SILOS AND BRIDGES

Museum and Library, Barre, MA

Two pictures come to mind: On my first cross-country trip some 25 years ago, I traveled through Kansas and saw a sign off I-70: Downtown, with an arrow to the right. I looked out across those immense wheat farms and saw just one thing: a silo. The silo was downtown.

The second picture is in the photo above and it’s of the Bare Museum and Library in downtown Barre: A stereotypical New England town only bigger, with the white church, the white town hall, the library, the café, the local hair salon, the broad, grassy commons, lots of flags, lots of white picket fences. What makes this one special is that its library houses the Barre Museum, which itself contains hundreds of items belonging to Native American tribes, including a number that were looted from corpses of those killed in the Wounded Knee massacre.

Our friends from Cheyenne River who are aways part of the Zen Peacemakers’ summer Black Hills retreat, Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, were at Barre asking for these items to be returned to them (they are members of the Descendants of Wounded Knee organization) a few months ago. I wasn’t there at the time, but I followed the news carefully, and finally, after checking with Manny and Renee, decided to go there to talk with some of the people involved, which I did yesterday.

My sense was that both the Museum and the Lakota want this repatriation to happen, and that the breakdown happens, as it often does, in the communication. It’s why I still remember the silo in “downtown Kansas” from so many years back.

In many ways, we’re all silos. No matter how much we try to talk with each other, write, text, email, do everything we know to communicate, we inexorably frame ourselves within an imaginary construct called I or me, add stories and labels to make it feel real, and voila: we exist! Not as one of an infinite number of dharma eyes, but as a silo, self-isolating, self-centered, self-reinforcing again and again. No wonder that two people living under the same roof for many years often feel that they don’t really know the other person, not really.

Now imagine what happens when you throw in a different culture, different values, different histories, different language. It’s a wonder we can say anything at all and feel understood by the other.

Sure enough, we sat outside before the hot sun climbed over the trees (we’re under heat alerts for a couple of days). “We don’t know what items were taken from Wounded Knee and belong to the Lakota and what aren’t,” said Ann Meilus, who speaks for the Museum. “We have items from other tribes who may want theirs returned, too.”

She described the process the Museum’s governing body had to do to obtain a consensus to repatriate what they have there. Now they’ve begun to inventory everything, which includes documentation and photos, under the supervision of a museum curator and historian, and when that process is over, they would like Manny and Renee to come back, do ceremony, and will transport those items to Cheyenne River.

Our Lakota friends, in the meantime, are distrustful of the Museum. Government or institutional bureaucracy hasn’t favored them historically, time passes, excuses abound, and they still don’t have the clothes, the jewelry, and the ceremonial items that belong to their ancestors. The lack of trust on both sides is palpable.

Ann mentioned that since newspaper accounts have come out about this story, many of them inaccurate, she and staff have been on the receiving end of so much outrage and hate that her docents won’t work in the museum anymore. “Nobody gets paid here, everybody is a volunteer, and when you get so much rage from people who’re mostly unfamiliar with the situation and just react based on something they read, it can be really discouraging.”

Barbara Becker, who wrote the award-winning Heartwood: The Art of Living With the End in Mind , and I offered our services as communication facilitators. We’ve built relationships with the Lakota both at Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, we’ve borne witness to what they’ve endured and continue to endure—they have every right in the world to distrust what some private museum out East is doing with their things. And these are their things, no one doubts that.

But we both also believe the Museum sincerely wishes to repatriate their items. Today I spoke to the curator who’s supervising the cataloguing, and he surprised me by saying that the inventory process is almost over, and letters will go out to various Native communities asking them to make a formal claim for certain articles that are theirs or may be of interest to them. Once these claims are officially made and publicized, the actual repatriation process will begin. These communities include Indian tribes from California, who have articles in the Museum, and others.

How do you translate between people who wish to honor these personal items as important reminders of a terrible history of the US, and those who say: that’s very nice, but they belong to us, period? You can take sides and make this just another front in an old, old war, which I believe many people did on social media.

Or you can create a space for more feedback, more two-way information, keeping as many in the loop as possible, and going clear-sightedly ahead, one day after the next, till actual repatriation takes place (I believe it will). You can bear witness to the different realities we all experience and make room for each other with patience and also with determination to achieve the end result.

You can take this situation as a chance to increase rancor and partisanship, or as an opportunity to build bridges between silos.

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LAND OF THE FREE

This morning I felt a long-familiar surge of energy. It ran up from my toes to my chest and caused me to bite my lips. I looked down and saw my fingers clenching the kitchen counter tightly. I hadn’t felt this in a long time and I knew instantly what it was: Rage.

It came when a text message arrived from an old friend. It showed the above photo of Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola Three. The message below read:

“Cov. ([Covid] did do what 43 years of solitary couldn’t. Albert will leave us tomorrow. UNBROKEN. Albert Woodfox. February 19, 1948-August 3, 2022.” I could only assume that my friend, who knew Woodfox and whose efforts were part of many people’s efforts to free him, was aware of his illness and knew he was on his way out.

My knuckles were white as I read and re-read the message and looked again and again at the photo. Here was anger, my old, old friend.

