In my last post I asked myself: How do I not live in a bubble? I wrote that since the killing of George Floyd I recalled my first demonstration in Central Park after King had been killed, and thought about the 52 years that had passed since then.
But those kind of reflections become their own bubble: I went to this demonstration, I worked with that organization, I always wanted things to change, blah blah blah.
How do you not live in a bubble? Especially if you live, as I do now, in an area that is mostly white and rural, not mixed and urban. The wounding that happens here—and it does happen here—is usually less violent and more subtle. There is still fear. Most people of color tend to come from the Five Colleges that have much pride in their diverse international student body. Which can become another bubble.
I’ve been working with koans for a long time. A Zen koan is something that ostensibly makes no sense when you first read or hear it. A student asks an earnest question and the teacher gives out a shout or a yell, even a blow. They see wild ducks flying overhead and the teacher asks where did they go? The student doesn’t know so the teacher pinches his nose hard and yells: “When have they ever been gone?” You look up at the sky, there’s nothing there, so why does the teacher yell those inscrutable words?
Maybe because everything is here all the time. Our senses don’t reveal that but somewhere, somewhere, we know it’s true. We can’t see it from a distance—that leads to analyses, conclusions, and judgments—we can only be aware of it up close.
Bernie often told me that koan study is always about standing in a different corner of the room and bearing witness.
I look at the lines of helmeted police looking like so many of Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, or the National Guard on horseback. Friends get indignant—It looks like a military state! I tell them they can afford the indignation because they’re not the one who owns the neighborhood store that doesn’t bring in much money, that took a hit during covid, and has now been burned to the ground. Or else someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of your apartment.
Till now you looked at the situation from the safety of your computer desk or your television set. What happens if you change the corner of the room where you stand? You might look around and say: I need protection. It wasn’t me that killed George Floyd, but I’m losing everything!
Change where you stand again and see how the family of George Floyd is experiencing this moment. Change corners again and see an unhoused woman looking through a store window at the riots on a television screen that has a home while she does not. Move to another corner and bear witness to the horror onlookers felt watching the killing of George Floyd. Move again and witness the birds flying away from there in fright from the yelling and the noise.
Depending on what corner of the room you stand, you’re going to see things differently.
But first, are you ready to move from one corner of the room to another? Are you nimble enough, flexible enough? If you are, you’ll see that people are usually not more stupid or evil or ignorant or violent; given the corner of the room where they/we stand, this is what they/we see. It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it wrong; all of life is right here this moment. It’s all one room.
“Don’t you feel paralyzed then?” I’d ask Bernie. “How do you know what to do?”
“The room contains all these corners,” he’d say, “it’s still one room. Can you do something that addresses all the different corners? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Whoever you exclude will undermine what you do. Still, you must do something.”
Do your best even if you can’t take care of everyone, but always remember that somewhere behind the cobwebs, in a dim little space, there’s a corner you haven’t visited.
Since the killing of George Floyd, I feel I’ve lost the ground under my feet. I walk the dogs, shop, Zoom with a variety of people, look at our overgrown, gorgeous garden, and I’m numb.
My brain tells me this is certainly not the first and unfortunately will not be the last. My brain tells me that this goes on a lot—a lot!—and what am I thinking of. My brain tells me that what needs to be changed is an entire system, from A to Z, that changing a system can be dangerous and is a long time coming.
My brain tells me lots of things; they don’t penetrate.
What I keep on mentally mumbling to myself is: 52 years. I was 18 when I went to my first demonstration in Central Park, New York, on the Friday afternoon after Martin Luther King was shot. It’s 52 years later, I repeat to myself obsessively. 52 years . . . 52 years. More than half a century.
Last night, when the Green River Zen group Zoomed together, I resonated most with a woman who said she wished she was in New York. I’d felt that since covid began. Get on the front lines where people really hurt. Get into the cracks, as Bernie used to say. March with the marchers, protest with the protesters. Stop writing about dogs.
