My niece and her boyfriend arrived for the weekend, and one of the things we did was visit the town of Shelbourne Falls and its hot spot, the Bridge of Flowers, which spans the Deerfield River and connects the towns of Shelburne and Buckland.
Beautiful summer flowers curlicue their way alongside as you cross the bridge, and you could hear these sounds from other passers-by as we walked across. ”We have those lilies back home,” “We have a rose just like that only ours isn’t white,” or “Our columbines are purple.” I caught myself thinking those thoughts, too, and then laughed at how I find so many different ways of referring to myself, my home and my life even when I’m just visiting a garden.
When is connection connection, and when is it just another circle that begins and ends with me? I’m sick of terms like the Hero’s Journey and other Joseph Campbellisms, if only because I’m sick of me.
On the way to the car, I saw a refrigerator adjacent to a small supermarket. It was a community fridge consisting mostly of fresh produce as well as breads. At right angles to it was an upright cupboard with nonperishable items: cereals of various kinds, canned goods, nuts, pasta. We were invited to take anything we needed from both without payment. Instructions were written in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Food donations and volunteer help were requested.
“What did you do about language?” I asked my dharma sister, Barbara Wegmueller, the Swiss Zen teacher who for years hosted circle meetings in her home, not just with Swiss students but also with women refugees from Syria and Tibet.
“Nothing,” Barbara said. “We cooked together. At first I wanted to do council with them, to have them talk about what they’d gone through, the traumas of losing family members, the things they’d witnessed. But they didn’t want to do that. They said they didn’t want to be sad anymore. Instead, they showed me how to cook Middle Eastern food. They would bring their own home-made desserts and show us how to make them.”
I remembered what happened to us at our time in Greyston, in Yonkers, New York, when we hired folks from the local neighborhood to bake at the bakery or else do childcare at the center or administrative tasks in various offices.
“That’s nice,” Zen people used to say, “but how many of them come to sit?”
“Almost none,” was our answer.
The people we worked with weren’t interested in silence. Many of them were members of big churches in Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle, and Yonkers; they sang in the choir, organized picnics and community drives, cooked for baptismal ceremonies, or just hung out together. Community was what they wanted, and not a silent one but one of laughter, song, food, gossip, worship, and much Hallelujah.
No one need tell me the value of silence. I often say that I started meditating in 1984 and haven’t gotten up since. I knew I’d found home. At the same time, I always had an overactive brain, knew how to talk, gabbed mentally from morning to night, and was proud of my verbal and intellectual skills. Silence was the perfect antidote for someone like me.
But it’s not for everybody. I think of another friend of mine, an ex-con who spent many of his early years in juvenile prison. I’d take him to the zendo to join in meditation, talks, etc., till once I was driving him back home and he said: “You know what they used to do to us in juvie? They’d make us sit on a chair silently and not move for hours. Not one bloody muscle, not a finger, not a toe, just not move. We were boys then, you know how hard it was for us to do that? If you moved an inch they beat you, and then told you to sit motionlessly even longer.”
He never came back to sit with us again.
I think of the refugees Barbara and her husband, Roland, worked with. What fears did silence hold for them? They were busy taking care of families, raising children in a foreign land whose language they didn’t speak, starting new lives while trying to forget all they’d left behind, both living and dead.
“Silence just makes us sad, and we’ve had so much sadness,” the women told them. “We don’t come here to be sad again.”
So, they cooked. They shared games. They brought their children. They showed how they made and wore burkas. They taught each other their languages.
Tell me, did they awaken or not?
I’m beginning to think of how I can do this with the mothers of undocumented families in this area, the people who walked for so long, who were hurt and abused on their way across the border. At first I also thought of meditation or silence. Then I thought of asking them to tell their stories, but is that really what they want to do? I don’t want to be perpetually the gringa who brings them money and food cards, no great Hero’s Journey for me, just one of the gang.
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