JOKES WITH AUSSIE

I have yet to find my rhythm after the election.

Tuesday night through Wednesday I was very upset about how many people voted for four more years of what we’ve had till now (at least 70 million). Treaded water on Thursday and Friday, and Saturday let myself celebrate Biden’s victory. Sunday, I had to stop thinking about it, let everything in but put it aside for later. There’s a lot to reflect on, a lot to understand about what is happening in this country, and I thought I’d start that process today, Monday.

But it still doesn’t take; more time has to pass. So, I passed the time in conversation with Aussie.

“Aussie, did you hear that the Bidens are bringing two dogs into the White House?”

“Don’t tell me, I’m ready to off myself.”

“You still have about 2-1/2 months to get to the White House before the current resident departs.”

“He ain’t departing, so I have four more years to get over there and make the place dog-friendly. Four more years! Four more years!”

“One of the Bidens’ dogs, Major, came from a shelter, Aussie, just like you.”

“Please don’t remind me of my roots.”

“Stop being ashamed of where you come from, Auss.”

“I’m not ashamed, I come from Texas. Nobody from Texas is ever ashamed.”

“You came from the pound, Aussie. You were probably born in Texas but Texas didn’t want you. Tell you what, why don’t you ask the Bidens to take you in as a third dog in the White House?”

“I don’t share.”

“The Bidens are good people, Aussie. Look at Jill.”

“Oh please, Jill looks like one of those humans who loves everybody with a passion. I hate people like that.”

“Did Melania ever look like a dog-lover to you, Auss?”

“I guess not, but I’d have changed her mind for her. Of course, she could put on me one of those designer vests.”

“You mean the ones that say I don’t care?”

“But I can’t figure why Donald didn’t have a dog on which he could lavish all his compassion.”

“Aussie, hear me out. He didn’t want you. He didn’t want any dog. I told you before, you seem to get attracted to people and dogs who don’t want anything to do with you, like the Trumps. Whenever we’re at the dog park you try to play with the one dog who won’t play. He growls and snarls at you, and you don’t give up.”

“Anybody who wants to play with me isn’t worth playing with. Wanna hear a joke, Boss? Henry the Chihuahua walks into a bar—”

“Not those kinds of jokes, Aussie.”

“A Chihuahua walks into a bar. He’s about to order when the bartender gives a slight cough in his direction. ‘Watcha doing?’ asks the Chihuahua. Says the bartender: ‘Aren’t you going to order a Corona Lite?’ Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!”

“That’s not funny, Aussie! Making fun of people or dogs because of their religion, ethnicity, culture, or breed is not funny. Neither is the coronavirus.”

“It’s hysterical. A  Corona Lite—Hee! Hee! Hee!”

“You’re mean, Aussie.”

“And you’re so politically correct I want to vomit, only I never let go of food. That’s the trouble with you Libs, you have no sense of humor!”

“Bernie liked this one, Auss. A man walks into a bar with a Chihuahua. The bartender says: ‘I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to take your dog out of here.’ The man says: ‘It’s my seeing-eye dog!’ The bartender says: ‘That chihuahua is no seeing-eye dog!’ The man says: ‘They gave me a chihuahua?!’”

“That’s funny? What’s funny about it?”

“If I have to explain it to you, Aussie, it’s no good.”

“Does it make fun of Chihuahuas?”

“Not too much.”

“Does it make fun of where they come from?”

“No.”

“Does it at least make fun of blind people or seeing-eye dogs?”

“Of course not, Aussie.”

“Then what’s funny about it?”

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A POST-ELECTION PRACTICE

“Why does Harry run sideways like that?”

“You’re right, Aussie. He seems to be running left when he runs straight.”

“I knew it! Another left-wing socialist in the house!”

“Aussie, he can’t help it. Maybe his left legs are stronger than the right.”

“I don’t care, it’s the last thing we need here. I told you we should deport him. He’s a Chihuahua, what do you expect? He doesn’t have our values, doesn’t care about our history, probably eats tacos on Thanksgiving—”

“Oh, Auss.”

“He’s an illegal immigrant! We have to deport him, otherwise you foreigners are going to take over my home.”

“You know, Aussie, I can’t believe how many folks voted for Donald Trump. I was sure he and everything he stands for were going to go down bigly. Instead, he got millions more votes this time than he did four years ago.”