My housemate never heard of the Angola Three; she’s ten years younger than I am. But I remember when three Black Panthers around 1970 were put into the Angola Federal Penitentiary in Louisiana, this country’s most notorious prison, for highly questionable convictions. One, for God’s sake, was sentenced to prison for 50 years for armed burglary. Once there, they were educating other prisoners and helping them assert their legal rights when they were accused and convicted of killing a prison guard. Each was put into solitary confinement.

Amnesty took up their cause, saying no one should be put in solitary confinement for so many decades. Albert Woodfox’s 43 years in solitary is probably a record in the entire Western world. Congratulations to the Angola Federal Penitentiary, whose officials defended this because of the man’s “Black Pantherism.” Quarantine for 10 days due to coronavirus? Heck, no. Solitary due to Black Pantherism? You betcha.

I’m biting my knuckles ven as I write this. 43 years! Have we lost our collective minds? Have we lost our collective heart?

The man who sent me this text was a good friend of Anita Roddick, who founded the Body Shop. That Englishwoman was outraged by what happened to the Angola Three and started putting resources into freeing them. She died of cancer and on her deathbed asked my friend to continue that work. He did.

The first one to finally be released was Robert King, following almost 30 years of solitary, and Bernie and I met him some 18-20 years ago at a New York luncheon. I watched him across the table. He was quiet, soft-spoken, and immensely self-contained. That many years in solitary may well do that to you.

Henry Wallace was released in 2013, after 42 years of solitary, just days before dying of liver cancer. This wasn’t a case of compassionate release, his entire case had been dismissed by Louisiana judges, but that didn’t prevent the state prosecutor from filing for a new trial just one day before his death. You can figure out that message on your own.

Albert Woodfox was released some 6 years ago after serving 43 out of 45 years in solitary.

In each of these cases, Louisiana judges, hardly the most liberal in the country, overturned multiple convictions on grounds of unreliable witnesses, hidden exculpatory evidence, and most of all, overt racism in jury selection that prevented any fair trial. In practically each case the Attorney General of the state started a retrial all over again even as witnesses recanted their testimony, even as the years passed and they died. In Woodfox’s case, Angola Federal Penitentiary refused to release him even in the face of judges overturning his conviction and ordering him released. They were going to keep him there, in solitary, till the prosecutor could start another trial.

I am glad that all three men were finally released in the face of such blatant bigotry and naked display of brute power, even Henry Wallace, who enjoyed his freedom for only a few days before dying. But my heart felt no gladness this morning; it doesn’t feel it now.

What does my heart open to? The efforts of small teams of lawyers and activists, including Anita Roddick and my friend, who kept fighting on behalf of the Angola Three as they were immured in solitary cells deep inside the prison for decades, refusing to forget them, while new generations of Americans had no idea who they even were.

One New Orleans attorney, a powerful woman I was privileged to meet years ago, also works to free inmates held for decades at Guantanamo with not even a trial on the horizon. How many of us remember them? How many of us think of them? No big awards go to these lawyers from the American Bar Association; they measure their work not in terms of months or even years, but in terms of decades.

And me? What do I do with my anger and frustration at such blatant injustice? Easy for me to say, “That’s Louisiana,” whose attorney general said of the Angola Three that they “had never been held in solitary confinement but were in “protective cell units known as CCR [Closed Cell Restricted]”. I curl my lips in contempt of that inner voice with a Southern accent, my own prejudices against the South coming up bigtime.

But I know it’s not just Louisiana, It was Boston, which was given the great gift of Bill Russell, loved his 11 championships but couldn’t bring itself to love him.

Things will feel different tomorrow. I hope to drive to Barre to talk to someone about the transfer of clothing and other items looted from corpses at Wounded Knee from the local museum to the care of our Lakota friends, Manny and Renee Iron Hawk. Doing something, anything, always makes me feel better.

But not today.

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BUILDING A LIFE, AND BILL RUSSELL

Walking dogs again!

I feel like I’ve been through the wringer over the past two weeks. Examined with great urgency for pneumonia and asthma attacks, tested positive for tick-borne illness, rushed again to Emergency for doctors’ fear of clots in my lungs, but released home late Friday afternoon. In two weeks, I did two visits to the Emergency, one two-day hospitalization, one urgent visit to my regular clinic, and today an online visit with another doctor. Next week, with my doctor finally back from vacation, I will talk to her and almost certainly do more blood work.

Yesterday, I woke up, looked at the blue morning skies through the window, and knew this would be a turnaround day for me. Everything looked way more colorful than before: trees greener, hummingbirds redder, and grass browner, unfortunately, for lack of rain. Went out with dogs for the first time in 2 weeks and managed to keep up the energy throughout the day (without sleeping 12 hours out of 24). Today builds on that.

Years ago, it was common for successful Jewish men to become doctors, and they were so highly thought of that some people insisted they wanted only a Jewish doctor.

I was cared for in a local community hospital, not the kind you go to for cancer, serious stroke or surgery, but perfect for the things that ail me, like sudden asthma attacks or respiratory infections. I have had excellent care for the most part, with the exception of one doctor who, while diagnosing me well, couldn’t sit down and have a conversation with me about developments in my body (of which there were plenty) other than giving me his best opinion from on high for 5 minutes each morning and then running out the door.

