SO WHAT’S NEW? NOTHING.

I lit a tall stick of incense today for my uncle who passed away some years ago. His name was Simcha Singer. The ch is soft, as in my Hebrew name, Chava. Simcha means joy.

My family, like others, has lost people over the years, but many of the cousins of my generation, on the maternal side, feel they owe a special debt—in fact, their lives—to this uncle.

How to describe him? He was born two years ahead of my mother to a poor Jewish family in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia. The brother and sister, two siblings among 11, with a mother who could give but little individual attention, hung out a lot together.

He looked down from the roof when the Nazis entered Bratislava in the middle of the night in 1944 (the second time they came in), woke up the family, and took them into a rarely used room in the very back of the basement of their apartment house. Once they were safely inside, he shut the doors on them and piled up wood, boards, and thrown-away objects so that  it would look uninhabited. Other families from the building rushed downstairs into the basement proper, were discovered, and sent to Auschwitz. No one discovered the family behind the hidden door.

Rather than taking shelter, my uncle, around 18 at the time, leaped from roof to roof and knocked on as many windows as possible to tell people that the Nazis had come in and to save themselves. There are some funny stories about those hours, too, that I won’t detail now.

He had planned for the Nazis’ arrival for a while.

“I tried to talk to Abba (Dad) about it but he never liked to listen to me, he had other favorites among his sons,” he told me many years later.

He had met a non-Jewish construction worker who had a cellar in his house. That’s where the family hid out. The cellar was so low, damp, and crowded they could only sit huddled inside, unable to stand. They were finally discovered by the Nazis.

“I think it was a Jewish man from somewhere else who joined us for a short while,” my mother remembered. “We were found right after that, they knew exactly where to go to find us. They probably caught him and promised him his freedom if he’d tell them where he’d been, not that they ever had any intention of keeping their bargain.”

It was often my mother who was sent out to get food because she was more Aryan looking, but her brother also sneaked out though he looked as dark and Jewish as could be. Their toddler nephew, his mother killed at Auschwitz, was being hidden and raised by a non-Jewish woman in the country, and she insisted on being paid monthly. Month after month, regardless of what happened to the family, one of them had to get to her and make that payment.

My uncle was caught more than once, even tortured, but he had a way of evading his captors. Once he was put on a train to a concentration camp, and as soon as the train pulled away, he started whittling away at the heavy wooden door, trying to create an opening big enough to escape through it.

“The others there were afraid of the guards,” he remembered. “I told them I had to pay for my nephew; besides, we had nothing more to lose.”

The story of that escape is even more bizarre, complex, and inspiring than I can relate right now. Books and books can be published about the heroism of people who were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. My mom is no slouch in that department, either.

When I was a child, I looked at him as a hero; I think we all did. It was hard to believe that this thin, diminutive man had done so much; we felt we owed him our lives.

It took my uncle a long time to settle into his own life in Israel. He had a family but not a particularly happy marriage. He opened up an appliance store which made money and bored him, so he tried many different things, investing in various companies, and even traveled through Asia as an arms dealer, purchasing American weapons abandoned in Vietnam and selling them to other bidders.

There was a time when he dreamed of leaving everything and everyone, going away to Argentina, and starting anew. There was always that restlessness about him, searching the horizon for new ventures. But he stayed put, went to class, and learned how to be comfortable with computers.

The final stage of his life was characterized by a small series of strokes. My mother, who adored him above all other men, couldn’t understand it. “What’s wrong with him?” she’d say. “Why doesn’t he do something?”

But he was through doing things. He was a grandfather, a family patriarch, and I think he found happiness there.

According to my count, he died some eight years ago. Time goes by and it’s hard to keep track. The marker on his grave acknowledges the sacrifices he made to save Jews from death.

Between him and my mother, I feel I’ve lived in the shadow of heroism and self-sacrifice from the time I was born. Given the stories I grew up on, Mother Goose and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales paled in comparison. Children’s stories and books had no interest for me. I was proud of this family. You read and watch TV about courage, I used to say silently to the other kids around me, but our family’s the real thing.

I grew up wishing I could prove myself as they had. I’m very, very lucky not to be challenged in that way. I know what a blessing it is to have daily, uninterrupted routines.

“So, what’s new?” my mom asks in our daily phone calls.

I try to comb through the day to find something to entertain her, but finally I say: “Nothing, mom. Nothing’s new. We’re closed up, just like you.”

“Why?” she wonders, because she can’t remember.

Nothing’s new. What a privilege, how special! Even with covid around, there is no enemy with boots and guns at the door, no deportations, no need to hide. Others experience that—it’s why I help immigrant families—but that’s not my karma right now. No need to feel afraid. I miss certain things, and at the same time relish the ordinary routines of daily life: get up in the morning, shower, sit, coffee, greet the dogs, check the news and emails, look at the calendar to see what’s up for me that day, get to work.

Is there a greater blessing than that?

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THE WORLD KNOWS

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I sit here in a darkening Saturday afternoon, the day after the holiday. We had a spectacular rainstorm on Christmas Day. It began with a sprinkling on Christmas Eve and relentless torrents for most of yesterday. Aussie insisted on going out and dripped water all over the floor each time she came in; there was flooding everywhere, and practically all the snow—15 inches of it— disappeared by end of day, including all the snow surrounding the apple tree in the photo. I was grateful we didn’t lose power.

