Martin asked: “How do I stop the suffering of the world?”

This is from our Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments. Now it’s not just Martin asking this question, many many people are asking it.

How do I stop the suffering of a man choked by policemen, who, what with their weapons, training, and discrimination stand in for an entire society—you, me, everyone—that continues to be oblivious? How do I stop the suffering of his family?

What about the Latina woman I gave a food card to yesterday, who was so skinny and frail? ”She has very bad diabetes,” Jimena tells me. “She lost 60 pounds very quickly and is now losing her vision, but she doesn’t have medical insurance so till now she hasn’t had care. We’re arranging this for her now, but the bureaucracy takes a long time and, in the meantime,  she is losing more weight and more vision.”

What about the woman here who just heard that her mother in Guatemala died from covid?

It’s 5 pm and the weather is still very hot and sticky, but giving out food cards and cash goes relatively quickly because people are back from working in the farms under the blast of sun. They laugh about it and shrug, but one woman—let’s call her Carla—hasn’t done so well. She picks up a card, Jimena asks her how she’s doing, they talk, and Carla walks away slowly, falteringly. She was picking asparagus and fell, and the harvester sideswiped her leg.

She’s out for at least another month and the farmer refused to pay her a penny or process claims for workmen’s’ compensation though the law clearly mandated he should. It took a strong woman like Jimena Pareja and others to convince him he had to abide by that law.

What was Carla to do otherwise? She needs the job even if it means working outside in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit, 90% humidity; she can’t afford to lose it.

We had our Native American annual retreat this year on Zoom. CARE checks (coronavirus relief checks) have yet to arrive at Cheyenne River Reservation, Renee Fasthorse Iron Hawk said, though monies were allocated for this a long while ago, and this despite the fact that the people living on the Reservation are some of the poorest in the country.

The Reservation has so far avoided big outbreaks of the virus because their tribal chief put up check posts on the roads to prevent travel in and out. He was immediately challenged by the Governor of South Dakota who wants to have free travel across the state as part of keeping the state open. Native members say they have sovereignty and checkpoints will minimize the contagion; the governor has the federal government on her side, and in the meantime, no one is getting any checks.

How do I stop the suffering of the world?

Sometimes we get so confused by what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, what is a language we can agree upon. There is much fear of giving offense. What is the right way to refer to certain people? Can I call them Indians? Can I ask some of my black friends for feedback on whether my behavior is racist or not? I’m afraid to ask because I’m told they’re sick and tired of doing that, but I can’t be sure if I don’t ask, and besides, I can then be accused of racial insensitivity. I understand there’s a lot of resources there regarding white privilege, but how do I bear witness? How do I listen if no one wants to talk?

How do I apologize? Some people say that an apology is too quick a way out, so what do I do? Is it kosher to talk about the differences among us, or do I just do the safest thing and withdraw into silence?

This is the time to listen, many people say. Okay, but for how long? What will distract you next? A second surge of the virus? Global warming?

How do I stop the suffering of the world?

Again and again I think that it can be dangerous to be and work with people who are different from us, yet that’s what we’re called to do, to be with people who are different from us but are not Other.

I remember bringing a couple to have lunch with my brother’s religious Jewish family on the Sabbath. They were enjoying themselves tremendously and at some point, the woman rummaged in her handbag and took out a camera. “I’d love to take a picture of this lovely family,” she gushed. “Could you all squeeze together?” Then she froze because she saw the look in their eyes. Use of a camera is prohibited on the Sabbath, I explained to her, and she put it away immediately, but she felt clumsy and self-conscious.

Hanging out with people different from us can be joyful and fun, but also feels dangerous because we don’t know the language, don’t know what’s acceptable, feel it’s easy to offend and hurt—and oh, so much easier to stay home. So much easier to stay silent.

“Not everybody wants to heal,” Renee Iron Hawk had said that first day. “Some just want to stay in their corners.”

Staying in my corner with Harry and Aussie is so comfortable. Sure, they want me to take them for another walk, but they won’t get offended if I don’t. And if I lose my patience and even my temper, they forgive and forget instantly. I know their language: Who wants to eat? Do you want to go for a walk? Do you want to go to the car? They’re comfortable with anything I call them: dogs, canines, even doggies.

“I hate doggies,” Aussie says. “And sometimes you call us meshugenas. How do you think we feel about that?”

“Is crazies any better?” I wonder.

It’s so much easier to hang out with a pair of canines, stay in my rural corner with dahlias and begonias that forgive me for not watering them.

But my practice is not to hide in silence or in corners. My practice is to plunge into the gapless gap that separates us. Don’t be afraid to use words. And if you are afraid, remember that you also have eyes, a mouth with which to smile, and a nose you can top with a clown’s red nose.

“I hate being the white woman who hands out food cards to Latino immigrants,” I’ve told Jimena, “and wearing a mask beside.” But I hope they can laugh at my silly elementary Spanish. I hope they can see the laughter wrinkles around my eyes when I tell them their hija is so bonita.

Alexandra Fuller said: “It’s not about anger, it’s about healing.” Throughout the clumsiness and the confusion, the resentment and guilt, I remember that: It’s not about anger, it’s about healing.

We are continuing to feed immigrant families, and I am buying a few sewing machines as well for mothers to sew masks and make more money. You can help by donating. Please use the Donate button below and write, on the Paypal note line: For food cards. You can also send me a check: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: For food cards.

Thank you very, very much for all you are doing.