“Billy: ‘Mother, do they have hardwood floors up in heaven?’
Mother: ‘I don’t think so.’
Billy: ‘So what does God walk on?’”
I read this exchange in a transcript of a journal written by hand by a woman raising four children in 1927 not far from the Massachusetts eastern coast. I was moved by how a woman, a school teacher and mother, was intent on keeping a journal with daily entries describing her interactions with her children and their clever ripostes as they grew up.
This was two years before the stock market crashed, putting millions out of work, when the great Depression hammered so powerfully into the American consciousness that, years later, I’d meet people who told me they lived through the Depression and could never forget it.
I’m pretty sure that I and others will tell future generations: We lived through the coronavirus. And what will we say about the Trump years, and the election of 2020? How did we cope? How did we behave?
On the day before Election Day I’m inundated by communications showing anger, anxiety, and fear: There’s a maniac in the White House who’ll do anything to stay in power: militias will take over the states, kidnapping Democratic leaders; the courts will give him everything he asks for.
Tomorrow is Election Day. Wednesday will mark two years since Bernie died. Exactly a year ago today I was in Poland bringing his ashes to Birkenau as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ annual bearing witness retreat, which was his request to me.
This year the retreat is taking place online. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it would work. The Auschwitz retreat has to take place at Auschwitz, not in the Cloud, I thought to myself.
But I attended all of yesterday’s program and part of today’s, and was stunned by the impact. There we were, chanting the names of the dead again, seeing on film Marian Kolodziej’s testimony. We weren’t by the railroad tracks or at the women’s barrack this time (though four of us did get there in person, practically the only ones in that enormous camp). The rest are doing the retreat remotely, and perhaps because of that it was the people I saw on camera who grabbed my attention. When you’re at the place itself it dwarfs anything and anyone—for this reason Bernie had said years ago that Auschwitz is the teacher at the retreat, no one and nothing else. This time I had more space to look and listened to people.
Today two Palestinians, Sami awad and Dina Awwad (not related), talked of what going to Auschwitz had done to their work, their dreams, and their understanding. The first has done nonviolent resistance and peace work for ages, http://www.holylandtrust.org, the second began a project in partnership with an Israeli woman based on the writings of Etty Hillesum, who was killed at Auschwitz at a young age http://www.ettyhillesumcards.com.
Looking at Sami on camera, I felt like I was watching a man I had loved for a long time. I met him some 16 years ago and watched what unfolded for him, the optimism, the defeats, the constant determination. I heard him describe how his vision had changed beginning with that first trip to Auschwitz.
“The reason the Oslo peace accords didn’t succeed is because they were built on fear—fear of the other, of what will happen, of more losses,” he said today. “They weren’t based on relationship with the other side, we were still seeing the other side as the Other, and we were afraid.”
This is not the time to repeat in detail what he said, only how moved I was looking at this man and what had happened to him over the years, the persistence he showed even as the peace accords got dismantled, his courage when he’d join nonviolent marches each Friday and often got hurt or ended up in jail, and how he’s not afraid to make his vision wider and bigger with the years. I don’t hear him saying: I’m older now, it’s time to get practical, wise up, stop going after dreams and bubbles. Let’s just settle for the most basic minimum and be satisfied.
Like Gandhi, his great exemplar, he looks to transform people, in my language—help them wake up. Getting the British out of India or helping to end the Israeli occupation is a secondary measure; the big measure is to change society, transform human beings.
I have a little sense of how many defeats he’s suffered over the years and what it’s done to him and his family, but whenever I visit him in Bethlehem he cheers me up, not the other way around. For him it’s so clear that it’s not about the short run. I get my enthusiasm back whenever I connect with people like Sami. Depression and anxiety lift. People are doing things, facing life by taking one step after another. Even if you don’t share their belief system, their faith is contagious. Not for them the media’s nightmarish scenarios; their inspiration comes from within, not without.
Here in America, there will be wins tomorrow (and I think there will be), followed by lots of flag-waving and grandiosity and maybe even violence, and there’s no guarantee of anything. I watch my own apprehension balloon when I read someone like Nate Silver, https://fivethirtyeight.com/politics/elections/, talk about the scenarios for a win by Donald Trump, few as they are. And then I remember that it’s not about Trump, it’s about me.
Where do I stand, if not with Sami and Dina, if not with the others appearing on that online retreat? And where do any of us stand, if not on our vows?
I saw Bernie through some 35 years of gains, losses, wins, defeats, people loving him, people hating him, people leaving him, people writing him letters, people wanting to come back. I could never help but notice how much he carried in a stable, peaceful way. Always? No. There were times when he lost patience, and there was one particular time when for a few weeks he couldn’t sleep at night because of worry.
But as a rule, he slept well. He left it to me to get anxious about this problem or that, especially about money, and he was able to hold so much. It was as if he was saying: Here’s breath. That’s our gift, the greatest gift of all. What else do you need? What else do you expect?
No one knew better than he that the work of the Bodhisattva is endless. It’s not just for the long run, it’s endless. Which means lifetime after lifetime, if you believe in reincarnation, and if not, it’s endless into imagination, into beyond and beyond.
Immediate wins were nice, he’d celebrate them for sure: “Come on, let’s go have dinner.” He didn’t drink champagne, he didn’t go somewhere fancy for a week, just: “Let’s go out for dinner.”
And the next morning he’d be back at work. Maybe field some calls or emails of congratulations, let himself feel the contentment of someone who got something done, maybe take a nap, relax in front of the TV. But in no time at all he’d be back making more crazy plans: “Eve, I was taking my bath this morning and I came up with an idea, I don’t know why I never thought of it before.” And off he’d go.
Sami reminds me of Bernie. And the others who appeared on the screen remind me, too, for they have worked on and on for decades now bearing witness to unbearable situations, and still finding light, humor, and love, seeing light not at the end of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself.
Bernie is gone, not around to inspire us any longer. So we have to inspire each other, that’s our work. And we do, again and again.