A JUST-IN-CASE PARDON

“Jump! Jump!”

I hurry down the slope to the creek, which is as wide and white as I’ve ever seen it due to rain, conquering a couple of feet of soft ,sloping grass on each bank and rolling determinedly down to the Sawmill River. And there’s Henry, 12-pound Henry, standing on the rock above the water looking down.

“Jump! Jump!” Aussie yells again, circling happily behind him, ready to give him a kindly shove.

She did that a few weeks ago when Henry had trustingly followed her, walking gingerly on heavy tree limbs crisscrossing pools of water, and Aussie pushed him over with her nose, a wicked grin on her face. She howled with laughter while he indignantly got up on his small legs and hurried up to dry ground, rolling over and over on the leaves to get dry.

“Not so funny,” he muttered.

“Hysterical!” Aussie said.

Now I pull her away. She’s not going to throw him into the creek this time, it’s deep in places and the water is roiling around, all white.

“Just think,” says she. “If he fell in, we might find his body in the river as it curls right under the house.” She sighs. “I should only be so lucky!”

“Aussie, if you ever harm that little dog you’ll be in big, big trouble.”

“No, I won’t. The Donald will pardon me.”

“You’re right, that’s probably what will happen. He pardons lots of people.”

“Only those who’re guilty. And he prefers big guilt, nothing small, if you know what I mean. If you lie to people or call something fraudulent, that’s small change, he can’t be bothered with that. Throwing an illegal chihuahua like Henry into the river is big-time; he’ll issue a pardon immediately. They say he’s pardoning every member of his family except for Melania. What’s wrong with Melania?”

“She probably didn’t do anything criminal, Auss.”

“That’s too bad. It’s a badge of honor to be pardoned by the Donald. Watch me toss Henry into the river.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Aussie!”

“Watch me pee in the back seat of the car.”

“Not on your life.”

“I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING BAD, OTHERWISE I DON’T GET PARDONED! Maybe I’ll ambush some birds now that the feeders are out for winter. Got three of them last year. I bet Donald pardons me for that right away.”

“At least you’re planning to commit a crime to get pardoned, Aussie. I hear he’s thinking of pardoning people who haven’t yet been accused of doing anything wrong.”

“You mean a just-in-case pardon? Like just in case they’re accused of doing something wrong, only you can’t accuse them of doing something wrong because they’re already pardoned?”

“Something like that.”

“HE IS SUCH A GENIUS! Only the Donald could think of a contingency pardon. There’s only one problem with a just-in-case pardon.”

“What’s that, Aussie?”

“THE FUN IS ALL ABOUT DOING SOMETHING WRONG! If you get pardoned beforehand, why do anything, know what I mean?”

“This is getting too complicated for me, Aussie.”

“I want to drown Henry in the creek and then get a pardon from the President. Getting a pardon from the President without drowning Henry in the creek is no fun at all!”

“I wonder if he ever considered this, Aussie.”

“Probably not, golf is very demanding.”

“Maybe Donald is giving out pardons just for thinking about doing bad things, Aussie.”

“Thinking about doing bad things is no big deal, everybody does it. It takes guts to actually do them.”

“Think, Aussie. What’s positively the worst thing you can imagine doing without doing it and then get a pardon?”

“Ambush and kill every single bird, squirrel, and chipmunk in the back yard.”

“You’re pardoned!”

“Eat the entire roast chicken you made this morning.”

“You’re pardoned, Auss!”

“Get Henry deported.”

“Leave Henry out of it, Auss.”

“You said to imagine anything, right?”

“Right. You’re pardoned.”

“Jump out the open window of the car and run away to Leeann’s house.”

“You’re pardoned, Aussie.”

“Bite the vet! Kill Ruby the German Shepherd!”

“You’re pardoned, Aussie! You’re pardoned!”

“But this is no fun! Pardons are only fun after you do something and there’s a big whatchamacallit—”

“A trial?”

“—and you’re found guilty, and they’re going to kill you—and then you get pardoned! “

“I never thought of that, Aussie.”

“You know what I think? A Just-in-Case Pardon is for wimps. Just don’t tell Donald I said so.”

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WITHOUT INTENT

Yesterday I took Aussie to the weekly Sunday dog gathering in an adjoining park, only Aussie didn’t gather. All around her some 10 dogs of all shapes and sizes chased and jumped each other, pulling jointly on sticks or else chasing them into the water, while Aussie sat on the edge of the small promontory and looked out to the other side.

She’s not good with big, uncontrolled group. She’s defensive in the face of a group of dogs rushing out to greet her, almost all whom she knows. If there’s too much attention all at once she starts growling, clearly feeling some sense of trespass and even threat.

Aussie likes her boundaries; she likes her codes of conduct. For that reason she has the most trouble with puppies still learning the tricks. Not for her the constant jumping and running, she needs a slow, respectful approach, otherwise it’s as if she’s saying: Get away from me, peasant. Come back when you get a little more education.

Eventually she’ll identify one dog, usually her size or a little bigger, whom she’ll play with (her favorite lately is a large black dog called Cheddar), growling at whoever wants to join in the fun. And sometimes she gives up on the whole scene and sits aloof, contemplating nature, llfe, nothing. Many times I wonder why I keep on bringing a “nongatherer” to a dog gathering.

