NOW, SOON, LATER

“Come on already!”

“We can’t go anywhere, Aussie, it’s snowing outside, earliest snow I can remember here. I don’t even have snow tires on the car yet.”

“I’m out in the back yard all the time, Boss. Since when have you become such a wimp?”

“The snow is supposed to end in the afternoon, then we’ll walk and do some errands.”

“Now!”

“Later!”

“Now! I hate that word.”

“What word, Auss?”

Later! I hate later!

“What about soon?”

“Hate that too!”

This morning I woke up late to see snow. Four hours later it’s still coming down on fall leaves that haven’t fallen yet, flowers still in bloom. I have yet to dig up the dahlia bulbs, I thought, and tonight it’ll go under 20 Fahrenheit. But we did bring the house plants in yesterday. Already they look much happier than they did weathering the chilly nights outdoors.

These seasonal milestones remind me of the circularity of things, which in turn reminds me of something else. “Aussie, you need to learn patience.”

“I need to have my walk. We didn’t walk yesterday at all.”

“It rained all day, Auss.”

“And the day before?”

“It rained, and you still went for a walk in the rain.”

“It was short, doesn’t count.”

“And I’ll warn you right now, Aussie, that tomorrow we have a half-day retreat and I won’t be able to take you for the walk till afternoon.”

“Afternoon! Every self-respecting dog knows that mornings are best for hunting!”

“And Sunday I’m taking part in our Auschwitz retreat on Zoom and I won’t be free before mid-afternoon. No Sunday dog gathering in the conservancy this time.”

“That does it. It’s time for a revolution!”

“Be careful, Aussie. We need so many changes in this country we’re practically begging for a revolution, I admit. But heads roll in revolutions, governments fall, the economy fails, and the poor are always the ones that get hurt worst.”

“Not dogs.”

“Dogs, too, Auss. The most vulnerable among us get hurt even in revolutions that are supposedly for our benefit.”

“You know what I say, Boss? If the system doesn’t work, get rid of it all!”

“Later, Aussie.”

“Now, Boss!”

“I’m nervous about the violence, Aussie.”

“I told you, Boss, you’re a wimp.”

“You may be right. You know, Aussie, Donald Trump likes to compare himself to Abe Lincoln.”

“He’s greater than Lincoln!”

“Many progressives gag. But how many remember all the deals Lincoln tried to make with the South? How many remember that Lincoln offered the South that they could keep slaves till the end of the 19th century—another 40 years of enslaving men, women and children?”

“That’s terrible!”

“Of course it was terrible. Abolitionists railed against him, said he was trying to save the Union on the backs of enslaved men, women and children. Finally we fought a war that killed off three-quarters of a million people, brought an end to slavery in one guise and perpetuated slavery in other guises.”

“And for this they built him a memorial?”

“I still think he was a great man, Aussie, but we never really know anything, you see what I mean?”

“No.”

“We have to act without really knowing that anything is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  I think that was true for Lincoln, too. He made his best guess and acted, knowing that in the future people would probably second-guess him. In some way, Aussie, that’s what patience is all about.”

“So when do we go for a walk, Boss?”

“Later.”

“And when do we have an enlightened society, Boss?”

“Soon, Aussie.”

“Not later?”

“Soon.”

“I hate that word!”

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WHAT GOD WANTS OF ME

What Aussie does when it rains

What’s a face in the crowd?

I think of Donald Trump’s big rallies. He’s so proud of the thousands of cheering, flag-waving men and women who crowd his rallies. Their energy carries him, but at least on a few occasions it looked more like a mob wishing to inflict punishment, lock people up, laugh at them, mock them, assert again and again that they’re not human beings like they—those in the rally—are.

Do they understand what they’re doing? Do they understand how deep this can go?

A phone conversation with my mother this morning:

“Chavale, tell me, where am I?”

“You’re in your apartment, mom.”

“No, I’m in prison. I can only go four steps in each direction.”

“Do you recognize your bed, mom? The dining table in the next room?”

“No,” she says. “I’m in prison. Do you know why?”

“You’re not in prison, mom. The coronavirus is causing many of us to stay home.”

“It’s not because I’m Jewish?”

I read of Mahatma Gandhi’s darshans as he traveled across India, thousands of people in attendance. He talked a little, chanted, read from the Bhagavad Gita. Those close to him said that even when he was exhausted and sick, those gatherings carried him, gave him confidence and life. They didn’t take him away from himself but stronger inwards, to Ram, or Rama, representing ultimate reality and truth according to Hinduism. He invoked that name again and again. It wasn’t his name in flags that he wanted to see, or on hats or sweatshirts or big posters held up high, but rather Ram.

At the same time, he never insisted that everyone do so. Gandhi took it as a personal failure when Indian Muslims seceded to form Pakistan; he wanted Muslims and Hindus to live together in peace. He was very clear about his mission in life: He wanted to build an enlightened society. Getting the British out of India was only a secondary cause, the primary one, he said again and again, was to transform Indian society. Otherwise, he said, they will take the place of the British after the British leave and persecute others. In that spirit, he would be appalled by what Narendra Modi’s government has done in India.

These are gray, rainy days in New England while the coronavirus is surging around the world. Those not sick find their lives curtailed. It tears at the hearts of single people living alone, not seeing their children or grandchildren for many months; children not playing with friends, parents unable to go to work. It may feel right to shrink into ourselves for protection, into some essence that feels solid and unbreachable.

