why I began to edit the diary. I was living in a lovely place in 1931, where I was a lonely writer. 1931 was also the year Henry Miller and his wife June came to visit me in Louvciennes, and that began the interesting part of my life. As soon as he appeared, I felt elated by his presence.” Anaïs spoke about how, as a woman artist, she eventually broke with Miller. “I wanted to write in a personal way, very close to experience, and what I felt to be the difference between what a man has to say and a woman has to say.”
After her presentation, we chatted. I was hoping she would comment on the quilt, but she didn’t mention it. I told her about my senior thesis, a comparative analysis of her life and the life of Virginia Woolf. The central theme was to explore their identities as women artists and the different facets of their personalities that influenced their writing. Intrigued, Anaïs encouraged me to send her a copy, implying that she might be willing to help me publish it. At the time she was publishing anthologies of essays written by young college women, and I hoped she might choose mine for publication. I mailed it off with great excitement, assuming she would love it.
In fact, she hated it. When her letter arrived, I rushed through the first paragraph. Midway through, I flinched. Could this be true? I reread the last paragraph several times, cringing at the last line. “If you attempt to publish this, I will sue you.” There was no explanation. Shocked, I crumpled the letter and threw it away. I was devastated. Inside, deeply buried, I harbored a deep sense of shame. Without realizing it at the time, Anaïs had triggered my deepest fear: I was not a good writer.
Years later, I wanted to make peace with the demon inside me, and with the woman who had so deeply influenced me as a young student. I decided to read my senior thesis again, to see if I could make any sense out of what I had written and why she might have reacted the way she did. One sentence jumped out at me immediately: “In comparison to Virginia Woolf, Anaïs may or may not be considered a great writer in the eyes of literary critics, but this was not her intention to begin with.” How naïve I’d been to think that what I’d written wouldn’t spark angst in my subject, much less fury. And I’d taken her reaction personally. In retrospect, I’d been young and impressionable, and despite my disappointment, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to meet this enigmatic and charismatic woman. It was an exciting time in my life. I loved creating my own major and meeting Anaïs, and I was grateful for the experience.
Now I was living in Thailand and, thanks to my husband, I was once again in a position to choose what I wanted to do. I wondered if there might be organizations in Bangkok dedicated to women’s causes. That’s when it occurred to me to log onto the Global Fund for Women’s website where I found an upcoming conference scheduled in Bangkok. Something deep inside, an invisible forcecall it intuitionguided me forward that day. My hands trembled slightly as I tapped the keys of my computer. I clicked the registration box and felt a rush of excitement. I didn’t know it then, but I would soon be leaving my black-and-white existence in Nichada and entering into the colorful world of the Thai people. I had taken the first step in an, as yet, unknown journey. A new adventure awaited; my story was about to unfold.
This is where my story began, in August of 2005. My husband, thirteen-year-old son, and I had just relocated from our home in Northern California to Bangkok, Thailand. My husband worked for a large oil company and had been transferred there for a three-year expat assignment. In the first three months, I was busy searching for housing and enrolling my son in school, but once that was done, I was in a position to choose what I wanted to do next. I considered volunteering for an organization dedicated to women’s issues. Then it occurred to me that before we’d left California, I had interviewed at the Global Fund for Women located in San Francisco. They focused on a feminist agendahelping women throughout the world. I wondered if their foundation might be funding any projects in Thailand that required volunteers. I logged into their website and, to my surprise, found an announcement for an upcoming conference in Bangkok in October, just a few weeks away, with a focus on women in developing countries. I felt a rush of excitement and a feeling of serendipity. I could network to meet other women and learn about volunteer opportunitiesall for a cause I cared deeply about. The universe was offering me a gift. I signed up, convinced that a new door was opening and I was about to walk through it.
On the morning of the conference, I set the alarm for six, earlier than usual. I couldn’t wait to get up. Everything felt special. The coffee tasted richer and more flavorful. I put on a favorite linen blouse and long skirt, grabbed my purse, and headed out the door.
