ANOTHER SNEAKY BUDDHIST

I came across this photo of Bernie and Pake Hall, from Sweden, at a restaurant the last time we were in Krakow, Poland, for our annual retreat at Auschwitz. It must have been November 2017, almost 2 years after his stroke, and Bernie had a band-aid on his nose. Underneath was a squamous cell melanoma that would eventually necessitate a couple of surgeries. Already it looked pretty ugly, so he covered it up with a band-aid.

For the last year or so of Bernie’s life, he spoke to a counselor by phone every week. It was a generous offer by an old friend, and to my surprise, Bernie took him up on it. I still remember the phone conversation.

“If he’d like to talk to me, I’m available,” was the message.

I said: “Bernie doesn’t talk to therapists; he doesn’t talk to counselors. Just to warn you ahead of time.”

Bernie said yes, and they talked weekly. Not very long, I noticed, sometimes 15-20 minutes. I didn’t hear what they said. Every once in a while I’d ask how it was going, he said fine, and that was it.

They had their conversation the day I returned home from Europe on November 2, 2018, and Bernie died 36 hours later. A few weeks later his counselor died, too.

Very shortly after that second death I had a conversation with the counselor’s partner, who  told me that while his partner never shared the contents of those conversations, much as Bernie hadn’t shared them with me, he did say that his last conversation with Bernie had been a very important one, and that something had really opened up for Bernie during that last talk.

“What?” I asked on the phone.

“I don’t know,” he said, “he never told me, and he’s not here anymore.”

Bernie didn’t tell me anything, and he’s not here, either, I thought to myself.

At first I was very moved. Then I started torturing myself. What was it? What did they talk about? Was it about his stroke? Was it about his life? Was it about us? Was there some breakthrough? It had to be big, I reasoned.

Over and over again I tried to imagine the phone dialogue as he sat on his chair after lunch, his closing up the phone, resting in bed for the afternoon. Over and over, I imagined what life might have been due to that big opening. His body was probably going into sepsis even then, but no one knew.

I got upset about it. What’s the good of a breakthrough if you go and  die right afterwards? It’s just like Bernie to do something like that, I thought.

Remembering those times, I think: You still want things to have been different, don’t you? You still want him to have been different. What a sneaky Buddhist you are! You still can’t be with things as they are, with Bernie as he was. You want another turn at the wheel, another opportunity, another change.

Whatever happened in that phone conversation, I’ll never know. I’m left with what was, which was huge, and still, at times, not enough.

I think of Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. God (an old white guy with a beard) stretches out his right arm to touch Adam, while Adam (young white guy) stretches out his left arm to touch God. They reach but never touch.

It’s not about God and Adam but about me and people,  me and him. I wasn’t him and he wasn’t me, I think to myself. We had our moments, hours, days, did so much together. We empathize, listen, care for, yes, love too—all that’s available, but we’re different so we can’t fully touch no matter how hard we try.

But oh, that trying! That reaching!

 

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AUSSIE UP FOR ADOPTION

“OMG, it’s raining again.”

“Aussie, it hasn’t rained in a long time. We need rain.”

“We need dog walks worse.”

“Not in the rain.”

“There you go again, being old!”

“Aussie, I take you out every single day.”

“Not in the rain, you don’t! Not in snowstorms! Not to mention all the other times.”

“What other times, Aussie?”

“You know how embarrassing it is to walk with you? You breathe hard!”

“We went up a steep hill yesterday!”

“You don’t walk, you pant. You stop a million times—”

“Not a million times!”

“–while behind us jog a cute black Lab with a YOUNG woman. They go go go while we do slow slow slowI. BORING!”

“Aussie, no one stopped you from running with the Lab, you’re usually not on leash. I think you were a little scared of him.”

“Moi? I stay with you on purpose to make sure you don’t drop dead. Let me tell you, it’s embarrassing to be with an old person.”

“Aussie, it was really steep.”

“I didn’t see it bothering her!”

“She was at least 30 years younger than I am.”

“Why, oh why, do I have to waste my youth, my one precious youth, on being with somebody old!”