Here we are, I thought to myself, closed in by covid, and now closed in even more by the rain. Not only don’t we see family and friends, we can’t even go out to walk or play outdoors.

No matter how we look at it, this past year is still pushing us inside and inwards all the time, we can’t seem to avoid it, as if it’s saying: Don’t look out, look in. It doesn’t matter what you resolved or wished for 2020, your job is to stay inside.

I think of two things:

The first is my religious Jewish family, which, of course, never celebrated Christmas. More important, they tried to render it as invisible as possible in our home. It wasn’t considered good form to even say Christmas in the house, and while we never had much occasion to mention Jesus Christ, his name too was almost never mentioned. Not prohibited, just not considered proper..

For Jews, Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s biggest holidays, come with a lot of baggage. Historically, those were the times when Jews living in Europe and Russia during the Middle Ages and well into the European Age of  Enlightenment feared for their safety and lives. It was very common for Christians to go to church for worship, leave, and find joy not in a good holiday dinner at home but as a mob descending on the local Jewish community or ghetto, starting a spree of violence that often ended in plunder and murder. There are many documented cases of priests inciting their congregations to kill the Jesus-killers.

A strange way to celebrate the birth and later resurrection of a savior.

So, it’s no surprise that even a couple of centuries later, many Jews who’re still cognizant of that history—and especially religious Jews—view Christmas with suspicion. A good friend of mine, a Jewish woman who loves to cook for and celebrate holidays, wrote me that she doesn’t celebrate Christmas out of the resentment she harbors for  Christianity.

For years I had a hard time wishing people a Merry Christmas, even after they first wished it to me; I felt I was betraying my people who locked their doors in terror all those years ago when the church services ended, holding their children close and hoping that this year, at least, it will go by with no harm to them.

But, here I am, years later, and I appreciate the birth of a great spiritual leader and warrior. We had a very quiet day yesterday, but when my housemate invited me to join her in a Christmas dinner here at home a few days earlier, my immediate response was: “What can I make?” As a result, we had a magnificent dinner, I hadn’t eaten so rich in a long time: a roast beef, scalloped potatoes, snap peas, a berry crumble, wine. The dogs gathered by the kitchen stove, sniffing happily, causing us to trip over them. We worked out who had the oven first and in the end we filled up the dishwasher.

The rain pelted away: Stay indoors, stay inside. Don’t get distracted, don’t try to escape. Stay in.

And I remembered another Christmas holiday many years back, long before I married Bernie, when I lived in a cabin on my own. A good friend arrived for the holiday and I was very grateful for her company. We had a good time throughout.

In the middle of the day my brother called to ask how I was doing just as Linda  went for a walk outside. I told him I was hosting my good friend, he asked how that was, I said it was terrific, and then added: “You know, sometimes she talks too much.” We laughed, but even as I said those words, I knew it wasn’t really the case; Linda talked when we were together, but when I wished to be alone, she gave me lots of space. And still I said those words.

When she returned, I saw that her mood had changed. She’d left the house full of cheer, and she returned disgruntled. Immediately I thought: She heard what I said about her. But that couldn’t be, I then thought, she was nowhere near the cabin when I talked on the phone, not to mention that I talked in Hebrew to my brother. But something had changed in her, at least for a time, low spirits in the place of the high spirits she had when she’d left.

We became cheerful again a little later, but I thought to myself: She heard something. The leaves whispered it, or the birds, or the clouds. Somehow, she knew.

Why had I said those uncalled-for, unnecessary words about her?

Years later, Bernie told me he didn’t believe in secrets. “If you really see that we’re all One Body, then the world knows,” he said. “It may not know the details, but it knows something.”

I remembered this yesterday, and how sure I was that somehow, she knew. I thought of the unnecessary things I’ve said over time, and how the world always knew.

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ALL THE VOICES

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“Digging my way to the White House. I don’t have much time, Donald is losing his home in less than a month. I think this is the quickest way, I just have to dig deep and then turn south. Get there in no time.”

“He’s trying hard not to have to leave, Auss.”

“Of course. The White House is free housing, for God’s sake!”

“I never thought of it like that. You know, Aussie, people kill for a rent-controlled apartment in New York.”

“Presidential homelessness is a national scandal! He’s lucky he has me to tell the world how great he is.”

“No, Aussie, he has me to thank for that.”

“You!”

“You see, Aussie, I hate to tell you this, but I’m the one who comes up with your voice.”

“You do not. It’s my voice, it’s all me.”

“I give you your voice, Aussie. You don’t talk.”

“Of course, I talk! I talk your ear off.”

“Aussie, every single thing you say comes from me.”

“I talk. You can’t understand a word I say, but I talk.”

“You know what’s interesting about this voice that’s both your voice and my voice, Auss? All these things are in me. Who would think that I would consider going to live with Donald Trump in the White House?”

“I don’t see you digging!”

“Or that I would call Henry names and want to deport him—”

“He’s a foreigner, for God’s sake, a Chihuahua!”

“Or make fun of people and dogs who’re not like me—”

“I LOVE doing that!”

“Wonderful, Aussie.”

“What’s wonderful?”

“When I give you your voice, it lets all these other voices come out—and I didn’t even know they were there! That’s the gift of creativity, Aussie. You never know what’s in you till you start playing or writing or dancing, and suddenly you can’t believe all the voices that have been in you all the time.”

“It’s my voice!. You’re an idiot.”

“Even the voice that calls me an idiot is my voice, Aussie.”

