Two hard things happened after Bernie’s major stroke. The first was coming to grips with the fact that our life won’t be what it was. The second was bearing witness to the things my husband wanted or needed, and that I could not provide. In face of suffering and disappointment, my big challenge is not to react. There are unfulfilled wants and needs, curves no one expected. Cultivating curiosity about what’s around that bend has never been easy for me.” | “I have walked dogs while leaves are falling over many years. Stanley will be 13 shortly and I find myself wondering if this is his last fall, just as I wondered a few months ago if that was his last summer and I will probably ask the same question about winter when we walk on the snow. And I wonder what it would be like one day for both of us to lie down in the woods because we’re tired or our legs hurt, and never get up again.” | “Years ago I took a course on how to raise money. I was told that, when meeting a potential donor, the hardest thing isn’t to ask for a specific donation, the hardest thing is to ask and THEN SHUT UP. I can apply that lesson to the most mundane of circumstances: “How are you?” I ask someone. And now, Eve, shut up and listen.” | “Bernie’s physical therapist doesn’t want Bernie to favor the left leg, which he feels, over the right, which he can’t feel after the stroke: “Don’t stand on the leg you know can hold you,” he tells him. “Stand on the leg you don’t know can hold you.” Let go of what you know, the working limb that gives you confidence, and lean on the other side, the side you don’t trust, that you can barely make out is there.” | “I didn’t grow up on Mother Goose rhymes, I grew up on my mother’s stories of the Shoah and what she had had to do to survive. These were tales of death but also grit and courage, and they’ve influenced me from the time I was a girl.” | “Bernie was about to go out on an errand yesterday when I saw him standing at the door, his funny hat framing a sweet and happy face. I tried to capture the image right there, not a great photo by any means, just a casual, intimate moment that I may go back to years hence to remember how happy we were.” | “Nothing deters Stanley and me from our daily expeditions to the woods, not even shooting and the occasional glimpses of men in hunting gear with guns.” | “I am an immigrant, having come to the US at the age of 7. I remember tiptoeing silently down the hallway back then and listening to my parents talk in their bedroom about money, about how to pay bills and afford schoolbooks and clothes. Often the words they repeated were: What will happen?”

THE ROCKY THAT NEVER FIGHTS

A big animal is eating our hostas, so I decided to sit outside and look for it.

It was the longest day of the year. At 9 pm there was plenty of light on the western horizon. Fireflies lit up the slope, the overhang around the tool shed, even small caverns inside the bark of trees. They lit up even the darkness of the forest from where Norman likes to emerge, tempting me with his calls to depression, despair, blackness of all kind, and the call to leave the moment and go somewhere—anywhere—where it’s always better.

Norman lies through his teeth, but his voice has whispered to me all my life. I could count on him to point out everything that didn’t work out, the work that didn’t pay off, the blessings that didn’t accrue, the love I hadn’t gotten, the money I didn’t have, and always, always, the passing years. He was also pretty good at pointing out the faults of every single person that ever lived.

I’d sit with his voice in my ears and feel I had to fight somehow, get on top of things, my spirits up, find some spiritual mallet to slam him down with. Remember all the people who have it worse than me. Remember spiritual giants like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, as if they represent some goal line I am kicking the ball towards. Thought of RBG, the film I saw on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the US Supreme Court judge, and my admiration and gratitude for her.

All that lingered a moment, then waned. Instead I sat quietly and watched the fireflies. Don’t have to idealize anyone anymore. Don’t need to go to somebody else for some truth that isn’t already right under this scratchy (from mosquito and tick bites) skin of mine. I find it not by reading books, but by sitting in the dark watching fireflies, waiting patiently for the animal eating up our flowers.

I’ve probably struggled with some form of low-key depression all my life. It’s almost always there first thing in the morning. Activity submerges it, which is one reason why I like to be active. But last night, sitting under the watchful gaze of Venus in one direction and the half-or-so yellow moon in the other, watching blinking fireflies everywhere, even Norman got quiet.

