Two hard things happened after Bernie’s major stroke. The first was coming to grips with the fact that our life won’t be what it was. The second was bearing witness to the things my husband wanted or needed, and that I could not provide. In face of suffering and disappointment, my big challenge is not to react. There are unfulfilled wants and needs, curves no one expected. Cultivating curiosity about what’s around that bend has never been easy for me.” | “I have walked dogs while leaves are falling over many years. Stanley will be 13 shortly and I find myself wondering if this is his last fall, just as I wondered a few months ago if that was his last summer and I will probably ask the same question about winter when we walk on the snow. And I wonder what it would be like one day for both of us to lie down in the woods because we’re tired or our legs hurt, and never get up again.” | “Years ago I took a course on how to raise money. I was told that, when meeting a potential donor, the hardest thing isn’t to ask for a specific donation, the hardest thing is to ask and THEN SHUT UP. I can apply that lesson to the most mundane of circumstances: “How are you?” I ask someone. And now, Eve, shut up and listen.” | “Bernie’s physical therapist doesn’t want Bernie to favor the left leg, which he feels, over the right, which he can’t feel after the stroke: “Don’t stand on the leg you know can hold you,” he tells him. “Stand on the leg you don’t know can hold you.” Let go of what you know, the working limb that gives you confidence, and lean on the other side, the side you don’t trust, that you can barely make out is there.” | “I didn’t grow up on Mother Goose rhymes, I grew up on my mother’s stories of the Shoah and what she had had to do to survive. These were tales of death but also grit and courage, and they’ve influenced me from the time I was a girl.” | “Bernie was about to go out on an errand yesterday when I saw him standing at the door, his funny hat framing a sweet and happy face. I tried to capture the image right there, not a great photo by any means, just a casual, intimate moment that I may go back to years hence to remember how happy we were.” | “Nothing deters Stanley and me from our daily expeditions to the woods, not even shooting and the occasional glimpses of men in hunting gear with guns.” | “I am an immigrant, having come to the US at the age of 7. I remember tiptoeing silently down the hallway back then and listening to my parents talk in their bedroom about money, about how to pay bills and afford schoolbooks and clothes. Often the words they repeated were: What will happen?”

MEETING THEM WHERE THEY ARE

Inagi!”

Myotaka!”

Get up!

Sit down!

Manny Ironhawk is teaching the kids at Lavelle Prep a few words in Lakota. He and his wife, Renee, are in Staten Island, guests of Integration Charter Schools and their founder, Ken Byalin. Some 200 children, most from low-income families and many at-risk, listen to Manny and Renee as they describe the culture they are seeking to save by teaching the Lakota language in their immersion LOWI school in Eagle Butte, Cheyenne River Reservation.

What an odd collaboration! Charter schools in Staten Island, New York, one-third of whose students have special needs, reaching out to a Native American school halfway around the country.

But I’m not starting at the beginning.

At the beginning was Ken Byalin, offered the option of early retirement by New York City after a long career in leading mental health service centers. Ken and his family hosted me at their home overnight, and he reminded me that in early 2000 he flew out to California, where Bernie and I lived at the time, to talk to Bernie about this turn of events.

Over his years of work, Ken had noticed that young people with mental and emotional diagnoses, coming from harsh home environments, often lacking at least one parent, were rarely given much of a chance for any kind of education in regular schools. They were usually siphoned away from college, not even finishing high school. Unable to join any kind of economic mainstream, their life seemed to be over before they grew into adulthood.

Slowly and intently, assembling a dedicated team of educators who believed in a vision of giving children with special needs care and dedication, this quiet, almost diffident man founded Integration Charter Schools, integrating those children with others, primarily from low-income and immigrant families, and giving them the attention and skills they needed to graduate high school and go to college.

Ten years ago, he and his team opened Lavelle Prep Charter School, followed later by New Venture Charter School and then Nicotra Charter School. Admission is by lottery; anyone can get in. High school graduation rates are 100% and college admission rates are well over 90%.

We went into elementary school class rooms which have a maximum of 17 pupils per class, two teachers per class and 1-2 more aides. Some children have an aide sitting with them the entire class, giving them special help with arithmetic and reading. When children are too stressed and acting out, they go to small rooms for breaks with an aide to play with special toys and games for de-stressing and colorful exhortations to change your words, change your mindset.