“It’s my voice. I love calling you names.”

“It’s all my voices, Aussie, all infinite expressions of life. And you know what? My liberal voice is yours, too.”

“Can’t be. I’m no idiot.”

“Aussie, since we’re all one we have all the voices in creation inside.”

“I don’t want to hear no silly dharma.”

“Being creative helps us remove certain barriers so that we could express things we wouldn’t ordinarily, Aussie, see?”

“I think you’re hearing things. Your entire brain is rotting away, you’re forgetting everything. Remember how you lost the bag of walnuts? I love walnuts and you lost the bag.”

“I didn’t lose it, Auss, I misplaced it.”

“You looked for it everywhere, including the freezer, and where did you find it? In a Cheerios box. What are walnuts doing in a Cheerios box? And, oh great master of all voices, let me remind you of the car wash.”

“Please, Aussie, don’t talk about it.”

“Not a voice you like to hear, right? I mean, who the hell leaves the back window open inside a car wash?”

“I had no idea. I turn around and see you looking at me overjoyed, and I say: ‘Aussie, how did you turn so white?’ And you say—”

“’Because I’m covered with soap suds, dummy!’ Only then did you realize the window was completely open.”

“All that water came in and drenched you, the car seat and the car rug on the bottom. A terrible smell for weeks!”

“Coolest car wash ever. What a stink.”

“Where’s Henry, Aussie?”

“I hid him in the Cheerios box. By the time you find him he’ll be—”

“Aussie, I’ve never seen or heard such a grumpy, hateful, spiteful Christmas spirit as what you’re embodying on Christmas Eve.”

“Just another one of your voices!”

So, here’s another voice: A Merry Christmas to all. Fill the absences around the table and in your heart with da light; find space in emptiness; do some good for others. Nurture and love yourselves as the vessels of all God’s voices. Much, much love from Eve, Henry, Jimena, immigrant families, Donald, Aussie—

“Not me!”

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PERSISTENCE

That’s an apple in the photo, the sole surviving apple of our apple tree. It has survived, among other things, 16 inches of snow the other day. “Now, that’s persistence,” a friend told me.

Today would have been Bernie’s and my 20th wedding anniversary. We lived together for two years before that and  neither of us was in any hurry to formalize things. I think it was Maria Matthiessen, Peter’s wife, who first asked why we didn’t get married; that’s how it got put on the table.

Bernie left the time to me and I chose to get married on the winter solstice. At the time, we lived in Santa Barbara, California, and the winter solstice didn’t feel dark and cold as it does in New England. Here is where the winter solstice feels magical, here is where it feels like a big deal: the days are short, gray on top and white below, and the dark encroaches by mid-afternoon. But I love the dark. Rumi encourages people in his poetry to stay up and see the divine, the Lover, in the dark. The closest I get to meeting that invitation is at this time of year.

And part of that includes Bernie, and it also includes my friends and students who practice with the light and dark, who dance with them day in and day out. The birds cavort around the birdfeeders, spilling sunflower seeds on the snow and flying down to eat them, unaware of Aussie crouching around the corner of the house, waiting for her chance to pounce.

“If you didn’t feed them, she wouldn’t kill them,” someone said.

“If I don’t live, I don’t die,” I said back.

Only who wants to live like that? If I don’t walk, I don’t feel the arthritis in my left knee. If I don’t cook, I don’t mess up the vegetable pizza. If I don’t write, I manage to avoid cliches. If I don’t love, there’s no loss. But who wants to live like that?

A friend told me this story:

He was walking through the San Francisco airport on his way to his flight when he saw a Buddhist monk walking by, wearing the saffron robe so well known in southeast Asia. My friend said he was moved to see the monk because years back he also felt the call to become a renunciate. That was not the direction life had taken him, he had work he loved, he had a family, he was traveling. That moment he felt a deep gratitude for the monk who was not just living his life of a monk, but also the part of my friend’s life that had wanted to be a monk.

“He was living my monk life for me,” he told me, “and I suddenly felt full of gratitude to him for doing that.”

The story doesn’t end there. He then boarded the plane and got into his seat, watching as other passengers boarded as well. Down the aisle came a young, handsome, well-dressed man with a pretty woman on his arm. The young man had the look of pride and self-satisfaction of all fortunate men with pretty young women on their arm, aware of the looks he was getting. And my friend felt a tinge of regret there, too, because there were years when he’d wanted such a life, full of promise and even swagger, with pretty young women hanging on. And his life didn’t go in that direction either, it took him into a long-term marriage with children.

He realized that here, too, this young man was living the life for him that he’d wanted long ago. He didn’t have to regret anything. He didn’t have to fuss over the fact that he hadn’t become a monk or that he wasn’t flying places with beautiful young women in attendance, other people were living that life for him so that he could live his own life. And this time, too, he was full of gratitude to the young man.

I’ve made choices and they’ve brought me to this moment of sitting in my office and working at my computer, blogging, getting the plan for the winter intensive in shape and into newsletter form, preparing documents for going online in January with the Zen Peacemaker Order, the screenplay revision. Thinking about a Christmas dinner not with Bernie but with my housemate, a lovely person. Taking the dogs out for a walk and going to Home Depot to get wires to hold up the insulation in the basement. Looking at the birds feeding happily, and Aussie just as happily hiding in ambush.