“What do you mean, stop writing about dogs? We’re the most important thing in your life.”
“You’re not, Aussie. I give you attention, I train you, I feed you, but—”
“Boss, you should take care of what’s in front of you—namely, me.”
“I don’t want to live in a bubble, Aussie.”
“What’s a bubble, Boss?”
I’ve been feeling in a bubble since mid-March when I locked down in a beautiful home while spring brought out new buds and leaves, bears woke up from slumber, and birds celebrated renewal at the same time that so many were got sick and died. At the same time that so many were laid off, businesses shut down, savings disappeared, eviction notices came in the mail, and food pantries ran out of food.
I didn’t want to shelter in place but shelter in place I did, though I wanted to walk the streets, masked, make eye contact, find my way into the center of the storm.
“Don’t even think of going back to New York, what’ll Harry and I do there? Get friendly with yuppy dogs in Riverside Park?”
“Don’t worry, Aussie, I can’t afford to live in Riverside Park.”
The question is: How do I not live in a bubble? I’m up on the news, I get the info, but that becomes its own addiction and destabilizes the mind. More and more I feel that the media—right and left—are our puppet masters, using headlines like strings that pull us up and down, in the process making loads of money.
Compete with everyone in vilifying Trump? He’s the symptom, not the disease.
“We’re all One,” you say, “isn’t that enough?” That’s another bubble.
Feed emotional turmoil, weep, gnash my teeth, then go rest from all the angst? Long ago I learned that people mistake strong feelings for action. They mistake earnest, lengthy discussions over glasses of wine for doing something. It was Robin DiAngelo, in White Fragility, who pointed out how deceptive those grand emotions are, how much attention they call to themselves, how in the process we think we did something and forget who and what must always remain the focus.
Have your feelings, I tell myself, but don’t let that become your bubble. Don’t go home feeling good about all that indignation, sorrow and guilt.
People with no food on the table don’t have that luxury, they have to get up in the morning and figure out how they could get a few hours of work. Feelings are good, but without action they can become another bubble.
In the end of 2016 I was stunned to see a photo of Wesley Clark, Jr. kneeing in front of Chief Leonard Crow Dog asking for pardon for what the US military had done to his tribe. He went down on his knees—not too different from what so many demonstrators (and even some police) are doing now–and asked for pardon.
That’s what I think we have to do. Find one African American family and ask its members for pardon. And whether they give pardon or not, ask what we can do for restitution. What do you need? A better apartment or house? Medical care? Help your kids go to college?
After the 2016 election, when threats against undocumented families in our area became very real, my friend, Rami Efal, came up with an idea. What if we create a small Circle of Care around each family, find out from them what they needed, and helped them: with work, negotiating their way with English and the legal system, their children. What if we used circles to take care of people?
Imagine doing that for people protesting about how they are being treated by our country, by all of us. Imagine creating a small circle around each such family and asking: What do you need? And then, even in small ways, addressing those needs.
Yes, we could send out reparations checks. Not with Donald Trump’s name on it, but in the name of The People of the United States. But circles of care are better because isn’t that what we’re called to do, care for each other? Show people they’re not alone, never abandoned, that they’re seen, their troubles recognized, and we want to help?
And while we’re about it, we could do the same for the Native American tribes and families who lost so much. First ask for pardon, and then form a Circle of Care around them.
You say we don’t have the resources for all that care? I say, we do. Add up our public and private wealth, the corporate profits and the small change in thieving offshore accounts, and you’ll see that we do. There is enough money for us to care for each other.
How do I not live in a bubble?
Let myself get cut to the quick, then see the smile on a child’s face, her big eyes looking at me with curiosity and not fear, laughing at my poor Spanish, the inner contentment when she knows she’s being cared for. Let yourself bear witness to the joy and suffering of the world. Plunge into both.
“Right now I’d like to plunge into some chicken, Boss.”