I look at my face while on Zoom this morning. This isn’t my pasty early-morning look with glasses and sleepy eyes—Aussie hates that, tells me not to show up till I get things more together. So I did the best I could, combed my hair, put in the contact lens, a little make-up, tried to smile. But all the cheer in the world doesn’t hide the lines, the eternal mole on the side, shadows under the eyes, grooves and creases.

In the past I wanted to look like my mother as I got older. I used to look like her a lot as a young girl, then my face seemed to go its own way, but I always hoped that as I got older our two faces would reconcile. Why? Because to this day she has very fine, upstanding cheek bones, naturally arched, disciplined eyebrows, and till about 5 years ago, a debutante’s pale, silky skin.

Not me. Don’t have the bone structure, the delicate, narrow chin, the angled profile. Let’s say that, in my case, things are more spread out.  So I gave up, decided to look like myself.

Aussie’s comment: “That’s nothing to smile about!”

Sometimes my big question is: Who am I? I suspect the rest of the world knows because it’s right there in the open, I’m the only one who still gets confused about it. And please, spiritual people, don’t tell me I’m nothing because I’ll remind you that I’m nothing in my own way.

“I’ve decided to put myself up for adoption.”

“Don’t do that, Aussie.”

“Here’s the ad: If you take three-hour walks and half a dozen car trips a day, then do I have a great dog for you! Sleek—

“Ha!”

“—and loving, gentle, docile, and all-around adorable pooch. Email your applications,; males and retirees need not apply, also anybody who shoots guns. I require very little: cohoe salmon in the morning, a little fillet in the evening, maybe some roast chicken, a bunch of buffalo treats in the middle. I’m a STEAL!”

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THE BACK SEAT OF THE CAR

“OK, everybody, we’re here in the park. Jump out.”

Prince Henry jumps out of the passenger seat; Aussie hangs back.

“Come on, Aussie, we’re off.”

“I don’t know if I can concentrate. All that noise!”

“There’s construction up the hill, Aussie, but we’re not going there.”

“It’s too much.”

“Aussie, they’re not even drilling.  I’m putting a leash on you and taking you out. I’ll take it off as soon  as we’re in the woods. There, now you’re free again.”

“I’m running! Free as a bird!”

“You know, Aussie—”

“Here it comes.”

“Here what comes?”

“Every time you say the words You know, Aussie, it’s the start of a dharma talk.”

“Aussie, life is full of disruption. We can’t avoid it.”

“I avoid it great.”

“How?”

“I cower in the back seat of the car.”

“Aussie, we all like things to come out the way we plan them, we want everything to be just right.”

“You bet!”

“It won’t happen. Where are you going? It’s gunshots, Auss, and they’re far away. This entire area is full of shooting ranges. You’re from Texas, I thought you’d be used to gunshots.”

“It’s like the OK Corral out there!”

“Aussie, we feel that if we do things just right everything will work out. Don’t go left, go right. Don’t marry that person, marry this person. Try not to make mistakes. But that’s just hogwash, Aussie. Disruption and disturbance are part of the game.”

“Not in the back seat of the car they’re not.”

“Even there, Aussie, even there. Life happens. Turmoil happens. The real question isn’t how to prevent them, it’s how we work with them when they happen.”

“I jump onto the back seat of the car.”

“Aussie, you’re the one who bugs me to take you out all the time. You want to go on outings, you want adventure!”

“I don’t want anything unexpected.”

“What kind of adventure is that? Now where are you going?”

“Listen to that noise!”

“It’s a group of little kids, Auss. They’re playing and laughing, having a good time. Aussie, don’t go back to the car!”

“I don’t like little kids, they scream and squeal, make sudden moves.”

“Look at Henry, Auss. He’s playing with them, jumping up, getting petted right and left.”

“I have an appointment in the parking lot!”

“Aussie, if you don’t face your fears, how will you be fearless? Aussie, you come here now. Aussie? AUSSIE!”

 

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GRIEVING THROUGH EATING

“What are you doing out there, Aussie?”