But there’s nothing that can’t be breached. And when some of us see the world as a fearsome place and ourselves as threatened survivors, others reach out instead, seek to widen their focus of attention and concern, ask who needs help right now, who needs more help than I do. That’s not just spiritual, that’s healthy. Believe me, you’ll be a lot happier doing the latter than doing the former.

Yesterday I heard two questions on the phone: How does God want me to be in these times? How does God want me to act in these times?

I realize that I’ve been carrying these questions, or a version of them, since the virus began. Engaging with them, feeling my way around them, singing and dancing with them, have lifted a possible depression and transformed my anxiety into excitement. I hold on to gladness and curiosity and make sure not to deplete my spirit.

In this vein I sat with Jimena de Pareja last week and said to her that it was hard to keep bringing in $1,000 a week to help immigrant families with their basic needs of food, rent, and utilities. You and I have managed it for 7 full months, along with a lengthy Amazon wish list of school supplies, well over $32,000. But I sense a fatigue both inside and out, from myself and others; nobody’s rich around here. People send me ideas on what to do—talk to local churches and civic organizations, social agencies, etc. It adds more work for me, and honestly, I do other things as well. I teach, I help create an order for dharma-based activists, and I write.

These coming days will be extra busy: An online Auschwitz plunge takes place (the retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau had to be canceled), elections, followed by the second memorial of Bernie’s death. I need  to take care of myself. Most important, I want to do things with gladness, not under pressure.

Since food is so essential, I plan to keep up a reserve of food cards, though maybe not as many as before, focusing especially on families who really can’t feed themselves. I also want to know about people with special needs—someone sick who can’t afford to get treatment, a family thrown out of their house in the middle of winter, serious situations that require, as my friend Jon Katz says, small acts of great kindness.

When that comes up, I’ll write about it and ask specifically for that situation. Later today will bring $500 of food cards and some cash. It’s pouring outside (the remnants of Hurricane Zeta), but Jimena won’t cancel. They’ll stand out there in the rain, men, women and children, because they need those food cards, and I’ll be there as well, though this time may leave my good-will ambassador, Aussie, behind. She’s not in a hurry to go outdoors (see photo above).

So that’s the plan for now. Will keep you apprised as we move forward.

 

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BECOMING AND BECOMING

I know folks who wake up in the morning and first thing they think is: Oh good, another day passed. Just 8 more days to the election. Not—Wow, look at the colors out there, or: Good, it’s raining, and we need rain, or like I like to start a day, going downstairs to the futon in my office where Aussie likes to spend her nights, stroking her and saying: “Another wonderful day with Aussie!”

I used to do that with my dogs as they aged and I could see the end coming; now I do that even though Aussie is only 3. Another wonderful day with Aussie. Another wonderful day with Henry. Some great days with my sister, though she’s gone to NYC now. Going to see an eye doctor who will take care of my left eye, that has been hurting me. Going to write a blog post. Another wonderful day.

I also say to myself: Another 8 days to the election. Another 8 days of newspapers—good ones—carrying headlines of vitriol. Not Putin, not Maduro, not China, not Iran, but us. Looking at the dominance of our election news, you’d never know there’s a world outside the US.

But there is a world out there, and a world here, too: gentler, kinder, more caring. Where the words we’re all in this together aren’t just slogans but the deepest,, truest words of great prophets and saints. And by in this I don’t just mean covid. I cover my face to prevent you from getting sick, and you cover yours for the same reason. I smile at the eye doctor behind my mask because my left eye needs his services, and he needs my check so that he could cover the costs of the nurses and receptionists that expose themselves every day.

Wherever I go, I’m aware that almost everyone I meet is more exposed than I am. Their eyes smile and they don’t complain about having to wear a mask the entire workday, at least 5 days a week. What am I complaining about?

We need to trim back and live a little smaller, but with more tenderness and a livelier imagination. Starting with myself, I’d like to  learn to forgive. I feel as though I’ve carried slights and resentments for much of my life, and I’d regret them now only I think regrets are a waste of time: Why does she talk like that on the phone? Why didn’t he love me more? Why doesn’t she need me less? What about my birthday? What about the money owed me? What about the job that was terminated, the gift not given? The small forgettings and oblivions that shouldn’t have happened but did, where I felt forgotten or overlooked?

I talked to a friend, well-known, who just discovered he has cancer. He was in the best of spirits and full of plans: I’m going to cover the walls of my office with collages; have to finish The Overstory; I’m going to write new music, make more films. He read me a poem he wrote.

But what he wanted most was to use his diagnosis to help others. “I have the spotlight on me now, and I keep on asking myself: How can I share this with something good that others are doing, you know? It’s like I’m saying: Yes, it’s me, and I have cancer, and look at what these folks are doing, and look at this great project or this great effort—isn’t it cool!

Terry Tempest Williams said: “Maybe our undoing is our becoming.”

Can I get that kind of mind? Can I see that it’s not all about me—my beginning, my ending, my doing, my undoing? It’s about something far, far bigger, and what seems to me a defeat or letdown is just another piece of the greater becoming and becoming and becoming. Seeing that, feeling that, gives you energy, courage, and enthusiasm.

“Did you feel fear?” I asked my friend.

“Not quite,” he said. “I felt a kind of excited fear, like here it is!  But it felt exciting. I thought I was going to make this movie; instead, I’m making the cancer movie.”

Some of that was true for Bernie after his stroke. He also had his plans for getting older and what that would be like. Instead he made the stroke movie. He was a star.