“Just shows you how much more intelligent the world has become.”

“This really stretches my practice, Aussie.”

“I haven’t seen you working out much lately.”

“I don’t mean those stretches, Auss. My Zen practice is to bear witness. I have to let go of the idea that I understand what’s going on, that I know what’s good for everybody, and instead try to listen deeply to the folks who voted for him. To tell you the truth, Aussie, I didn’t think I’d be doing this again.”

“Doing what?”

“Taking to folks who voted for him. That’s what I did four years ago because I couldn’t understand what happened, so whenever I met people who voted for Trump I’d ask them to explain where they were coming from.”

“So that’s why you adopted me! And I thought it was because I was cute.”

“Now I have to do it all over again.”

“Poor you!”

“I don’t get it, Aussie. All of us want to be safe, all of us want to be secure. At the same time, if you ask Trump supporters what they think of his tweets, how he talks about women, Mexicans, about Blacks and Africans, not to mention Anthony Fauci, they shrug and say: That’s just how he talks, no big deal. So something else is more important to them if they can live with all those things, and I’d like to understand what that is.”

“You’re not smart enough, girlfriend.”

“Aussie, I’m not talking about white supremacists or those anti-government militias practicing their shooting in the Idaho hills, I’m talking about lots of other people who’re not like that at all but still vote for him. What is it that Donald Trump gives them which helps them feel, well, safer and more secure? What does he give them that strengthens their sense of purpose and identity?”

“He gives them lots of tenderness.”

“A friend suggested I tune into Fox News as a starting practice. Now, that’s going to stretch me a bit.”

“What do you mean, a starting practice?”

“Part of my spiritual practice is to listen to things that I disagree with without changing the channel, without telling the person talking this way that he’s full of you know what.”

“Could we put on Sean Hannity?”

“Don’t get me wrong, Aussie, just because I do that doesn’t mean I stop working for what I believe in. Only it’s so easy to get stuck into thinking that you’re always right.”

“I’m always right.”

“It’s listening to dumb things like that Aussie, that makes my practice difficult. It makes me stretch and stretch and stretch.”

“Does it hurt? I want to make you Libs cry.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say, Aussie. But you’re lucky, I’m a veteran. I can hold anything you throw my way.”

“Oh yeah? Let me tell you something. We’re going to teach you Libs a lesson. We’re going to deport Henry and 10,000,000 more Chihuahuas, not to mention all the African Basenjis, the Dogos Argentinos, and the Chinese Chow Chows, Shih Tzus and Shar-Peis, fuckin’ spies.”

“You won’t have many dogs left here, Aussie.”

“Don’t worry, Norwegian Elkhounds will come here begging for refuge.”

“This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard, Auss.”

“You’re still listening, oh great spiritual practitioner?”

“Still listening, Aussie.”

“Good. We’re going to force all kids to go  back to school for rifle practice after we make all covid masks illegal—”

“Aussie, do you know how many people will get sick?”

“Tough it out, bedwetters. When Donald trump finishes his second term—”

“I don’t see him starting a second term, Auss—”

“He will if we kick Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia out of the country. Isn’t that what you do with traitors? Or else send in the Proud Boys. Still listening?”

“You’re making it hard for me, Aussie.”

“After Donald finishes his second term we’re going to have Donald, Jr. in the White House—”

“The one who looks like a coke fiend?”

“—and when he’s had his 8 years we’ll have my favorite, Ivanka, though she’s not as pretty as Melania, but we can’t have Melania be President because she wasn’t born here. Unless we change the Constitution.”

“Fuggedaboudit, Aussie.”

“And after that Jared Kushner will become President.”

“Jared Kushner!”

“What’s the matter, you anti-Semitic or something?”

“I’M GOING TO KILL YOU, AUSSIE!”

“Hey, I thought you could listen to everything. You could hold everything. You could stretch and stretch—

“DRY KIBBLE FROM NOW ON! NO WATER!”

“Can I still go on walks with Leeann?”

“NO LEEANN!”

“What happened to 35 years of practice?”

“First I kill you, then I start practicing again.”

 

Thank you to all of you who sent money for Ancelmo. Last night I brought food cards and $400 in cash. It’ll keep things going. What a wonderful thing you enabled me to do, not just helping him and his two kids but cheering me up when I was down! Thank you.