I have little patience for things like that and wasn’t sleeping at all during my hospital stay, so I discharged myself in the face of dire threats and went home to sleep.

What I most take away from the experience of the last two weeks is the high-level care of nurses, lab technicians, and aides in the hospital. People choose to work in a place where no one wants to go. Very little natural light filters in (none into the emergency ward), and the shifts are long. They’ve been asked to work extra hours because, like so many hospitals, there aren’t enough nurses and aides. They get complaints and outbursts of anger and frustration, they’re tired—and I didn’t meet one who wasn’t gracious and attentive, who didn’t show great care for my wellbeing.

My night nurse did the night shift to make more money and would leave by 7 am to have breakfast with her two little girls before off they went for the day while she slept.

“Could you open the blinds to the window so that I could see the sun?” I asked the day nurse. I had little strength to walk.

She brushed the curtains away from the window, laughed, and said: “It’s really hot out there. It was 100 yesterday at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had face cream in the car and the oil separated from everything else due to the heat.”

What I’m especially happy about is the Spanish I hear in the hallways and the Spanish-accented talk by many of the nurses, lab technicians, aides, and doctors. I live amidst New England towns, not especially known for their diversity, but we do have a vibrant immigrant community here as well, some legal, some not. Each time someone spoke to me in accented English I knew they were probably first-generation immigrants here. I don’t care how they got across the border but here they were, highly professional and attentive to my every need.

As a first-generation American, I can guess at what lay behind all that: trying to get to the US, finding places to live (doubling and tripling up due to high rents), doing backbreaking, long hours on the farms, raising children, learning English, registering for one course at the local community college, then another, and slowly over the years obtaining the certificate or degree needed to get off the farms and work in medical care. It’s a big story of hardship, poverty, and discrimination, continuing to put one foot after another to build a career, build a life.

It’s what my parents did, and unless you live on the inside of it, it’s easy to miss that story, easier to deny it’s happening, to claim that immigrants now aren’t what they used to be, they don’t work like they used to, etc.

The many people who took care of me, with a single exception, did the best they could for me, a total stranger. As sick as I was, it was clear to me that right there the American dream was still going strong, still being fulfilled through the hard labor of many people. Not only are they sending their kids to college, they’re going to college.

I’m especially happy tor the women, who are very slowly breaking out of the macho culture that has restricted them from the day they were born. I’ve talked of this endlessly with Jimena, who has described to me the unwritten laws governing their lives to do with birth control, who spends the money, and who makes decisions in the family. These don’t change overnight, but every single woman I met in my hospital stays has begun to make big changes and model a different life to her daughters.

So no, send me no Jewish doctor. Send me people who talk with accented English, their big eyes warm, their lips smiling under the masks they wear 12 hours running, the respect and grace they show everywhere.

And finally, a related but not so related item: I mourn the death of Bill Russell. Many years ago, I watched basketball. I lived in New York then, so of course we were Knick fans, and it was a big deal whenever the Boston Celtics came to town. There was no one like Bill Russell. Two things stand out: One is that he wasn’t about making himself look good, he made everyone around him look good, elicited the best out of the players around him. That’s a definition of greatness. Stephen Curry is a bit like that, but not like Russell.

And second, what a human being he was. He played for and brought glory to one of the most racist cities in the northern US and he was angry about it. When he finished with the Celtics, he was finished with Boston and left. I’m glad he lived many more years and, I hope, found peace before he died.

Many of us are excellent in what we do; a few are even great. But way fewer than those are the people who transcend the personal gifts and skills they’ve cultivated and become something else, maybe a symbol, maybe a myth. I think of Muhammad Ali like that (those priceless radio interviews with Howard Cosell!), I think of the Dalai Lama like that. Yes, they’re products of family and training, but they’ve gone way beyond that.

It’s also how I think of Bill Russell.

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ANOTHER EMERGENCY

Here I am, back in the Emergency Room of our local hospital.

What a bummer! I slept well, got up, and was sure I would be walking the dogs this morning, at least for a short distance. Get those legs moving, I think to myself. Get your strength back.

But I saw a nurse practitioner yesterday because I didn’t feel good (my doctor is on vacation), they took blood, and immediately called to tell me to go back to the hospital. And when I didn’t listen, they called four more times. The readings weren’t good.

As much as I can figure it, they’re nervous of a pulmonary embolism. They checked this out 6 days ago and found no trace, but here I am to check it out a second time.

I was going to write a different kind of post today, full of life, joy Aussie’s nasty comments and a snippet or two of brilliance. I don’t like to write about illness. It sounds old! It sounds sick!

I’m accustomed to getting quick treatment in the Emergency of this small neighborhood hospital, but not this time, the place is full. I watched a man in his 30s in a wheelchair. He’d been brought in by taxi and told the nurse he passed out today. Brown-skinned, heavily tattooed and bearded, I watched him slide lower and lower in his wheelchair, heard his breath get heavier. Finally, I walked over and asked if he was okay. He shook his head. I walked to the receptionist:

“I think he’s passing out.”

