THE MESS ON MY WATCH

A storm hit us last night. Not like the big snowstorms I remember from other years, in fact, we haven’t had a big snowstorm yet this winter. This one left us with several inches of snow and a coating of ice, and by mid-morning temperatures began climbing till they reached 40 degrees by early afternoon—Miami Beach!

When the rain stopped (a rise in temperature here in winter always seems to be accompanied by rain) I took Aussie for a walk. She’s so undeterred by cold and snow that she waited for our walk while lying belly-down on a snowy mat on the top step outside my office.

We went to a nearby park leading into the woods. Big mistake. The snow here was wet and full of puddles, and as we sloshed down the path my boots filled up with water and my feet got wet and cold. I trudged down the path like this for some 50 minutes till I decided enough was enough and turned Aussie back.

Didn’t bother her any, but I came home and immediately warmed up some minestrone. I think it will take about a week till those boots dry out.

At the beginning of the walk, I faced a conundrum. Turn left and climb up in snow that looked firm and more solidly packed, which we could do with more ease, or go down the path to the right marred by footsteps filled with water (see above photo). I took the latter path, not realizing how wet I was going to get.

Ten minutes later, I said to Aussie: “What a mess! We shouldn’t have gone this way.”

“You always pick the messy ones,” she answered.

“I do?”

“Part of your messy nature,” she grumbled.

It’s not my nature. I like things in order. Our house isn’t terribly clean, but it’s usually in order. Most things are where I left them and where I expect to find them.

It’s not how I lived with Bernie, who brought a whole lot of mess into my life. The woman who insisted on paying her bills on time often found herself without the money to do that. The woman who wanted to see something get born, grow, and mature saw projects fail before they took shape, or else grow all kinds of limbs that led them sideways rather than straight up. The woman who liked clear-cut roles and definitions saw those things change overnight.

Most difficult of all, relationships—with staff, fellow students, fellow teachers, him and me—got messy.

Living and working with Bernie meant messes. Not in the rooms we lived in—he was one of the neatest people I knew—but in terms of plans gone awry. He couldn’t stop creating things: new companies, new organizations, new sanghas. He was like the woman who gave birth all the time but didn’t stick around to raise all the kids. To me, our workspace seemed full of unruly children who cried for attention, love, and support while we ran around from one to the other doing the best we could. Usually, it wasn’t enough.

At times, I called it a lack of integrity. Why bring anything into the world if you can’t take care of it, I’d challenge him. Why promise something if you’re not sure you can deliver?

You can’t be sure of anything, he’d say back. There are no guarantees. If only 10% of what we do bears fruit, I’m satisfied.

I wasn’t. I was more fundamentalist in nature. No messes on my watch, no unfulfilled promises, no word unkept. Which usually meant fewer words and fewer promises.

I’m a little more comfortable with messes now. By human standards, life is a mess; it’s way too wild to conform to plans or ideas. Bernie was ready to go wild, live with things as they were rather than make things neat and complete. Greyston didn’t need to be perfect to be valuable. Zen Peacemakers wouldn’t follow some clean arc of growth, it would dawdle, meander, and squiggle its way, obeying the reckless laws of life rather than calmer, more controlled laws of humans.

Finally, he stopped. The 2008 recession hit us hard, we lost the Farm, and he gave his word to the Zen Peacemakers board that he wouldn’t start new things. He was happy then. He flew out to teach and at home seemed more relaxed, driving out with a cigar several times a day, watching TV in the evening.

It was I then who would come over and say: “Don’t you want to do things anymore?”

And he would say: “I did enough.”

People seeing him then would never have guessed the good havoc he’d caused in the world, the flames he’d ignited in many, many places. I’m reminded of what Van Gogh wrote his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.”

He left more than a little smoke.

Tomorrow would have been his 83rd birthday..

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GO OUT EVERY DAY

I took Aussie out in mid-afternoon to our old hang-out in the woods overlooking the Montague Farm, where Zen Peacemakers used to have its offices. I’ve been walking dogs out there for almost 20 years.

Arctic gales are expected tonight and tomorrow, taking us into below-zero territory (Fahrenheit), and the winds are already kicking up. In that situation it’s always best to go into the woods where the trees protect you from the blasts coming your way..

It was barren out there this afternoon. Not a bird chirped, not an owl hooted, no people or dogs anywhere. It’s winter: bare, frigid, a delicate balance for the deer that survived hunting season, the small critters and birds.

In our first winter in our house, in 2004, I came out one freezing morning and found a dead coyote on the front lawn. It had no violent marks, I think it simply starved to death. It had come to our house in a last desperate effort to find food and died during the night.

Two years before that, in 2002, Bernie and I arrived in Massachusetts and lived communally with 10 other people in the Montague Farm. That first winter, a local man told me that I faced a choice: Stay at home for 5 months, or buy the right clothes, accessories, and footwear, and go out every day.