“Aussie, you’re a great comfort.”
“I’m your only comfort, Boss.”
She’s not. So many others comfort me, too. Kathryn, from Canada, who sent me a card enclosing what was left of her American money when she returned home from a brief visit to New York. I straightened out the $5 bills and 6 singles with deep thanks.
A check for $100 from Joyce with the note that her retired husband is making bluebird houses in order to collect donations to help. Wow, I thought. Birthday appeal money from Holland, donations from a German sangha, and now a gift that comes from the building of bluebird houses.
A student left two $50 bills in my mailbox, and a week later came to the house, masked, with four $50 food cards.
A friend who walks with me on occasion, then remembers: “Oh yes, I almost left without giving you these,” and hands me food cards.
And if any of you have sewing machines you’re not using, think of giving them to a small cooperative of women here who are sewing masks to make a little money. Even better, if you know of a market for these masks—or for other sewn products, please get in touch with me.
Can we understand how important each of us is in the world? Our words, our actions, our intentions? I have no illusions, they will never drown out George Floyd’s last words. They will never drown out the scream that began with the founding of this country and that continues to echo inside me and you. Even as I write this, I can hear the whisper inside: Where have I been? Where are we now ? Where will we be tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that?
I vow to bear witness to the joys and suffering of the world.
You can give money for food cards for undocumented families by using the Donate button below, but make sure and add: For food cards. You can also send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write “food cards” on the memo line.
A friend came by yesterday. We sat outside in the back yard and talked about the demonstrations and riots taking place around the country due to the murder of George Floyd. She asked me what I felt.
“My heart is with every demonstrator around the country,” I told her. “But when it turns violent, public opinion turns against us.”
She didn’t agree. “It’s a war out there,” she said, “and it’s time we see it. Glass smashing, fires burning, police cars smoking, bodies on the asphalt, tear gas—that’s not China, that’s not Egypt or Syria—that’s us! That war’s been with us for a long, long time, but we don’t see it till it explodes.”
I look at the photos and news videos of what is happening in cities large and small, with curfews and the National Guard patrolling the streets. Not streets in the Spanish Civil War or during another military insurrection in South America, it’s here, now, on our streets.
There has always been a war. It’s been fought in segregated housing and school systems, in the workforce and workspace, in our prisons and financial systems, in our factual history and the stories we tell ourselves about that history, in movies and TV, and now, in the age of coronavirus, in medical wards with sky-high numbers of people of color coming down with covid. And dying from covid. Or dying early from illness, stress, violent neighborhoods, and waking up exhausted to relentlessly shrinking horizons.
We’re finally meeting the enemy, and we know who that is, right? No, not Donald Trump, not the Daughters of the Confederacy, not even Derek Chauvin and police like him. The enemy is us.
“It’s like lancing a boil or a pimple,” my friend said. “The pimple is right there but we don’t want to look, and it grows and grows till it bursts. It should have had treatment long ago.”
What treatment is that? Other people know the answer far better than I do. I’ll tell you what it isn’t, though.
How many of you know that Barack Obama signed a Native American Apology Resolution almost a decade ago? You might say: We finally apologized for what we did to Native Americans? How come I didn’t know?
One reason may be that nothing was said about it. Our President simply signed a resolution that was hidden in a defense spending bill, so that nobody would know.
Was there a press release? There was, only it talked about the defense spending bill, didn’t say much about an apology to Native Americans.
Did President Obama, noted for his eloquence, give a stirring speech about what we did to Native Americans: the massacres, mass larceny of land, dishonored treaties, the forced marches and reservations? As President and Commander-in-Chief, did he apologize for the what the government and military did and continue to do to Native tribes? Did he by any chance promise to take back the Medals of Honor given to the soldiers who massacred women and children at Wounded Knee?
No speech was given, no celebration of a historic moment covered by television networks worldwide. It was the quietest apology imaginable. The message was unmistakable: We apologized, now let’s move on.
