Like many people, I’ve been thinking of toilet paper.
Not because I have tons of it, I haven’t bought any over the past two weeks. But big events have their symbols and icons, and for me the coronavirus and its effects may be forever symbolized by toilet paper. Here we are, in the richest country in the world, but go to any grocery store and there’s no toilet paper to be found. Lots of other things in overflowing shoppers’ carts, not toilet paper. People are ready to take risks, but not with toilet paper, not with running out of a tangible means for cleaning ourselves inside and out.
I’ve been speaking to a number of people and dogs. One, a friend in London, told me that representatives of supermarkets and grocery stores pleaded with the public to stop buying enormous quantities of things. Usually, at the end of the day they donate left-over food to homeless shelters and food kitchens, but now at the end of the day there’s no food to give away. “You are taking food out of the mouths of these families,” they said to the public, “not because you need to—we have enough and will continue to have enough.”
I did my weekly shopping last Friday—16 items, 4 more than what is permitted on the Express lines, unfortunately–and stood for hours on surrounded by overflowing shopping carts. We are a consumer culture, so of course, when in doubt, when in stress, when worried or anxious, what do we do? We shop.
Overfull carts stand for overfull bellies. Overfull bellies give the illusion that no matter what happens to the rest of the world, we’ll survive inside our belly cave, like end-of-the-worlders who maintain a huge inventory in some concealed, insulated cellar.
“Does it remind anyone of the Blitz?” I joked with my English friend.
“Darling,” she said, “nobody hoarded in the Blitz because there was no food to be had. No food, ergo no hoarding.”
“If you don’t care about what happens to you, that’s your business,” Aussie told me, “but don’t even think of running out of our premium dog food, turkey jerky and marrow bones.”
I’ve often wondered why I don’t feel any fear from the virus for myself. I am a 70 year-old asthmatic, after all, in The Risk Category. I think it’s because I was reared on stories of the Holocaust, when my 15 year-old mother, who looked less Jewish than the rest of her siblings, would be sent out into the theoretically Judenrein streets to see if she could get some food, try not to get stopped by thugs, police, or Nazis, not to be asked for ID. I heard a lot about hunger. It saturated my bones in those formative years and I’ve never forgotten them. Many second-generation Holocaust people report the same.
While I don’t fear for myself, I can’t forget the millions of people who’re getting laid off, who lose their homes and businesses, and the elderly neighbors left in isolation who don’t know how to get on Zoom. I usually prefer to cook for myself (for financial and health reasons) but I’m making an effort to buy take-out food at restaurants that would otherwise close.
I’m in touch with the head of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield. Ordinarily they feed some 130 people every weekend, along with seconds and take-out; starting this weekend it’ll be just take-out and I asked her if she’ll have enough volunteers.
“You better take your health seriously,” Aussie warns me. “If you get sick, who’ll walk us?”
I do take it seriously. At the same time, I find that the best antidote to fear is thinking about other people who suffer so much more than me, who’ll come to Stone Soup because they’re counting on getting quantities of great food. Trying to put ourselves in their shoes and asking what they need, and what I can do—there’s no better medicine than that. For now, that’s the best vaccine we got.
I spoke to my brother in Jerusalem by phone and he started getting excited. “You know,” he said, “there are many people out there who are wealthy enough that the crisis is not affecting their lifestyle one bit. They don’t feel the impact like so many others do. Those people should announce that they’re giving 10% of their wealth to help everyone else that is far less fortunate. Why aren’t they doing that? This is an emergency for so many people, what are the wealthy waiting for?”
He got more and more upset as he talked about this. What are we waiting for?
“Bernie,” I said to my dead husband, “Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots. Thought you should know, given that you’re a fan.”
“Terrible thing,” he said. “But I’ve told you again and again: Everything changes.”
By all means, take care of yourself, but try to move that all-encasing border wall called me-me-me-me an inch or two out every day. Call people, tell them you care. If, like me, you’re in The Risk Category, never forget the tradeoffs that are being made here, that other people are paying a big, big price to keep you safe. What can you do for them?
In some way, it’s an exciting time. The system needs to change, and there’s nothing like a big kick in the butt for changing systems. The coronavirus is such a kick and the system will change from it. How it changes is up to us.
I would like them to come up with a vaccine. I would also like to have as much toilet paper as always in order to rid myself of the impurities that mark so much of my life. Only the dirt I’m talking about doesn’t always get wiped clean by toilet paper.
“I want everything to go back to how it was,” says Aussie.
“I don’t,” I tell her. “I want us to keep on waking up.”
One of the koans in our Book of Householder Koans is: “Martin asked: How do I stop the suffering of the world?” It’s not just Martin’s koan, it’s my koan, it may be your koan.
Which reminds me that tomorrow, Thursday, Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will be interviewed on that book online by Geoff O’Keeffe, Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers International, followed by Q&A. You can listen to it by linking here at noon Eastern United States time (check the hours’ difference, especially if you’re calling in from outside the US): https://zoom.us/j/508770933. I hope someone asks the question of how do we stop the suffering of the world.
And speaking of stopping suffering, after I wrote of my friend who was trying to raise money to discharge debts to the funeral home that buried her daughter, people queried how they could help, and subsequently sent donations through PayPal for her benefit (memo saying: “For Friend’s Daughter’s Funeral”). We’ve raised around $1,000 for her so far, which came out of your initiative and generosity.
This is what we do as human beings realizing and practicing that we’re all one, all together. She was stunned and deeply grateful. She came over today to bring me paper cranes to send her benefactors, so if I can, I’ll try to get in touch with you to get your snail mail address.
May all beings be well.