20 years later, it hits me that he was describing how to make it not just through a New England winter but also life.  Circumstances change—it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s sad, exhilarating, fun, depressing, or I’m just plain not in the mood—but out I go. Try not to close up, not to slip under the covers. Go out and out to the very edges of not-knowing. Search inside a hollow trunk, scrape away at the ice to see if water runs underneath, look carefully at an unidentified print. Who left it? What was here?

At times I’m asked to go back to old roles and containers, things I know how to do. That feels like staying home instead of facing a New England winter.

My January dog-walking clothes tend to be on the old side: a pair of brown lined jeans a decade old and a gray sweatshirt my mother brought me from her trip to China many years ago, an unattractive burgundy jacket I found in a Salvation Army store 20 years ago. Aussie’s the only one who sees me wearing it.

Since I tend to lose gloves, I wear a different glove on each hand, a heavy black one lined with fleece on my left hand (I lost the right a week ago) and a red mitten on my other hand (its partner was lost five years back). A heavy gray shawl rounds my neck and a green wool hat, knitted for me by Sensei Franziska Schneider in Switzerland, covers my head.

No prizes for style, but I stay warm. My feet are encased in wool socks inside a pair of faded fur-lined boots, yaktrax on their bottoms. I know there’s warm outdoor gear out there that’s lighter and prettier, but this does fine.

The biggest prison I know is the one erected by my own thoughts: What I did, what I didn’t, what I couldn’t. What he did, what she didn’t, what he couldn’t. Why something happened, why something else didn’t happen. Practice has taught me how to leave that prison behind anytime.

Aussie runs up and down the white slopes, impervious. We won’t go out tomorrow, there’s an alert about the freeze. I let her rush freely now; she’s careful, not reckless. At the same time, I know that if she runs into a band of hungry coyotes in winter, for all her sauciness, there won’t be much she could do.

We turn back. The pine needles shiver in the air, the trees shake and moan, dry leaves sweep across the snow and furrows turn brittle, the wind begins to howl, and Aussie’s tail is making circles as she runs parallel to me across the forest. In what feels like a dead, icy wasteland this afternoon edging towards evening, I’m aware that everything is right here, nothing’s absent, and it’s all alive. Vitally, uncompromisingly alive.

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

“Aussie, guess what you are.”

“The smartest dog in the world?”

“No.”

“The cleverest dog you’ve ever had? The best hunter, the sweetest companion, and the most ferocious guard dog ever seen?”

“No.”

“The most reactionary, racist, immigrant-baiting motherf—er in America?”

“Not even that, Aussie. Your DNA results came in, courtesy of a gift we received from Lori.”

“Oh, no! Did they find out I’m a criminal?”

“No, Auss, but they did track the different dog breeds that make up Aussie. See?”

“No.”

“First, Aussie, almost half of you is a herding dog, a German Shepherd. Herding dogs like to control the movements of other animals.”

“And people. I’ve been controlling your moves from the day I came into the house.”

“The German Shepherd is particularly known for courage, athleticism, and intelligence.”

“I knew it! I knew it! C’est moi!”

“But that’s just half of you, Auss. Another quarter or so is Chow Chow.”

“Because I like to chow down?”

“No, because you’re Chinese.”

“I am not! Do I look Chinese to you? Do I have those weird-looking eyes that seem half asleep most of the time?”

“Aussie, Chow Chows used to pull carts in ancient China. They were also used as food.”

“You mean, they ate food.”

“No, Aussie, they were food.”

“Don’t even think about it!”

“Don’t worry, Auss, if I ever consider eating you, it’ll only be a quarter.”

“I don’t think I like this DNA thing. Do any of these labels begin to describe what a unique, elegant, arrogant, good-humored bitch I am?”

“No.”

“So what good are they?”

“About 5% of you is a guard dog, like a pit bull.”

“Forget about it. Too dangerous and the pay’s not good.”

“About 10% of you is Hound, like Beagle and Foxhound. That’s the part that goes after prey.”

“Always knew I’m the greatest hunter that ever lived.”

“But here comes the bad news, Auss. Ready for this?”

“If it’s about me, it can’t be that bad.”

“You also have some Terrier in you. Guess what kind of Terrier? It comes from somewhere down South.”

“No-no-no-no!”

“You’re right! 5% of you is Chihuahua.”

“Like Henry the Terrible?”

“Olé!”

“No way José. Nothing, but NOTHING about me is remotely like Henry. I’m not short-hair, I’m not small, I’m not illegal, and I don’t talk Mexican.”

“Aussie, some of what makes Henry Henry is in you, too.”

“Never!”

“Some of everybody is in all of us, and some of us is in everybody.”

“I can deal with the part of me that’s Spencer the dumb old Golden or Ripper the silly Pug. But not Henry, never Henry!”

“Look at it this way, Auss. Since he’s a relative, you probably won’t ever get married.”

“Vomit! Vomit! What about Donald Trump? Is part of him in you?”