We don’t need that treatment. We don’t need an apology that dishonors rather than honors, that perpetuates ignorance of terror and tragedy. That just wants to move on.
Let’s move on, let’s move on. Our great mantra. Didn’t we do enough? Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty legislation, affirmative action, election of Barack Obama? Hell, we even made a federal holiday out of Martin Luther King’s birthday, what more is needed? Maybe another museum?
One of the demonstrators was quoted as saying: “Can’t breathe with a mask on. Can’t breathe without one.” That’s the koan of America.
Today I picked up my car from the Toyota repair shop and the nice man whom I’ve known for almost a decade of car service was wearing a fabric mask as he brought me the car. “You should wear a medical mask, “ I told him, “since you have to wear one all day. You’ll breathe better.” He said he was fine.
We’re both white. We breathe well without a mask, and somewhat less well with a mask—but we breathe. And then there are Americans who can’t breathe, not with a mask and not without one. Do you wear a mask or not?
If you get beaten standing or kneeling, what do you do?
How do you Stay Safe, our favorite mantra nowadays, when you’re not safe during covid, not safe before, and not safe after?
I left my home yesterday morning, got up the driveway, a yellow alarm showed—Check Hybrid System!—and the car died. I called the Toyota service station and they suggested I have it towed, so I left the car on the side of the road and stood against the trees, waiting for the tow truck to come.
What a joy it was to have this unexpected time to see our road winding its way under an arch of trees. I remembered that years ago, when I used to work in Palestine and Israel in their dry summers, I’d come home to New England and have to cover my eyes. “Everything is so green here,” I’d tell Bernie.
Enormous trees leaned over the road, their thick limbs cantilevered in all directions, and I felt deeply served. I hadn’t counted on losing the car for the day, but had a deep trust that life was taking good care of me.
I’m going through an anxious time; I don’t know what’s up for me. My screenplay probably needs a big overhaul and I have to think about whether I wish to do it or not. It served me greatly as part of a mourning process, a familiar phenomenon. Writers write in response to their own lives, but taking the step from the personal to the public, from the confessional to the artistic, is a whole other matter.
I don’t feel a drive to come up with an answer. Nor do I feel a drive to look at any of the other books, manuscripts, ideas, scenarios, notes, and all the stuff writers assemble over years. I’m used to being driven, and I don’t feel driven now, which worries me a little. My identity begins to break down. In Zen that’s a good thing; in life, so-so.
I get nourished on Tuesdays when I meet undocumented families in the area. I never expected to do this, but the world (you!) responded so I run with it, and I will continue running with it till I get a different message.
We have usually occupied a shaded bench on a main street corner, but a barber shop opened, with people waiting outside to be let in (some with distance and masks, some without), so we moved. But families know this corner now and they come one by one. The farming sector is opening up, I’m told, there are more hours of work but not as many as usual. Still no jobs in restaurants, cafes, B&Bs, hospitality sector. When the time of re-opening comes, not all will reopen.
We visited Flora (made-up name) who’d just given birth four days previously. The last week she’d arrived with a bulging belly; now there’s a new baby. There was a banner (Welcome Emma!), paper flowers, and a couple of balloons. We gave food cards and cash. Jimena put on gloves to hold the baby, who was big and seemed happy, cooed upon by her two sisters and neighbors.
Flora looked amazingly alert and strong, large-bodied with no trace of the large belly she’d had a week earlier. Resilience shone out of her eyes. She’d given birth in the midst of very hard times, but she was gambling on life. She had a 20 year-old in addition to the two girls and the baby. Behind her and ahead of her were thousands of more meals, thousands of hours taking children to school, thousands of wake-up and putting-to-sleep hours. There was no talk of the virus, of uncertain futures and looming risks. There was only life, and as we all know, life is a blessing.