She said she’ll call the nurse. When I walked back to him I saw what looked like the beginning of an epileptic attack, and I hurried back to hera nd told her. A nurse came out and brought him back in.

He looked so vulnerable and alone then, young, clearly sick and afraid. I’m on my own here, too. Lori, my housemate, brought me over and then went back to work, but she’ll be here in a minute if I need her and a dear doctor friend arrives this afternoon. My sister threatens to fly over from Israel, another friend wants to drive up from New York, and students and friends filled the house with food and flowers. I don’t feel alone at all.

And I’m trying to write a blog, for heaven’s sake! I’m the only one in Emergency’s reception with her computer on her lap happily punching keys. Not heaving up like the woman next to me just did, not bent over contemplating the floor in misery. How many years have I obeyed the call to draw words on an empty page or screen? It was the biggest comfort for a scared, unhappy child. Now all I can say is that it’s life.

It’s a beautiful hot day outside but I need to stay here in case they finally call me. Also, I’m hungry. But then, I’m always hungry. I tell people that they’ll know I expired not by checking my pulse but by waving a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream under my nose and watch my nostrils.

My phone makes a decided effort to cheer me up by sending me spam texts about how easily I could “add inches.” All my life I’ve tried to subtract inches. Usually I get these messages at night but today they’re coming in early; do they know something I don’t know?

I’m aware of how much sicker everyone else seems to be than me. One or two complain about the wait, but they’re all stoic in the face of trouble (this is New England). In Jerusalem hospitals the orthodox monopolize all the seats surrounded by 10 children, same for Arab families only quieter, the younger Israelis pace back and forth and EVERYBODY’S ON THE PHONE! In Israel, the way they know you’ve expired is if you’re not talking on the phone. If you’re not listening it don’t mean nothing..

I promise myself that I will not contract here. It’s so easy to shrink into yourself at this time, to think only of your own body and to insist on the primacy of my own concerns. No sirree. I waved at the photo of Bernie and me on the altar early this morning before leaving home, a wave at Kwan-yin, too. I asked her to grow another arm (“You’ve got billions of them, what’s one more or less to take care of me?”) but also to take it easy for the weekend. Everybody’s got to rest sometime.

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I ACTUALLY FEED AUSSIE

Thunderstorm approaching my hospital room

“The white is the muscle; the black is the blood.”

While in the hospital I did an ultrasound of my heart. I had been breathing shallowly for quite a while and they didn’t know what to make of it.

“Are you from New York?” I ask the technician, a cheerful older woman speaking with a familiar accent, more at home with all that machinery than I’m in the kitchen.

“I’m from New Joisey,” she informs me, and instantly we bond.

“Are you sure you can find my heart?” I ask her.

“You sure you have one?” is the New Jersey retort.

“After all these years, I guess I’m finally going to find out,” I say.

The photos appear and I stay prone, looking over my shoulder, riveted. “Look at that thing working!”

“That pump works to feed your entire body. No breaks, no weekends off,” she says.

I can’t stop staring at it. “It doesn’t look that big,” I say. “Let me ask you something. When you fell in love, did it ever occur to you that your pump is working faster, and that’s all there is to this love thing?”

“No!”

I’m wheeled back upstairs to the hospital bed. I wish Aussie was around so that I could share my impressions with her. What a piece of work this heart is, I want to tell her. What a body this is, what a system! Our water pump for the well in back has only had to be repaired once in 18 years, but my heart’s been going for over 72. No warranty, no service agreement, it labors 24/7. It takes a breakdown in the system for me to get what an extraordinary biological cosmos this really is.

The little breakdowns are in some way the most interesting.

“Look at how amazing it is to feed you, Aussie.”

“Huh?”

“Look at all the combinations of actions that are needed. I have to walk slowly to the laundry room, turn, bend down, and pick up your food bowl without keeling over.”

“You know I can do all this for you, why strain? I’d simply skip the kibble part and head to the kitchen.”

“Now watch me put the bowl on the washing machine and reach up with my other arm for the dogfood. It’s a miracle!”

“Skip the kibble and head to the refrigerator, less pressure on your balance.”

Now watch me pour the dogfood into a cup without spilling, Aussie! I have to hold the bag with two hands.”

“Wake me up when this is over.”

“Now I walk holding the bowl in my hand to the kitchen, making a right turn without getting dizzy. Slowly, I turn around to face the refrigerator, take out some broth and a little chicken—”

“Could we make that a lot? I don’t want you to lose your sense of proportion; God knows you’ve lost everything else!”

“It’s this infection hammering my body, Auss. I turn back to the counter, put broth and chicken on the counter next to your food bowl even as the refrigerator door closes behind me.”

“What an acrobat you are! If you fall, try to fall in the net, okay?”

“I then walk to get the knife, pick it up, and return to the counter holding it.”

“I’ve been adopted by Albert Einstein!”

“I pour some broth and cut some chicken into your bowl, Aussie.”

“More! More! More! More!”

“Now this is the biggest trick of all. I do everything in reverse, Auss. Turn back to refrigerator and put back broth and chicken, turn around again, pick up your bowl, hold tight with both hands to the rim while walking back to the laundry room, and then, slowly and very carefully, bend down and put it on the mat that says Watch your paws, and voila! Dinner’s ready!”

