MEANWHILE, LET’S LIVE

Jimena Pareja and I huddled under a store marquee for protection from the wind and rain as she called families in the area to come collect food gift cards. The marquee was so narrow that we couldn’t maintain 6 feet distance.

“Mabe we could go to their homes in this weather,” I suggested. Jimena immediately said no. Nobody wants me to know where they live.

A woman came with a thank you letter to me, written by her children because she spoke no English. Some weeks ago I had helped her with rent money she needed for a new apartment. Her children had learned the lesson of coronavirus, drawing stick figures with gloves on the hands, saying: God bless your hands.

I look at my hands as I type this on the keyboard, one still with my old wedding ring (I think of taking it off, but haven’t yet), the other with a ring my father bought me. Two rings from the two men in my life. I wonder if there will be a third.

I also brought some cash to help someone meet an $858 electricity bill, which a woman showed me last week. “They are both farm workers,” Jimena explained. “That means they have no work in the winter till they return to the fields at the end of February. So the bills build up in the winter when they have no income, and they pay them down when they start to work. Only now there is no work.”

Your monies have all gone to buy food cards—putting food on the table is essential. The other needs were met by me. But I’ve received a few payments where people wrote to use for the families in whatever way I think right, which gives a little more flexibility. For now, food gift cards are still most important.

On another front, Eef Heinhuis, a beautiful Dutch woman, is asking friends, as a birthday gift, to donate for food cards for undocumented families here. I was taken aback and deeply moved. I thought of the Marshall Plan after World War II, when America gave billions of dollars in aid to devastated European countries. We had the Democrat Truman in the White House and a Republican Congress, but there was bipartisan understanding and support of the Marshall Plan, not the blame game we see going on now.

The circle has come round in this Dutch-based effort to send money to families who suffer here. They understand that while the virus affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us equally, and those already poor or on the margin are being pushed off the edge. The thing to do at this time isn’t to find villains and bogeymen (Lock her up!, Trump, China, Democrats, Republicans, etc.) but to see that while we’re all in this together, some will hurt more than others.

The other day I talked to my mother, who tells me that she has no more reason to live. “Will this ever change?” she asks.

“Will what ever change?” I ask her. “The virus? Human beings?” She’s not sure what she’s referring to. “If it’s the virus, doctors will find vaccines and reliable tests.”

“And a vaccine for humans?” she wonders.

“I don’t know about that, mom.”

After a few more minutes she’s ready to hang up. “Okay,” she says. “Meanwhile, let’s live.”

My friend, Roshi Dr. Ken Byalin, wrote a very moving blog post celebrating 20 years since deciding to take early retirement. He describes how, at that time, he had no idea what he wanted to do other than continue helping youth with mental illness, which he had done earlier.

He could have continued doing this at a regular job with a salary; instead, he chose to go his own way and find a Zen Peacemaker path. What’s the difference between a social worker doing his regular job and that same social worker doing his work as a Zen Peacemaker? In some way, that’s what his post is about.

He describes starting a small foundation which integrated mental health treatment with the arts. Finally, someone suggested he consider opening a charter school to help youth with mental illness get to college.

Ken was not an educator, schools had not been his thing. They encountered one hindrance after another, obstacles from a state and city bureaucracy that didn’t believe that such a school could be successful. Application after application was turned down, there were frequent trips to Albany, all seemingly in vain. Patient, determined, and humble, he persisted.

Ten years ago they began a charter school for some 75 pupils. Now there are three schools serving over 1,000 students. Half have mental health issues, a big majority are from low-income families, including immigrants; almost all of them go on to college. Read his post.

Someone asked me the other day how I started raising food money for undocumented families. “You always say that all you want to do is write,” he reminded me.

I shrugged and said that I sat down with the woman who has been cleaning our house monthly for the past 15 years. We always talk over coffee first (we like to go out to breakfast but can’t now). I reminded her of how she described to me one Thanksgiving when she invited over for dinner workers at the local Chinese restaurant, mostly Chinese immigrants. She knew they slept 5 to a room in local apartments, their families back home.

“What happened to them?” I asked her, knowing the restaurant had closed.

“They’re gone, Eve. They left,” she said.

“But where did they go? Everything is shut down.”

We discussed this, and somehow the hardship of getting food for one’s family came up, so a short while later I drove to a local supermarket, bought 2 food cards, and gave them to her.  Her work had been cut down, too, but she’d told me: “We’re okay, we don’t need anything. They need.” The food cards were for two families she knew who were struggling.

She gave the gift cards away and I blogged about it. Immediately came the online inquiries: How do I help? Can I contribute to this? I said yes, and now meet every Tuesday to give out food cards bought with donations from kind and generous people. Meaning you.

The bank account I just opened for this purpose has some $2,500-$2,600 in it right now. In three weeks’ time we altogether gave some $2,700 to undocumented families in this area. That totals well over $5,000, which takes my breath away.

Life opens up, shows what’s needed, and people step up. Not-knowing is not ignorance, it’s complete openness, fully engaged rather than passive or sedated. It’s feeling blindly in the dark for what I can do now rather than trying to figure it all out ahead of time.

It started with food cards. It led to someone needing to raise rent so their family could have a roof over their head. That led to helping to meet an electricity bill. Now I’m looking for a techie to help the kids figure out how to do school on Zoom.

One need leads to another need to another need. That’s fine, it’s how the world works. I can’t do it all, not even much. I can do what I can do—with your help. It’s what I loved about Ken’s blog. He went into retirement with no idea or expectation that he would be starting 3 charter schools for youth with mental issues. He found his way in the dark, one thing leading to the next and then the next. Twenty years later you look back, shake your head, and say: How did this all come about?

God bless your hands. We’re all the hands of Kwan-Yin, the great goddess of compassion. We work like she does, fumbling with the pillow at night, the hands knowing blindly where to go. Life tells us what to do, we just have to listen.

And as my mother said, meanwhile, let’s live.