So many lives I didn’t live that others are living for me. People in couples, people with children, people in beautiful clothes with lots of leisure  people who haven’t yet found out about loss and empty spaces. So much gratitude to them for living like that, so many wishes to them to live their lives and find meaning and joy in them.

I’m the luckiest woman in the world, living so many different lives.

So here I am, towards end of year, asking you to support my blog. I feel a little constrained in this, since I seem to ask so much. Usually, it’s for immigrant families who have little, but this time it’s for the blog. I spend money on it, getting technological help. Without the blog I’d have no platform to ask money for the families. Without the blog I wouldn’t be able to respond to folks who reach out to me. Without the blog I’d be just talking to myself, which I’ve excelled in much of my life, wasting silly words on just one person.

My mother told me something the other day and I said, “Mom, I never heard you say this before.”

“That’s because it’s stupid.”

“No, it isn’t, mom.”

“Yes, it is. Let me tell you something, Chavale. Anybody can say something smart. To say something stupid—now, that’s smart.”

I could have sworn Bernie was talking.

You can support the blog by using the button below. If you prefer to send a check, you can send it to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Thank you very much.

 

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MYSTERIOUS CONNECTIONS

I think a lot about my mother. The good news is that she has just been told to make an appointment to get the covid vaccine in Jerusalem. The bad news is she has to move.

She will turn 93 in July. Like many women, she wasn’t left with much money when she divorced in her early 60s, couldn’t afford to buy an apartment in Jerusalem, and rented instead. In 30 years, she’s moved about 3 times and has lived in this last apartment—old, dark, and in need of repair—for some 15-20 years. There’s nothing to be done here because the landlord’s mother, who lived in the same apartment long ago, wants to move back. So, my mother has to move.

Sometimes she understands what is happening, sometimes not.

Over the past few months, since the Jewish festival of Sukkot in early October, she sings to me on the phone this Yiddish song about a sukkah, a hut that religious Jews build for the Sukkot festival, in which they eat (and some even sleep) for the duration of the week’s holiday. Here is an abbreviated and very loose translation:

I made myself a small sukkah from cheap wood,

The roof from branches,

And there I sit in Sukkot.

A cold wind blows through the cracks

But the candles manage to stay lit.

My young daughter, pale-faced, brings in the food

And says fearfully: “The sukkah is about to fall!”

“Don’t be silly,” I tell her, “and don’t worry.

The Sukkah has stood for 2,000 years already,

A very long time.”

It’s now the same conversation every time I call my mother: “Chavale, I just remembered a song from my childhood which you’ve never heard before.” She starts singing, and when I join her, she’s perplexed: “How do you know it?”

Because you’ve sung it 1,000 times already, mom, I groan to myself.

But one day I suddenly remembered the Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage, by the 8th century Chan master, Shitou Xiqian:

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap …

The person in the hut lives here calmly,

Not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.

Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.

Realms worldly people love, she doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world …

I sat with this a long time.

Recently someone told me that people should put more effort in investigating their family trees and clarifying their roots, even going back hundreds of years. I told him that not all of us have that luxury. In my family, large branches were hacked off during the Holocaust; I can’t track anyone down beyond my  maternal grandparents and my paternal grand-grandparents, and of them I know very, very little.

There’s a sense of loss there, an empty space that has caused me to feel fragile at times. Without a knowable ancestry, where lie my roots?

I heard a sudden echo between the ancient Chinese poem by a Chan master and the Yiddish song about a Sukkah that my mother remembered from her childhood. It’s almost become her theme song, especially now that she has to leave her home. Everything feels so temporary, like a grass-roof hermitage that can blow away any moment

Shitou wasn’t worried.

The middling or lowly can’t help wondering:

Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,

Not dwelling south or north, east or west.

Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.

And my mother, for now, also isn’t worried. Maybe later, not now. She seems to take refuge in old memories of a poor yet happy childhood. At times I’ve had little patience for those Yiddish songs from a world gone by, but really, it’s barely a blink of an eye ago in the long run of things and has a mysterious connection with an old Chinese mountain monk.

It’s a koan, which my dog Aussie is busy investigating,

“Aussie, get into the car this minute. “

“Ugh ugh.”

“You’re embarrassing me, Aussie.”

I pick up Aussie from Leeann, who takes dogs out for outings. At the end all the humans come to pick up their dogs from the outdoors enclosure where they’re waiting, much like picking up kids from school. The other dogs all run to their respective humans, tails wagging wildly in joyous reunion as the two then proceed to go to the car. All except Aussie, who goes to the front of Leeann’s house and sits back on her rump.

“Aussie, we have to get home.”

“This is my home.”

“No, it’s not, Auss. My home is your home.”

“This is my true home,” she insists. “My favorite friends are here, my favorite snacks are here, and Leeann is here, my favorite person in the whole world.”

“No Aussie, Leeann’s home is a temporary home, it’s not your real home. There’s a big difference between a temporary home and your real home.”

“Now I know exactly how Donald feels.”

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WHO ARE YOU?

“What’s that?”

“I’m bringing Jimena boxes with Christmas toys for the kids. I filled up the trunk and put the rest on the back seat.”

“On my back seat!”

Last Friday afternoon I posted a list of Christmas toys for the children of immigrant families. In fact, I posted one Amazon list consisting of some 65 gifted and put together a Walmart list separately. Late Saturday morning, after getting up from our morning sitting schedule, I checked Amazon and there were only four gifts left, everything else had been sold out. Sunday morning the local post office left some 10 boxes on the front steps of the house. And by Monday morning the list had disappeared.