I finished the book Tokyo Ueno Station last night, promptly opened it back to the  first page and started reading it a second time. That happens very rarely. The book, by the Japanese writer Yu Miri, won the National Book Award for best novel in translation. It had come out in Japan six years ago and in English this year. It’s a small novel about a homeless man who died and now haunts Ueno Park in Tokyo, next to the railway station, where he spent his last years.

Originally, he’s from the area of Fukushima, and while the nuclear disaster there is barely alluded to, it casts a big shadow over the book. He has lived in poverty his entire life and he watches as his peers get ejected from the park whenever a member of the imperial family arrives, pulling carts with all their belongings elbow-to-elbow with other pedestrians enjoying the park, its zoo, monuments to the past and museums, gossiping about their families and homes that they didn’t have to leave behind.

At the train station people stand, waiting to get to their destinations, though you wonder if they aren’t going in eternal circles: “The train now approaching Platform Two is bound for Ikebukuro. Please stand behind the yellow line.” These announcements are repeated time and time again.

“Is this a depressing book?” a friend would demand whenever I recommended a book for her reading pleasure. She used to say this in an accusing way, as though depressing books were the only ones I cared about.

It’s a jewel of a book, I would tell her if she asked this question now. It’s beyond sad or glad. The writing is bewitchingly simple and yes, it does tell a story of the poor and dispossessed that’s as old as the hills. But it’s magical too, because the narrator, back from the dead, is still trying to understand the kind of life he lived. Isn’t that what we all do?

In a funny way, Kazu, the narrator, is completely selfless. He goes to work in hard, menial jobs in fishing and construction from adolescence in order to provide for his many younger siblings, managing to send some of them to college. When he marries and has two children, he still has to live away from home because the jobs are closer to the big cities, returning home twice a year for short periods of time (at some point he calculates that out of 37 years that he’s been married, he’s actually been together with his wife less than a year).

He sends back money every month, feeding his elderly parents, wife, and children, with the result that his children don’t know him and he doesn’t know them. A kind, even noble man who gives up his life for others, suffering the losses of life and doing everything right, hosting funeral ceremonies and honoring the Pure Land traditions of his family, he rarely feels an authentic connection to anyone.

He has never intended to be a good man, he feels he lives a choiceless life, doing what is expected of him as a son, a husband, and a father. He doesn’t know himself at all.

“I did not live with intent; I only lived,” he says in the beginning.

What is it to live without intent, without a meaningful vision? What is it not to be able to wrest meaning from our lives? In Kazu’s case, namely the severe hardship in which he grew, without meaningful job qualifications or education, living day to day in the meanest of circumstances—how could he imagine that there’s something other than survival possible?

I’ve met other people far, far more prosperous, who have no sense of what it is to live with intent. They roll from one stage of life to another—child, student, adult, partner, parent, old person, death—without intent, without some unifying story, without vow. At the end they feel as though their life was happenstance and wonder what it was all about. A close friend of mine went into deep cynicism as she got older, laughing at a lifetime that hadn’t been one of suffering, but rather of meaninglessness.

I watched Aussie sit on top of the small promontory looking out, a quiet presence in the center of havoc. Not for her joining the hustle and bustle, the socialization and play. I was pretty sure she wasn’t busy figuring out her life, but the picture spoke to me. Without intent, where are we going?

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HUMMUS FOR THANKSGIVING? UGGH!

It was a quiet Thanksgiving morning. I’m accustomed to hard-working Thanksgivings, getting up early to prepare the turkey and then standing on my legs hour after hour in the kitchen. Yesterday, in pajamas,  I sat down in the living room chair, cup of coffee nearby, and read a book. Wow! Now that’s what I call a holiday!

In the early afternoon we stood on line at Stone Soup Café getting our take-home meal. Aussie worried about the turkey.

“Why didn’t you order two meals instead of one?”

“There’ll be enough turkey for the two of us, Auss.”

“I don’t want no ethnic holiday, okay? No tacos for Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t think tacos are on the menu, Aussie.”

“No Japanese noodles or anything Korean.”

“Aussie, people celebrate Thanksgiving in their way with their own cuisine. Japanese people like Japanese food, Italians like Italian, Middle-Easterners—”

“Don’t even think of giving me hummus for Thanksgiving. Who are these people? Why can’t they get with the program?”

“Because there is no program, Aussie, that’s the cool thing about this country. There is no dominant culture here, see?”

“Anybody who messes around with turkey on Thanksgiving should go to China or Russia, see if they like it better there.”

“Not everybody likes turkey, Aussie. Some prefer roast chicken, some make a lasagna.”

“I can live with lasagna long as it ain’t spinach.”

This morning I put orange vests on both Aussie and me. Deer shooting season starts now and we’ll have to be careful till the end of the year. We went to the Montague Farm, from which we enter the woods. The Zen Peacemakers once owned this property. Once we left it became a wedding banquet facility, and now I found out that it’s being sold again. While Aussie looked up the road towards the woods, I talked to the current caretaker.