My husband, Bernie, takes my breath away sometimes. The stroke leveled him. The strong, robust, bigger-than-life personality aged so overnight that even now, 2-1/2 years later, I don’t recognize him sometimes. There isn’t a morning when he gets up and, from my desk I look over my shoulder to see him standing on top of the stairs and I startle, ask again for the thousandth time: What happened?

What happened, and continues to happen, is that Bernie plunges. Once he plunged into Zen koans, ending homelessness in Westchester County, inspiring peacemakers for this endlessly suffering world. Now he’s plunged into stroke. Goodbye fierce independence, goodbye quick rejoinders, goodbye complex new solutions and approaches, goodbye daily activity that started at 4 am. Hello to dependence, paying attention to the body, medical decisions difficult to understand, to the changing proportions of a human being as he ages and gets ill. His greatest lesson to me is that no one is exempt, not even a Zen master.

Do you do this fighting or lying down? Bernie has chosen lying down. He fights no one and no thing. He walks carefully, checks his calendar for phone calls, Skypes, and Zooms. And now, when he gets questions from students, old questions he’s answered a million times, he takes his time and goes to a place I don’t know, a place I don’t think he knew before the stroke. A place you go to again and again because it’s never the same from one visit to another.

I used to call him Rocky because that was his nickname when he was a boy, because he was a fighter. This Rocky never fights. Nothing in the world is his opponent, no experience is beyond his experiencing.

“I have a question,” he admits to me quietly. “It’s—what do you call it?”

“I don’t know, Bernie.”

“You know, something philosophical.”

“An existential question?”

“That’s it,” he says, and proceeds slowly. “My existential question is why I am still living.” He doesn’t ask the question, he lives it. Plunges into it, like any good koan master.

Outside it’s completely dark as I wait for the phlox-eating beast to arrive. Stanley comes out of the garage, and though I’m right in front of him he can’t see me, doesn’t catch my scent, and his black shadow passes me by. Only the fireflies keep blinking on this longest day of the year.

THE DOGS OF THE KISKADEE HILLS

The Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills: Hunt for the Lynx begins a trilogy about a society of dogs after humans have destroyed themselves and much of the world. Living with their families and clans in the Kiskadee Hills, they’ve developed over generations a rich tradition and way of life, and have prospered. But now, an unknown killer is butchering the Kisdees of the Hills.

Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges says: “You will never look at dogs the same again. Eve Marko gives us a story that explores the path that life on our planet has taken, and asks what your role in that course might be.”

BEARING WITNESS

Eve Marko - Bearing Witness

To bear witness to anything is to be as close to it as possible.

It’s not to read books or see movies about it, it’s not to have an opinion or tell a story. It’s to let go of all ideas about it—be in the space of not-knowing—and simply be there, up close and deeply personal.

Eve has been involved with the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Bearing Witness Retreats—in places of suffering and conflict since her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There have been 20 retreats at the site of those concentration camps since, along with retreats in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Black Hills of South Dakota, near the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Upcoming Bearing Witness Retreats:

Bosnia, May 2016 (Please email for details)

ABOUT EVE MARKO

Eve Marko

Eve Marko is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, head teacher at the Green River Zen Center in Massachusetts, and a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order.

She has trained spiritually-based social activists and peacemakers in the US, Europe and the Middle East alongside her husband, Bernie Glassman, and has been a Spiritholder at retreats bearing witness to genocide at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rwanda, the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Bosnia. Before that she worked at the Greyston Mandala for a decade, which provides housing, child care, jobs, and AIDS-related medical services in Yonkers, New York.

Eve’s articles on social activists have appeared in the magazines Tikkun and Shambhala Sun, and her collection for lay Zen practitoners, The Book of Householder Koans, will come out in late 2016. Her great love, Hunt for the Lynx, the first in her fantasy trilogy, The Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills, will come out in early 2016.

“When I was a young girl my dream was to be a hermit, live alone, and write serious literature. That’s not how things turned out. I got involved with people. I got involved in the world.

Two things matter to me right now: the creative spark and the aliveness of personal connection. In some way, they both come down to the same thing.”