“Probably. Unfortunate, but so. Forget about all this, Aussie. You’re right, all the DNA analysis, all the breeds in the entire world don’t come close to capturing who you really are.”

“I’m a wild thing!”

“You are.”

“I’m beyond labels and categories.”

“Bravo, Aussie.”

“Just look into my eyes. Can you, a writer, pin me down with a word? A name?”

“I cannot.”

“That’s why you’re my best friend, the only human who’s ever understood me.”

“Actually, Aussie, only 1% of you is a companion dog. American Eskimo.”

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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THE BUDDHA AND THE DOG

“Aussie, did you hear what Pope Francis said?”

“Who?”

“The head of one of the world’s largest religions, Auss. Some people believe that he speaks for God. He said that one of the problems we have in the world is that people prefer to have pets, like dogs, than to have children.”

“He calls that a problem? How many children does he have?”

“None, as far as I know, Aussie.”

“How many dogs?”

“None, as far as I know.”

“I rest my case.”

“Aussie, that may be what’s meant by renunciation.”

“What’s renunciation?”

“Giving things up. In terms of religion, it means that you give up things like certain foods, clothes, independence, family life, sex, and children to focus on taking care of the poor and the sick, or on spiritual awakening. Pope Francis may have given up the possibility of having children or dogs to get closer to God.”

“Come on! The best way to get close to God is to get a dog.”

“How do you know, Aussie?”

“Easy. After dealing with me every day, you’d go anywhere, ANYWHERE!, even up to God in the sky, to get away.”

“But Aussie, the opposite is also true. You know how much I value concentration and hate distractions?”

“Do I ever!”

“But when you sidle over to me and mewl like you do, Aussie, I stop typing, put the coffee cup down, and I pet you. And when Henry comes over and gets up on his hind legs and taps my knee with one of his front paws—”

“He loves ordering you around!”

“–I stop everything, pick him up, and put him on my lap. Even in the middle of meetings. Henry regularly attends at our weekly Zen Peacemaker Order meeting.”

“He’s a waste of valuable time!”

“He’s not, Aussie, and that’s the point. The poet, Mary Oliver, said: Joy is not made to be a crumb.

(Sigh) “I love crumbs.”

“Aussie, I don’t want just crumbs of joy in my life, I want lots of joy! Lots of delight, cheer, and happiness!”

“I thought you were a Buddhist!”

“It’s easy for me to get lost in work and Zooms and meetings and blogs; the whole day and week can go by like that. Instead, I’ve learned to stop everything when Henry taps me on the knee, pick him up, sit him down on my lap, and cuddle with him. The minutes I spend doing that are full of joy. There’s something about seeing his big eyes up close—”

“Mine are much prettier.”

“—feeling his fur—”

“You call that fur?”

“—and feeling the heart beating powerfully in that small, 16-pound body that makes me plain happy. He sits on my lap like a prince on the throne receiving adoring strokes and attention, like it’s all coming to him, as if that’s what life is really about. And that simple act of holding him on my lap and stroking him makes me happy, Aussie.”

“Let me ask you something: When the Buddha sat under the tree and meditated, did he have a dog on his lap?”

“Not that I’ve heard. Unless Mara, the Lord of Delusion, brought him one.  The sutras say that Mara brought him his beautiful daughters to distract him, but also an army of monsters and demons.”

“Then he must have brought Henry. And was the Buddha distracted?”

“He was not.”

“Did he hold him and kiss him and tell him what a sweetie he was? Vomit! Vomit! Vomit!”

“I don’t care, Aussie. Like Mary Oliver said, I don’t want a crumb of joy here and a crumb of joy there, I want the whole shebang.”

“And you call yourself a Buddhist!”

“When you and Henry come over and interrupt some work I do that barely reaches the bar of insignificance in the long run of things, I want to grab those minutes of feeling those soft hairs under my hand, seeing a few specks of gray on your dark fur—”

“Gray! Where? Where?”

“—and feeling Henry’s small body shake and quiver with pleasure as my fingers graze down his back. That’s pleasure! That’s gladness! That’s joy!”

“Maybe, but that’s no way to get enlightened.”

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

MUNDANE TASKS OF LIFE

In the past few years, I’ve found myself repeating this refrain to myself again and again: I want to keep on working, keep on doing. I don’t want my days to be consumed by the Mundane Tasks of Life.

But the other day, right at this hour of a cold January twilight, a question occurred to me: So what’s wrong with spending your days on the Mundane Tasks of Life?

I’ve said it before: I’m a slow learner.

What are these tasks? Here’s one day’s worth: Get up in the morning, wash up, meditate, light incense, feed Aussie, study, exercise, eat breakfast, make food plans for company tomorrow and compose shopping list, make the bed, weekly laundry, long talk with my brother re family matters, walk Aussie and Henry, fill up birdfeeders, empty dehumidifier in basement, water flowers, prepare and eat dinner (except on some Wednesday evenings when Byron, Jimena’s husband, cooks dinner for me when I come to meet with them and immigrant families).