“Do you think the new owners will let me continue to walk in the woods above the farm?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I told the new owners that you’re the steward of the woods, the only one who really walks there aside from the hunters now. They won’t say anything.”

But I wonder. I’m hearing about big plans: taking down the 18th century farmhouse which isn’t up to code, building some small cabins instead, enlarging the teacher’s cabin, lots and lots of ideas. I wish them luck, but after 18 years I have a sense of this land. It’s stubborn and seems to know its own mind. I’ve seen lots of grand plans falter here, including the Zen Peacemakers’, because the land didn’t cooperate. It was too wet to sustain homes, too many deep tree roots through which to build pipes, protected wetlands at bottom inhospitable to habitation, etc.

The land lets you know how much you can do, and if you’re smart you listen.

I’ve already met the new owners and will soon ask them explicitly for permission to enter the woods from the Farm. There’s no reason for them not to give it, I won’t be in anyone’s way. Still, after walking here for 18 years with two generations of dogs, the land may decide it’s enough. The person may say the words, but inside I believe it’ll be the land talking.

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THANKSGIVING

“Aussie, what are you doing with your food in the living room?”

Aussie’s food bowl is aways in the laundry room, her usual dining venue. Yesterday morning I had some roast beef gravy, so instead of putting her dry food in the bowl I put it into the plastic container with the gravy and put it on the floor of the laundry room. After a few minutes I noticed that it was unusually quiet. Aussie was not in the laundry room. I walked into the living room and there she was on the rug, food bowl between her paws.

“What are you doing with your food, Aussie?”

“I’m on guard duty. You know what the problem is, don’t you? Once you get good food, you have to protect it from everybody else! I just know Henry is skulking around, ready to steal the meal as soon as my back is turned, lazy Chihuahua!”

“He’s lazy? And what, pray tell, do you do to earn your food, Aussie?”

“I take you on walks every day! I accompany you on your drives and growl at you to stay awake. I lie on the futon all day protecting the computer screen that’s at the other end. I went with you earlier today to meet those families you love so much. I let the kids pet me, I grin and smile though I can’t understand a thing they’re saying. Let me tell you, I work hard!”

“Aussie, you’re being tight-pawed.”

“These are hard times. Speaking of which, what are you cooking tomorrow? I don’t smell anything in the kitchen.”

“I’m not cooking, Auss.”

“What? You’re not cooking! Thanksgiving’s the day I don’t move from the kitchen floor.”

“Aussie, after 21 years of cooking, I’m not cooking this Thanksgiving.”

“You’re lazier than Henry. What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to line up and get our meal from Stone Soup Café tomorrow.”

“You mean, with the poor? We’re not poor!”

“I  know that; I’ve already paid for our dinner and added a donation.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“At first, I thought I’d buy some prepared Thanksgiving food, but I received a notice from Stone Soup that they’re doing lots of Thanksgiving meals and packing them in boxes to take home. So tomorrow you and I are going to stand on line, masked and 6 feet apart, and pick up our meal.”

“It’s going to rain!”

“Good, we could use more rain, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to stand on that line. All those veterans with their emotional support dogs wearing silly bandannas! I’m from Texas. I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

Poor Aussie! I was thrilled to receive the email from Stone Soup. Nothing I like more than to stand among the community, wait my turn, thank the volunteers and their incredible Executive Chef and Director, Kirsten Levitt, for providing hundreds of big Thanksgiving meals to anyone who asks for one. It’s on a pay-what-you-can basis, and whenever I’m there I feel like I’m taking my turn in the give-and-take of things.

I just returned from giving out $750 more in food cards, cash for Anselmo’s rent for next month (he still can’t work after falling off a roof some 5 weeks ago) and rent and Internet for Marisol, still with her son in the hospital where he went through kidney surgery today, along with a gift someone specifically sent for Floriana who’s taking care of Marisol’s other children. That’s over $2,600 that came from people from all over. I’m so lucky to take part in all this.

At the same time, it’s easy to give. When I used to fundraise for the Greyston organizations in Yonkers, knowing the rush and urgency of our financial needs, trying over and over to get foundation staff on the phone, I used to fantasize that one day I’ll work for a foundation and start giving out money, rather than asking for it all the time.

I don’t feel like that anymore. Tomorrow, at Stone Soup, Aussie and I will be the ones receiving. And if I didn’t have any money, I’d still be receiving those delicious meals. I’ll stand on line with many different people laughing and kibitzing, edging closer to the tables where they’ll ask my name and whether I ordered a turkey meal, a vegetarian meal, or a vegan Thanksgiving meal. Pretty terrific, isn’t it?

Next to me will be different people, some of whom can’t  put down a penny and others who probably made bigger donations than I did. It won’t matter, what will matter will be the receiving, getting to the front of the line and accepting the box of food. Aussie will hold up her head and sniff happily, and I’ll be able to thank everyone.

From joy to bewilderment: Yesterday, Donald Trump finally made a 1-minute public appearance to announce that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had gone over 30,000, “a sacred number” according to him. Sacred means different things to different people.