“Munching on a chipmunk.”

“Aussie!”

“I’m hungry! You don’t feed me enough. Besides, eating is my way of grieving.”

“Who are you grieving for, Auss?”

“Leeann.”

“Leeann isn’t dead, Aussie.”

“Then why don’t I see her and join her and the others every Wednesday and Thursday for an outing?”

“Because she flew to California to see her son, Aussie, that’s why. She’ll be back.”

“I don’t believe you. The person I love more than anybody else in the world—are you listening?—is gone from my life! No wonder I’m stuffing myself on chipmunks.”

“Aussie, this is called impermanence.”

“I don’t care what it’s called. All I know is that the thing I love most–are you still listening?–is one day here, one day gone. One day here, one day gone.”

Lately, members of our Zen group are challenging each other to be more real. We have Q&A after almost every talk, and an issue came up: Other than thanking folks for their talk, are we being real? What happens if our life experiences are very different or point us in a different direction?  What are we ready to bring up and what not? Can we be vulnerable with each other? And on Zoom, in front of people who sometimes disappear from view if the video is turned off and you don’t know whether to take that personally?

I’m very glad for the inquiry.

At the same time, I’ve listened to and watched dynamics among meditation practitioners for a long time, and you know what? We’re not that different from most people. We would like to avoid pain and confusion. And probably what most of us avoid is the sense that things don’t make sense. That they don’t fit.

I wrote an entire screenplay that explored what it is to live with someone who’s very ill, someone not like the man I married. Where is love in those circumstances? Where is love in the face of growing older, rapid change, in the face of death? It’s not unusual for me to respond to heartbreak through the use of creativity and imagination, and I felt called to do this after Bernie died. The main characters make choices about leaving, loving and dying, some of the great shadows of our life.

When I finished the screennplay I wrote THE END, as if somehow I’d created some kind of fitting, satisfying ending. But true endings don’t fit. Days don’t fit, months don’t fit, lifetimes don’t fit except in our stories about them.

We want them to fit according to some incredibly narrow bandwidth called my sense of things. In order to do that they’d have to contract mightily and we’d have to let go of shock, terror, amazement, awe, and dazzlement. But sometimes I prefer that contraction to seeming anarchy.

I talked with a friend of mine about his long-term relationship recently. I reminded him that he is not his partner and his partner is not him, and he replied that that was not what he was looking for. He was looking to let go of his expectations that the two of them will fit. He was looking to expand his safety zone to accommodate how different his partner is from him, the inevitable realization that just when he feels they have it all worked out, they don’t. So they juggle things around again, turn this way and that, trying to make it all fit, but it will never fit within their expectations, it won’t work inside their engineering designs no matter how innovative or imaginative those are.

Life doesn’t fit. Or I like to say: It’s the fitting of the non-fitting.

What it teaches me again and again is how hard it is to be comfortable with people different from me.

I, too, want things to be real. I want folks to feel they can express their deepest truth of that moment (it’ll change) and give full expression to who and what they feel right then (it will change). But when we do that, we must be ready to end up with a sense that we don’t fit, that our sense of life doesn’t fit another’s, much like looking at a dress I’m wearing in the mirror and seeing threads hanging down from the seam, or at the upside-down rug after the dogs have played on it: This is not how it’s supposed to look and feel!

Am I really ready for that, or do I just want to make it another screenplay, with a beginning set-up, tension in the middle, and emotional catharsis in the end that will restore meaning to chaos. What am I really up for?

Meantime, the beavers have been hard at work gnawing down trees, only sometimes things don’t go according to plan and they fall on land rather than across the water (see above).

 

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NOTHING RESTRAINS LIKE DEATH

“Aussie, suddenly you’re afraid of everything. You don’t like construction sites—”

“Those trucks cause earthquakes!”

“They’re pounding the earth to put in new utility poles, Aussie. You also don’t like the sound of gunshots from shooting ranges.”

“I need to be near somebody who’s going to kill me?”

“You’re afraid of the carwash. You used to love the carwash.”