The conference was held at the Shangri-La Hotel, a luxury five-star hotel located right on the banks of the famed Chao Praya River. My driver dropped me off at the main entrance. Walking into the lobby was like entering a huge atrium covered in skylights and decorated with lush green plants, a babbling fountain, and displays of purple orchids. The space was three stories high with individual balconies on the second and third floors that overlooked the reception area. In the center was a gorgeous bamboo tree that grew so tall it touched the ceiling. It felt like an enchanted garden. I made my way to the concierge who directed me to the second-floor ballroom. Stepping off the elevator into the hallway, I noticed the mood was quiet, with not much activity going on.
I had expected there might be, at most, three hundred women in attendance. The fact that the event was being held in a “grand ballroom” should have tipped me off, but when I walked through the conference room doors, I caught my breath in surprise, overwhelmed by the huge number of women. There must have been two thousand people, an international gatheringAfrican, East Indian, Latina, Asianand a sprinkling of white women here and there. Everywhere I looked, women wore native dressbold African prints, flashes of orange and pink silk saris, Guatemalan shawls in a panorama of red, blue, yellow, and orange stripes. I had not been in a room with that many “engaged feminists” since my undergraduate studies, thirty years earlier. A roar of excitement filled the air. I glanced through the program and circled an afternoon workshop entitled, “Faith, Feminism, and the Power of Love,” an unlikely combination, I mused, mixing prayer and politics.
The morning session went by quickly. After lunch, I headed to the workshop. It looked like about fifty women had showed up and were waiting for the presentation to begin. There were eight panelistsfrom South America, Africa, Iraq, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailandseated in a half-circle facing the audience. A few of them wore earphones for translations.
The moderator led a discussion that centered on whether being a feminist or having feminist values was a contradiction with having faith or practicing one’s faith. The moderator invited each panelist to speak. A quiet and diminutive woman from Bolivia, dressed in a black bowler hat and royal blue shawl, talked about her work in rural villages with poor women. I was a little sleepy after lunch and not really paying close attention until suddenly a tense debate broke out between two panelists, one from Iraq and the other from Indonesia. The woman from Iraq fired an angry comment at the Indonesian woman about how Islam was a means of oppressing women and keeping them subservient in a male-dominated religion. The Indonesian woman defended Islam as a source of personal strength and faith to poor women surviving under adverse conditions. It was like watching a hard-fought tennis match, the ball getting volleyed back and forth over the net. An uncomfortable silence followed their debate.
That’s when I first heard her speak. Seated at the edge of the semicircle was a tall, slender Thai woman dressed in saffron robes and flip-flops. Her head was a fuzzy crown of black shaven hair, and she wore thin, gold, wire-rimmed glasses. She spoke in a calm, quiet voice, soothing the waves of discontent.
“We cannot solve anything by anger. Anger doesn’t lead us anywhere. It is more difficult to practice compassion and loving-kindness. That is the goal of Buddhism.” I woke up in a powerful flash of recognition as her words resonated deep within me. My body tingled all over, and I felt as if she were speaking directly to me. Something powerful was happening that I couldn’t explain. I simply knew that I wanted to spend time with her.
The woman who uttered these words was Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (pronounced dhamma-nanda pee-ku-ni). At the end of the panel, Dhammananda invited anyone who was interested to visit her international monastery for women. Her kindness was contagious. Curious, I approached her afterwards as she sat quietly.
“I would like to come see you,” I said. Dhammananda calmly pulled a business card out of her briefcase and wrote down her cell phone number.
“Come” she said, handing me her card. “Look for a large, golden, smiling Chinese Buddha seated at the temple entrance.” It was as simple as that. All I had to do was ask.
That was fourteen years ago. To this day I still remember the first words she spoke, the prophetic wisdom of my spiritual teacher and healer, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. Thus began the first encounter in my personal transformation and spiritual development.