The last time I’d done this, getting school supplies for the same children, I freaked out when I saw the list had disappeared, sure that I’d done something wrong. Amazon informed me that if the list isn’t there, it’s because it’s sold out.

I’ve been bringing boxes to Jimena three days in a row, our deal being that I’d make up the lists and post about them, bring the boxes to her, and she and her husband and two boys would unpack them, recycle the cartons, match the gifts with recipients—and wrap them. Today I’m going over there with $750 in food cards as well.

I’m so moved by Jimena’s family. She works insane hours  in an area that is now coded red for covid. “Do the boys help you?” I ask her.

“What we like to do most is sit the four of us around the TV and relax,” she tells me. “So if one person is working hard and the others relax, that doesn’t feel good, so everybody helps the person who’s working and then we can all sit and relax together.”

We’re nearing the end of the year. I don’t celebrate Christmas much, other than wishing folks a Merry Christmas, but I feel I’m getting a huge gift this year, and that is a sense of unfathomable bounty all around.

One day last September, when Amazon delivered gifts of school supplies, I was out front when the truck came down the driveway. A uniformed young woman emerged and looked at me. “Who are you?” she asks.

“Eve Marko,” I tell her.

“I get it, but who are you? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever come down this driveway before—”

“I don’t often order via Amazon,” I apologize.

“—and now I’m coming down every day with all these boxes!”

I explained to her what we were doing and she laughed. She good-naturedly took out the other boxes from the truck and we waved goodbye.

Who are you? It’s the most basic Zen question of all. These immigrants, all of them undocumented, have a hard time understanding how folks from far away, including outside the U.S., send money to help them. They help each other; they got here because there’s a brother here or a sister they can count on. They give each other lifts in the few cars they have, so that 2 or 3 come at a time for food cards. But folks from far away? Why would they help?

Maybe because there is no such thing as far away. Across nations and cultures, our DNA is still the same. In addition, we can access a storehouse consciousness that is the total of all past experiences and actions, similar to Jung’s collective consciousness. That may explain why, regardless of our present situation, we can know what it is to worry about paying a grocery bill or meeting the rent, standing outside a store window and looking silently, knowing there’s no money to go in and buy something.

Things get pretty dire in winter. The nice relief bill they’re still negotiating in Washington (I imagine they’ll finally agree on something just so that they could finally go home for Christmas) won’t help these families at all. Who does? Local churches, the county’s interfaith council, wonderful (and often overlooked) civic organizations like the Elks and Lions Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters. And people like you and me.

The teachers in the local schools bought out the Walmart list. Jimena’s two boys bought four of the gifts.

Leave it to canine Aussie to remind me of the obstructions we put up to the flow of the universe. It’s my work, my money, my universe. It’s my back seat!

“I don’t know why you worry about them,” she says in the woods. “Do you realize that Donald’s neighbors in Florida don’t want him there? He’s going to be HOMELESS!”

“I don’t think so, Aussie. He’s got lots of homes, just not the White House as of January 20.”

“If he wasn’t white or blonde—”

“Ha!”

“—you’d be plenty worried. You only care about foreigners. Like Henry here, who’s stealing all my treats.”

In the woods, Henry comes running every minute for a treat. He’s supposed to get it only on recall or checking in, but he looks for one as soon as he jumps out of the car.

“Henry, this is an out-ing, not a treat-ing, get it?” snarls Aussie.

“No,” says he.

“On an out-ing, you run around and come back a few times for a treat. In a treat-ing, you constantly get for treats and in between you take a few steps.” She looks up at me and growls. “This is what happens when you don’t speak English.”

We’re preparing for a big storm. I brought up the battery-powered lamps, made a last delivery to the compost pile (it will probably be covered by snow and ice for a while), and filled bird feeders. I fill the birdfeeders and Aussie walks behind me, pouncing on those who feed on the seeds that fell to the ground. She’s already gotten herself a squirrel this winter.

“She wouldn’t get them if you didn’t feed them,” someone said to me.

That’s one way to look at it.

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IT’S THE QUIET ONES

The Electoral College is voting today and things suddenly look right in the world. People are more relaxed; the tight lines on their faces loosen into lips, even smiling lips, the eyes regain their glitter. They’re no longer slumped, their shoulders have risen about half a foot, there’s even a gleam on their faces.

We’re back, they seem to say. This country is back.

It’s Joe Biden’s message time and time again: We’re better than this. We’ll heal and things will be fine once again. We’ve fought for our democracy and we’ve won, now it’s time to go straight on.

As if Proud Boys marching on the streets of Washington, DC is no big deal.

As though a majority of House Republicans backing a claim of fraud that has been rejected at all court levels is no big deal.

As though states joining a motion asking for millions of votes to be thrown out by the Supreme Court is nothing at all.

As though millions of people actively opposing the results of the election with absolutely no proof is no big deal.

It’s done, it happened, now we can go down the center in the same merry way we’ve done in the past. Life is back to normal.

I never thought I’d say that I miss the generations of presidential candidates who actually served in wars. Remember Robert Dole and his paralyzed right arm? Remember George H. W. Bush and his Distinguished Flying Cross? John McCain and John Kerry? John Kennedy? Their military service, when they risked their lives, was an example of patriotism, of devotion to country and its values.

