Last Saturday, right after our sitting schedule, I called Violet Catches. Violet, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota, comes from a well-known family of medicine men, and I’ve thought of her as a medicine woman for years, though if she heard say that she’d probably shake her head and berate me soundly.
“Violet, the war in the Middle East is so painful, I wish I could do something. My family is involved, I have friends both in Israel and Palestine. What do I do?”
“You know, Eve,” she said, “I’ve always said to pray. You have heard this from me before, I pray many times in the day. But lately I’ve done something else. I take a bowl of water, I light a candle and put it in the water. I am combining two different elements, you see. There is earth, air, fire, and water. Water and fire don’t usually go together, so I bring them together in one bowl, see?”
I have done this since Saturday. The bowl lies in the living room, not far from one of the plants I brought inside on Monday (good thing, since it snowed this morning). It’s also not far from a memorial altar I have for people I know who have died—my parents, Bernie, others. There is always an oil candle burning there, but this one has both fire and water.
There are many narratives going on in my head, but two in particular, and they’re like fire and water. One is my personal, family narrative that talks of catastrophe, always being on guard, rooting out enemies, vigilance. It was triggered big-time on October 7, to my great surprise. I hadn’t felt such powerful emotions of identifying with a family and a nation for many years.
Whenever I fly to Israel, I sense that big story arising all around me as soon as the plane lands in Tel-Aviv. The language, the buzzing phones, the crowd of family members with flowers and balloons—all as familiar to me as blood, beckoning to me: You’re part of the family, we love you, come on, see it our way.
I hold back because there’s another narrative for me, one arising from years of Zen Buddhist practice, and that story isn’t all about us. That story features Bernie’s One Body. It says that separation is a delusion, that differences are there to celebrate but not to judge or compare or discriminate, and that the best investment of your energy and work is to bear witness as much and as broadly as possible, and then take action.
“Whatever you don’t bring into the mandala of your practice will sabotage you again and again,” I heard him say many times.
In the Middle East and elsewhere, always the question is: Who are you excluding? What can you do about it?
That has not been my family story. It has not been the story that nurtured the next generation, and now, what with the war, it probably won’t be the story for the generation after. Already I hear more stridency in the air, more labeling, more name-calling. I don’t blame anyone, it’s hard not to fall into that when you’re being shot at, or sirens set off because of incoming rockets.
My niece’s husband was down by Gaza from October 7, among the first Israelis to get there, and he was involved in cross-border rescues and retrieval of bodies, even while being shot at. After a week of this he had his first family leave of 8 hours and everyone got very emotional, lots of tears shed by him, his wife, and their children.
After he left my niece said: “I don’t care about the truth, I care about family.” When it comes to family, don’t talk ideals, don’t talk truth, don’t say anything. Family is family. She knows the other narrative, her husband, too, but they have a close marriage and five children, and when it comes to family, little else matters.
I put the pottery bowl on the coffee table and lit the small candle, letting it float on the water. The light never floats to the center, it seems to hug the edges. Right now, I don’t know how to bring the two together, though that has been a lifetime’s dream. What I’m doing is making space for each. In the beginning I felt as if they were banging at the membranes of my brain, trying to get at each other, trying to vanquish each other. No longer. Slowly I cultivate an internal space big enough to accommodate both.
“You have a right to exist,” I tell one.
“You have a right to be heard,” I tell the other.