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax said: “I feel like I’ve practiced my entire life for these times.”

You can say that about any time, not just the time of these elections and the coronavirus: for the time of a cancer diagnosis, a major stroke. A time when you take a big fall deep in the forest and wonder if you could get up again, and if you can’t, will anyone find you? A time when someone you love dies. A time when the country seems to go apeshit crazy. A time when you lose your family, your job, when you’re going to die.

I’ve practiced my entire life for this time. For becoming and becoming and becoming.

 

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FAMILY

Yesterday I drove down to Union Station in New Haven, home to Yale University. You’d never know it from what the station looked like, empty, bare, food stores shuttered. The electronic monitor on the big screen of the waiting hall continues to show departures on Amtrak, Metro North and the Connecticut line, augmented by loud announcements, as if life continues in all its hustle and bustle, but life doesn’t. Very, very few people are waiting to board trains in Union Station.

I am aware there is terrible suffering, both in health and economy, from the contraction of all this activity. At the same time, we can’t look away from it, we can’t pretend everything is okay and just about normal. There’s nothing normal about what we’re going through. I have no brainy conclusions to present here, I treat this time as I do any other challenge that seems at first indecipherable: I let myself be there, listen carefully, watch, sniff it, taste it, be as fully in it as I can. Let my imagination work with it, because imagination is also an important ingredient here.

My sister arrived from Israel. I’d been looking forward to this visit for months. She did a covid test (negative} just before boarding a Delta flight from Tel Aviv. She had the entire row of seats to herself. Wearing a mask throughout, she landed in Kennedy Airport (“the greatest flight I’ve ever had!”), zoomed through Customs, found no buses or shuttles running to New York City due to covid, and took a taxi. Eventually left Grand Central onboard a train, 2/3 empty, to New Haven, where I picked her up.

What will we do together? Take Aussie for a walk and talk. Do some food shopping and talk. Drive around, look at the last colorful leaves of fall, and talk. Find some take-out food or eat outdoors in some restaurant (no cooking when she’s around—this is time off!) and talk. Watch a movie on TV this evening—and talk. I will be at the zendo tomorrow morning and not talk, but other than that, it’s talk and talk and talk.

There’s never an end to comparing notes about our lives, our family, the people closest to us. There’s never an end, even now, to talking about our plans. It’s all about shared experiences, shared views—What’s going to happen on Election Day (she’s here for it)? When will Bibi finally go (my brother is convinced that when Trump goes, Bibi will finally go, too)? What’s with that nephew, that niece? We talk a lot about our mother, who’s becoming less and less mobile, and for the first time didn’t recognize her son when he visited a few days ago.

Who would have thought that I would love my family so much! I ran from them as far as my first marriage could take me; I don’t regret it, I recognize the reasons. Now I depend on them psychically because geographically they’re so far away. Bernie and I had a big adventure; that adventure continues, but I find myself leaning on these visits from my family as upon a wall, stretching every memory muscle, taking in the psychic nourishment. Depending on my sister to call me on bullshit, to point out where I back away from doubts and fears, where I say something quickly and want to move on, and then she’ll say: “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you just said, and I think – “ and she’ll point out to me how quickly I can still slink into denial, away from facing every element of reality.

It’s that kind of trust, that kind of love, and I savor it. I clear my calendar (I finished up quickly what I had to do before she came), and now till Sunday, when she’ll leave again to see her daughter, it’s honoring a different space in myself: slow, deep listening, making coffee, running out for bagels, joy for joy sake.

So, I’ll leave this blog for now (she’s still sleeping due to jet lag) and return to you, to the world, on Monday.

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A HOUSE FULL OF ILLEGALS

I take Henry and Aussie for a walk, followed by a ride to the bank. This is the first time both dogs are in the car. They share the back seat, but Aussie instantly reclines back to front on the armrest that separates the driver’s seat from the passenger seat. Henry, sealed off from the front, whines a little, scampering back and forth between both half-opened back windows, standing up to snarl at squirrels, chipmunks, and other dogs while Aussie and I commune up front.

We go through the drive-through. Aussie pricks up her ears; she’s been here many times in the past, knows the high-pitched whoosh of the bank capsule traveling through the tube, bringing her a dog biscuit when it returns. This time there are two. I give one to her and the other I slip back to Henry.

Aussie, standing on the armrest, promptly loses half her cookie which falls between the seats. “Nothing I can do about it, Auss,” I tell her. I’m already driving.

Crrrunch! comes from the back seat, the small chihuahua mix slowly making his way through the biscuit. Aussie’s head turns to look back at him.

“Aussie!”

She spins back.

“Don’t even think of taking Henry’s cookie!”

I drive, and a short while later, once again: Crrrunch! Crrrunch!

Aussie’s head turns to look back.

“Aussie!” Head spins back. “Don’t even think of taking Henry’s cookie.”

“I’m a Zen dog,” she snaps, “I do it without thinking about it.” And back she goes to bully Henry and get his cookie.

The next day she and I are back in the car.

“Come on, Aussie, we’re going to Turners to give out food cards, and you have a job to do.”

“What job is that, Boss?”

“You’re the good-will ambassador. You grin and wag your tail, show everybody they’re welcome, especially the little kids.”

“I hate men and I hate kids!”

“You hate kids! Why, Aussie? I know you don’t like men, you were like this when we got you from Texas, maybe you had some bad experiences with men.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“But what’s the problem with kids?”