I felt strange there, an American white woman, barely following the Spanish teasing and jokes. I never had children, rarely hold babies.
How do you connect with a mask on? How do you connect when all you see are eyes and eyebrows, no nose, mouth, chin, throat. Can’t tell nationality, can’t tell if you have good teeth or bad, whether you wear a nose ring or have a sore on your lips, whether you have a mustache or a beard. Can’t see all those things that are usually so important, part of our identity, part of what we present to the world.
And yet we do connect. Our eyes laugh rather than our mouth, we can see the laughter wrinkles below them and on the sides, brows rising in delight at the sight of a new baby looking at us with blue eyes.
You can go maskless all you want, shake hands with strangers, hug, kiss, violate every rule in the rulebook. Does it mean your connection is better, stronger, more authentic? When you don’t wear a mask, is it for more connection or because that beard, mustache, nose ring, and good teeth are important to show the world, to remind people: This is who I am.
The service shop called to tell me that a veritable colony of mice have settled inside the car, chewing through wires, shorting circuits, and generally building a brave new mouse world. Hundreds of dollars to fix—if it can be fixed. If it can’t, I’ll have to call it quits, ask for insurance money, and get another car.
“Mice did all that!” I exclaimed.
“Afraid so,” was the glum answer.
And I had always taken such good care of my Prius, the only new car I ever bought. I was determined it would last till I die. “The best-laid plans of mice and men,” wrote Robert Burns. The mice lost their great civilization (“They escaped into my dealership,” the man told me), while I may be losing my car.
Time to lean back against the gnarled bark of another ancient tree and listen to what life has in store. “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I can’t remember who said that.
If you’d like to put food on the table of people like Flora and her children, you can use the Donate button below and please add: For food cards. You can also send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write food cards on the memo line. And thank you for your messages of support and encouragement that often accompany these donations, it’s a big boost.
And if you love householder koans as I do, please join us this coming Monday at noon US Eastern time here for an hour’s presentation of the koan: Christina: How Pathetic I Am!
Maggie arrives once a month at our house, lugging cleaning implements with her. If she opens the front door by herself it’s no contest, the dogs are out before you could say Boo. But even when I open the door for her, filling the doorway and telling Harry to get back—Don’t even THINK about running off!—I move a couple of inches to make room for Maggie and he darts out between my legs.
It’s a diversion. I move the slightest bit forward—“Harry! Come back!”—and Aussie rushes out on my right, almost upending Maggie in the process. Together the two dogs make a dash up the driveway as fast as their legs can carry them, teeth gleaming, eyes shiny, and I can hear the Hee! Hee! Hee! from the road. From there they’ll scramble even further up the hill and disappear into the forest. No amount of walking and driving around will get them back anytime soon.
“What a dummy, Aussie. We do this every time Maggie arrives. Doesn’t the Boss ever learn?”
“You have to give her a little slack, Harry, she is kind of slow.”
Over and over I order Harry to go back to the living room when there’s someone at the door, and he obeys. But not when Maggie arrives. He’s found his loophole, the one time he could cheat, and off he goes, taking Aussie with him.
Which reminds me of Bernie. Bernie believed in cheating. “You can’t always do things 100%,” he’d say. “You have to cheat.”
A friend told Bernie that if Bernie would refrain from eating meat or fish for an entire year, he would make a major donation to Zen Peacemakers. Bernie agreed, and then added: “But you know, I’m going to cheat.”
“You’re going to cheat?” said the friend. “And you’re telling me that ahead of time?”
“Yup,” said Bernie. “I don’t believe in never cheating.”
Never was a word he didn’t like. So was always. If I would say to him You never do this or you always do that, he’d raise his famous, thick eyebrows: Never? Always? Life didn’t fall into neat categories like never and always, including cheating.
The dogs will come home when they get hungry. Though they run and run after prey, I suspect they don’t catch much. Besides, it’s going to be hot, so when they return, they’ll come in wet, proud, and happy after splashing in the river. No Aussie, come! No remote collar. Just running. Just free.