This morning I read a column by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times entitled: Even in a Pandemic, the Billionaires Are Winning. He quoted a study by the Institute of Policy Studies tracking the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.  “On March 18, … America’s 614 billionaires were worth a combined $2.95 trillion. When the markets closed on Tuesday [yesterday], there were 650 billionaires and their combined wealth was now close to $4 trillion. In the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, American billionaires’ wealth grew by a third,” or one trillion dollars in just 8 months.

In that same timeframe, over 20 million people lost their jobs, Congress is in no hurry to pass a relief bill, and evictions are going to skyrocket smack in the middle of winter once the new year begins.

On this Thanksgiving eve I can’t let myself get into rage, especially witnessing the kindness of so many people. Still, any fool can see where this is heading.

 

 

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COLLABORATORS

Funny things can happen as you get older, as you accumulate assets—a home, a car, bank accounts—and a family, as you pass the peak of your career. Maybe you lose your capacity for outrage or your passion for doing good. Maybe you lose your hope for a better world.

The thing is, it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in the light of day, but so slowly you can miss it.

This came up for me in reading Anne Applebaum’s August article in the Atlantic Magazine on how the Republican leadership became Donald Trump’s collaborators. You can read it here.

As I frequently wrote, Trump himself has not been so interesting to me given his mental state; of far greater interest is his interaction with other, saner people, and specifically with how he managed to convince well over 70 million people to vote for him. Many people have mental illness, but not seventy million. And yes, I get he was a symptom of something systemic, not a cause.

Applebaum explored how Republican Congress people and senators became essentially collaborators and colluded in his efforts to sabotage democracy, his politicization of the coronavirus, and the corruption he brought into the office.“It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes.”

Mostly, with small lies. It started with Trump’s insistence that the number of people who came to Washington, DC for his inauguration surpassed all previous ones, and especially Barack Obama’s. That was his reality, and he demanded that everyone adjust. If the National Parks Service had different figures, clearly theirs were wrong and should be changed. If they had photos showing something different, clearly those photos were wrong and should be doctored to show his version of reality. It was bizarre and laughable, something we expect from heads of state who get 99% of the vote time and time again for 30 years.

But, as Applebaum showed, it was precisely the smallness of it that made it work. It’s no big deal, Republicans could say. We have this new guy who wants confirmation that he’s the most popular guy around. He’s an ass, but if that’s what it takes to make him happy, what’s the big deal? It’s  not like we’re talking policy or big world decisions, right? We accommodate him on this small thing and start on the right foot.

But that wasn’t the right foot, for it didn’t stop there. It never does. Then comes his refusal to put his holdings in trust, he brings his family into the new business (i.e., the White House) even when there are conflicts of interest, he pardons former allies who go to prison, etc. One compromise leads to another to another to another. He misuses his power as president to dish up dirt in Ukraine about Joe Biden and his son. It’s slow and gathers momentum. Senators and Congress people who usually love to talk to reporters learn to make a quick exit when asked questions about this, hurrying down the hallways to duck for cover, remain strategically silent, or solemnly utter smoke screens in the Sunday talk shows.

The longer they do this, the more we wonder: When will they make a stand? What will finally push them over the limit? But as Applebaum shows, it gets trickier and trickier because, after you cave in on your basic values and principles for a long time, what’s finally the straw that breaks your back? In fact, why should there be anything to break your back when it’s held up this long? And if you’ve lied all this time and finally decide to speak your conscience, what’s that going to say about your past lies and evasions? How do you reconcile it all—because we want to, don’t we? We want to put together all the parts of our story, all the parts of ourselves, into one coherent whole.

In the end, it might be easier not to take a stand at all.

Hard to believe it started with a small lie about how many people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration.

What amazes me is that Anne Applebaum wrote her article a couple of months before the election, a couple of months before Trump’s blatant attempt to steal it, colluded (to this day) by a majority of the Republicans in the Congress and Senate. For me, it climaxed early, when two Georgia Republican senators demanded that their Republican State Secretary resign due to irregularities in the voting process, for which they had no proof. They were ready to toss one of their own to the wolves because he wouldn’t collaborate.

Joe Biden is no radical; he was a senator of long standing, someone who liked to work across the aisle and didn’t hew to radical ideologies. You’d think Republican senators would place a call to congratulate him, maybe go out on a limb and say they look forward to working together. These things were once so standard nobody thought twice about them.

You realize what courage it took for Mitt Romney to be the only Republican senator to vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump. He may have disappointed Liberals by not backing other things, but he stood alone in that Senate chamber and that took guts. He also congratulated Joe Biden immediately after the election. Basically, he decided not to be in thrall.

Applebaum reminds us how many people in history were ready to stand up to some fat-headed honcho with far greater risks and in much more brutal circumstances than these Republican leaders.

And me, I ask myself. What do I shut my eyes and ears to? I don’t think it’s blatant lies, but am I losing my edge? It’s not hard to do that in the face of a pandemic that lays waste our health and safety, it’s not hard to ignore the little lies, the small stories I tell myself: I’m older now, how dedicated do I have to be? Why maintain that alertness and vigilance? And as for my vows to serve and save all beings, well, those are clearly impossible.

They were impossible before, they’re impossible now. So what’s new? From Bernie I learned a practice that is edgier and more costly than anything I’d ever imagined. A new relationship with life, draining and replenishing all the time across the years. A love worth protecting at all costs.