 

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BIRTHDAY OF BEST FRIEND

A photo from several years back

I voted yesterday with energy and optimism. I always enjoy voting where I live. There are no lines, no exhausted workers. The big differences this year were the masks we all wore and the fact that instead of cranking up the voting machine to suck in the ballots, we pushed the ballot into a scanner and watched it scan the results. Mine was number 895 that day.

Today I feel differently. I still hope and believe that Joe Biden will get into the White House. But of far greater importance to me is the fact that this country didn’t repudiate the “achievements” of the past four years. Donald Trump, at last count today, received at least 3,000,000 more votes than he did four years ago. At least 3,000,000 more Americans indicated that, at the very least, they could live with white supremacy, ethnic and religious bashing, the hounding of immigrants, the separation of families, and incompetent government  response to a pandemic. They could live with a President who relies more on his feelings than on  science and medicine, who bullies and humiliates, who seems to never have heard of  kindness and compassion.

They may have their reasons—worry about the economy, for example—but that’s beside the point for now. Today was like a slap in the face, a hit of the kyosaku telling me to wake up, that old concepts are useless here, old beliefs and ways of thinking irrelevant. This has been a long time in the making, and now when people pick up a ballot and stand off to the side blacking in the circles, even folks I know, even neighbors in this predominantly progressive area, I tell myself that I really have no idea how they’re voting. I’m not even sure they’ll tell me the truth if I ask them.

And today I miss Bernie. Two years have passed since he died so suddenly, so unexpectedly. In a funny way, we’re more intimate now than ever before. He speaks in my ears and my mind, through my voice; he walks the grounds in back, I could almost smell a cigar.

In late afternoon I walked out back and sat in one of two chairs facing the gazebo and the hills beyond. Bernie used to sit there in warm afternoons for a short while. Rae, his caregiver, would move the chairs towards the back so that he’d have to walk longer to reach them.

Before his stroke he used to sit at the table out back with his phone and computer (see above), but it was really an excuse to smoke a cigar. I miss him that way now because we’d be talking so much about the election. He would be checking results constantly, enjoying the drama, not showing the least bit anxiety. He knew what his work was about, and it didn’t really depend much on who lived in the White House even as he clearly had his preferences.

Regardless of who won, the next day he still got up in the morning, put on his jeans and Hawaiian shirt, pen, phone, and cigar in the breast pocket, and off he’d go to fight the dragons of suffering, isolation, delusion, poverty, racism and misery. In this eternal process of determining a new president (at least it feels that way), he’d be putting on a red nose and telling us to lighten up, there’s work to do regardless, and always, always have faith in the dharma.

After his stroke there were just the two chairs, for him and Rae, and no cigar. I would watch him from the window of my office and on several occasions,  I’d sit next to him and we’d both look out towards the setting sun. He would look out and say nothing, just let the sun shine on his stricken face.

Now I want to go out there again and put my arms around him: “Bernie, what are you thinking?”

I think I know the answer: “I’m not thinking.” Or: “I’m just sitting here.”

I want him to take me back into that space. Was he contemplating just how much bigger life is than any of us, even his stroke? I had so much to get done when he was sick, but after this two-year taste of his absence, I want to follow him back there once again and ask: “What did you experience? What did you understand back then?”

He didn’t say much, but now I feel that had I just sat day in and day out there with him, rather than stirring around like a mouse in my office, I may or may not have learned something, but there would have been a deep companionship. That’s the thing about taking care of someone who’s very ill. If you let them, if you’re there, they may take you somewhere you wouldn’t go on your own.

After his death I had to deal with various accounts of his, and in one, perhaps a credit card or airplane mileage account, I managed to dig up his password as well as the confirming questions and answers they ask to make sure you’re who you say you are.

These were the questions they asked:

Favorite type movie? His answer: Science fiction.

Favorite sport? Boxing (huh?).

Favorite pizza topping? Pepperoni (I knew that).

Birthday of best friend? His answer: December 5, 1949.

I wept when I saw that. For years he’d never remembered birthdays, didn’t say anything, didn’t buy a gift. Once we had a blazing fight over that at Newark Airport, I enroute to Hartford and he to Tokyo, he taking the escalator up and I taking the stairs, our anger spilling across the railing like some afternoon TV sitcom.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” he finally declared.