“You didn’t even vomit into my food bowl like you did before! I vomit into it every day and I’m not even sick.”

“Now I start the whole thing again with your water bowl. I have to bend down, pick it up gently, walk to the door to throw the water at the flowers, slowly turn around, walk to the kitchen—”

“Just make me a margarita, will you?”

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WHERE EXACTLY WERE YOU?

It’s Monday, and I’m still recovering. I’ll be recovering for a while longer.

I got sick a week ago, waking up last Monday with no strength, barely able to get out of bed. My breathing was labored, so my thoughts right away went to asthma, an old, cranky friend of mine.

I sat on the corner chair of the bedroom, content to look out. I had no strength to feed or walk dogs, meditate, even read. Instead, between naps, I looked out at the wild jungle our yard has become in this summer heat. It’s hard to describe how happy I am, even breathing shallowly, not doing anything. No choice about it, no decision about what gets done and what doesn’t, just look out the window, just stop doing.

As I took more asthma medicine, my hands became so jittery I couldn’t hit the computer keys. Sending a brief text took 10 minutes. I couldn’t even brush my teeth.

On Wednesday I went into the Emergency Room of our local hospital. They continued heavy doses of cortisone against asthma, but as more tests results came in, they were no longer certain of the diagnosis and wished to admit me. I refused, but when my housemate Lori came to pick me up and heard what they said, she talked it over with me in the parking lot and persuaded me to go back. I was officially admitted into the hospital Wednesday night.

In the two days I spent in the hospital, my first in a number of years, I was treated for everything under the sun, including asthma, anaplasmosis (tick-borne disease that is not Lyme), and finally pneumonia. Numbers would go up and then come crashing down, only to go up again. Breathing still shallow, coughing, and an exhaustion that was exacerbated because I couldn’t sleep at nights. I felt I was fading fast.

On Friday afternoon I faced the same quandary I’d faced earlier. The hospital didn’t want me to go, not all test results had come in yet, and they were releasing me sicker than I was when I came in. They pleaded and harangued for me to stay over the weekend, guaranteed me that if I leave the hospital, I would be back in Emergency early the next morning.

I was adamant, the only exception being when I started vomiting and a picture of Bernie dying of sepsis floated in front of my mind, when he had vomited and was unable to hold back the liquids in his body.

“Could I have sepsis?” I asked the nurse.

“You have major infection, your body is dealing with tremendous stress. Serious things can happen to you this weekend.”

She was frightened by my decision, and for a moment I felt worse for her than for me. But 10 minutes later my dear friend, Sensei Dr. John Kealy, took me from the wheelchair to his car and off we went to Walgreen’s to pick up enough medication to line up a drug store.

I came home late Friday afternoon, tottered upstairs, and fully clothed, collapsed on the bed and slept for 16 hours. The door was closed even to the dogs.

I felt like I was sleeping on a cloud (though the bed is very firm), floating in heaven, carried by air,.

By the time I got up the next day, I knew I wasn’t headed over to Emergency anytime soon. That afternoon a message came from the hospital doctor to let me know that the test for tick-borne illness had come back positive and to cancel much of the medications I’d picked up. My hands were still too jittery to do any writing. The weekend came and went, I didn’t go back to the hospital.

Instead, I had the wonderful opportunity to witness once again how well the world goes on without me, how the hummingbirds have lots of nectar from the profusion of honeysuckle (see above) even if I can’t fill the feeders, how Green River Zen Center goes on splendidly well without me, as does the Zen Peacemaker Order, as do even the dogs, who’re somewhat unsure of what’s happening. They even managed to endure a thunderstorm without me.

People like me require endless reminders of how they’re as relevant and expendable to life as the twigs and branches that the storm threw down to the ground. We think we’re so big; we are and we’re not, mostly we’re not.

Today I am finally able to hit the computer keys. There’s so much inside, love and appreciation for everything I received, the care, the lonely nights, the unpredictable genius of the path. Lots to write about: marvelous nurses and wacky roommates, how often I laughed and laughed at the wise beings we think we are, clowns all.

Now is not the time.

Slow steps ahead.

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BRIMMING WITH DISTRACTIONS

“Here we are, Aussie, at Leeann’s. Isn’t it great to come here after she took an entire week off?”

“What kind of vacation is taking a week off from me? I almost died from grief. Look at how passionately I’m wagging my tail. Let me out!”

“First, it’s Bruno’s turn, they got here before us. Just look at him, Auss. His human opened the door and Bruno rushed all the way to Leeann in the enclosure out back in ten seconds flat! just look at that dog run!”

“Oh, Phooey Bruno. I can outrun him anytime. Okay, my turn, my turn!”

“I’m opening the door, Aussie. Ready? Go!”

Two beats.

“Aussie, what happened? You took two steps and came to a screeching stop under the beebalm.”

“Can’t you see I’m busy sniffing? My heartthrob, Cecilia, is here. Her pee always smells of chicken liver, lucky poodle.”

“I didn’t know you like females, Auss.”

“Only in summer.”

