Tomorrow, July 14, is Bastille Day. Nine days ago was July 4. Both days are seen in much of the world as commemorating uprisings for independence and equality. I didn’t write about July 4, though I lit incense in honor of the vision, regardless of the shortcomings in implementation.
I once went to an evening with a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. He recounted how, when he arrived in the New York airport, he was welcomed by the passport control agent:
“Welcome to the United States!” the man had boomed.
Recounting this, the teacher said: “A big grin came over my face and I said—‘Why, thank you!’” He looked around at the rest of us—the usual New York progressive crowd, some wearing a smirk on their faces–and shook his head. “You are so cynical,” he observed.
I often think of that. I think of the irony that overwhelms our humor, the nasty ripostes, the need to undermine hope and optimism with some derisive comment.
The classic Zen challenge for daily practice is: Can you start each day, each moment, with a beginner’s mind, a mind that isn’t certain of its truths or knowledge, a wide open, curious, unattached mind?
I face another challenge, and that is: Can I start each day with a beginner’s heart? A heart that lets itself, time and time again, be touched by the joy and suffering of the world, a heart that never says enough, that doesn’t close up (Yeah yeah, been there, done that), that doesn’t say: That flag may mean something to them, but to me—naaah! Not a know-it-all heart, not a heart gloating in its truths and superiority. A simple heart.
I think of simple hearts when I meet immigrant men and women who hurry over to pick up food cards after a long, tiring day working in heat and humidity in the fields for very low wages. Their gratitude overwhelms me because it’s so deep and unaffected. It doesn’t just reflect their need—which is very large—it also reflects amazement that people want to help. And not people from social agencies or even the church, but people they don’t even know. In their wide open eyes you read the message: It’s a miracle.
This country is still a miracle for them. What I read in their eyes is: It’s okay for you to pooh-pooh this place, it’s okay for you to remember time and time again its terrible failures, including its terrible failures with us. But this is still the place where we want to raise our families. This is still the place which gave us i-Pads and helped us hook up with WiFi so that our children could do distance learning. That buys us sewing machines so that we could make a little extra.
If the rents are high (and they are), we double up. If we can’t afford a car, we give each other rides. They are immensely grateful for everything, and it makes me grateful for them, for how we could come together if only once a week, in how they’ve given me the incentive to learn Spanish, in the grateful, simple heart I take back with me when I drive home. In the freshly-picked vegetables they give me (above).
They find joy here, and give it back. Occasionally I go swimming at 6 pm in nearby Lake Wyola. By then most families are gone home for supper so parking is easy. Many New England families are there in the day, but by 6 pm it’s changed. I arrive to hear small children babbling in Spanish in the water, the teenagers screeching as they fall out of kayaks, families and friends sitting together in large groups preparing barbecues, salsa music playing. It’s a welcome change to the Puritan culture one still sees here in New England. They radiate joy to me, and often it’s warmer than the water I am going into. They’ll be there till dark.
It’s not all fun and games. A month ago I’d visited with Jimena a woman who’d just given birth and gave her a small cash gift to celebrate. A few days ago Jimena told me she needs cash to give the mother for rent because she’s about to be evicted.
“I talked to the landlord,” she tells me, “I told him she couldn’t work, she just gave birth. But she’s behind at least two months, so he served her with eviction papers.”
’”Can he do that in these times of covid?”
Jimena thinks there’s some protection—every time any of these families have trouble with landlords, lack of medical care, schools, etc., they call her—but they try to take advantage of families who have no papers. “They don’t think anyone will complain.”
I gave her some cash which she thought he’d accept as a temporary offering, and told her to tell me if she needs more. She will soon, it’s just a matter of time.
Bernie’s daughter, Alisa, works very hard with her organization, VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), to persuade the governor of Virginia to extend the moratorium on evictions that they had persuaded him to issue during June for a few more months. She tells me that even as she labors for hours each day, she is aware that hundreds of families are being evicted now; soon it will be thousands.
“Does her husband work?” I asked Jimena.
“Her husband was deported,” Jimena said. He’d been stopped by the police, detained, and flown right out of the country. “It’s very bad,” she said, “they don’t know if they’ll see him again.”
“It was bad under Obama, too,” I reminded her.
“Yes, but back then, if they stopped you, they always gave you a hearing and you could see your family. Now you don’t even get a hearing, you get deported right away, so every time you go out the door you don’t know what may happen, you may not see your family again.”
It’s not all Trump, it’s not all ICE, it’s life too. A handsome young man (I always have eyes for them) comes by for a food card and we have a charming conversation. Jimena tells me he’s a single father to one child; his wife left the family for someone else. “Can you imagine that?” she huffs indignantly. “Leaving your family! How can anyone do that?”
Immigrant families aren’t upright martyrs victimized by prosperous Norte-Americanos. They hurt themselves, they betray each other, they love and hate, they’re human beings just like us. Life happens to them as it happens to us, only they have much fewer protections than we do, less layers to insulate them from the struggles of life and love.
But when they’re down by the lake they’re happy, and so am I as I go into the water that’s been warmed all afternoon by the sun. They give me that. Covid reigns in Massachusetts, we can’t sit together, we give air hugs. And still it’s summer. Still the flowers get rain in the evening and children smile in their dreams at night.
Don’t be cynical.
Please help out immigrant families. You could hit the Donate button which will take you to PayPal, and make sure to write in the note: Food cards. Or else send a check to me and write on the memo line: Food cards. Send it to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.