“They don’t know how to pet me. They put their hands up in the air and come down on top of my head, I never see it coming. How would you like to have something come down on top of you from a total stranger? You don’t know if he wants to stroke you or hit you.”

“Lots of people don’t know how to stroke dogs in a good way. Nobody means any harm, Aussie; as a rule, they’re happy to see you. You make them feel welcome.”

“How much are you paying me?”

“Paying you for what?”

“Paying me to be your goodwill ambassador. To wag my tail for over an hour—you know what that does to my back? To distract the children, get slapped on top of the head in return, and never once show my teeth or growl. Get smacked around—”

“They’re stroking you, Aussie—”

“They have no idea how to touch a refined, sensitive dog like me. I’m abused, misused, and exploited. And I don’t get paid.”

“Give me a break, Auss.”

“You know what the real problem is, don’t you, Boss? I’m not Latino. I’m not a refugee, I’m not some immigrant rushing the border. If I was any one of those, you’d be out there kicking up a storm, yelling that I’m being taken advantage of. But no, here I am, born and bred in Texas, and I DON’T GET PAID! You’d think I was some kind of foreigner!”

“Maybe you’re not from Texas, Auss.”

“Of course I’m from Texas, Boss. You always tell people that I came from around Houston.”

“Maybe you were born south of the border, traveled hundreds of miles and splashed across the Rio Grande, Aussie.”

“Don’t dare say that about me! I’m true blue, or black and tan, or whatever!”

“Supposedly you came from north of Houston, but that could be just a story, Aussie. Maybe you got separated from the rest of your family. Maybe some do-goodie Quakers got you water in the desert, or at least a map. You pretended to be a stray but you were aiming to get on board that truck and get to New England. And you know what? You found sanctuary in our house!”

“Hey, the Man called me Aussie, remember? Like from Australia.”

“You deceived him, Aussie.”

“I’m not the illegal around here, Boss. You know who is? Henry, the chihuahua. He’s stealing everything he can get his paws on.  I can’t find a single one of my toys or marrow bones, the little bugger has buried all of them.“

“Henry’s the sweetest little dog, Aussie.”

“The name is a dead giveaway all by itself. No chihuahua is called Henry. He’s a liar, a faker, and an imposter.”

“We’re a family, Aussie. He’s like your little brother.”

“No illegal is a brother of mine,” she snarls. “Drop me off at the nearest ICE station. We’re deporting Henry.”

 

 

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YOU TOOK MY BONE!

“You took my bone!”

In the photo you see Henry staring at Aussie, who’s guarding the small remainder of a marrow bone between her paws. I gave them both bones, but while Aussie got to work on hers right away, Henry left his halfway up the stairs. Aussie wasted no time in getting that one, too, and bringing it down to the office. Poor Henry! If he so much as looked at it, she’d growl. He knew it had formerly been his, he could smell it. It didn’t seem fair that Aussie ended up with both and he with nothing, but Aussie wasn’t giving an inch—or an ounce. She would have all of two bones, and he would have nothing.

Humans are different. If I have two pieces of bread and someone close to me has none, I feel there’s a problem. Yes, I was brought up like that, I’ve been trained in precepts and ethical behavior, but it’s deeper than any of those. Humans by and large have a deep connection with each other. Call it empathy, walking in someone else’s shoes, or looking into one another’s eyes and seeing ourselves there—whatever you call it, we feel it physiologically: It’s not fair that I have two pieces of bread and that person has none.

The dogs in this house don’t feel that, but I think people do.

Till some 50 or 70 years ago, we didn’t feel much for what happened in the rest of the world, or even outside our state. The Internet has changed all that. Now when they talk of children dying from malnutrition or disease, we see it onscreen; we read of the horrors that the coronavirus pandemic will cost so many their lives, so many will slide into poverty, so many will not get the vaccine anytime soon. Once we recognize that these are human beings like us, it starts to matter.

Like many people, I’ve wondered about the acrimony that lies between what seem like two Americas, the sense of a society without a center, a moral compass gone adrift. A society that once prided itself in its image of welcoming immigrants and refugees, of helping the poor, of supporting social and economic mobility, now not only realizes that much of that was pretense, but that now many don’t even bother with the pretense. Many consciously don’t welcome immigrants and refugees, blame the poor for being poor, don’t seem to mind the enormous gap in wealth and even that most of the wealthy inherited their wealth instead of earning it.

Lately, a lot is being written on what has been lost over the past 70 years. Church and synagogue attendance are way down; participation in civic organizations like Elk and Lion clubs and Junior Leagues are way down. Kids leave farms and go to cities; Main Streets are abandoned. Writers like Wendell Berry remind us of how much kinder and stabler that old culture was, how cohesive and meaningful it was.

I admire Berry but have to admit I get impatient with this message. I’m one of the people who left my family (it didn’t nurture me at the time, unlike now). I went into Buddhism because Western religious institutions offered me no inspiration or meaningful spirituality; I could never see myself in a suburban Junior League. I volunteered in soup kitchens and teaching English, but I needed more than that. I needed a vision for the entire life, not just a small piece of volunteerism here and there.

The culture Berry describes has never resonated with me, maybe because I, too, was an immigrant. It’s from another time, too old, too white. It certainly wasn’t hospitable to people of color. As for kids leaving farms and families, kids have always left their farms and families. Half our books on those old days, such as Willa Cather’s, are written through the lens of someone who left to go East and comes back for nostalgia and celebration of a way he left behind. But—he left it behind!