“We meet them where they are,” one teacher said to me as we walked the hallways. They don’t yet have fancy sports facilities, but they have art, music, and movement rooms. And a big assembly room where they listened to Lakota elders describe their way of life.

“We only have one mother earth to take care of,” Manny Ironhawk told the kids. “If we don’t take care of mother earth, there will be no mother earth to take care of us.”

There were questions:

How do you like to be called, Indians or Native Americans? “Native Americans, but my tribe is Lakota.”

Why do you have long hair? “In our culture we never cut our hair except when people we love die. “

Is Washington Redskins offensive? “Yes, it is. Our tribal leader talked to the owner of the Redskins but the owner wouldn’t listen to him.”

What problems are on your reservation? “Abuse of alcohol and drugs. We have no jobs. There is 90% unemployment on the reservation.”

What is your religion? “My religion is to be spiritual every day. I pray every morning. It’s the same to me as going to church. I pray for my relatives and for everything that exists.”

What is your culture’s food? “Natural berries that we make into a pudding: chokeberries, plums, a wild turnip which we save for winter-time and that we use in all kinds of soups. Our main diet was buffalo, but that was many years ago.”

Nineteen years have passed since Ken came out to California to talk with Bernie about his next steps after retirement. Bernie’s dead, and almost 1,000 students are studying at Integration Charter Schools. Zen Peacemakers has done five annual retreats with the Lakota, and inspired by the LOWI School’s mission to save a language and a culture, it flew Manny and Renee Ironhawk to New York to meet Ken and his deeply dedicated team of educators.

Ken used to come all the way up here to visit us, especially after Bernie’s stroke. “I couldn’t have done this without you, Bernie,” he would tell the sick man again and again.

“We do our work in the cracks of society,” Bernie always said. He never got to visit Integration Charter Schools. We were a large group yesterday, but I noticed there was always an empty seat somewhere for an invisible witness.

THE DOGS OF THE KISKADEE HILLS

The Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills: Hunt for the Lynx begins a trilogy about a society of dogs after humans have destroyed themselves and much of the world. Living with their families and clans in the Kiskadee Hills, they’ve developed over generations a rich tradition and way of life, and have prospered. But now, an unknown killer is butchering the Kisdees of the Hills.

Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges says: “You will never look at dogs the same again. Eve Marko gives us a story that explores the path that life on our planet has taken, and asks what your role in that course might be.”

BEARING WITNESS

Eve Marko - Bearing Witness

To bear witness to anything is to be as close to it as possible.

It’s not to read books or see movies about it, it’s not to have an opinion or tell a story. It’s to let go of all ideas about it—be in the space of not-knowing—and simply be there, up close and deeply personal.

Eve has been involved with the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Bearing Witness Retreats—in places of suffering and conflict since her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There have been 20 retreats at the site of those concentration camps since, along with retreats in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Black Hills of South Dakota, near the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Upcoming Bearing Witness Retreats:

Bosnia, May 2016 (Please email for details)

ABOUT EVE MARKO

Eve Marko

Eve Marko is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, head teacher at the Green River Zen Center in Massachusetts, and a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order.

She has trained spiritually-based social activists and peacemakers in the US, Europe and the Middle East alongside her husband, Bernie Glassman, and has been a Spiritholder at retreats bearing witness to genocide at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rwanda, the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Bosnia. Before that she worked at the Greyston Mandala for a decade, which provides housing, child care, jobs, and AIDS-related medical services in Yonkers, New York.

Eve’s articles on social activists have appeared in the magazines Tikkun and Shambhala Sun, and her collection for lay Zen practitoners, The Book of Householder Koans, will come out in late 2016. Her great love, Hunt for the Lynx, the first in her fantasy trilogy, The Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills, will come out in early 2016.

“When I was a young girl my dream was to be a hermit, live alone, and write serious literature. That’s not how things turned out. I got involved with people. I got involved in the world.

Two things matter to me right now: the creative spark and the aliveness of personal connection. In some way, they both come down to the same thing.”