“I’m your wife,” I told him. “I’m your friend!”

After he died, I found it: Birthday of best friend? December 5, 1949.

 

I dedicate this post to Ancelmo. His two children, Axel and Jonathan, are in school. Their mother was deported three years ago. Ancelmo earns money fixing roofs and he fell from the third floor due to the rain and broke his arm. He’s undocumented with no health insurance. Now he can’t work, there’s no disability or insurance monies coming in, no workmen’s comp, not much sympathy or help from the present government. Jimena did manage to put him  into a farmers’ physical therapy program. I have food cards for him but he needs $400 to make this month’s rent for his family. Your support for him, especially on such a day, would be deeply appreciated.

The button Help immigrant families will take you to a Paypal account set up specially for that purpose. Or else you could mail me a check and write on the memo line: for immigrant families or Ancelmo, and mail to Eve Marko, POB 174,Montague, MA 01351. Thank you for your kindness.

 

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HERE’S BREATH

With Sami Awad in Palestine

“Billy: ‘Mother, do they have hardwood floors up in heaven?’

Mother: ‘I don’t think so.’

Billy: ‘So what does God walk on?’”

I read this exchange in a transcript of a journal written by hand by a woman raising four children in 1927 not far from the Massachusetts eastern coast. I was moved by how a woman, a school teacher and mother, was intent on keeping a journal with daily entries describing her interactions with her children and their clever ripostes as they grew up.

This was two years before the stock market crashed, putting millions out of work, when the great Depression hammered so powerfully into the American consciousness that, years later, I’d meet people who told me they lived through the Depression and could never forget it.

I’m pretty sure that I and others will tell future generations: We lived through the coronavirus. And what will we say about the Trump years, and the election of 2020? How did we cope? How did we behave?

On the day before Election Day I’m inundated by communications showing anger, anxiety, and fear: There’s a maniac in the White House who’ll do anything to stay in power: militias will take over the states, kidnapping Democratic leaders; the courts will give him everything he asks for.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Wednesday will mark two years since Bernie died. Exactly a year ago today I was in Poland bringing his ashes to Birkenau as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ annual bearing witness retreat, which was his request to me.

This year the retreat is taking place online. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it would work. The Auschwitz retreat has to take place at Auschwitz, not in the Cloud, I thought to myself.

But I attended all of yesterday’s program and part of today’s, and was stunned by the impact. There we were, chanting the names of the dead again, seeing on film Marian Kolodziej’s testimony. We weren’t by the railroad tracks or at the women’s barrack this time (though four of us did get there in person, practically the only ones in that enormous camp). The rest are doing the retreat remotely, and perhaps because of that it was the people I saw on camera who grabbed my attention. When you’re at the place itself it dwarfs anything and anyone—for this reason Bernie had said years ago that Auschwitz is the teacher at the retreat, no one and nothing else. This time I had more space to look and listened to people.

Today two Palestinians, Sami awad and Dina Awwad (not related), talked of what going to Auschwitz had done to their work, their dreams, and their understanding. The first has done nonviolent resistance and peace work for ages, http://www.holylandtrust.org, the second began a project in partnership with an  Israeli woman based on the writings of Etty Hillesum, who was killed at Auschwitz at a young age http://www.ettyhillesumcards.com.

Looking at Sami on camera, I felt like I was watching a man I had loved for a long time. I met him some 16 years ago and watched what unfolded for him, the optimism, the defeats, the constant determination. I heard him describe how his vision had changed beginning with that first trip to Auschwitz.

“The reason the Oslo peace accords didn’t succeed is because they were built on fear—fear of the other, of what will happen, of more losses,” he said today. “They weren’t based on relationship with the other side, we were still seeing the other side as the Other, and we were afraid.”

This is not the time to repeat in detail what he said, only how moved I was looking at this man and what had happened to him over the years, the persistence he showed even as the peace accords got dismantled, his courage when he’d join nonviolent marches each Friday and often got hurt or ended up in jail, and how he’s not afraid to make his vision wider and bigger with the years. I don’t hear him saying: I’m older now, it’s time to get practical, wise up, stop going after dreams and bubbles. Let’s just settle for the most basic minimum and be satisfied.

Like Gandhi, his great exemplar, he looks to transform people, in my language—help them wake up. Getting the British out of India or helping to end the Israeli occupation is a secondary measure; the big measure is to change society, transform human beings.