“Till you left the back window open and I got white soap suds all over me.”

“Was that traumatic for you, Aussie?”

“No, realizing you’re getting senile on me is traumatic. Anyway, it’s good to be afraid of things.”

“Why, Aussie?”

“You want to survive, don’t you?”

I talk to Aussie while listening to live coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. I don’t do this full-time; depending on who’s testifying, I make the sound louder or softer. It becomes like the song of racism in this country, sometimes more audible and sometimes less, depending on who’s talking and  who’s listening. But it’s always there.

And everybody’s afraid. How palpable it is may differ, but fear underlies everything in that trial: fear of being black and encountering police; fear of being police and encountering blacks; fear of people gathering around you, yelling and cursing; fear of chokeholds. Do they call them restraints? Nothing restrains like death.

Fear of not breathing. Calling out to your mother.

I met Rafael 9 days ago when he came by for a food card. He and Jimena chatted in Spanish.

“Do you know of some work Rafael can do?” Jimena says to me. “He’ll do anything. Clean-up, outdoors, anything at all.”

“Do you work now?” I ask. He looks like a boy to me.

He works in the farm, he explains, only he needs more work.

“How is your mother?” Jimena asks.

He shrugs.

When he leaves, I ask her: “How old is Rafael?”

“19,” she says. “He needs money for his mother. She has cancer, so he came here to get work so that he could send her money for medications.”

The drawback is that he can’t drive legally, so whoever has work for him must also pick him up to bring him to the work site and return him afterwards.

These stories are like the testimony I hear from the Chauvin trial—voices reminding me all the time of an alternative reality to my shared-house-in-the-country-with-dogs-and-six-birdfeeders life. The shadows here invite me to take photos of the nuances of spring. The shadows of other people are reminders of violence, fear, loss of breath, loss of your mother.

Shadows can be so abstract. They make for great art, but also for concealment and ambiguity.

“I don’t get it, Aussie. When you first came here, the only thing you were afraid of was men; nothing else fazed you. Now you’re afraid of everything.”

“I got older and more mature, I know that the world is a scary place.”

“Are you sure that’s the lesson you’re meant to learn? You used to love going to Jimena with me. Everyone petted you, made a big fuss. Most of the little children liked you. But last time you practically bolted from her porch and I had to close you up in the back seat of the car.”

“There were pit bulls on the street!”

“So what? Aussie, I had the best pit bull in the world. Bubale loved people, children and babies. She couldn’t stop licking them.”

“Did she love dogs?”

“Not particularly.”

“And what about Spiderman?”

“Who, Aussie?”

“Spiderman who jumped out of the car and scared me to death.”

“You mean little Miguel who popped out of the car window with a Spiderman mask in front of us?”

“You can give out all the food cards you want, I’m never going back there again.”

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

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THE ESSENCE OF DOGGINESS

“Would you get away from her, Henry? Get away from her!”

“I just want to jump on her lap.”

“Get away from her, Henry, you little—”

“Aussie, come on, Henry hasn’t had any time with me this morning. Now he wants to jump on my lap so that I could pet him.”

“No. When you pet me, you pet me. You don’t do nothing else.”

“Aussie, I have two hands and there are two dogs here, so Henry will jump on my lap, one hand can pet him and one hand keeps on petting you.”

“And you call yourself a practitioner? You call yourself a meditator? Stroking a dog is all about single-minded attention.”

“But Aussie—”

“Stroking me requires you to be fully present, plunging into every single hair of my gorgeous fur. You, of all people, should know that. ”

“Aussie, you have so many thousands of those hairs I can’t—”

“Obviously, you’re a mindfulness rookie. If you weren’t, you’d know that when you stroke me, every single hair in my body is a gate into not-knowing, total awareness, and oneness with the universe. Don’t you know anything?”

“You mean, bearing witness, Aussie?”

“Who’s the teacher here, for dog’s sake?”

“But what am I bearing witness to, Aussie?”

“To the essence of dogginess, numbskull.”

“Is the essence of dogginess so important, Aussie?”

“It depends on whom you’re asking.”