“Okay, but Leeann is waiting for you, Aussie, so hurry up.” Three beats. “Now what? Where are you running off to?”

“Wild turkeys! Give me a moment to check out if there’s a nest nearby.”

“Come back here!”

“You’re no fun.”

“At least I’m focused, Auss. When there’s something I got to do, I do it, I don’t mess around like you.”

“Messing around is the fun part of doing anything. Running straight to Leeann is like doing an Alpo commercial—boring! And look here.”

“Now what? They’re still waiting for you while—”

“If you paused for distractions, you’d know right away that a coyote came by here, probably trying to get one of Leeann’s chickens.”

“Did it get anything?”

“No smell of blood anywhere. Too bad.”

“Not everybody is a serial killer like you, Aussie. You know what else you’re not? You’re not a Zen dog.”

“Of course, I’m a Zen dog!”

“You’re too distracted, Aussie. A Zen dog is like Bruno, focused on where he’s got to go, brimming with concentration.”

“I’m brimming with distraction. You know why? Because life is distractions! Life is having a destination or a plan—”

“Like running over to Leeann!”

“—and then leaving it for the first smell that comes your way. Just have a sniff of Cecilia’s pee—have you ever smelled anything so exquisite in your life?”

BAM!

“Aussie, what did you pounce on?”

“A rabbit. This is rabbit-killing season, I wait for it all year round. This one I didn’t get.”

“Aussie, how do you ever get anything done giving in to all these distractions?”

“You know what I think? Distractions got a bad rap among you Zenoids. I don’t care how focused you are, if you can’t let yourself get distracted it’s not much of a life!”

“But how do you get anything done, Aussie?”

“I don’t, that’s the beauty of it. It’s summer, the grass calls, the trees, the rabbits, the groundhog I killed yesterday, the fox’s den right outside the backyard fence—and the pond! What’s better than cooling off in a pond?”

“Not much of a purpose-driven life, Auss.”

“Purpose-driven life, phooey. You’re not that important. It’s time to get distracted, Boss!”

“What about when I feed you, Aussie? A tree falls in the back, there’s a bear at the hummingbird feeder, and Henry’s pee smells of roast beef. Can I get distracted then?”

“Okay, I’m getting to Leeann. Just don’t rush me!”

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RADIANCE

I think it’s Muriel Rukeyser who wrote: “It is always the poet’s task to defend the relevance of radiance, whatever its shape and subject.”

I’ve wanted to be a poet for this very reason. Writing and reading good prose are both rare privileges; telling stories is as basic to human beings as making a fire or pointing up at the stars at night and wondering about the gods.

But radiance is always and everywhere here, even when we humans don’t see it. True, when the sun sets and the light bursts between the trees that guard our rotting gazebo, it’s easy to recognize it. Even now, on a hot summer day, the afternoon sun warms up not just the leaves but also the laundry hanging on lines outside, and you can’t mistake the golden light. The entire air turns radiant.

But it’s the poets who see radiance in the nighttime, even without starlight. Or in the way a small Chihuahua, lips parted, happily takes in the smell of last night’s rain on a wet meadow.

Yesterday was hot and humid, and as I walked home with Aussie it looked like the rest of the world was taking a nap. Things were flat and quiescent. I saw some movement up ahead and wondered if it was another small critter. I worry now because Aussie has become a mass murderer of groundhogs, bunnies, squirrels, and chipmunks. Lori points out that there are lots of young ones out there just learning to find their way, not as vigilant as they should be, perfect targets for the serial killer I harbor at home.

But there was no critter there, just a stem of moss dancing in air that was completely still. Upright, it waved wildly, then collapsed prostrate on the ground, then suddenly flew up in martial attention, circled the air, shook violently, fell down on the ground, and started the cycle all over again.

Why’s it doing that, I wondered. There wasn’t a breath of air, not a hint of breeze, no movement at all other than the human and dog walking slowly home, the dog panting in the heat. The rest of the moss was as sleepy as the landscape, not a move, except for this stem that kept on dancing in the air.

I looked at it and asked: “What’s up, moss? Why are you dancing?” It gave me no answer—or rather, the dance was the answer.

I’m very linear in my thinking: This causes this, which causes this, which causes this. It’s a bad habit, my way of bringing this mysterious, radiant universe down to my size (or the size of my pea-sized brain) and concluding that I figured it all out. This entire world, our whole life, is one big Zen koan, and even though I know that God help the Zen student who, presenting a koan, says that she or he is trying to figure it out—that’s what I still do. I still try to work things out, come up with some formulas and reasons, anything to make things coherent and understandable.

It’s an ego trip. Perfectly understandable given that I dislike unpleasant surprises and unlooked-for events as much as anybody, but still an ego trip.

It reminds me of how the two dogs play. I walk in the woods and turn around to see Henry doing his stalking bit, belly and head on the ground, hind legs and tail up, following Aussie, coming up behind him, avidly with his eyes. Aussie ignores him and smells the flowers. Henry gives a little growl, begging for notice. Aussie ignores him. Finally, he runs over to her, jumps up with another growl, and gives her back leg a friendly bite. She scampers past me, ignoring him the entire time, but Henry runs over to me, a triumphant look on his face: Did you see how I showed her! Did you see how I showed her!