Yes, government could have given much more support to family farms so they don’t have to struggle competing with giant agribusinesses. Here in New England we support our local family farms as much as we can. But with all that, this country has always comprised folks wishing to reinvent themselves, to re-imagine what’s possible. In these Internet days, it’s truer than ever before. Reminding us of what we lost hardly helps us find a better future.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Antoine de Saint Exupery, he of the magical Little Prince, wrote the above. I can’t remember where I recently came across it, only that I thought it was beautiful. Bring back the imagination, I thought to myself. Remind people—especially the young—that each generation must re-vision a new way of life, even new ethics.

We can’t go back to the way of life espoused by a dominant white culture anymore, we’re way too multicultural for that now. Men are no longer heads of the family, and what defines a family has changed.

“The trouble with you Americans,” a Filipino playwrite friend of mine once said, “is that there is no real American culture. In Europe, no matter where you go, each country has its historical culture. But in America, you take a piece from here and a piece from there, and you make that your culture.” She said these words to a group of New Yorkers seated round a dining table on Roosevelt Island, feeling perfectly comfortable taking a piece from here and a piece from there.

But it’s no longer just New York, it’s the country. Groups across the country are taking to the streets—and to Congress—to demand their share. I love watching Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a personification of Somalian refugees who came here, worked hard, learned and trained, and are speaking to that multicultural vision of a group that wants more than handouts; it wants to be part of a new American vision.

That’s what we need. The ones who will give it are not Wendell Berry, much as I admire his writings and the man; it will be the young. It will be that generation that faces the consequences of climate change; that won’t go into churches but for whom spirituality is essential; that may have friends around the world but has to redefine the meaning of community; that needs to come to terms with legacies of the past while committing to a more equal, ecological, and multicultural America.

Thank you for donations that arrived over this past weekend since my last post. Every penny, large and small, makes a difference. Jimena and I are talking it over.

 

 

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WHAT COMES FROM STRESS

Just look at the photo above. It’s everything you sent for school supplies for the children of immigrant families. All these things–headphones, notebooks, binders, paper, markers, computer mice, calculators, etc.–were put into a backpack and given, one by one, to children who needed them. The photo reflects not just color, drawing, learning, and fun, but also the generosity and compassion that are everywhere in the universe.

Nevertheless, yesterday Jimena and I had a sobering conversation. We give out $750 in food cards, $200 in cash for help with rent and utilities, and 2 large boxes of squash and small peppers that Aussie’s best friend, Leeann Warner, gave us from her garden.

“Jimena,” I said as we sat on the bench on Main Street after everybody had come and gone, “I only have about $2,100 in the bank account now, a little over 2 weeks of reserves. We sold out the Amazon wish list of school supplies in less than a week, which was great (see above photo), but after that few contributions have been coming in both for the families and for my blog. Life’s going on, new causes come up, people lose interest. I’m not sure what to do.”

We had to say no to four people who came and asked for food cards, two men and a couple. They’re new to the area and heard about our Thursdays. Jimena took down their names and phone numbers, asked them where they were from. “La proxima semana,” she tells them. Next week.

Fifty dollars isn’t that much for some, I think to myself, and a lot for others. We’re now caring for closer to 100 families rather than the 90. I’ll call Deals & Steals early next week and see if they have extra food for us to give out.

“Schools are starting to open up for hybrid learning next week,” Jimena tells me.

“There’s a lot of stress all around,” I say. I think of people’s anxieties about the virus, dire warnings about what’ll happen this winter, long term effects of covid on some people who got infected, and of course, there’s always the election.

“Terrible things happen from stress,” Jimena agrees, and proceeds to describe what happened to one family she’s working with.

Maria (not her real name) has 4 children, all of whom are squeezed in a small room doing remote learning. And of course, they don’t want to be forced to sit on a chair for hours on end, they prefer to run around and play. The father works, Maria is home with the children. They make noise, she comes in and berates them for not doing their classes, tells them to sit and listen to the teacher, and goes back to the kitchen to cook or clean. She comes back again and again because the three boys are still playing around.

“This happens day after day,” Jimena explains, “they’re kids, what do you expect? But Maria lost patience and pushed one of the boys onto the chair in front of the Chromebook he was using and said a bad word in Spanish. The audio and the camera were on, the teacher heard and saw everything, and reported the family to DCF [Department of Children and Families]. Immediately they started an investigation to see whether to take the children away and put them up for foster care. The daughter left to live with another family, to make things easier, but Maria went pretty crazy and next thing I know she has a breakdown and goes to the ER. That,” Jimena says, “is what can happen from stress.”

Luckily, she continues, the man who came from DCF seems to be nice and understanding.

But of course, she adds, most of the families are illegal, and they don’t want cameras to be on all the time, they’re afraid. “It’s so hard for them, Eve,” Jimena says. “It’s easy not to understand what happens when people are squeezed together in such a small space and they can’t go anywhere. That’s a big reason why they want their children to go in person to school. They don’t want cameras looking into their apartments.”

This week’s Montague Reporter has a long article quoting kids in the area about what it’s like to do learning from home. They say the study goes too fast, they don’t see their friends, they have to learn apps they never learned before. The cover photo shows a nice desk, a lot neater than mine, with a tablet, notebooks, lamp, pen holders, chair with cushion, and a warm woolen cover draped over the chair just in case the child gets cold.

Not one mentions what it’s like to do this squeezed together with other siblings, competing for space, for play, for quiet. A family bursting at the seams from pressure, a teacher who feels responsible for reporting things, and an agency that comes in, and suddenly there’s the possibility of the family being split up.