“But Aussie, Henry’s here, too. Can’t I bear witness to the essence of dogginess with Henry?”

“With Henry you’ll bear witness to the essence of chihuahuaism, not a place you want to go. Besides, once you start with Henry, you never finish.”

“What do you mean, Auss?”

“Henry brings the entire mishpucha with him. First, he comes up on your lap. Then, he brings you his monkey, then Pinky the Elephant, then Red the Hippo, and before you know it there’s a whole menagerie for you to take care of—and I’m not getting petted!”

“Yes, you are.”

“Just look at our border situation. It starts with Henry, who brings his brother, who brings his mother-in-law, who brings two cousins and a grandson, who brings his new girlfriend, who brings her godmother, who brings a cat. Before you know it, you have to take care of EVERYBODY, and what do I get? Bupkes.”

“You know, Aussie, there is some truth to what you’re saying. Once you start caring for something or someone, it really doesn’t end. After all, if we’re all connected, one thing leads to the next which leads to the next, which leads to the next.”

“Think of all the stroking you have to do!”

“I’d have to pace myself, Aussie. Stroking everybody in the world is one long trip. I’m going to have to be reborn lots of times to do that.”

“And meantime, who’s scratching the top of my tail, the one place I can’t reach? While you get born and reborn and re-reborn to fulfill your vows to scratch everybody who needs scratching, who scratches the top of my tail? Which reminds me, I wish you’d let your nails grow, they add that extra sharp edge, know what I mean? Forget all about that and scratch me.”

“I’m doing it, Aussie, I’m doing it.”

“Forget Henry, forget other dogs, forget the world, focus on just one thing, and scratch the top of my tail.”

“I’m scratching, Aussie, I’m scratching!”

 

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NOT CELEBRATING PASSOVER

I smiled when I read a recent post by my friend, Jon Katz, about why Passover is so meaningless to him. He recounted his family celebrating the holiday and holding the Seder, the big inaugural dinner, demanding that he join in the reading of the Haggadah, the basic text that’s read at that time. He didn’t wish to participate in reading about all the plagues and tribulations that afflicted the Egyptians. He cared about freedom, he had big questions around it, but there was  no space for those questions in the home he grew up in.

I, too, have never cared for Passover. When Bernie was alive and this season would come around, I’d say, “You want to do something for Passover?”

He’d say: “ Nah, you?”

I’d say: “Nah,” and that was the end of it.

I came from a family that took Passover very seriously. My mother was exhausted from the cleaning, the cooking, and change of dishes. My father would put on a white robe and sit at the head of the table, and demanded that we, too, go through the entire Haggadah (which isn’t all about freedom at all). Young ages notwithstanding, we were locked into our seats for the evening and there was no space to ask the big questions about liberation.

The irony of engaging in such coercive behavior on an evening dedicated to freedom was never lost on me. On the one hand, you celebrate freedom, and on the other, your actual conduct is one of force and threats. The result is that I developed a personal narrative that was at odds with the narrative of my family, community, and culture.

For those who don’t celebrate Passover, think of Thanksgiving and the many people who feel extra anxious and depressed at that time. They probably experienced a personal Thanksgiving that was very different from our national myth about gathering with one’s family with good food, love, and giving thanks (not to mention the historical myth regarding sitting down with Native Americans when, in fact, many historians point to the first official Thanksgiving as celebrating the massacre of hundreds of Natives in Connecticut).

There are many who didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving like that, yet they get the sense that everybody else did. There’s a disconnect between their personal narrative of the holiday and the wider social narrative, popularized by media all around, and that disconnect brings on lots of stress and even dread towards the holidays. As my father used to say to me when I raised objections: “You’re not normal,” “There’s something wrong with you,” and worst of all, “No one else thinks like you do.”

Can you understand the loneliness of that?

I’ve often felt that I’d like to be part of the bigger Passover narrative, but I’ve never found a way to do that.

Often, when I think about the question: What is freedom for me?, I think of it as giving myself permission to feel what I feel, experience what I experience, connect with everything in my body without a  need to defend or make excuses.