It sounds so old fashioned now, who would have thought I’d grow nostalgic? That I would recall people who had an appreciation for the rules of the game, ready to play it to the very end to their own cost, swallow down pain and defeat, and go back to do more work?

It looks good for a Joe Biden inauguration on January 20, but I think it’s downright dangerous to ignore how so many opposed and continue to oppose the results of this election, questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. You might say that it’s only a relatively few fanatics who keep on repeating the mantra of Stop the Steal, that most don’t march on state capitals with guns or stab folks in back streets of our nation’s capital, that most Republicans back Trump because, after all, he’s their guy and they hate to see him lose, but they don’t mean anything bad by it.

Let me tell you, it’s the passive ones I’m worried about. Not the ones who advertise their intentions with photo ops, but the ones at home who pretend nothing terrible is really happening, they’re backing their guy because, well, he’s their guy, and isn’t that just what’s to be expected? They’re not doing anything terrible. They’re not parading down streets in big trucks and flags, but if he could get away with it, hell, why not?

Those are the ones I worry about. There are millions and millions of them, folks who aren’t about to fight to steal an election, but if a gutsy vanguard manages to do it, or a supreme court gives its vapid consent or an electoral college is manipulated (look at how they tried to push through Virginia’s Harry Byrd instead of John Kennedy in the 1960 Electoral College out of fear of what Kennedy would do for civil rights)—well, then why not? He’s our guy, after all.

What pisses me off in Joe Biden is that he’s too nice in the face of this unfolding disaster—and yes, even though he’ll win, this is a disaster and it continues to unfold, openly and actively; it ain’t going anywhere. People have learned and are learning that there are ways to discredit or go around elections, and that you can do it at no cost. No one is pointing a finger at you, no one is castigating your name for the ages. I don’t think this is just Biden’s persona, it’s also a strategy for how he wishes to move forward.

It’s not a viable strategy. At this point we need indignation, we need outrage. Other than Nancy Pelosi, who else is ready to yell to the highest heavens that this will not stand? Trump and his allies take all the airtime with their allegations of fraud, they dominate the news cycles, over and over again giving the message: Yes, you can steal elections—if not this one, then the next one, or the one after that. One day, you’ll win.

You might say: We’ve had enough indignation and outrage for a century, let’s go back to normal. Face it: Learning how to steal elections is becoming the new normal.

The birther conspiracy against Barack Obama was the first lesson. It was difficult to contest that election, so they tried to invalidate Obama’s presidency by casting doubt on his birth. They tried it with Kamala Harris. And now they’re trying it again, this time by casting doubt on the entire operation. They’ve upped the ante.

There are a couple of different views here. One says that the problem is the radicals on both sides, that both are angry, both don’t talk to one another, both are way too partisan for a middle America. Yes, there are radicals on the left side as well, but I don’t remember any concerted effort in 2016 to take Trump’s win away from him. A few hoped the Electoral College would stop him, but that was fantasy; no political leader participated in that scheme.

The second position is that after January 20 people will accept the results and we’ll be fine. But this is the second consecutive time that the validity of a Democrat president is being questioned. It’s the first time that a majority of Republican Congress people are actively participating. Why? If the Supreme court had given them a win, terrific. If not, they had nothing to lose. They didn’t wish to antagonize their boss, and most of their constituency doesn’t seem to mind pushing at the boundaries, trying to get what they can get. If they end up casting doubt on democratic elections, no big deal.

It’s great that Republican governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general and supervisors of elections have stood up for the fairness and soundness of their local elections, only to be reviled, threatened, and told to resign. But look at the national Republican leadership!

Ahead of us is one of those highway crashes that end holiday hopes for many people. If not in 2020 or 2021 then in 2024 or 2028, but not too far in the future. You have to be blind not to see it. Maybe we need that crash, I think to myself in despondent moments. Maybe that’s the only way we’ll get rid of an Electoral College system that had its origins in racism and protecting slavery.

Thomas Paine wrote: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,”

It’s not those carrying guns I worry about. It’s not those in brown shirt uniforms or making big salutes. It’s the rest of us quiet ones: the ones who say: Why not take it as far as it can go, after all he’s our guy, and the quiet ones on the other side who keep on assuring us that things will go back to normal on January 20.

It’s always the quiet ones.

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SPIDERMAN VS. DOC-OCK?

Nerf Zombie Strike Hammershot Blaster

Pillow Pets Paw Patrol Skye Stuffed Animal Plush Toy

I started making out a Christmas list of toy gifts for children while gritting my teeth. Come on, I said to myself, open up Amazon (not a great fan), open up the Toys section, and plunge into lists of a million toys I never heard of, in the most excruciating detail:

Lego Brickheadz Star Wars the Mandalorian (what is a Mandalorian?)

Hot Focus Unicorn Nail Stickers Glow in the Dark Nail Polish (Wait, how old is this kid? Evelyn is 7? I don’t think I even noticed nail polish till I was 12)

Lego Disney Frozen 2 Elsa’s Wagon Carriage Adventure Building Kit with Elsa and Sven Toy Figures 116 Pieces.

Can you buy it if you can’t even say it, I wonder?

Some weeks ago Jimena and I agreed to put together a list of toys for Christmas, one toy per child, in the $15-$20 range. I would post it and ask readers to buy a toy or two for the kids. Jimena, bless her heart, put together an attractive handout in Spanish, which we gave out when we distributed food cards, asking for the children’s names, ages, and what precisely they wanted. Often, she would review each page verbally with the parents. I asked her why she did that, given that the handout was in Spanish, not English.