A friend who supervises visits between parents and children who were taken away and put in foster care told me of a visit she supervised between such a mother and her two-month-old infant. The mother, who wants him back badly, took him in her arms and held him close, then freed up the lower half of her mask. As soon as she did that the baby’s face shone and he started cooing.

“Eve, he knew her,” she told me. “That little baby, who’s barely seen his mother since birth, knew his mother the minute she half-removed her mask.” She paused. “I waited a few minutes and then had to tell her to please put her mask back on.” I could see it broke her heart..

“What should we do if the money runs out?” I ask Jimena. “Should we eliminate the cash for now?”

“No, we need the cash because people fall behind so quickly. Let’s cut down the food cards to 10 a week instead of 15, if possible, and continue with the cash.” I nod. Jimena continues: “Most teachers understand that the children come from a world that is very different from this one,” Jimena says, “but some don’t. They’ve had no experience with it, and rules are rules. I can’t blame them.”

Rules are rules. Doing a bearing witness retreat in Rwanda some years ago, we met a few Rwandan Hutus who helped save the lives of Tutsis during the genocide there some 25 years ago and we gave them financial help. We were aided in this by Paul (not his real name), our Rwandan contact, a personable, talented, multi-lingual man. A generous friend heard of this and wanted to bring Paul over to the US to discuss a project in Rwanda that our friend could donate to.

“Great idea,” Bernie said on the phone, and then added: “You should know that as we finished our time in Rwanda, we discovered that Paul took a little of the money we used to give the Hutus to cover school costs for his children. It wasn’t much.”

Immediately our friend cancelled all plans for donations. “I can’t abide those kinds of things,” he told me on the phone.

“Charles,” I said, “they have nothing over there. Schools cost very little, but many don’t have the pennies required to send the kids to school. I’m not defending Paul, only telling you that before you judge him, remember how different it is there.”

He refused to listen, and that was the end of the project.

What’s right? What’s wrong? What do you do in the face of so much stress, so much need? “You do what you can,” Bernie used to say. “That’s all you can do, do what you can.”

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THERAPY

“Hello, I’m Dr. Finkler. Do you prefer to sit down or lie on the couch?”

“I think I’ll lie on the couch, doctor.”

“Make yourself comfortable. Not everybody feels comfortable on the couch, but you seem to like it. Please remind me your name.”

“Life.”

“Life what? What’s your last name?”

“I have different last names. Life Oftheparty. Or Life Isshort. Life Anddeath. Or my favorite: Life Isjustabowlofcherries.”

“That’s a long one. Must be hell on an email address.”

That’sthestoryofmy Life. You see, Doctor, sometimes Life is my last name. Leadadog’s Life, Thisisyour Life, and even Ihatemy Life.

“That’s a lot of names, son.”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about, Doc.  I think I have multiple personality disorder.”

“How so?”

“I behave in so many different ways, I don’t recognize myself sometimes. No one single personality sticks, Doc. Sometimes I’m sunny, sometimes I’m blue, sometimes I’m stormy. Sometimes I’m malaria that kills  thousands of children and sometimes I’m a winning sweepstake ticket. I don’t know who I am, Doc. Neither does anybody else.”

“Of course they know who you are. Look at how often they say: That’s Life!

“But what’s life, Doc? I’m everything under the sun, only I’m the sun too. It’s too much for me, Doc. Too many things, too many varieties. You should hear the voices I hear!”

“You hear voices? Good. Which ones?”

“Every single one, Doc. Thunder and static, frogs croaking, snakes hissing, babies crying, locomotives chugging, babies crying, sinks gurgling, planets colliding, and Tibetan.”

“What’s your favorite?”

“Silence, Doc. What’s yours?”

“The scratching of a pen in a checkbook.”

“That’s one of my names, Doc.”

“What’s that?”

Yourmoneyoryour Life. I can’t live like this, Doc. I need to be smaller, narrower. I NEED TO HAVE BOUNDARIES!”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? You’re a psychiatrist!”

“What’s wrong with being everything to everybody?”

“It’s too much, Doc. I can’t handle it.”

“I must say, you do sound confused.”

I’m confused? You should see the others, Doc. How would you like to show up and everyone just shakes their head, like they can’t believe what they’re seeing?”

“I guess I wouldn’t feel too good.”

“People always say that I’m too much for them. Too unpredictable, too unexpected, too bewildering. People want me to be different.”

“Different how, son?”

“Familiar, consistent, SMALLER!”

“Bigness is nothing to be ashamed of, Life. Look at LeBron.”

“I’m bigger than LeBron, Dr. Finkler.”

“Nobody’s bigger than LeBron, son.”

“I’m bigger than winning or losing. Bigger than Trump, bigger than Biden, bigger than the biggest tree, bigger than earth and heaven.”

“I don’t know about multiple personality disorder, but you do sound a little delusional.”

“I’m bigger than delusions, Doc, though I have to admit those come a close second. I talk in so many different voices I can barely understand myself. In fact, I think that’s the problem, Doc. I’m beyond understanding. People try and try to understand me and can’t. I’m always doing something nobody expected; from moment to moment I’m just one big surprise.”

“Like a birthday party?”

“Or like a pandemic. Nobody’s got a toolbox like mine, Doc.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“I’m getting on in years, Doc. I’ve been around forever. Time to meet a nice girl and settle down.”

“A good idea!”

