The school massacre in Uvalde lays a shadow on me, especially at night. I go to bed, read, get sleepy, turn off the light, and then lie in bed looking at the night outside my window. It’s night inside, too, night looking at night.
In the daytime the flowers are exquisite. The white bearded irises are out, as they’ve been for 18 years, and the first hummingbird, green and red, has arrived, guzzling so much sugar water I’m sure it’ll develop diabetes. It’s almost summer but not quite, though mosquitoes and black flies are out and biting plenty.
It’s hard to get too gloomy in such daytime, but then comes the night.
Tomorrow I’ll be doing a one-day retreat. What will come up? Roshi Alan Senauke, of Berkeley Zen Center, wrote: “There is no enlightenment. There is only enlightened activity.” Yes, but what is that?
I miss talking to my mother every day. I remember her walking in the yard behind our house and Bubale, our pit bull, ran into her while chasing her friend, Stanley, and took her down. Mom hurt for a long time, but Bubale had no bad intentions. She was just who she was, jumping into people on her way elsewhere.
Parents’ death is just what it is. It feels natural that they go before you, there’s an inevitability about it, even a blessing: May you die before your children. If this happens, then life is basically fine.
Life isn’t basically fine for the families of 19 children and 2 teachers in Texas, not to mention 17 more who were wounded.
It’s so easy to hurt, then get angry, rage, and strike out wherever we can: mockery on social media, hate aimed at gun-owners, politicians, Donald Trump, the NRA. None of that’s the answer, so what’s the answer? It’s why I’ll be sitting tomorrow.
But something stays with me from my mother’s shiva, the mourning period, in Jerusalem a few weeks ago. One evening an older couple came to pay condolences. He’s a doctor who, aside from managing one of the country’s leading hospitals, was also head of the Israeli chapter of Doctors Without Borders, and on weekends would visit West Bank villages to treat Palestinians who needed help.
We talked about my mother’s stories of the Holocaust, her right-wing righteousness, her hate of Arabs. He listened quietly, and then said that he, too, had survived the Holocaust. He was born in 1943 in France, and the family lived on a farm in the Dordogne region.
“You know,” he said, “our stories are different from your mother’s. Our stories focus on all the help we got from our neighbors during those years. Every time there was a German army unit coming our way, a neighbor would inform us so that we could hide. My grandfather ended up in the hospital, and a German army officer came in and told the doctor that they’re going to take him away. ‘This is a hospital,’ the doctor said. ‘You can’t do that here.’ The officer left and the doctor himself drove my grandfather home that night to safety.”
He went on: “My parents fled Paris when the Germans came in and moved into the farm. No one from the area knew them, and they assumed that no one knew they were Jews. It turned out later that everyone knew or suspected that they were Jews, and everyone helped them to survive in that small village.”
“In the end,” he said, “it depends on what story you tell. It could be a story that you, your family, and others like you are the only ones who matter and everyone else is to be ignored or, if seen a threat, smashed to pieces. But it could also be a story of how you and your family would never have survived without certain neighbors and friends, maybe the unknown kindness of a total stranger. If your story is that your survival depended not just on you but also others, and that they came through, that changes everything.”
We have elements of both sides in our lives. Even my mother, who dwelt mostly on the suffering and heroism of her own family, remembered the hospital doctor who took care of her sister when her sister fell and broke a bone in her leg while they were hiding in someone’s cellar. Bratislava was supposed to be free of Jews; he knew well who they were and could have reported them. Instead, he took a big risk and treated her.
She mentioned this episode, she mentioned a few others who helped, but didn’t dwell there. The doctor dwelt there.
My life experience depends on what I pay attention to. For much of my life I paid attention to disappointments and failures, to how things could and should have been different. No more. Now I pay attention to white bearded irises. I pay attention to Jean, whom I met in the morning after getting lost in our Plains with the dogs. Everyone was hot and thirsty, and Jean took me and two dogs into her SUV, gave me a mask, and drove us to where I’d left my car.
Are there funky things, too? Of course. But they no longer reign on my life’s marquee in big neon letters. No denial at all; I just changed what I pay attention to.
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