I love getting presents. I love beautifully wrapped presents.
These aren’t beautifully wrapped but I love them just the same, even more. They’re not for me, they’re school supplies for immigrant children, but I am absolutely gleeful as I open each box with the scratch of a sharp knife, dig under the bubble wrap and paper and find more notebooks, more backpacks, more colorful index cards. Then I carry the boxes to the trunk of my car.
I try not to order many things from Amazon for myself in favor of local stores, but for this purpose and due to covid, there’s little choice. So here they are, like magic, and I feel glorious because I love getting presents.
When I was a kid, I didn’t get many. I was born right after Israel became a country, grew up in a kibbutz, fruit was rationed and there was no money for extras. There’s an old photo of me holding a beautiful doll that I loved with all my heart, given me by my uncle. I think it was the only toy that I had as a child.
After we arrived in the States, I have strong memories of getting up from my bed at nights and walking quietly to the kitchen to listen behind the door as my parents sat there wondering how to make it to the end of the month. I was the oldest of three and felt the most responsible. As a result, I learned at a very young age never to ask for anything, it would just add to their hardship.
Near where we lived was a store called Bargain Town, a small version of Walmart, with many cheap items. My mother would bring us shopping there and I would head for the toys and games aisle. Later it would be books and records, but before my teens it was toys and games. When she got the things she needed she’d come looking for me.
“Do you want me to get you something?” she’d ask, looking at me sharply.
I would shake my head, never taking my eyes off the game I wanted.
“Tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.”
I wanted badly to tell her but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth; I was sure that asking for anything would cause her pain.
“If you don’t tell me what you want, I won’t get it for you,” she’d say.
When I didn’t say anything she left, leaving me confused. But she knows what I want, I am looking straight at it, I’d think to myself. All of which confirmed me in the notion that I must never ever ask for anything.
Decades later, and Bernie and I have dinner. I voice my concern about whether we have enough money, both personally and for our work, and he says: “You have a mind of impoverishment. The world will take care of us, don’t worry.”
I tell him about how I grew up and learned never to expect anything. Bernie can’t care less about the stories, no sympathy or empathy there, he just shakes his head once again and says: “You have a mind of impoverishment.” I am being stingy, not using all of the ingredients of my life.
Early Buddhism was often associated with achieving some state of nirvana. If you achieved that state through assiduous practice, your karma—causes and conditions, your upbringing, and all the situations of your life—wouldn’t catch up with you or would no longer be relevant.
That’s not my sense of Zen practice. What I love about Zen is that it envelops you and your craziness as well. It warns you not to make out of it a personality or identity, but it accepts all the things—in fact the very things you may be embarrassed about or wish to hide—that make you different from others. There’s a deep generosity in that.
One day we again talked about money and Bernie again shook his head. “You have a mind of impoverishment.”
I snapped. “Okay, I have a mind of impoverishment. So what!”
He said nothing. Then he started laughing. I started laughing. Then he laughed even harder, and when Bernie laughed hard it became high-pitched and giggly, which made me laugh even harder, and by then we were both laughing so hard we couldn’t eat.
I don’t think he ever told me about my impoverished mind again. Not that I don’t have it, I see it, notice it, sometimes do something about it, sometimes not. Now I’m the one shaking my head at me: Still the same old meshugena.
There’s a famous Zen koan about a teacher who gives the wrong answer to a question and his punishment is to be reborn many lifetimes as a fox. When people work on this koan, whether they know it or not, what they’re working on are these questions: What happens to that tough upbringing, those abusive events, the thing that hurt? Do I ignore them? Can I ignore them? Do I bury myself underneath them and wish to die? Or do I see that that, too, is life, part of the Whole, because nothing is excluded?
If you were hurt in life you can become the world’s great victim, or you can practice with it, learn to hold it lightly, even start laughing with it, and use it to do some good. I believe that’s what happened with Bernie after the loss of his mother when he was a child; it probably happened to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who found herself stopped by people’s perceptions about women. But first, you have to make some peace with it. Not deny, fully acknowledge it and its impact on your life, and then make something out of it.
In his magnificent Overstory, Richard Powers writes of the brilliant Patricia Westerford, who is stopped in her tracks for many years by professional ostracism due to her discoveries about the aliveness of trees. She finally meets Dennis, who loves and take care of her. Powers writes: “She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root just feels, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground. There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.”
That’s what each one of us is, with our complexities and hang-ups, one of a hundred thousand species, no, an infinite number of species of love, each more complex than the last, and we’re always creating new combinations and new species of love out of all that mishigas. The dharma, the One Body, embraces it all.
That’s how I felt when I found the Amazon boxes on my steps. Did it matter that they weren’t for me, that they were headphones, computer mice, protractors, crayons, and colorful pencils and calculators, sent to children who have very little by Ruth and Elias and Robert and Susan and Suzanne and others who didn’t send their names? Not one bit.
There are still items on the Amazon List that we need, simple things like flash cards and graph paper and more binders and notebooks. Jimena wants to pack each backpack with paper and notebooks and post-its, etc. and give the backpack to each child, watch his/her face as they open it up. I told her that we didn’t have everything yet, but that we would. I promised her that. If you can, please help by getting something on the list. Make learning like Christmas.