Like many people, I’m avidly looking at the first photos sent us by the James Webb Telescope. Hollywood’s best special effects department couldn’t come up with the pictures we’re getting. But beauty, awe, and radiance aren’t just to be found out there, they’re in a little stem of moss that flutters and shudders with no apparent cause, and even in a white mailbox that, to human eyes, is empty but whose emptiness still holds the nest of young phoebe fledglings that were hatched, fed, kept warm there, and are now gone. Maybe not so gone.

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PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT I PAY ATTENTION TO

Photo by Peter Cunningham

Some 5 days ago I presented a short excerpt from a dialogue in a neighborhood e-list about our local Greenfield theater showing a movie claiming fraud in the 2020 elections. It elicited at least 250 back-and-forths, about 100 times the average, and included indignation, anger, threats of boycott, ideological lobs out of left and right fields (someone demanded to know what the US is doing in North Korea), etc. It also elicited moderate and reasonable responses from both ends of the political spectrum, but I found myself shaking my head and almost quit the site right there.

Yesterday I received an email from a reader in Germany who responded somewhat gloomily to this post, and ended the email by writing: “Let’s enjoy the world before it’s getting worse.”

As I often remind people, each of us is responsible for his/her state of mind. Mine doesn’t depend on life out there, on newspaper headlines or the TV, it depends on me. There are ups and downs, and being human, I’m glad and lighthearted when life goes up and grim or heavy when it goes down, but I take very seriously the practice of keeping a clear mind and an open heart regardless of what happens.

The way I do that is paying attention to what I pay attention to. Comes the morning, after meditation, feeding Aussie, and lighting incense at the feet of Kwan-yin outside, I look at the news. In fact, I do that several times a day, absorbing information about the world, but only at prescribed times. I’m very aware of the impact made by dramatic and threatening headlines even the best newspapers now carry. I use the New York Review of Books to get longer, more in-depth analyses of international stories but won’t read their articles on our own politics anymore; I need more variety than what they give.

I write this to show that I don’t hide my brain under the blanket, I search out information about what happens in the world. But I’m also careful how much attention I give it, and how much attention I give other things.

Last Friday, Peter Cunningham and I went to the funeral service for the brother of a dear friend. It took place at Camphill Village in Copaque, in New York’s Hudson Valley. My friend’s brother had lived in Camphill Village for over 40 years since he’d been born with Down Syndrome almost 60 years ago.

There was no guard at the entrance to the Village, covering some 615 acres of farmland. The grounds were clean and green, grass sparkling under the sun. We met at the Village’s bakery and cafe, and proceeded from there to the chapel.

I believe there are some 20 Village homes, each housing 5-7 “villagers.” Villagers are adults with Down Syndrome or other disabilities. In Camphill they’re seen as partners in a multi-ethnic, diverse community, living alongside able couples with children, volunteers, students, and interns, many of whom come from Europe.

Camphill was founded some 80 years ago by the Austrian Karl Konig. A refugee from Austria after the Nazis entered Austria and deeply influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, Konig started the Camphill Movement of Villages as a way of not hiding and separating people with developmental disabilities from the rest of the world, but rather as a place honoring each one’s uniqueness and essential wholeness as an individual, as a human. People with a varied level of abilities live together, work in organic gardens and with domestic animals, cook and bake, eat together, and create music and art together. Everyone is encouraged to fulfill their potential every single day.

The chapel filled up with hundreds of people, some in wheelchairs helped along the rows by one or two assistants. A small choir sang beautifully. When the minister began describing the life of the man who was now gone, the crying and weeping began.

This wasn’t the dignified, silent tears we shed in most of our controlled, careful gatherings, the ones we call grown-up, this was wailing from the marrow, mourning the empty space once inhabited by a very special human being who was no longer here, sobbing openly because he was already missed and would never be coming back. They held hands and cried on each other’s shoulders, weeping in the face of death and love all at the same time.

When the service was done, the coffin was taken upstairs and put in back of a station wagon, and everyone followed and formed a circle. They contemplated the departing body and sang goodbye to it, and as the car slowly pulled away, they shouted out goodbye and how much they love him.

After that, strangers came to me to tell me how much they will miss their friend and full of questions: How well did I know him? How far back? What stories did I have to tell? With no hesitation they fell into my arms, weeping. There we were, hugging closely inside a raw and sacred space of love that can exist even between two people who’ve never met before. Everything was possible in that space—friendship, forgiveness, vulnerability, loss, love. Soon I realized I didn’t need to comfort anyone; they were comforting me.

We drove home a little stunned, I think. It was hard to talk about what we’d experienced, only in the deepest part of me, I knew all was well.

The very next day, walking the dogs on our Montague Plains, I ran into a woman and made my usual loud announcement that Henry and Aussie were friendly. She assured me she had a dog back home. She left him at home because he’s still too scared to leave the house. He’d been rescued from an Oklahoma house where he’d been caged up for 3 years, never once going out. Other animals, too, had been caged there. She adopted him and brought him here. Now, six months later, he’s gotten mellower and less fearful, and still won’t leave the house.