“Who’d want me? Who’d want to put her arms around me—buyouts and beaches, harvest moons and harelips, dolphins and doormats, greens and gorillas, French fries and Facebook, violets and viruses—”

“I get your meaning.”

“In fact, she can’t put her arms around me, Doc, that’s the tragedy.”

“And if it’s a he? Have you ever thought it might be—”

“He can’t either. And maybe we’re finally getting down to it, Doc. I’m unhuggable. I’m just too humongous. Beyond love, beyond hate, beyond compassion. Beyond hugs! Beyond anything! What I want to know, Doc: Am I beyond treatment, too? What do you think?”

“Nobody’s beyond treatment, son. Nothing’s bigger than pharmacology. You have a panic disorder, an anxiety disorder, you’re multi-polar, and since you’re so big you probably have an eating disorder. Do you like ice cream?”

“I LOVE ice cream.”

“I knew it, son.”

“Doc, I love everything. I hate everything. I am everything.”

“I’m adding narcissism to the list.”

“Can you help me, Doc? I want to finally be loved.”

“Doesn’t everybody? That’ll be $350 for today, and I’ll see you next week.”

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WHY WAIT?

The Eversource electric people who worked all Friday night to restore power to our stricken street by Saturday morning, putting up new wires on new utility poles, left some old wires down on the ground, mostly on the side of the road, though in two places they crossed the road. I figured they’d be back removing the old wires soon, but not everybody knew that.

Later that morning I walked Aussie in the woods. Coming out, I saw a Federal Express truck shoot up the road and come to an abrupt stop.

“It’s okay to drive over them,” I shouted to him, “they’re dead.”

He tipped his hat and continued to drive, and soon I remembered a scene from the past.

It’s 1979 and my brother just got married in Israel. He lives temporarily on the West Bank and asks me to come spend a weekend with him and his bride, which I do. That weekend, unexpectedly, it snows. Snow in Israel isn’t what we call snow here—1-2 inches are usually all that fall—but it’s sufficient to paralyze the country.

On Sunday morning I take a bus from my brother’s home back to Jerusalem. The driver drives carefully across the snowy roads, reaches the outskirts of Bethlehem with no problem, and comes to a full stop. Cars have stopped ahead of us, and it doesn’t take long to find out why. An electric wire has fallen across the road (2 lanes, one lane in each direction) and no one wants to drive across it.

We wait and wait, and more and more cars and trucks come to a stop in both directions of the road. Soon you hear shouts in Arabic and Hebrew.

“What happened? Why aren’t we driving on?”

“There’s an electric wire on the road.”

“Ya Allah,” they say , or some variation thereof.

These drivers, Jews and Arabs, ordinarily don’t talk to each other and at times have fought one another. But all are now stuck on the road together, and soon the banter starts.

“You want to drive—drive! What’s keeping you?”

“What’s keeping you? You’re afraid?”

“Naah, but I have some people in the back seat, otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate.”

On and on it goes while kilometers of vehicles line up on the road. Finally, an Israeli military jeep arrives.

“What’s the problem?” demands the soldier.

“Electric wire on the ground,” an Arab taxi driver tells him.

The soldiers talk among themselves, then say, “Okay, we’ll drive across and you can all follow.”

The Arab taxi driver grows indignant. “What do you mean, you’ll drive across? I’m in front of you, I’m driving across first!”

“What’s the problem?” another Arab driver asks.

“They want to go across the wire first,” the taxi driver tells him in Arabic. He turns to the soldiers and says in Hebrew, “You think we’re afraid?”

The soldier shrugs.

“I’ll show you who goes first!” says the taxi driver. He gets into his car and begins to inch forward towards the electric wire.

“Hold on a minute!” yells the soldier. “We said we’re going across first.”

“I got here before you. You follow me!” yells the taxi driver.

“Majnoon! This is crazy, we’re the army, we’re going across first.”

Eventually the jeep rolls across the wire, nobody dies, everybody breathes a sigh of relief and follows, and long caravans of vehicles continue on their way.

People who ostensibly are enemies, who fight and even kill each other, are suddenly faced with a common challenge—an electric wire on the ground that could be deadly. They forget their enmity, share cigarettes and thermoses of coffee, strategize about what to do. And when the military jeep arrives, each volunteers to be the first to go across. They practically competed with each other as to who should sacrifice himself for the others. At the end they drive away, to resume their usual enmity: Occupiers! Terrorists!

I thought about our country. Most polls show that there’s a broad consensus among Americans  about the need to address certain things: the destruction of species (including or own) due to climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and financial implications for people and businesses, the increasing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, the need for affordable medical care and insurance, and safeguarding women’s rights for abortion (yes, even that). Poll after poll has shown that there is a healthy majority backing these issues. There’s disagreement about the details, but there is agreement on the need to do something about them.

You’d never know that from reading or watching our media, which emphasizes rivalry, bitterness, contempt, hate, and tells us we’re a nation torn at the seams.

What will it take for folks to start talking to each other, strategize, negotiate, share food and blankets, recognize that we’re all in this together and that we have to get on with it? There will always be fringe groups threatening that cohesion and making a lot of noise, but seriously, there are not that many of them. What utility pole has to fall, what dangerous wire has to stretch across the road, stopping us in our tracks?

Why do we let the media convince us that we’re a broken nation? Why follow leaders who sternly tell us never, but never, to compromise about anything? And what are we each doing to support calumny, hate, and contempt for “the other side?” How many of us dedicate time in the day to making snide remarks on social media?

