I’m thinking of my great aunt today, we called her Aunt Tzipi. She was my paternal grandfather’s younger sister. The family grew up in Russia so dirt poor that my grandfather left the house at an early age to forego his share of the food. The girls, of course, couldn’t leave; if anything, they were a burden because they weren’t trained or allowed to fend for themselves and would also require a dowry to marry.
Why do I think of her? Maybe because I started seeing the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the Neapolitan Quartet by the elusive Elena Ferrante. I loved all four books. Together, they make up some of the greatest writing about women that I’ve come across. Forget the hyper-emotional Anna Karenina or the bored and restless Madame Bovary; in Ferrante’s books you see far greater complexity in two different, passionate women struggling against poverty, ignorance, stinginess, and misogyny. Don’t just see the series, read the books..
My great-aunt, too, grew up very poor and a burden on her family for no reason other than that she was a girl. A beautiful one, I gather. She was also clever and self-taught. She taught herself languages and could declaim German and French poetry even when she was very old. It was the old story: The son of a wealthy family fell in love with her, she didn’t love him back, but she had no choice. He didn’t demand a dowry; he even promised her parents to help them marry off their other daughters.
“You have to marry him for the sake of the family,” they told her. And unlike Ferrante’s Lina, who gives the world the finger rather than do something she doesn’t choose to (and pays the price), my great-aunt acquiesced. They had children and grandchildren, and finally made it to Canada where I would visit her to listen to her stories.
Once she sat me down. “I have a question for you,” she said. “What do women do?”
“You know, women lovers, lesbians. What do they do? How do they make love?” She saw that I still didn’t get what she was asking. “I understand how gay men make love; I understand what they do with their biology. But what do lesbians do? What goes into what? I don’t understand how they make a connection.”
If the biology doesn’t quite fit, if there’s nothing concave to accommodate the convex or vice versa, how is a connection made?
It’s tempting to think that connections can be made in just one way—till other ways arise. I just got a replacement credit card with a note that I could tap it and it will work. Do I have to remind anybody about how credit cards used to connect? You had to give it to the cashier who put it into a separate machine or else called in the card number, hoping against hope that the credit card company number wasn’t busy. It was a big deal when we could keep the card and just swipe it down the side, and after that there was the card with the chip that you inserted. Now, to make a connection, you tap. What’s next, I wonder? Maybe I’ll just look at my card and that’ll do it.
Regardless of what happens in Ukraine, there’s no such things as broken connections because everything is so fluid. Energy becomes matter, then energy again, then matter in a different form this time, atoms splitting apart and coming together and splitting apart again and again. That’s not Buddhism, that’s science.
I feel we have to do whatever we can to defeat Putin’s goal to overrun Ukraine. Raising the price of the war on various fronts may, in the long run, have results. We certainly can’t just stand back and do nothing in the face of shelling, killing, bombing, and shooting.
But be careful when the world degenerates into a panorama of black and white. The biology of life is so much more complicated than that. In the midst of war, it’s important to remember that all we really are is connection, all we really are is relationship.
How do they connect with their biology, my great aunt wondered? But people do, they do.
It’s hard to work that out right now, especially with the man sitting at the end of the long white table needing carrier pigeon to receive and give messages, almost a perfect picture of what it is to be disconnected. The same might be said of the people he rules, connected less and less to the world and more and more to state-approved media and self-serving narratives.
The chasm between us feels unbridgeable even as the shelling and devastation in Ukraine continue.
Bernie asked: If the world is one body and the arm gets gangrene, what do you do? Do you cut it off? Do you let it infect the rest? And who decides?
On some level, we all have to decide. Governments and corporations make decisions, and I also have to decide. Do I give in to hate and rage? What price am I, a simple American living my life, ready to pay for peace?
This is an urgent question for me even now, as I get closer to my life’s end than to its beginning. Since life is a mess, there is no right way or wrong way. But maybe there’s a way of how to be, what to embody hour after hour. What to never lose sight of! To realize that connection is the essence of who we are.
So, if we impose sanctions, it’s not with glee but with grief. It’s not out of hate or revenge, but out of clearsighted vision of how to inflict the least suffering. We can’t be self-righteous here; we invaded Iraq, a sovereign nation that has no adjoining borders with us, for no reason other than false intelligence and that their head of state was one of the least popular heads of state in the world. By all means, pay what I must at the gas pump, do what I can to support Ukrainians in their struggle. But stay clear, stay compassionate. Trust more in humility than arrogance.
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