 

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BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE

Jimena called me today. She has more stories: People need help, people need money.

This one is about  Floriana, who’s taking care of three of Marisol’s children. Marisol’s 3-year-old boy is in Intensive Care in a Springfield hospital for an infection that spread from his leg throughout his body. He has gone through one surgery and may have to go through another.

Marisol had  no time to deliberate when she took him to the Emergency Room with sky-high fever, so Floriana told Marisol not to worry and took the other three children, 2, 5 and 8. Marisol has been raising four children on her own since her husband walked out on her. She’s worked on the farms part-time to make money, but now can’t.

“She’s the one we gave two food cards to, remember?” Jimena said, talking in her usual fast locomotive pace. “Marisol is so worried about what will happen to the three children; she had no time to give Floriana food for them or diapers, not the special milk the 2-year-old needs. I told her not to worry, to take care of the boy in the hospital and we’ll get food for the children.”

“What else?” I asked, my hand reaching up to stroke my forehead.

“She’ll need help with rent for her own home soon and internet because that’s how they do school. $750 plus $33 for internet, and of course the food for the kids.”

“We could handle the food with the food cards,” I say.

“You know, Eve,” Jimena says apologetically, “we also get help from the Community Action group and the Interfaith Council, but they already helped Marisol last February so they can’t do more this year. And you said to call you when there’s a special need.”

That was exactly what I’d asked her to do.

I won’t kid you, I shut my eyes and thought: Why did I do that? It’s endless. Every week it’s something else. For Thanksgiving we’re managing $1,250 in food cards and Jimena the Indefatigable got turkeys from the local Elks Club.

And still the phone call comes in.

Today I told my sister that over the past two weeks the isolation mandated by the coronavirus has gotten to me. I don’t feel depressed, but my discipline and personal initiative have begun to flag. Unlike others, I don’t have many firm schedules to adhere to, I  make my own work schedule.

“Lately I don’t feel like working,” I tell her. “My concentration isn’t what it usually is.”

“You work too much,” my sister says.

“No, I also meditate, walk Aussie, study, read, take care of the house. And I work.”

“But you don’t see people. You don’t touch or hug people, and you need that. We all need that. Talking to folks on Zoom is not touching.”

I don’t Zoom with immigrant families, I see them on a city corner as I did last night. They come masked and keep a distance, but they show up. They can’t afford to be safely isolated. They can’t afford reservations about the coming vaccines that I’ve been hearing. (Did they test them enough? How do we know they’re really safe?).

It was freezing and we all wanted to go home. But it was important to be there, to stand under the marquee where it’s less windy, to look at faces not inside Zoom squares but in person. I give Jimena the food cards to give out because I wish to simply be there, listen to their questions in Spanish, watch the eyes.

“The question isn’t what I can do for them, the question is what will happen to me in my being with them.”

Fr. Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries, wrote that in one of his books. Bernie and he were friends.

Someone else said: “God is between two people.”

How do we do that on Zoom? Is God also between two squares, or three or four? On the one hand, God is everywhere. But there’s something raw and rough about meeting other people in the dark, especially from a different culture, hearing a different language, watching them smile at their children, pulling on Aussie with one hand while I raise my collar against the cold with the other. Shaking my head and rolling with laughter with one woman who came in shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops.

I’m the white woman who brings food cards and cash that you’ve donated; they pose no danger to me, except for one: What will happen to me in my being with them? Will I get depressed by this everlasting, never-ending need? Even as they get settled for Thanksgiving, winter is ahead, no farm work, much less construction, and restaurants have barely held their own since spring.

Not to mention that more people arrive from south of the border. A young couple approaches, saying they heard we give out cards for food. And are there coupons for turkeys? “You’re not on the list,” Jimena tells them, taking down their names. “Where do you live? Come next week.”

Their gratitude notwithstanding—and they’re so, so grateful—I sometimes feel like a leaf blowing in the wind. Isn’t that how you feel at this time, when mailboxes are filled with petitions for help from so many worthwhile organizations, so many terrific people?

At the same time, I’m dazzled watching Jimena give out food cards and coupons for turkeys (she doesn’t have coupons for all, but for many). So many people give, so many receive. And who can judge whether it’s enough or not? What do we know of the true bounty of life, of the moment-by-moment give-and-take that continues endlessly?

Ours is just to start, just to participate, I think to myself. Don’t worry about finishing or doing everything. Leave something to God, otherwise it’s vanity. And keep on showing up in person on that street corner, as they will. As Jimena will. Leaves blowing in the wind, but who can see the air currents and where they lead?

 

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BROADENING THE JOINING

These are gray, beautiful days. We walk along the plains, almost 2,000 acres of shrub land and scrub oaks. I keep my eyes on the long gray skies and remember again why Ishmael goes back to sea whenever November is in his soul. I’m not tempted to go to sea, I enjoy going back to a warm home when outside it doesn’t go over 32 degrees.

I miss the call to adventure. Instead, I have a conversation with Henry and Aussie about—what else?—politics.

“You’d think you Libs would be happy after the election,” snaps Aussie. “Instead you’re scared shitless by what Trump will accomplish before he leaves.”