I have a little sense of how many defeats he’s suffered over the years and what it’s done to him and his family, but whenever I visit him in Bethlehem he cheers me up, not the other way around. For him it’s so clear that it’s not about the short run. I get my enthusiasm back whenever I connect with people like Sami. Depression and anxiety lift. People are doing things, facing life by taking one step after another. Even if you don’t share their belief system, their faith is contagious. Not for them the media’s nightmarish scenarios; their inspiration comes from within, not without.

Here in America, there will be wins tomorrow (and I think there will be), followed by lots of flag-waving and grandiosity and maybe even violence, and there’s no guarantee of anything. I watch my own apprehension balloon when I read someone like Nate Silver, https://fivethirtyeight.com/politics/elections/, talk about the scenarios for a win by Donald Trump, few as they are. And then I remember that it’s not about Trump, it’s about me.

Where do I stand,  if not with Sami and Dina, if not with the others appearing on that online retreat? And where do any of us stand, if not on our vows?

I saw Bernie through some 35 years of gains, losses, wins, defeats, people loving him, people hating him, people leaving him, people writing him letters, people wanting to come back. I could never help but notice how much he carried in a stable, peaceful way. Always? No. There were times when he lost patience, and there was one particular time when for a few weeks he couldn’t sleep at night because of worry.

But as a rule, he slept well. He left it to me to get anxious about this problem or that, especially about money, and he was able to hold so much. It was as if he was saying: Here’s breath. That’s our gift, the greatest gift of all. What else do you need? What else do you expect?

No one knew better than he that the work of the Bodhisattva is endless. It’s not just for the long run, it’s endless. Which means lifetime after lifetime, if you believe in reincarnation, and if not, it’s endless into imagination, into beyond and beyond.

Immediate wins were nice, he’d celebrate them for sure: “Come on, let’s go have dinner.” He didn’t drink champagne, he didn’t go somewhere fancy for a week, just: “Let’s go out for dinner.”

And the next morning he’d be back at work. Maybe field some calls or emails of congratulations, let himself feel the contentment of someone who got something done, maybe take a nap, relax in front of the TV. But in no time at all he’d be back making more crazy plans: “Eve, I was taking my bath this morning and I came up with an idea, I don’t know why I never thought of it before.” And off he’d go.

Sami reminds me of Bernie. And the others who appeared on the screen remind me, too, for they have worked on and on for decades now bearing witness to unbearable situations, and still finding light, humor, and love, seeing light not at the end of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself.

Bernie is gone, not around to inspire us any longer. So we have to inspire each other, that’s our work. And we do, again and again.

 

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NOW, SOON, LATER

“Come on already!”

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

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

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

“Now!”

“Later!”

“Now! I hate that word.”

“What word, Auss?”

Later! I hate later!

“What about soon?”

“Hate that too!”

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

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

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

“It rained all day, Auss.”

“And the day before?”

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

“It was short, doesn’t count.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not dogs.”

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

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

“Later, Aussie.”

“Now, Boss!”

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

“I told you, Boss, you’re a wimp.”

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

“He’s greater than Lincoln!”

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

“That’s terrible!”

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

“And for this they built him a memorial?”

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

“No.”

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

“So when do we go for a walk, Boss?”

“Later.”

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

“Soon, Aussie.”

“Not later?”

“Soon.”

“I hate that word!”

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WHAT GOD WANTS OF ME

What Aussie does when it rains

What’s a face in the crowd?

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

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

A phone conversation with my mother this morning:

“Chavale, tell me, where am I?”

“You’re in your apartment, mom.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s not because I’m Jewish?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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BECOMING AND BECOMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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FAMILY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A HOUSE FULL OF ILLEGALS

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

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

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

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

“Aussie!”

She spins back.

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

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

Aussie’s head turns to look back.

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

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

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

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

“What job is that, Boss?”

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

“I hate men and I hate kids!”

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

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“But what’s the problem with kids?”

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

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

“How much are you paying me?”

“Paying you for what?”

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

“They’re stroking you, Aussie—”

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

“Give me a break, Auss.”

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

“Maybe you’re not from Texas, Auss.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You deceived him, Aussie.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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YOU TOOK MY BONE!

“You took my bone!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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