But is individual narrative all there is? Just as I was wondering about this, research came out that, for the first time in many years, less than 50% of Americans are members of a particular church, synagogue, mosque, or another religious center.  Younger Americans find religious institutions and dogma very disappointing. In addition, they’re much more faithful to their personal experience of spirituality rather than someone else’s. Accessing the Internet as they do, they can put things together on their own, combine this with that, and create their own narrative about their relationship with God, the Unknown, and other people that feels more personal to them, more real, more right.

My question is: Is that enough? Is one’s personal narrative of liberation enough?

When I left home, I swore I would never go by anything but individual experience. It took some doing for me to get my feet wet, so to speak, in a spiritual tradition that might have different narratives from my own, but I was encouraged by the Buddha’s famous words to his followers: “Be a lamp unto yourselves.” This is the religion for me! I decided.

The irony, of course, was that I was joining a spiritual tradition that was actually training you to let go more and more of your personal narrative, or at least to hold it lightly. For the first five years of my training, I found myself going into my head again and again with its eternal outpouring of stories (Eve squarely at center, of course), and then thinking to myself: What! I have to let go of this? But I love it! It’s me!

It wasn’t; it isn’t.

My personal narrative shuffled, re-shuffled, and re-re-shuffled. I still have that narrative—and I know it doesn’t define anything.

Is it really enough to just go by our individual feelings and experiences? None of us are always present, none of us are always connected to the many intricate parts of our system. Why should we be when we have millions and millions of components in our body alone that get born and die and get born again and again every day? Some kind of disconnect is almost always there.

If all I go by is my own personal narrative and nothing else, how do I get surprised? How do you get astonished? Without a different kind of narrative—an enigmatic text, stories of people who behaved outrageously, and maybe best of all, a Zen koan—how do I leap?

And what kind of society is it that relies mostly on its members going by their personal narrative and little else?

 

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FERRAGAMO SHOES

Sometime around the age of 30 I had just been divorced, living in New York City, and needing to find my way. I thought it would have something to do with writing, but had no idea what or how.

It’s hard to look back on some of your most vapid years, when you weren’t so much confused as barely conscious, on the one hand still arrogant in your relatively young age, and on the other, scared and anxious. I stopped working full-time and tried to write a second novel, which was only marginally better than the first. It didn’t take long to get frustrated and stuck; discipline can only do so much. But no worry, because soon I knew exactly what I needed: Ferragamo shoes.

I think the obsession started by reading the wise words of some columnist that a truly stylish woman always wore fine shoes regardless of whatever else she was wearing. I was firmly in the category of “regardless of whatever else she was wearing,” and decided that the way to make up for that was to wear Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. Not just to be stylish, but someone who turned people’s heads. Someone with value, someone with worth.

I didn’t need religion, I didn’t need therapy, I didn’t need to examine my life, all I needed was Ferragamo shoes.

I was trying to make it in a New York City studio on partial employment and writing, and more than 40 years ago Ferragamos started in the range of $120-$150. I’d never bought anything like that in my entire life, and not since either. I went into Fifth Avenue stores I never frequented, like Saks and Bergdorf’s, on the hunt for shoe sales, and discovered that Ferragamos were rarely on sale.

I bought one pair that were somewhere between sandals and shoes for some $150, a feat I haven’t duplicated since. I also remember finding a great deal, red Ferragamo pumps on sale for $109, the last pair, only they were a size too small. I bought them anyway and limped for a couple of months till I gave up and gave them away.

At some point I stopped buying them. It wasn’t worth the starving. And maybe, somewhere along the line, I realized that—wait for it, gasp!—Salvatore Ferragamo shoes weren’t really it.

I’d forgotten completely about my Ferragamo period till I saw a beaver dam a few miles from where I live. My housemate, so much savvier than me, drove me down a country road we’d taken Henry and Aussie to on a number of weekends. We all got out of the car, this time she veered to the left, and some 500 yards later we came across an exquisite pond, fed by streams east of it and crashing down in a waterfall 300 yards to the west. But in between was the quietest pond you ever saw. I oooh’d and aaah’d, she pointed to a barrier made of twigs and logs and said, “That’s the biggest beaver dam I’ve ever seen.”