“What’s the worst he could do?” asks Henry.

“It’s too much to hope that he’d deport all chihuahuas to Mexico,” growls Aussie.

“He’ll add more folks to the unemployment rolls, that’s for sure,” I say.

“Because of corona?”

“No, because he’s going to fire half of all government employees, especially career diplomats and professionals in the intelligence community,” I tell her. “Would probably love to fire some generals but I don’t know if he can, not to mention all the Republicans who supervised elections in states that went Blue.”

“I’m sure he’ll award Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, and Jared well-deserved Presidential Medals of Freedom,” says Aussie. “Maybe Tiffany and Melania too. If only he’d invited me to be his White House dog, he’d probably be giving me a Medal of Freedom, too. I’d go down in history instead of walking in this God-forsaken place.”

“I don’t know if dogs can get Medals of Freedom, Auss.”

“We’re civilians like everybody else. Beside, Trump doesn’t care about silly rules like that, that’s what made him who he is today.”

This Thanksgiving will be my first in a very long time without family. But I’m lucky, I have money for food, and in case I don’t feel like cooking for 1 or 2, the Stone Soup Café, which provides hundreds of hearty, flavorful meals in this community every week, is giving away fabulous Thanksgiving meals on a pay-what-you-can basis. I haven’t been there in a long time, but this may just be the ticket. It will be nice to greet Kirstin, their head chef, and their big team of volunteers.

We’re also beginning a give-away of some $1250-1500 in food cards over the next 8 days to immigrant families to make sure they have food for the holiday. I can’t forget how my orthodox Jewish family, including my Russian rabbi grandfather, always had a Thanksgiving meal. I haven’t met the immigrants or refugees, regardless of religious and cultural observances, who don’t participate in Thanksgiving as soon as they arrive.

So, what are my Thanksgiving thoughts?

“You Americans don’t have your own main culture, except for maybe Thanksgiving.” I still remember the evening when a Filipino playwright friend of mine said this at a meeting with me and other writer friends in a New York City apartment. I felt some annoyance. In New York there’s a Filipino theater that produces your plays, I wanted to tell her. Where would you and many of us be if we had one main culture that imposed its rules and limitations on everybody?

In a recent interview in the Atlantic Magazine, Barack Obama said that the United States is an incredible experiment in building a true multi-cultural society. Unlike other countries, Western and otherwise, we don’t have a dominant culture. Whites will soon be a minority, and with their majority goes any pretense we might have had of a dominant culture that was primarily white, Christian, and European in origin. Many people believe that this is what the partisanship we are experiencing now is mostly about (even though Donald Trump got more Latino and African American votes than before).

Like it or not, we’re on our way. We’ll melt a little in the big pot—we usually do in Thanksgiving, when everybody eats and gathers with family—but big pieces of us don’t melt so easily. We want to hold on to our ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, and why not? It’s where our parents stood, our grandparents; it’s our genealogy. Why invalidate it?

“When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining—I’m broadening the joining.”

That was written by Audre Lorde, a woman of color, a Lesbian, a mother, a poet and essayist, a feminist. A little like me, a lot not like me, but at this time in our history, her words rang bells and bells. I can’t and won’t deny my life experience as white, female, Jewish, Buddhist, immigrant. What in that makes me any less of an American?  When I was very young, I tried to conceal the Jewish side of me for several years. What I realized over the decades is that I fit in better when I stand in my origins, in my difference, than when I pretend they’re not there. The more unique the  traits, the better the possibilities for a great joining.

The poet Joseph Pintauro wrote:

I am not who I was

I am not going to be who I was going to be

you changed all that

you are not who you were

you are not going to be who you were going to be

I changed all that …

who are we going to be?

we are going to be who we never would have been

without each other.

 

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BONE EXCHANGE

Every Sunday I give Aussie and Henry marrow bones. This tradition started long before either was born. I take the bones out of the freezer on Saturday night to defrost, and by Sunday morning both dogs are circling that particular corner of the kitchen, Henry getting up on his hind legs and hopping around like a meerkat. It’s all we can do to get them to eat their regular food first.

Yesterday I took out an enormous bone and gave it to Aussie; it was so big she could barely take it in her mouth. Henry got something smaller and ran upstairs with it, where he could eat it safe from interruption. He needn’t have worried, Aussie put hers down on the rug under the dining table, her favorite perch. As usual, she started the job while standing on all four legs and licking the bone from all sides, then got down on her belly and down to business, holding the bone with one paw as she began pulling bits of meat off, after which she would be going after the marrow. I imagine Henry did something similar upstairs.

One or two hours pass. I’m seated at the dining table having soup. Henry has come down with his bone, puts it on the kitchen floor and sits next to it. Aussie, who’s been gnawing loudly for a long time, stops.

After a while I notice how silent it is and look at both dogs. Aussie lies under the dining table, her big bone (now slightly diminished in size) next to her. She’s staring straight at Henry, who’s seated on his haunches some six feet away next to his bone. They look at each other like this for at least ten minutes (If only I had a camera!).

