“Who’s that, Harry?”
“That’s not a pig, Harry.”
“It’s a porcupine. That’s why I call it Porky.”
“How come you haven’t destroyed Porky, Harry? Usually I buy you these toys that are advertised as being durable and tough, and it takes you less than an hour to take out all the white filling and sprinkle it on the floor or the grass outside. But Porky’s been around for weeks and he’s still intact.”
“Porky’s indestructible, Boss. I gave it my best shot.”
“And he also still bellows, Harry. Usually you manage to shut them up real quick, but not Porky. He still has his voice—and his innards.”
“Boss, you finally bought me a toy that won’t die.”
Bernie died. I remember that each time I open my eyes in the morning. But that’s hardly the whole story.
What an honor it was to take care of him after his stroke! Ordinarily, he hated to be taken care of, he often quoted Peter Matthiessen with approval: “When I get sick I just want to crawl under a rock and be left alone.” Yes, I made chicken soup and hot toddies when he had a cold, provided hot and cold compresses for pain. He said thank you, but clearly didn’t depend on them.
He had no choice after the stroke. I wondered how he would respond to so many diffeent therapists and caregivers, people helping him walk and cleaning up after him. He gave in with so much grace it left me breathless.
Usually, we avoid illness. We hate it when someone gets sick and then we have to take care of him/her, especially when it’s for a long time, maybe forever. People used to ask me: “He could last for another decade, are you ready for this?” It took me a while, but at some point I accepted it completely.
Now I feel something much stronger. It can be a real blessing to have sickness right in the middle of your home, inside the family, not in the nursing home or the hospital. Illness stares you in the face day after day, and you learn and understand more than you ever will reading all those books and sutras. What do you learn? To take your place in the wide, unfathomable fields of life; to see how things turn on a dime, that one day you’re the one taking care, the next you’re the one who needs attention; to do your best even when nothing is up to you alone, plunge in with all your heart, with all your mind, with your entire body.
The tragedy of covid is that the sick person—be it with covid or something else—is removed immediately and taken into isolation, and you’re unable to visit him/her in the hospital. In that way we don’t just avoid exposure to covid, we avoid exposure, period. Exposure to the flush on the cheek of someone we love, the quiet sadness in their eyes, the confusion, the need for reassurance. Their need of us. We lose exposure to all those things, yet they’re some of the basic ingredients of a life.
Yesterday I visited a sewing circle made up of immigrant women, many undocumented, who are sewing masks. I won’t identify anyone by name yet, but, as usual, it started with someone who was concerned about the welfare or immigrant families without work or help from any government, social agencies and schools shutting their doors to them. Using her own money, she invested in sewing machines, fabric, elastic, needles, threads of all colors, various cutting and measuring implements, and started a circle of some 15 women to sew masks and, later, other sewing products.
When I came in, she needed help elongating her dining room table so that it could be used for measuring and cutting fabric and liner. A few women came in, one of whom I remembered from our food card program, followed by my friend, Jimena Pareja, who, after putting in long hours at her full-time work, started guiding one person in measuring the liner and fabric with great precision.
I watched the process: Iron fabrics, measure and cut liner and fabric, put 10 samples of ready-cut materials with elastics into each bag, and get the bags with templates to the members of the circle so that they could sew at home.
I watched this happen in a modest home on a modest street in a neighboring small city. I thought of all the things we do to avoid staring taboos in the face—poverty, homelessness, illness, injustice, abuse. And I watched women transform taboos into things of healing and beauty.
There is nothing so ugly, so horrible, or so painful that it can’t be transformed. That has always been the promise of my Zen practice. I don’t practice so that things will change; rather, my practice trains me to let go of the fears in my head, open my heart, and see what is possible—the lotus in the mud.
My guess is that I will write more about this sewing project in the future. For now, I’m still thinking about how to support them; I’ll know more in a week. What I know they need for sure is help with marketing—a website, for example. They already have a template and some contents. Perhaps one of you reading this post knows how to do put together a website that will promote and sell masks and everything else the women are selling (their masks also include masks specifically made for people who need to lipread, hence, the transparent one below). Obviously, you can do this even at a distance. And if you know of a possible market for these products, please be in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Many more women wish to join this circle and make money for their families.
Finally, I’m still collecting money for food cards. Another $1,000 of cash and cards went out a few days ago; we average giving out about $1,000 a week.
At its inception, the Zen Peacemaker Order asked of its members to tithe. I had been tithing for my entire adult life due to my Jewish upbringing, the only exception being the year after Bernie’s stroke, when I knew we would need lots of help. A year later Bernie and I went back to tithing again. The Order asked its members to give to charity either at least 5% of their gross income or 10% after taxes.
It’s a marvelous practice to take on, not just because many people of different faith traditions have practiced it for thousands of years, but because it asks you to build giving right into your life instead of leaving it to arbitrary fits of generosity. Sometimes we feel generous, sometimes we don’t; tithing provides a minimal ground under our feet, it’s pure arithmetic, a law unto itself. We give because that’s what we’ve taken on. We give because we’re human, because we inhabit this planet alongside billions of other beings, because we know it’s all us.
You can donate for food cards and cash help to immigrant families by using the Donate button below and adding the instruction: For food cards. You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. On the memo line of the check, please write: For food cards.