Indeed, it’s hard to capture the length of that thing, or even the size of that lodge. The busy little engineers had dammed up what was practically a cauldron of white-water streams coming down the hills, joining together and smashing further down in a waterfall that swirled and sprinted down to the Connecticut River, quite a way away. They had taken down tree after tree—you could see their gnawing on the trunks. Almost every single branch and log that lay on the ground bore signs of their sharp angled teeth. Small pine branches littered the banks which they were in the midst of dragging into the water to bolster the dam or else their lodge.

The result was that in the middle of all this cauldron was a quiet, calm, peaceful pond.

The lodge is always started by a male and female, who live inside tunnels in the banks till the lodge is ready. But they also have to stabilize the water currents and build a dam. They have their young who grow and help their parents, till they go off on their own to create more dams and lodges, more peaceful water.

I’m aware that beaver needs don’t always match human needs, but that was one of the most exquisite walks I ever had. The dogs were in an especially good mood, Henry breathless with joy and Aussie’s eyes sparkling as she sniffed so much she never raised her muzzle from the ground. She can smell all that incredible engineering activity, I thought, the cutting down of large trees, the constant shuttling back and forth of pine branches and sticks to bolster both the dam and the lodge.

It was on the way home that I remembered my old obsession with Ferragamo shoes. It was addressing the question: Who am I? At that time, the best answer I could come up with was: I’m the young woman wearing Ferragamo shoes. It was the best I could do at the age of 30, five years after the oldest of wild beavers dies. Back home, I think of them a great deal, old and young alike,  working invisibly in early mornings, twilights and nighttime on their home and watery neighborhood.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

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SIGNIFICANT OTHER

“Henry, watch what you do with the duckie. Do not—I say do not—throw it into the toilet bowl.”

Harry tosses it into the toilet bowl.

Before that we play tug-of-war with the duck, he growling like the Hound of the Baskervilles, finally pulls it out of my hands, shakes it up while twirling like a top, and then triumphantly tosses it up in the air. It falls into the toilet bowl.

“What did I tell you not to do, Henry?”

“Toss the duck into the toilet bowl.”

“And what did you do?”

“I tossed it into the toilet bowl.”

“So go get it, Henry.”

“I’ll drown..”

“T-U-F spells tough. I hate that duck, it’s full of all your saliva since birth and now it’ll be full of rank toilet water. It’s time to flush it.”

“You can’t do that! Besides, it won’t do you any good, my duck is an Indestructible Toy. It says so on the package.”

“Fuck the duck,” says Aussie, who just came in. “Why do you bother with it anyway? It’s so old.”

“Because it’s my significant other.”

“A duck is your significant other?”

“What about us, Henry?” I ask. “What about Aussie and me?”

“You’re not the duck.”

“Does it have a name?” I ask Henry politely.

Fuck is the name,” says Aussie. “Fuck the duck, right? Hee hee hee!”

“Fuck the Duck is drowning,” points out Henry.

I pick Henry’s significant other out of the toilet and wash it in the sink. Then I give it back to Henry, who shakes it violently, sprinkling water all over the bathroom, and takes the wet duck for a cuddle in his crate. I turn to Aussie.

“Aussie, why are you so obnoxious?”

“To a dog with a toy duck for a significant other? Give me a break!”

“You’d be surprised at what strange significant others we choose. Aussie, am I your significant other?”

“You’re other. I don’t know how significant you are.”

“It’s better than dog and master, don’t you think? It has more of a feel of equality between species, Aussie.”

“You mean like between Henry the Chihuahua and Fuck the Duck?”

“Not quite, Aussie. My point is that humans are beginning to better understand that there’s a kind of equality between species. You know, in the Old Testament it’s written that God gave Man dominion over the fish and the birds and the animals and the creepers—”

“Did He mention dogs?”

“Not specifically, Aussie.”