But in my mind, what counts as work today? Weekly meeting of Zen Peacemaker Order committee and related emails, Zoom with student, prepare cash and food cards for immigrant families, meet with Jimena and parents in evening, write this blog post. At the end of the day I’ll shake my head: This is how you spent your day? That’s all you did?

Somehow, I don’t include the Mundane Tasks of Life in my list, though there are many of them day after day. If anything, I fantasize about someone sharing those Mundane Tasks of Life, or better yet, taking them off my hands completely.

Not about to happen.

Slowly I’m realizing that there wouldn’t be life without the Mundane Tasks of Life. There wouldn’t be life without shopping for and cooking meals, washing clothes, sweeping the floors, or feeding and walking dogs. At least, not life as I know it.

I know people whose list of the Mundane Tasks of Life is much shorter than mine. They don’t live in a big house, they don’t have dogs, they don’t have friends, associates, or even family members they love to catch up with for longer than 10 minutes, they don’t have birdfeeders or plants or malfunctioning basement water pipes (the plumber arrives on Friday), they don’t bother with a yard or a garden.

Theirs is a simpler life than mine, they have more time on their hands, and often I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t live like that, too.

But right now I have deep personal connections and loving friendships, keep on studying, keep on teaching, keep on organizing, keep on talking with animals and trees while on walks in the forest. So many books to read! So many sutras to study! So many hours of zazen for which to get up each morning (just signed up for the 108 consecutive days of meditation that Green River has been doing every winter over many years). And yes, so many Mundane Tasks of Life.

One evening I made myself a feta cheese omelet, toasted some bread, added a salad, poured myself a glass of wine because it was a weekend evening, and it hit me: This is life. Life is made up of tasks, the tasks of living.

What outside of these Mundane Tasks of Life is more important? The cutlery and napkins on the dining table ask for relationship just like my sister and brother. The laundry machine asks for attentive care as I load it, keeping it in balance so that it doesn’t pound on the floor, no different from the dogs or the post office lady at the door. These are fields of Buddha activity.

There’s a joke about a man who must get to an office meeting by a certain time only he can’t find parking. He goes round and round the building, round and round the block, no luck. He prays to God: “Please God, find me a parking place, otherwise I’m in trouble.” He goes around the block again and there, right in front of the door, a parking place has opened. He sidles into it and says: “Never mind, God, did it myself.”

Not quite sure why I bring this up now, except to point out that if something feels mundane, it’s because I’ve made it so. I’ve categorized things as important and not, spiritual and not, real work and not. In doing so, I’ve taken something far more mysterious, far more subtle, far more gorgeous and baffling out of the equation.

What I’m also discovering is that when I appreciate my Mundale Tasks of Life, I also appreciate others’ Mundane Tasks of Life. I visited with Jimena this evening, bringing rent money for a family whose father worked in construction, fell off the ladder and broke his leg. And food cards. Ordinarily I’d be in a hurry to leave when all this is done and folks have left, but this time we sat on her freezing porch sipping hot tea to keep warm and talking about omicron and testing in the local schools. Then we talked about her boys playing basketball.

“Oh my God, Eve,” she says, “my Mario played his first game on Monday. You should see all his fans crying his name: Mario! Mario! Here, let me show you.” Out comes one of three cell phones Jimena uses to show me a photo of four pretty girls holding up a sign with his name.

“You’re in trouble now,” I tell her.

“He’s still in Middle School,” she objects vehemently. “He knows that school is the only thing that matters.” Jimena has pounded that lesson into her boys since the day they were born. Nothing, but nothing, is supposed to distract them from school. She must be Jewish somewhere.

“Forget it,” I tell her. “These are beautiful girls; it’s just a matter of time.”

She grins proudly and sighs at the same time. “No, no, no, no,” she says. “Not now.”

“You mean, not ever, don’t you?”

We both laugh. Simple, ordinary life. Take the son to basketball practice, bring him home. Byron cooks dinner, which Jimena won’t eat till she’s done working at 9:00 pm. That’s when she’ll also remind Mario that only school matters, not girls, not even basketball practice.

We sip our tea, we laugh, I gather my pocketbook, soon I’ll leave. Life is so mundane we barely notice it.

Please help me support our immigrant community. I was told that the link supplied on Monday for immigrant families was dead; I hope it’s live this evening, someone’s working on tis. If not, you can use the link for blog donations and add the words: for food cards. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Donate to My Blog               Donate to Immigrant Families

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

WAITING

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope this new year brings us all a healthy body, a glad heart, and days full-filled rather than filled.

What do I wish myself? Patience. A particular kind of patience, the kind that knows that waiting is its own goal and possesses its own sacredness.

I’ve always hated waiting. I would look at my watch, feel my breaths getting shallower, visualize what I could be doing right this minute and how time was slipping by with NO NOTICEABLE RESULTS.