What’s going through their minds? I don’t know, but I can guess. It’s time for the post-chewing bone exchange. Aussie, having finished her bone, now would like to get her teeth into Henry’s. Henry, who has finished his, would like to get his tongue and tiny teeth into Aussie’s. They do this exchange every time, but at this early stage of the game, each is loath to give up his/her asset, his/her bone. They have to give it up in order to go for the other, but they’d rather keep their bones and go after the other.

No one makes the first move, but don’t think nothing is going on. Diplomacy is happening even as they stare at each other silently.

Eventually something will happen. We’ll have a walk, or one or the other will be called to something else. They both may run barking outside because someone’s walking up the road. At that point one will get the other’s bone, and after that the other will get the bone she/he had been eyeing for a while, and the compromise is reached: You get mine, I get yours. They may have a small fight about it, but basically, it works out.

I watched this process yesterday and wondered why it is that Aussie and Henry have figured out how to come to an agreement about the sharing of assets and wealth, and American humans can’t do the same. We start out just like them—we want it all. We want what we got and we want yours, too. But even Aussie, four times bigger than Henry, doesn’t want a fight. Maybe she has a sense that it’s unfair to hover over both, who knows? If so, she’s ethically a lot more advanced than many of us humans. Regardless, in the end, after glowering and vigilance in turn, they come to agreement and exchange one bone for another.

They compromise. They do this every single Sunday.

This is when I ask myself whether evolution in reverse is possible. Haven’t we gotten way too smart for our own good? How do we reverse our engineering and see things a little simpler? How do we relearn the art of compromise, which is what our form of government is based on? Without it, the government we have will simply not work.

Could we possibly stare at each other across seven feet of kitchen and dining area—Trump voters and Biden voters, Democrats and Republicans, Progressives, Conservatives, Moderates, and what-have-you’s—do our posturing, glowering, baiting, and snarling on our respective networks and social media, and then come to some compromise where each side gets the bone they want?

Don’t forget, the bones the dogs get the second time around aren’t as fresh as what they got the first time, they don’t have the meat and all the marrow they had before they’d been chewed on. They’re getting second-hand bones, like the used clothes I used to get at the Salvation Army which somebody had worn first. But they get something. They get some remaining gristle, some spots red from blood, and odds are there’s still marrow left inside the bone that you have to burrow deep to get. Best of all, they get the flavor and smell of the other dog, its teeth and spit are all over the used bone, and I believe that makes the bone even more luscious for them this second time around.

If we weren’t so bent on winning at all costs and having it all—Wait till 2024!—we might find some satisfaction in getting something that has the imprint of the other. Something that has been argued about, maneuvered from a House committee to the House and from a Senate committee to the Senate, then back to a joint committee for compromise, then back to House and Senate for their approval, then up to the White House for signature—could you imagine what all those smells would do to the dogs? They’d be all over each other sniffing in curiosity and excitement, trying to decipher who’s who and what’s what.

We don’t want all those smells (Anything Mitch McConnell agrees to I’m not interested!). We want just our smells. Only we don’t get those smells either, we get nothing. We’re stuck in those 10 minutes of staring each other down, only in our case it’s been lasting for years. We’re ready to wait, because we’re sure it’s only a matter of time before we get it all. Meantime the virus hits, climate change hits, fires and floods and climactic gaps between rich and poor have hit, and we’re still staring at each other, waiting to get the other’s bone.

 

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TRUMP EXPRESS

About a week after our elections I went to a local garage to make an appointment for my 9-year-old Prius, which needs work. I entered the office wearing my mask, and immediately noticed that the man at the desk did not. In our part of the country that’s highly unusual, probably illegal.

He looked up at me as I approached and asked how he could help. I described the work I needed.

“I can’t hear you,” he said, so I raised my voice, speaking through the mask.

He informed me that they were scheduling now for the week of Thanksgiving. That’s fine, I said. We made a date and I walked out the door and to my car.

A Trump voter, a voice inside said. Before I could stop myself, I was off to the races, chugging along on the Trump Express. Quicker than I can write this, I made up a Trump Voter list customized to the man I’d just left:

  1. Didn’t wear a mask.
  2. Was glum and talked in monosyllables.
  3. Was overweight.
  4. Didn’t make eye contact.

Check, check, check, check.

And one more check: You’re insane, I told myself. Check.

That’s my only defense, that as I watched these thoughts flash in my head quicker than water bubbles, I could still label them for what they were: Insane. Tying the most disparate dots together to produce a story or picture that had as much proof and credibility as how Joe Biden won the election through fraud.

I’ve written here before that I never thought much about Trump the man, I thought he was not sane from the get-go. I couldn’t forget that this was the man who liked to have his picture put on the front cover of the New York Post with another gorgeous woman on his arm even as he was married, ignoring the impact and humiliation of this on his wife and children. New Yorkers (of whom I was one then) knew he was a classical narcissist, and I’m personally not that interested in crazy people (unless it’s me). But I am very interested in the impact they have on other, saner people.

When I think of the leaders I resonated with, I think of Martin Luther King, whose life and speeches I studied over a period of years, ditto with Gandhi. We seemed to share a frequency. They lived their lives, a woman reads their words years later and her heart surges and the blood pumps: Yes! Yes! That’s how I feel!