“There you have it.”

“The point is, Aussie, many of us are perceiving the interrelatedness of all species, that no one specie holds dominion over any other. We’re all equally the children of Mother Earth so every specie has a right to its own existence, its own evolutionary journey.”

“Henry should go extinct.”

“What a terrible thing to say, Aussie. Why? Because he’s a chihuahua?”

“No, because he has a duck for a significant other. Do you know what those children will look like?”

“Aussie, Henry can’t have children, and neither, for that matter, can the Indestructible Duck.”

“He’s humping that duck as we speak! If anything comes of it it’ll be the end of civilization as we know it.”

 

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

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GIVING THINGS THEIR DUE

I talk to a friend who’s now in hospice. She rests on a hospital bed on the ground floor of her house. She breathes with difficulty on account of a bad heart. When we talk on the phone she stops to cough and catch her breath. She made a point of calling me to say goodbye several weeks ago, one of the most moving conversations I’ve ever had with anyone.

In our last talk, when she seemed to have a little more strength, I reminded her what a rich life she’d had. She had a long marriage, lived in different countries, spoke different languages and cooked various cuisines superbly, had two terrific children and more terrific grandchildren, and a very fine therapeutic career. Most important, she never stopped wanting to learn:  a new writer, a new poet, a new friend, a new place to visit. In her later years she went deeper rather than farther, which seemed just as satisfying.

She listened to me and said: “It’s true, I’ve given every phase of my life its due.”

I admire people who can stand back from their day-to-day life and wonder about the big story. And it is a story, of course, which can’t possibly explain or encompass the rolling terrain of day-to-day existence. But some stories give you a sense of wellbeing, i.e., I’ve lived a very rich and meaningful life, and some stories are: Huh?

It’s not easy to notice or label a phase when you’re actually living it; it’s probably easier as we get older. I certainly reflect on what this later period of time calls on me to do—and also what not to do. How do I give this time its due?

I was married twice—did I give those times their due? The attention, the listening, the sharing, or did I want to live as a single woman who happens to live alongside a man? How conscious was I of what that period in life required of me? How ready was I to plunge in and really get wet?

And when that period of life ended, how ready was I to turn the page?

Two seemingly contradictory things come up. I feel more directed and focused in my life now, less worried about other people’s opinions. I prefer solitude to interaction that doesn’t satisfy; there’s more clarity than before.

At the same time I feel more porous; vulnerability courses through my veins faster and deeper. I think, to put it frankly, I love and appreciate people more. I experience life more and more as a circle of infinite care, all of us constituting the whole, reaching out and yearning for each other. A little like Michelangelo’s God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel, we reach and reach for each other, but we never fully make contact because we are not the other. The space in between is there, but so is the reaching, which will fall well short of the grasp.

Yesterday Jimena and I were giving out food cards, and Ilena, a single mother barely 20, and Miguel (not their real names) came to where we sat on the porch steps on a warm day. She talked for a while about her wish to get training to be a nurse’s aide even as she has no social security number, while bored little Miguel climbed up the steps or started walking towards the street, at which point all of us would jump up to catch him, turn him around, make sure nothing was hurt, reach in for some apple sauce. Take care of him. It was a reflex, nobody thought much, we just did it.

And speaking of circle of care, here is an update on Monica, who had a prolapsed uterus. She listened to my doctor friend and went straight to Emergency. Jimena took her and did the translating. She also helped her obtain some medical coverage. Doctors examined her, treated her, and said that at this late date there as no choice but to do a full hysterectomy. She had the surgery but stayed at the hospital longer because of high fever. Her neighbors took her three children in. Now she’s home with her children and can walk, and received money from you to keep them going till she can get back to work.

This circle of care functions in mysterious ways.

Does it mean I forgot about the homeless children left by their parents on the streets of Bogota, Colombia, because the latter couldn’t take care of them anymore? I encountered this 12 years ago and can’t forget it.

I can’t fully define or describe this phase of my life, only that I want to give it its due. And for me, that means being part of that circle of care with full consciousness and intent.

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