On Wednesday evening I’ll meet with Jimena once again at the front porch of her home to give out food cards. The office where she works has shut down due to surging numbers of omicron, so we’re back in her uninsulated front porch and I’ll have to really dress warm. Just in case I get too whiny about it, young mothers come with their small children snug and warm in heavy coats and jackets while they, the young mothers, wear sneakers rather than boots, thin pants that reveal bare ankles uncovered by socks, and jackets? Sometimes.

“Aren’t you cold?” I say, teeth chattering. They shrug jauntily, as if the weather is the last thing they have to worry about.

If they don’t come on time, as often happens, the waiting begins: I chat with Jimena, catch up on how people are doing, the kids, the schools, who’s been to the hospital and who is finally well (I heard Hilaria was doing much better and will get more details on Wednesday). Get the inside scoop on how people are making it through winter  when the farms are closed, when the utility bills are unpaid and the money they put aside in summer quickly diminishes and then disappears. Even as I write this I am waiting for a response from Jimena about someone needing desperate help for rent.

At some point we stop  talking and waiting commences. I think about the passing evening hours, how I have to get home to finish some things that still need work, curl my freezing toes inside my boots, take a breath or two, and still get impatient.

Here’s what I’ve learned only recently: Waiting is its own spiritual practice. Waiting is sacred. Waiting implies that I’m open to the possibility that nothing will happen according to my timeframes, my deadlines. It may feel passive, but it’s not. I’m holding the space for something to happen, knowing that it may and may not, and that assuming it happens it won’t do so punctually. It won’t happen on my time. In fact, it won’t happen on time at all because I don’t even know what that means anymore.

When we used to work in the Middle East I was always moved by both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. Majorities had moved in the opposite direction, bombings and bloodshed continued, and at times I’d see a small group of people bearing banners at intersections and getting cursed out by passing drivers. They were waiting. Not passively at all, but waiting nevertheless, holding the space for the change that would come.

There are so many things I wish would happen on time:

I want people to pick up food cards for their families on time each Wednesday;

I want them to speak English way better than they do. It’s not easy for me to stand on the margins and hear them chattering away with Jimena in Spanish while I struggle to follow with my barely basic Spanish. In general, being on the margin of activity rather than in its center is an important practice of waiting for me.

I want their children to finish school with honors and go to college, fulfill the American dream. It happens sometimes—I’ve written about it—but certainly not always. The kids are kids, they’ve been at home a lot, isolated from teachers and educators, with parents barely able to help them with computers and lessons. I want things to change and take root quickly, want to be able to share with you stories of great success. It doesn’t happen quickly so I have to wait.

I learned about waiting after Bernie died. I couldn’t understand this persistent grief and confusion, a misplaced sense of identity. One year passed, another year passed. “Something’s wrong here,” I told friends. I was doing grief too slowly. They said: “You have to wait.”

I think of my impatience with students and remember Bernie. He wanted so much to happen. It didn’t, and he was fine with that. As I get closer to his age I deeply appreciate the vast store of patience he had with his own students, and certainly with his wife.

I’d like this world to embrace differences of all kinds faster, to honor the species we share the earth with and take care of everyone. To act on what we already know. That’s certainly not happening on my time, according to my watch. I too, am to blame here. I don’t have the funds to switch to solar energy for my home (will have to cut down too many trees) and drive more than I absolutely have to. But if all that changed, I’d still have to wait.

Even the card above, expressing Emily’s gratitude for Christmas gifts that she and 81 of her friends received from you, reminds me of the practice of waiting. For what? So that Emily could spell Holodays as holidays? The universe has its own designs, its own misspelled words. How pretentious to think I know what those are! I have had the misfortune of rushing to get something done, stepping on toes, speeding through intersections, creating stress, hurt, and confusion. I couldn’t stand to be inactive; I couldn’t stand to wait.

Finally, finally, I’m learning.

I haven’t asked for help for immigrant families since before Thanksgiving. Winter is upon us—today only made it to the 20s and felt way colder than that—and for some families that will mean harsh choices with regard to food, heat, and utilities. If you could provide some help here, together we might be able to prolong the holodays a little longer. Thank you.

Donate to My Blog               Donate to Immigrant Families

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

CAN I GO DARK?

“Aussie, do you know what’s your deepest heart’s desire?”

“Easy. Triple Flavor Chicken, Duck, and Chicken Liver Kabobs.”

“That’s it, Auss? That’s your deepest heart’s desire?”

“Well, maybe not. Gotta think.”

“How about joy for the coming year? Peace on earth?”

“Nah, Beef Burger with Bison Strips. I’d go for Triple Flavor Beef, Pork, and Chicken Twists but I don’t eat pork.”

Aussie and I talked about this after walking in the fog. Bare winter trees on either side of us while the air serves to conceal rather than reveal. We don’t see other people or dogs till they’re practically upon us.

This is a change for me. I’m blessed with a sharp, discriminating mind, the kind that likes to see and say what’s what, what feels real and what nebulous, the kind that likes precision and definition instead of feeling one’s way through things.

