YOUR PEOPLE ARE MY PEOPLE

Montague Reporter Police Log, 4/30 headline:

“Fridge on the Bridge; Two Big Black Bears; Cooped-Up Residents Starting to Act Like Jerks”

Our local newspaper makes it sound as if these are the big concerns of our local police: a refrigerator left on top of the bridge connecting two towns, two black bears appearing on the road, and a host of people who drink too much, cause accidents, or are having too good a time outside when everybody’s supposed to be miserable inside.

Is this who we are?

I think of out-of-towners who see that headline and sigh: That’s the way to live. If a refrigerator left on a bridge, two black bears, and residents beginning to act like jerks are the biggest concerns, it must be a nice place to call home. No muggings, no rapes, no murders, none of what the rest of the world experiences.

Is this who we really are?

I grew up in an unhappy family with an abusive father, but you’d never have guessed it if you’d seen us walking on Saturday after Shabbat services in the synagogue, wishing and receiving blessings of Gut Shabbos, smiling in our best clothes as we made our way home for a festive lunch I usually dreaded, when rage, fear and insecurity spilled out. Days of Sabbath or holidays, when there was no work and no school, were hardest on the family.

Once I looked at the other well-dressed families looking so bright and kind, sighed, and said to my mother: “They all look so happy!”

And she said to me, “Don’t believe your eyes. You never know what happens inside the house.”

It took me many years to realize that here, at least, she was wrong. Some families didn’t just look happy, they were indeed happy. But I was obsessed with the difference between outside and inside, the visible and invisible.

A local friend of mine, barely 40, tells me how many of his friends are dead due to illness, violence, suicide, or opioids. It’s beautiful now that spring is here, trees and flowers blooming everywhere. But other things bloom, too: poverty, unemployment, hunger, fear, and violence, only they tend to stay  in hiding. Like us, they’ve quarantined themselves, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Today I was back handing out $50 supermarket food cards, mostly to mothers with children (occasionally fathers come, too). I also put cash in two envelopes. One went to a family paying down a large electricity bill that accumulated over an income-less winter. The second went to a mother suffering from physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She has no work, no car, and three children wondering where their father went (the police issued him a restraining order). She doesn’t show the children the marks on her arms and around her neck. With your help, I made sure she at least had cash for the short run.

Jimena described to me their domestic situation, and one image stayed with me. It seems as though the father locked the doors of the apartment so no one could get in. The 14-year-old son, fearing for his mother, broke a window to get in, and one of the things they now have to do is fix that window (our nights are approaching freezing once again).

I recalled a koan from many years ago. “A water buffalo passes through a window. Its head, horns and legs have all gone through. Why can’t its tail go through?” I worked on this koan with a teacher who day and night created new ways to help poor or homeless families, building homes and giving jobs, childcare centers and AIDS facilities. He was the very opposite of being stuck, of saying we can’t do anything.

I, too, tried to show how one can get through, how one can get unstuck. He wouldn’t let me get unstuck. At least in my case (I have no idea what he did with other students) he wanted me to stay with what it is to be stuck.

Jimena and I will meet  a second time this week to see what more is needed by these families. For me it’s no longer about being stuck or unstuck; life is endless, I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I don’t waste energy on pessimism or frustration.

I have received extraordinary donations: three gifts from three generations in the same family; donations from Europe in honor of a Dutch woman’s birthday, donations from a sangha in Germany, a check from an old friend and terrific poet I knew 40 years ago whose life took her to Virginia, and other checks coming into a post office box folded inside small yellow note papers saying: I wish I could do more.

Every time I open one of those I want to say to the person: You’re doing far, far more than you know.

There’s a koan in our Book of Householder Koans (given the cancellation of our talks and workshops due to the virus, I try to plug it a little in the blog), Little Bodhisattva, in which a 13 year-old girl is being tucked into bed by her mother who just came back from sitting in the Zen center.

The little girl says: “I love tuck-me-ins after meditation with the community.” Then she adds: “I like you, Mom, and, at the same time, I like all of the people that you sit with. Your people are my people. They just don’t know it yet.”

In her reflection on the koan, Roshi Egyoku Nakao wrote: “Meditation is vast and wide with nothing obtruding its flow. How about you? How far do you extend? Where do you draw your boundaries?”

The same can be said about compassion. Compassion is vast and wide. You may think it ends with you and the person you’re helping, but it doesn’t, it goes on and on. A week ago, when we did our book launch in the zendo by Zoom, I said to the group of people whose koans appeared in the book: “When you sent in your stories, did you ever imagine that they would move people in various countries and somehow contribute to their wellbeing?”

We have no notion of the extent of our compassion. One thousand dollars, one hundred dollars, one dollar—is any one of these more limited than the others?

Like meditation, compassion is vast and wide, with nothing obstructing its flow. Long ago a young girl was consumed by the difference between outside and inside. What a blessing that 60 years later she finally understands.

Donations to these families can go through button below, but please write on the note: for gift cards, or for families. If you don’t, the donation will go to my blog—which I also deeply appreciate and need. Or send checks to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 USA, and write the same on the note.