Sometimes it wasn’t the words, but a picture. I studied the life of Abraham Lincoln, too, and though I felt deep ambivalence about some of his actions, including his offers to the South to keep their slaves till 1900 just to keep the Union intact, there was something of the man that always moved me. I liked to picture him on his horse, leaving Mary Todd behind and traveling as a lawyer throughout Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit, so deeply engrossed in the book he was holding that he’d let go of the reins and lose his way. He’d suffered great losses—in that sense he reminds me of Joe Biden—and there was a loneliness about that figure on the horse, deep in his book, that stays with me.

Donald Trump is also a study in resonance. When he talks of how this country becomes great when it kicks out immigrants and keeps minorities and women in their places, that it should make rooms for white supremacists, alt-right militias and anti-Semites, I go No! No! No!, but it’s still a kind of resonance, say a resonance in reverse. It hits me somewhere deep. It evokes denial and even self-loathing, a call to all the angers and rages I’ve felt in my life. He’s my Northern Star for hate and fear, for some old dread that perhaps comes out of being two generations away from a Holocaust, from haunting memories of harsh early years of life.

That’s when I get on the Donald Trump Express.

Leaving the garage, I mentally labeled the man I’d just talked to—someone I’d never met in my life nor exchanged political views with—a Trump voter. A Trump loyalist, maybe a Trump lover. Okay, it wasn’t accompanied by hateful feelings so maybe that wasn’t the Trump Express but more like  the Trump Local, slower and a little more rational, taking me to the same destination as the Express only by a more circuitous route. Either way, I end up in the same place, in stereotypes and stories that carry the same implacable ending: He’s wrong! He’s bad! And even: I suffer because of him.

I shudder to think of what makes any person a human tuning fork for so much fear, or a radio tower that emits constant signals of alarm and hate. What a terrible karma, I think  to myself; there must be suffering at its core. But those signals are powerful and unambivalent, and we resonate strongly either with them or against them.

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THE BEST SONG IN THE WORLD

“Eve, I love you!”

“Really? Why, Mom?”

“The song you wrote was so beautiful. I sang it to everyone and you should have seen people’s eyes—they shone, Eve!”

“Is that so?”

I never wrote any song for her and she doesn’t see people because the country’s shut down. What do I say, I wonder as she keeps on thanking me again and again for writing the most beautiful song in the world? The other week she thanked me for making the trip to Israel and hoped my trip back would be fine (“Best trip to Israel I ever took,” I texted my brother and sister. “Quick, too.”). And now she’s thanking me for my song.

“I wrote it for you, mom,” I finally tell her.

“You did?” she exclaims happily. “I will not forget this, Eve, ever!”

She’ll probably forget it right away, I think after we hang up. My mother is suffering from dementia and has delusions. But there are delusions and there are delusions. Thinking her daughter wrote a great song just for her makes her feel a lot better than thinking that Nazis are downstairs and coming up to get her.

I’m still in the stepping-back mode after the election. I need to regain that stability, and also some humility. I feel a lot better when I go deep into the wellspring of things, far away from rumblings and expostulations. For a short while, at least, I’ve gotten off the political train, with its emotional extremes, and I stay with what must get done next. Write this; get on the phone with another Zen teacher; go to meet Jimena with food cards later on (we’re meeting Wednesday rather than Thursday this week), etc. Thank heavens for the small jobs of living.

“What will you write about today?” someone asked me earlier.

“I have no idea,” I say, still feeling somewhat dull. “Nothing.”

But you know what comes up when I feel I have nothing to write about, nothing to say? Love comes up.

Tennessee Williams wrote: “[W]e live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Much of the time I’m surrounded by a sense of urgency, of excitement but also anxiety. These past months saw an overwhelming impulse to get online once again and find out what happened, the latest headlines, the latest polls: Did Biden inch up another little bit, did Trump inch down?

Only it’s not just politics or the election; I often push forward and try to cover lots of bases, one thing followed by another and then by another. I remain passionate; I still have my vows.

But when I stop and sit, when I decide to shrug off the jobs and assignments at least for a short time, when I don’t fill that extra time with reading or study, don’t even look at a dramatic sunset or smell the flowers or stroke Aussie’s beautiful black fur—I just look at the air. I feel it waving, and find love there. Not love of someone or something, not even love of life, just a sensation of the enormous generosity all around. I fold myself inside it, humbly and gratefully, and it fills me with love.

That’s how I feel today, Veterans Day. I light incense to honor the people who’ risked their lives so that I could be safe. So many don’t feel safe right now.

I went to give out food cards and a woman said to me in Spanish: God will bless you. God already has, I thought to myself, though I didn’t know how to say this in Spanish, my tenses are terrible. I got chicken, rice and beans from Jimena’s husband for dinner, and a woman brought us home-made bread.

I make a point of calling up my mother every day now rather than every other day, I realize my days of intelligent conversation with her are coming rapidly to an end. But I’m up for unintelligent conversations as well.

“Eve, did you speak to your father?” she asked me in yesterday’s phone call.

“No, Mom.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s dead, Mom.”

“Really? For how long?”

“I think it’s 5 years this week, Mom.”

She thinks it over. “Oh,” she says.

 

 

 

 

 

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