I talked to a friend yesterday about an unpleasant conversation I had with a student, and he laughed. “You like things to be sharp and clear. My guess is that when you’re confronted by someone or a situation that’s not that way, you run for the hills.”

He was right, I thought, grateful for his diagnosis. I’ve always liked things to be clear and transparent. “Precision is a spiritual practice,” my brother used to say. No patience for vagueness or ambivalence, for words that don’t mean anything. Sometimes for all words.

But now I feel the need to go into the fog. Or perhaps into the earth. In my last post I wrote that I suddenly stopped doing a morning service to Kwan-yin and instead just plant a stick of incense on the (now) wet ground, nothing more. If this was a koan, I’d say that I’m that incense stick wishing to be planted deep in the earth even as a small part of me burns off.

My friend also reminded me of a quote by Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “The most important thing is to find what’s the most important thing.”

It’s so easy to be distracted by the small, daily tasks of existence: shopping for and cooking three meals a day, dog walking, emails, news, folding laundry, telephone calls, brushing and feeding Aussie, picking up something at the store, filling up the car with gas, sweeping the kitchen, emptying the dehumidifier in the basement. Those daily tasks could define the rest of my life if I let them, and my conditioning to be a good girl and complete the tasks on the list doesn’t help much here.

And there are other things to do with teaching, with the Zen Peacemaker Order, and even with this blog. Last night Jimena and Byron took me out for dinner as a belated birthday gift. They were thrilled with the 82 Christmas gifts we managed to give out to children of immigrant families and we talked about the immigrant community now, at this time of omicron. But even those efforts, valuable as they are, can be a distraction. They’re from 2021, somewhat from habit and old inspiration.

What’s the most important thing going into 2022? Where lies my passion for something bigger than me? I feel I know well the part of the incense stick whose smell wafts up with the wind, explores bare branches and crows, hovering over muddy paths and the head of Kwan-yin. That visible part of the world is familiar. I struggle with the part that’s buried underground. I struggle with the invitation to go dark.

This is the time for it. The gray darkness goes on for many hours in the day; rare have been the mornings I opened my eyes to see blue skies this winter.  I used to groan when I saw that first thing in the morning, but now I appreciate it. The universe is beckoning to me, saying: See? I even robbed the light from the earth so that you could more easily make the journey to the underworld.

I think of those who buy special lamps at this time of year, anything, anything for light. I get Facebook messages: Don’t despair, the light will come back. I’ll tell you honestly: Who needs it right now? The universe operates so much for our benefit, and if it gives us the dark freely, no charge, why not go there? It’s calling out to us to lie in the deep earth, rid ourselves of the things we commonly know and do, and listen.

As I wrote last time, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion left Jesus in the dark at the very end. In this change of year, over the next weeks and months of shadow, can I leave myself there, too? Can I stop worrying about return of the light, about resurrection, about a new inspiration firing off a splurge of fresh energy. For now, can I go dark?

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MID-WINTER

Henry is not well.

Yes, I know he’s a Chihuahua, a foreigner, and Aussie says she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But in truth she likes his company on walks. Lately he hasn’t come with us, he shakes and shivers on his paws, and it’s not from the cold. When he does come, he can’t run around like her, chasing after animals, pursuing smells. Instead, he stays with me and whines sadly, waiting for her to rejoin us.

We don’t know what it is. For a long time, the diagnosis was kidney trouble and Henry’s been on a special diet. Now they’re looking at his back. He’s in pain and doesn’t eat much.

But today he played all morning and afternoon with Croc, his green stuffed crocodile, and Pinky the elephant. Even now, as I try to focus on the computer screen, he tosses his small green turtle onto my lap with a soft snarl and waits for me to throw it so that he could fetch. Or else he sits by the glass door of the office and stares out at the squirrels trying to hijack the birdseed.

In Thanksgiving we took out the birdfeeders. Three out of four seasons I don’t feed birds, but comes winter, the ground freezing solid, I fill up five birdfeeders with sunflower seeds (I buy 40-pound bags of them) and up they go, consumed in no more than two days. The squirrels monopolize one for sure and attempt to get at the others, with varying degrees of success. This brings new activity to the back yard and Aussie and Henry dash out the dog door a dozen times a day, on the hunt for marauding squirrels.

Some people try to get squirrel-proof feeders; I don’t. Comes the cold, dark winter, I want to take care of people and animals, including me. Want to tend to the universe. Come April, trees grow new leaves, plants leap up from the ground like Marines and flowers straggle up shyly from the underworld. Life seems to do just fine without help from me. But in winter things seem more fragile, more tender. They need to be tended to, like Henry.

Given all this, imagine my surprise when this morning I found myself reluctant to go out to Kwan-yin in the back and do service with incense, imploring her for compassion on behalf of people who’re ill or need help. I thought: Enough, enough. I did put on my boots, went out and left a stick of incense in the soil, a tiny offering to this great sustaining earth.