“Because so many are illiterate,” she told me.

“They’re illiterate in Spanish?”

“Eve, they’re lucky if they went to first grade before being sent to work,” she explained.

“About how many are illiterate?” I asked her.

She squinted her eyes in thought. “Maybe 40%, maybe more.”

A week later the answers come in (see above) and I sit down to compile an Amazon Wish List. This won’t take long, I think, I’m an old hand at this after making up the school supplies list last fall. Besides, I add stupidly to myself, they’re poor kids, they don’t know much about toys. Ha!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I know the kids have had trouble with remote learning and do lots of make-up classwork in English reading and writing (Jimena does this with them outside in the park in summer mornings), but THEY KNEW EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED. Not only that, they could copy the exact title with all the details, sometimes even the model number!

“Kids are kids everywhere,” I tell Aussie as I peer through the Amazon website, searching for arcana in the Toy Universe like Pokemon TCG Cards: Legends of Galar Summer Tin Featuring Zacian and Force 1 Techno Race RC Car. “I’m getting a headache.  I also can’t find Peppa Pig.”

She yawns from the futon behind me. “Peppa Pig shouldn’t be hard.”

“It has to be a plushie.”

“What’s a plushie?”

“Or Jinx Minecraft 11.5” Snow Golem Plush. Isn’t the Golem supposed to be Jewish? The Jewish Golem was certainly no plushie.“ I turn to face her. ”If that’s not bad enough, you know what else girls want, Auss? They want slime.”

“I love slime!”

“That’s because you’re a dog. When I grew up we were told to avoid slime at all costs, but look at this: Original Stationery Unicorn Slime Kit Supplies Stuff for Girls Making Slime.

“At least I bring my slime in from outdoors.”

After a while I started to relax. After an even longer while, I started to smile. Soon, I was positively luxuriating in the list, like in a bubble bath.

Before that a friend and I were comparing notes on how we hardly got any gifts when we were children: “You know what we got when we were kids for Christmas?” she told me. “There was a hole in one corner of the room where the wall met the ceiling, and our parents would tell us that Jesus came through that hole and put presents in our stockings. And you know what those presents were, year after year? Underwear and socks. And maybe a doll the size of a pencil .”

My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but if we had that’s probably what we’d have gotten, too, and been told to be happy with it. So in the beginning there was that familiar, old, stingy voice inside: I didn’t get any of this when I was a child!

But as I went through Glowcity LED Star Soccer Ball Size 5 Glow In the Dark and Nerf Rival Finisher XX-700 Blaster (Quick-Load Magazine, Spring Action, Includes 7 Official Rival Rounds!), my heart warmed up.

“You know, Aussie, it’s almost as if I’m the one getting all these things finally. I didn’t get many gifts as a child, and now look!”

“You really want Paw Patrol Jet to the Rescue Skye Delux Transforming Vehicle with Lights and Sounds at the age of 71?”

“Well, I’ve been into transforming vehicles for a long time, Auss.”

I finished a list of some 63 gifts on Amazon and another 8 in Walmart; the Walmart ones are being bought by the children’s teachers; the 63 I’m entrusting to the universe, to you.

“The kids might get something from charity organizations for Christmas,” another friend who’s worked in social agencies told me, “but they’re give-aways, you know? They’re not what they really want.”

I started researching and inputting this list feeling blue, and ended up with so much joy in my heart I was practically singing. I was reliving my childhood, only this time not just with underwear but with Kinetic Sand, Lego Marvel Spiderman vs. Doc-Ock (what kind of a name is that for a superhero’s arch-enemy?), and the one I loved most, Disney Frozen Musical Adventure Anna Sinning (Amazon finally informed me it was Singing).

If Bernie was alive he’d say that maybe, just maybe I’m letting go of my mind of impoverishment.

You can find the Amazon wish list here.

Please consider buying one or more of these toys for the kids. They average in the range of $15-$20, some are less and some are more but none more than $24.99. The kids range in age from 6 months to 17 years, children of families we’ve fed since April. Each wrote what s/he wanted, above (except for the 6-month old), giving two choices. This year they’ll get one thing they really want–and they spelled it, right? The link to the Amazon Wish List for Christmas is here.

Thank you for your kindness and generosity.

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THE THREE PENANCE

“Aussie, I just got off the phone with my mother. She’s pretty isolated, doesn’t see anybody, spends a lot of time in bed now that it’s cold in Jerusalem. She usually cuts our conversations short, but this time, before she hung up, she said: ‘Chavale, be well and healthy, and write something nice.’”

“Nice! Nice! Who wants to do anything nice?”

“You know, Aussie, I also used to think that nice is boring. I don’t think so anymore.”

“I’m never nice. For instance, you just filled up the birdfeeders for winter and hung them outside, right?”

“Wasn’t that nice, Aussie?”

“It is, because now I can kill more birds.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“I ambush them. I hide out right around the corner behind your office, waiting for some of those seeds to fall to the ground and the silly birds to come down, and then I pounce. Got me three last year.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“Look at those dumb old chickadees and juncos, they never learn. I’ll beat last year’s record easy.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“Not the blue jays of course, they scare the hell out of me. They’re homicidal! When they come to the feeders it’s GANG WARFARE! I’m surprised they’re permitted to be out loose. It’s time to make blue jays illegal!”

