My family calls me Chava, my Hebrew name, the name I was given at birth. It’s a soft ch, not a hard ch as in chive. The first woman in the Bible; Eve is the English translation. My mother calls me Chavale. Jews like to add le to names to show they love them.
“Just don’t call me Aussiele,” Aussie informed me. “Pass the bacon.”
In The Book of Householder Koans, which I wrote with Roshi Egyoku Nakao, there’s a chapter on names. Names can evoke completely different realities. This came home to me again in this past visit to Jerusalem. When my mother calls me Chavale it brings up her world, the Jewish world of East Europe, the struggle to survive, the clinging to family and tribe for safety. In orthodox Jewish families you’re usually named after somebody, in my case a grand-grandmother I never met and heard nothing about other that, of course, she died in the Holocaust.
I had ID papers and credit cards in both Chava and Eve, but after 9/11 I had to decide which one to go with and I chose Eve. But long before that I had chosen Eve because I didn’t want my parents’ old world. I felt strangled by it. I was convinced that if I stayed with family and tribe my life will be choked out of me by expectations, expostulations, admonitions to live a certain way, etc. For me, family stood for critical, not much more, and one way I put a stop to all that (in addition to staying thousands of miles away) was to use the name Eve.
Eve was English, not shtetl. Eve was a woman on her own, working out her path in life without anybody’s advice, thank you very much. Eve wasn’t letting family, clan, or nation decide her destiny; Eve was going to live her life no matter what.
That was then, this is now. And now there’s rarely a day when I don’t miss my family, when I don’t pine and wish they were close, neighbors, even housemates.
The question of what name we go by has to do with how we identify, a profound question. In my case, at least, it had to do with limitations. I didn’t want any limits placed on me by my family’s preferences and expectations, of which they had plenty. I wanted to be an individual, I wanted to go my own way.
Isn’t that our national credo? As a friend recently pointed out: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—isn’t that a warning not to miss out? Hey, your job is to go after your own happiness, whatever that is, and if you don’t do it you’re missing out! You’re not living the American dream! You may even not be a red-blooded American. Don’t accept limitations, the sky’s the limit, and now not even the sky because look at all the rockets we’re sending up there. Your life’s an open book—write it! It’s the greatest adventure in the world—live it!
I know people who gave up jobs and even careers to better care for their families. Sometimes they have regrets, sometimes not. I don’t think we admire that in our society. On an individual basis we might respect the choice to stay home to care for an aging parent, but we don’t do big-budget movies about that. Best-selling memoirs are written by folks like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Barack Obama, who over and over put out the message: You can be whatever you want to be, just go for it. When people in the rest of the world think of Americans, the words big, bold, flashy, individuals come to mind, not self-imposed limitations and sacrifice.
The three years I worked hardest in my life came after Bernie’s stroke. Had I just wished to attend to him, they wouldn’t have been that arduous, but I fought to have my own life. I was not going to give up teaching and writing, I was going to do all those things (and added a blog to boot) in addition to taking care of a very sick husband. I could do it, I thought. I was Eve: stubborn, tough, my own woman.
I hadn’t yet learned the value of limitations. I hadn’t yet learned the value of being fully present for someone even at the cost of my own plans and ambitions. I hadn’t yet learned that there’s a price to be paid when you go all out to follow your dreams, ignoring the family and community around you. Nieces and nephews will grow up and you won’t see them. Your mother will age and you won’t be able to take care of her. The coronavirus will hit and you won’t embrace anybody for a long time.
I can hear it already: Yes, but there’s Zoom! There’s FaceTime! We are more united across this globe than ever. There’s “shares” and “friends” across the globe, virtual communities arising everywhere around every theme and cause. This and this and this and this.
And and and and. More people, more opportunities. The American way.
Life will impose morelimits on me, it’s almost unavoidable. I often think of Bernie and how freely he accepted the limitations brought on by stroke and then cancer. If he couldn’t do something basic on the computer, something he’d done so easily before, he’d sigh, shrug, and say: “I can’t do it anymore.”
He’d moved into a very small room after living in a mansion. But believe me, that room was really something.
Limitless horizons exist inside and out. In America we think it’s mostly out, but other cultures see each member as part of a bigger system—call it family, community, earth.
When I was in Israel during the war with Gaza I saw a wide range of people with very different feelings about politics, leaders, Palestinians, and what the future would bring. But when rockets flew, they felt as one country. People had different ideas about what to do about the conflict, and they were bound to go back to their ideas once the war was over(just look at the political infighting now), but during the war they cared and hoped and worried together regardless of where they lived and what political party they voted for, as one people.
That didn’t happen here when the coronavirus hit, we broke apart into even more blame and anger than we had in 2016. Why is that?
Go West, young wo/man, was the famous advice. Or East or North or South. But you can also go home. You can also stay home.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.