But I was puzzled that I didn’t wish to do what I’ve done for years. Was it just one morning’s impulse, or is something else coming up? And why now, at the very time that calls for more giving, more tenderness?

I remember seeing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music some 30 years ago, directed by Jonathan Miller, one of England’s great theater directors. I traveled down from Yonkers with a friend. I’d never seen the Passion before, didn’t even know the music.

Of course, I knew the story of that Last Supper, the betrayal of Jesus, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Roman soldiers coming to get him, sentenced by Pilate to a terrible death, the crucifixion at Golgotha. And, of course, the resurrection would occur at the end. At least, that’s what I thought.

But St. Matthew’s Passion had no resurrection at the end. It showed the entire story through his death and ended with the body being taken down and the tomb sealed.

There was applause, followed by people getting up from their seats to leave the theater. I sat there alone, waiting for the resurrection. Finally, the friend with whom I’d driven down, who sat in a distant seat, came to pick me up, wondering why I hadn’t met her in the lobby as we’d planned.

“What about the resurrection?” I asked her. She was Christian and a musician. If anyone would know, she would.

“There is no resurrection in St. Matthew’s Passion,” was the response.

I couldn’t believe it. The next day I bought the CD and listened carefully, following the English translation in the accompanying Notes. And no, there was no resurrection. No triumph in the end, no victory of good over evil, day over night, gladness over despair. The Israelites didn’t win it over the Egyptians

What there was, was tenderness.

Maybe that’s part of this winter for me, or the winter of my life. When you’re younger you want to win. You want your values to triumph, mercy and compassion to cross the finish line. The world may falter, but the resurrection is inevitable.

Maybe. There’s a lot to say for waiting things out. No prayer for a particular outcome, just breathing in and out together with the rest of the world.

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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CAN DAHLIAS GET THE CORONA?

“Can dahlias get the corona?”

When I’m in Israel I usually buy flowers for family on Friday afternoons. Buying flowers for the Sabbath is a widespread custom and vendors sprout up on almost every street corner, surrounded by large buckets holding flower bouquets.

On the last Friday of my sojourn in Israel I found a bouquet of red dahlias. Swapna, my mother’s Indian caregiver, inserted them into a vase containing last week’s white flowers and set the on the coffee table. About 50 times that week my mother would say: “Look at those flowers!”

“They’re dahlias, mom,” I tell her. “Do you know how often I’ve tried to raise dahlias back home? I succeeded for one or two summers and failed ever since because we don’t have enough sunlight around the house, too many trees.”

She listens and nods but has a hard time fathoming any of this since she doesn’t understand where I live and what has this to do with her flowers. Five minutes later she says: “Look at those flowers!” And finally, to my surprise: “Can dahlias get the corona?”

“I don’t know, mom. Different animals have gotten it, but I don’t know about flowers.”

“You have to be so careful nowadays,” she says, and I don’t know if she’s talking to me or to the flowers.

Earlier that same day we got an urgent call from Saint Swapna. “Mother won’t come inside. She stand outside and won’t come in, she says this is not her home.”

My sister gets on the phone. “Mom, it’s very cold and rainy, go inside with Swapna.”

“No, no, it’s not my home. I don’t go with Swapna, she is evil, I trusted her but now I know never to do that again.”

“Mom, listen to me.”

But she goes on: “My own children sold me down the river, like Joseph’s brethren sold him to slave merchants who took him to Egypt. My own children! I would have never believed it!”

By then my brother and I have jumped into his car and are on our way to her home. Outside, a cold, wintry rain is pelting the sidewalks, but when we get to her home 20 minutes later she still stands on the sidewalk, refusing to come in.

“The most horrible thing you can do is kidnap a child, or a parent, and separate children from parents, children from their siblings,” she berates us.

My brother urges her indoors while I briefly think of the Trump government separating families at the border. She comes in, wet and cold, and we urge her into her favorite blue chair. She looks confusedly from one wall to another.

“Mom, do you recognize the sofa? You recognize the kitchen? You see the pictures? The photos?”

“Ye-es,” she says shakily, “I recognize them. But,” and she looks around her from one wall to another, “this is not my apartment. This is not my apartment.”

We sat with her for over an hour, and still she couldn’t recognize her home. Finally, Swapna gave her a pill and she went to bed.

The following morning, she woke up with no memory of the preceding day. Instead, she kept on telling me how much she loved her home, with the trees outside and the sunlight shining through the windows, brightening the white, clean floor tiles. Finally, looking at the dahlias, her forehead creased with worry, she asked: “Can dahlias get corona?”

I was in the midst of applying for an exemption permitting me to fly out and return home in the middle of new regulations restricting almost all travel in and out of Israel due to omicron. The radio and newspapers were full of graphs and statistics, interviews with epidemiologists and dire predictions. I had to get an antigen test and fill out both Israeli and US forms, wondered if I’d ever get home.