She’s not giving up. I gave her the contact information for Leeann Warner, Aussies favorite human in the whole wide world and a superb dog trainer. It was clear that this woman, who didn’t have many resources, was going to do everything in her power to heal him.

“It’s the black-and-white colors,” she said, shaking her head with a smile. “He’s just the cutest thing.”

After we parted, I reflected on how many rescue dogs receive such good care. At times they come to us scared and shivering, or else aggressive and unpredictable, and we get help to take care of them, giving them the patience and love they need to heal. I wish we could do that to humans, too, instead of sending them to prison.

These are the events I pay much more attention to than newspaper headlines. It’s how I keep my heart open. And if you think they’re small, think again. Generous acts and ways of life resonate on levels we can’t fathom, firing off reciprocal actions and transformations across many dimensions. Just because they’re less visible doesn’t mean they’re less potent.

And just in case you still don’t know what to pay attention to, how about this: Jimena had reserved 9 spots in Camp Keewanee for children from immigrant families, where they could go for 3 weeks while their parents worked in the farms. When I met and talked to her last week, she had no money for any. Tomorrow, I’ll give her $4,725 for 9 children to go swimming every day, play group games, sing and color, and do all the silly, wonderful things children love to do in summer. The money for that came from you. Pay attention to that and see what happens to your heart then.

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WHAT WAS THAT?

Yesterday marked two months since my mother died; today would have been her 94th birthday. I don’t feel that I’m in big mourning for her, but today my body feels heavy and tired, pulled down to earth. Soon I’ll leave for a funeral service for the brother of someone I love very much, Roshi Michel Engu Dobbs. It’s a bit of driving, but I’ll be joined by another dear friend, the photographer Peter Cunningham. We’ll meet somewhere in Holyoke and proceed in one car from there.

My father had a clear mind till he died, but he often would look back on his life with a puzzled expression on his face, as if saying: What was that? I think he spent substantial time with memories going back to childhood days, growing up in a small village on the northern border of Rumania in the years before World War II: his friends, his strict Rabbi father who wouldn’t let him play soccer, his brother, the mother who preferred his brother, his school days, etc.

He had 90 rich years of life: two wives, three children, three different countries where he lived, and work that he loved. When he died many people crowded into his home to tell his family how much he meant to them.

But with all this, whenever he thought of the past—which he confessed to doing often—a look of puzzlement would cross his face, almost as though he was contemplating his face in a mirror and couldn’t recognize it as his own. What was that? It’s as if he wanted to find a final coherent meaning to it all, and failed.

I don’t often go to that distant land called my past. At times I reflect on certain events and relationships, I think about what I learned and what it took for me to finally learn what I learned. I had to learn how to learn.

At the same time, the present is what counts for me, always the same question: What is the call? What is it now?

I find myself wondering if there’s still a big move ahead. Of course, I won’t live in this house forever. One day I’ll go back to emptying it out, converting it back into the shell Bernie and I found when we first moved in here, make it an empty space that others can inhabit and populate with furniture and things that will make the house their own, including memories. People here talk often about finally moving to a condo, with less housekeeping work (of which there’s plenty here, including some new windows to be installed next week), but that’s not the move I’m talking about.

What I have in mind addresses not just lifestyle but also a bigger quest. It’s the way I’ve moved many times in the past: work beckoned, practice beckoned, love beckoned. Those are the things I continue to listen for, not the beckoning of senior housing, though I surely appreciate the need for it. Given everything, the needs of my body may still ambush me into making that kind of move, but here I am, at the age of 72, still listening for a different kind of invitation, a different idea, a new possibility.

I know well the temptation to settle into a comfortable chair, read more, take more care of my body. And still, I listen for another call. I don’t want those calls to ever end.

I won’t fool you, sometimes I ask myself whether I can still access something essential. I wonder if I can still dive deep and emerge with something real, something that feels true for this time in my life and the life of the world. There are brilliant young writers and teachers out there now, offering new, clamorous voices on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, our suffering planet. Ursula Le Guin wrote: “Truth goes in and out of stories, you know. What was once true is true no longer. The water has risen from another spring.”

I’m aware that truth isn’t found in words, but it can become visible through the words, through what’s said and not said. The blanks between the lines, the commas asking you to slow down, the final period at the end of the sentence—that’s how insight comes.

And there are days when I wonder if I still have it in me to do that or is this something only young people can do now. I feel they’re so ahead of the game in many ways, have realized in a short time what it took me decades to understand. As I wrote earlier, I’ve been a slow learner all my life. Quick learner of trivia, and very slow with the important things.

Can I still be the throat through which something real emerges? Can I find the words? Can I respond to the call?

The phoebe birds in the mailbox have fledged. Yesterday they still lay close to one another in their nest, but when I tried to take a photo, they fluttered their young wings and flew out, landing on neighboring branches. Will they even be in the mailbox today? Or will they finally be gone, and I’ll take down the sign asking not to disturb the nest, go back to using the mailbox for its original purpose?

If not today, tomorrow, or the day after that. And though I didn’t do the work, I’ll feel good that they were hatched and fledged safely and comfortably, in a mailbox people didn’t disturb, and could now fly away.

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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.

 

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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.