“Can’t do that, Auss. Life insists on manifesting in all kinds of ways, not all of which we like.”

“Like blue jays! Like Henry the Illegal Chihuahua! Like all the other illegals you force me to meet on Wednesdays.”

“It’s your job to greet them nicely, Aussie.”

“I growl.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Speaking of greeting nicely, could you please change how you feed the birds? Instead of filling up a birdfeeder and hanging it up on the tree, just spill the seeds right on the snow, it’ll make hunting a lot easier.”

“I will not.”

“You’re supposed to be nice, like your mother said. Don’t you do Zen practice?”

“What makes you think Zen practice is nice, Aussie?”

“Everybody knows it’s all about being quiet, calm, and peaceful. And nice. Ugggh!”

“Aussie, being nice is important, but it’s not what Zen practice is about. In fact, it’s a sad thing for me that many people think of religions or spiritual traditions, like Zen, as though they’re sedatives. Instead of taking a Valium you do a little meditation and you feel restful and serene.”

“Like me!”

“Don’t get me wrong, Aussie, I think it’s important to slow down and be more aware, but there’s so much more to it than that. The clearer you see yourself, the clearer you see life, the more skillful you can be in your relationships with everybody.”

“I know, I know, the Three Penance: Not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving action.”

“Not Penance, Aussie, Tenets. Three Tenets. Zen practice means being alive and fully functioning. It gives meaning even when things feel meaningless, a sense of deep gratitude, a smaller sense of your own importance but a greater appreciation of the role you’re being asked to play, whatever it is.”

“I still think it’s too nice. Speaking of which, did I wish you a happy birthday or am I too late?”

“It’s never too late to wish me a happy birthday, Aussie. You know, we did a one-day retreat on the day of my birthday, but the next day I looked at my computer and saw about 150 birthday greetings, not to mention all kinds of texts and virtual cards by phone. They were so nice!”

“Nothing from me, I hope.”

“I admit, Aussie, that in the past I’ve sometimes poohpoohed those Facebook notifications you get of somebody’s birthday. I think I’m a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“Who’s he?”

“The great writer Charles Dickens created a character, a big miser who didn’t like anybody and anything except for money.”

“What about dead  birds?”

“But on Sunday I relished every single greeting. They make such a difference in these gray, lonely days of covid. Once again, I learned a big lesson about how good it feels to be recognized and acknowledged, you know? There’s a lot to say for being nice.”

“You’re not so nice. If only I could blog about you rather than you blog about me. The things I’d tell the world!”

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WAY OF ZEN

A good friend of mine went to college at Radcliff, Harvard University’s highly exclusive college before Harvard itself went co-ed. Some seven years after she graduated and joined the workforce, she called a headhunter for help getting a job. She reviewed her resume and was surprised when the headhunter told her she didn’t have the qualifications necessary for the job she wanted.

“But I have a Harvard degree,” she reminded the headhunter.

“Yes,” the headhunter said, “but then you had potential.”

I’ve remembered that story all these years, and especially now because I turned 71 on Saturday. I have no more potential, I thought to myself. Is that a relief?

Last week, for only the second time in over five years, I didn’t write three blog posts (excluding occasions when I had retreats and would write that ahead of time). As the weekend drew nigh, including a one-day retreat on Saturday, I realized I wouldn’t get to it and instantly felt bad, as though I’d failed the rules of the game.

There’s a lot of merit to walking away. I walked away for almost 24 hours this past weekend. After the meditation retreat on Saturday, I settled down with a novel and read for 5 hours till midnight—wow, what a treat! The next day I did basic housekeeping and dog-caring tasks, like taking Aussie to the local dog gathering, where she sat with her back turned to all the play and activity, along with her friend Misty the Great Pyrenee. I walked in three inches of snow in the back yard filling birdfeeders.

A beautiful poet  called Kineret Yardena wrote, in The Call:

Is it possible that not every call

is a call to completion?

Is it possible to finish something

walking away,

a prism of light

streaming behind you . . .

Like many writers, I have unpublished manuscripts in my office cabinet. I have unpublished poems and short stories. I would like to see Green River Zen Center continue to flourish in the Valley and to see the Zen Peacemaker Order re-energize and find its place in the world of presence and compassion.

I know writers who, at this time in their lives, do nothing but work to get everything they’ve written out of files and into publication. They’re answering a call for completion, but that’s not my way.

There is so much that is alive for me now. We are living in remarkable times and there is so much to uncover, so many new avenues: new books, new recipes, new songs, new games with at-home children, new footprints in the snow.

The coronavirus could be a big turn as we look at our lives and evaluate how we went through it, how we discovered what’s important and what isn’t. How we learned to respect again real connection and love, while at the same time appreciating the resilience there is in being on our own, albeit isolated at times, seeing the lights in the house up above and knowing they, too, are on their own, all of us apart, all of us together.

We need not just new vaccines but also new poetry, new songs, new dharma. At 71, I’m up for it (though I lack potential).

I called customer service the other day because I had to return a clothing item. The young man asked me for my email address, which is eve@zenpeacemakers.com, and when I told him, he said: “Cool! Do you teach yoga?”

“No,” say I, “I teach Zen.”

“Cool!” says he. “How’s business?”

“Great,” I tell him.

“Must be pretty calming, right?”

“No,” I say. “It can be calming, but for me it’s a plunge into the ocean.”

“Cool!” says he. “Never learned anything about the way of Zen.”

 

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