My mom worried whether dahlias could get the virus. The reach of her concern dwarfed mine by far.

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GETTING HOME

I’m back home, as the photo above suggests. Dusting of snow last night. Lori and I walked the dogs this Christmas Eve morning, Aussie in high spirits, Henry the Chihuahua shaking and trembling in the chill. Two dogs experiencing the moment so differently.

I had a hard time getting out of Israel. A few days before I was scheduled to leave, the prime minister announced that models indicate a severe surge of the omicron variant three weeks hence, so the government was taking radical measures, one of which was restricting travel in and out of the country. In essence, no one could fly out to a Red country without getting a special exemption.

The US was declared Red 24 hours before my scheduled departure. My sister helped me file an online application for exemption, but no answer came. Later I heard that they got so many applications that their systems crashed.

“I don’t care,” I told her. “I’m going to the airport and getting on that flight.” Last May I hadn’t been able to get home due to the war with Gaza; I was pretty determined.

My brother took me to the airport some four hours early. Once there, I was directed to a special office on another floor that was handing out exemptions and found myself on a line of some 200 people trying to get home, converging on a counter, behind which sat two middle-aged, harried women. Their computers were down and they were doing things manually.

At first there was a line, but as it lengthened, it widened, too, and soon disintegrated completely. Most passengers were like me, waving American passports and demanding to be allowed to board the plane. There were also a few with other needs—unvaccinated passengers, people with only an Israeli passport wishing to leave the country, etc. They pressed their case and took up lots of time.

As minutes, then hours passed, we became a mob, pressing and pushing against each other, straining to get to the counter. I could feel the pressure against my back, padded by my backpack, could hear one of the women on the phone screaming for help, saying there was a mob out there and where was a representative from the Health Department?

A heavyset Russian man yelled behind me: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THEM? WHAT KIND OF DUMBA—F—S are they!”

At first, I responded mildly. “It’s the first 24 hours after the new rules and they’re clearly unprepared and understaffed.”

“AND WHAT’S WITH THOSE CRAZY HASIDIM?” he shouted. “THEY ALWAYS WANT MORE THAN ANYBODY ELSE!” He was referring to two orthodox young men in their black suits, side curls, and hats, who took a half hour to get their case resolved.

As time passed I, too, got carried away. The United flight was going to leave without me—how dare they? I, too, yelled at the woman behind the counter. I snapped at the slender, young, uniformed man quietly pushing his way ahead of everyone else, explaining that he was taking care of two VIPs, a father and son, who needed special assistance.

I didn’t say “F— THEM!” but I might as well have. Instead, I exploded: “I’m standing here for the last two hours, and they get special assistance!”

I blamed him, blamed the two overwhelmed women doing their best with no functioning computers and no help, facing a crowd that got angrier and more aggressive by the minute. The outrage felt so good! Indignation! Moral injury!

I got to the counter, filled out a form, threw down my passport, the woman copied the form, stamped it, returned it to me, and it took a few minutes to fight my way out of the roiling throng.

Had another angry exchange with the United ticket agent who wouldn’t accept the form (“Their computers are down; this is the best they can do!” I had to repeat repeatedly even as she insisted otherwise), and finally found myself in a narrow Economy window seat of the plane, ready to take off. In the peak of the Christmas holiday season, when planes to and from Israel are full of tourists and Christian pilgrims, the flight was ¾ empty.

And felt ashamed. Wished I’d been more patient, more gracious, more grateful to the two women doing their best. Wished I’d had an Order of Disorder clown nose on, bringing levity and smiles to the angry crowd. I thought: Now I know what it’s like to be part of a mob. Not a lynching mob, but livid and abusive.

I don’t describe this out of guilt. This is hardly my only episode of outrage and indignation; I’ve had a number of these in my life. If I’d thought it was behind me, I found out it wasn’t, but that discovery wasn’t much of a surprise.

We get caught in the net of gain and loss; we fight tooth and nail, but loss is as much part of life as everything else. In the end I will lose a lot more than a flight home. I’ll probably lose my mom just as I lost Bernie, I may well lose other family members and friends, the use of parts of my body, the energy I treasured, finally this life form. Do I really want to be outraged every time that happens?

“Aussie lay on your bed the days you were gone,” Lori told me. “She wanted to be with your smell.”

The smell probably faded after some days, and still she lay there. She didn’t kick and scream, didn’t yell that life isn’t fair and curse the universe. She lay there till Lori called her for a walk or food, and then, tail wagging, she’d go downstairs.

She’s better at impermanence than I am.

I had a dream last night, jetlag and all. I dreamt that I met Donald Trump and we became friends. He made thoughtful comments and listened; he’d become humble. I brought him to a group I was working with—Latino immigrants? Families with no homes? The dream wasn’t specific about that—and he listened to them and made simple, practical suggestions. He cared.

It’s the night of Christmas Eve now. I wish us all more patience this coming year, a larger compassion, a wider door to our own beating heart.

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.