I appreciate and respect Trump’s and Kushner‘s work o negotiate diplomatic relations between Israel, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. I get that the President wanted a big rating push out of this, and worse, that Palestinians’ needs were not addressed, but overall this is an important step towards peace in a region that’s been ravaged by war for many, many years. How many have been ready to give Trump credit for this?

I follow The Washington Post and make a point of reading the columns of Gary Abernathy, Marc Thiessen and Hugh Hewitt, who represent “the other side.” Sometimes I make a face while reading them, sometimes I stop halfway down the column, but I need to know what folks are thinking outside of New England. I need to know what I’m missing.

We can do this now, or we can wait for a snowstorm—or planetary fires that will dwarf anything we’ve seen to date, or another, more terrible pandemic—to finally get us to work things out together. I say: Why wait?

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A POOPISATTVA

“Where are you going?”

“I can’t find my way, Aussie.”

“That’s obvious.”

We got our electrical power back at 5:15 this morning. Last night they were still working on installing new utility poles on our devastated road. I counted some 5-6 events, as they call them, trees and utility poles that fell across a road only a mile long, with lots of overhead electrical lines down. That doesn’t include the trees that crashed along the sides. It was as though a mini-tornado had touched down on one end of the road and rushed through to the other. Police barriers barred access to the street in both entrances.

“We’re putting in new poles, and then they still have to bring the linemen to put up the new lines,” one of the Eversource people told me. “We’ve been here all day.”

That was at 7 pm Friday evening. They must have worked all night, because everything came on at 5 this morning. We’d been without electricity, water, heat, and kitchen utilities for 2-1/2 days.

I love the Eversource people. May they thrive, may their children thrive, their children’s children, etc.

In the late morning Aussie and I went into the forest, following a path I’ve walked for some 18 years. But this time I couldn’t find it. Tree limbs and branches had fallen, a carpet of twigs concealing the usual signposts. On the way back I got lost.

“How are we ever going to get home, Boss?”

“I don’t know, Auss. Wherever I go, the way is barred by lots of branches and brambles that weren’t there before. Do you ever have these days when you try out different things, and none of them work?”

“No.”

“I’m just tired, Aussie.”

“Follow me, dumb human, I’ll take you where you have to go. I always know my way. Ow! What was that?”

“An acorn fell on top of your head. Like I said, Aussie. I’m tired. I slept with my clothes on under a pile of blankets the past 3 nights because it was cold—speaking of which, Aussie, in the middle of the night I felt my sheets and they were full of sand. Now who did that?”

“Probably dumbass Henry, Boss. You know I don’t jump into your bed. I never cuddle!”

“Are you sure it wasn’t you, Aussie? You’re the one who likes to get wet and roll on things.”

“I told you, Boss, I don’t roll on your sheets. They’re not that interesting, unless you poop on them.”

“Aussie! But it is interesting that you love poop so much.”

“Me? What about you, Boss? What do you write about? What do you talk about? What do you care about? All the shit in human life.”

“Aussie, that’s not poop.”

“Of course it is. All you talk about is somebody suffering here and somebody suffering there. Don’t you know anything else?”

“Look at how much I love being out here with you in the sun and surrounded by gorgeous leaves, Aussie. I’m just as happy as can be.”

“No you’re not. You’re never happy unless you see suffering.”

“Aussie, I’m a bodhisattva.”

“You should call yourself Poopisattva.”

“Tell me, Aussie, why do you like to smell and roll on poop?”

“Because it’s not just poop, Boss. The smell jams my senses full of information—who left it, what they ate, how they’re feeling, who they’re voting for. All those things are in poop!”

“Exactly, Aussie. And human suffering is no different. It’s not just that somebody is homeless or doesn’t have food on the table. Each person is different, each person has a story. Like the woman on Thursday who came to get a food card and a carton of tortillas and told a story of why she left Guatemala. Or the young man who is the sole parent for a child because his wife left him for another man. Behind the label of illegal immigrants there are stories. Behind the word suffering is a unique human heart beating with its own energy, its own hopes for the future. I don’t see suffering as bad or smelly, it’s our story as humans.”

“You done already,  Boss?”

“It’s like what happened now, Aussie. We lost power, we were cold, we couldn’t cook, didn’t have hot food, I was tired. But it occurred to me that this gives me a peek at what so many others go through day after day for most of their lives. A lot of the immigrant families also had no power, and sometimes their utilities are shut off because they can’t pay their bills.”

“Here we go again, another spiritual answer.”

“No Aussie, don’t blame this on spirituality; I’ve been this way all my life. I used to do that when I was a kid, thinking about what it was like to grow in the Holocaust, what it’s like to grow up Black. My father used to say: Why are you bothering with all these things?

“Your father was right.”

“I always thought of what my mother did as a teenager, taking risks to save her family from the Nazis and living through extraordinary times. She was a real hero, and what am I doing with my life? Talking to a dog.”

“You could do worse.”

“The point is, Aussie, now I realize that that’s how my imagination took root. It imagined how I would have acted back in her time, and what I can still do, how I can still relieve suffering. See?”

“A poopisattva.”

“Everything I do is connected to my imagination: my Zen practice, my creativity, my writing, visions of what life can be. Suffering led to imagination, and imagination opened up a whole new world for me, see?”

“No.”

“What are we doing at the creek, Aussie?”

“You took the wrong turn, Boss. You always do.”

“Why didn’t you say something, Auss? Now we’ll never get home.”

“Look at it on the bright side, at least we’ll have water.”

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