I look at the lilac bush outside and imagine their conversation:
“What’s that thing the Boss puts on her face when she leaves us in the car and goes into a supermarket, Aussie?”
“I don’t know, Harry. You’d think that if you go into a place with so much food around, the last thing you’d want to do is cover your mouth.”
I get the pooper scooper, an old one from some 25 years ago that has followed me from state to state, cleaning up after generations of dogs, and go look for dog poop. This generation of dogs goes way to the left by the tool shed, they don’t poop right under the freshly washed clothes hanging on our laundry lines like Stanley used to do.
Again, I think of Bernie. Once I accused him of not helping enough with the housework. He looked around him vaguely and said, “I’ll clean up after the dogs.”
He not only cleaned up after them, he dressed for it. To the usual jeans, Hawaiian shirt, suspenders and black sneakers he added a cigar, the cigar clipper, the lighter, the phone in the pocket, and a safari hat against ticks. He’d pick up the scooper by the back door and off he’d go, lighting the cigar, waving the smoke away, looking vaguely up towards the trees.
“Dogs poop on the ground,” I’d tell him.
But he’d be in the midst of some wild imaginings, envisaging a new project, a new building, a new way of looking at things, and he’d stare off into the wild, occasionally stepping into the very poop he was supposed to collect. “Oh, shit!” he’d say.
It would take him over an hour; he made of it art. He made art of fried eggs, the best breakfast I had anywhere. Nothing too hurried, nothing to speed through on your way to other, more important things. Dog poop was his magical kingdom.
“Time to clean up after the dogs,” he’d say to me, and it was off to the races.
On the morning of Memorial Day I call my mother. She lives in a bed in Jerusalem, Israel. She gets up for bathrooms and meals, but has been unable to get out of her home for a few months.
“How are things?” I ask her, anticipating a dull, tired answer.
“Chavale,” she says, “it’s so terrible how people talk. It’s so terrible what they do to each other.”
“You mean, on TV?” She watches a lot of TV, mostly news, and Israeli politicians aren’t noted for extending courtesy to their peers in front of TV cameras. Yelling and interrupting are the norm.
“I am so proud of my family,” she says. “I am so proud of my children and grandchildren that we love one another. Even if we disagree, we don’t have to be terrible to one another, we don’t have to fight all the time and nurse grievances and humiliate people.”
“Are you watching the news, mom?”
“How can people talk like? I would be ashamed!”
She went on and on in this vein, and as I listened to her I remembered past family meals when she would give rein to explosive diatribes against Arabs and Arab-loving left-wingers, as she called them. I remembered her cursing out an Ethiopian Jew, a hospital parking attendant who wouldn’t waive a parking charge for her, denigrating not just him but also his family and people.
My mother had been politically right-wing for decades. When the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt by Israel as part of the agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (the latter no slouch when it came to right-wing politics), she proudly went to jail for putting up posters on Election Eve against the agreement. When I was there for the Sabbath she would alternate between disparaging comments about Palestinians (knowing I’d spent some time in the West Bank during the week) and a seething, irate, silence.
She’ll be 92 in a few months, and she’s not angry anymore.
“What good does it do to hate people?” she asks on the phone. “Instead of putting energy into argument, can’t we just help each other? Everybody needs help, everybody needs something.”
I listened to her quietly, felt it was my heart talking. Why indeed? I thought of people I know who go on digital safari eagerly hunting for an even funnier put-down of Donald Trump, an even more down-and-dirty humiliation of those who wish to re-open their neighborhoods. I thought of new labels being bandied about. I thought of the energy being wasted on endless snipes, putdowns, and rants.
On media—on both sides—that’s making bucketfuls of money on partisan, gut-grabbing headlines that keep even the best educated of us us bobbing indignantly up and down like millions and millions of puppets. On how, in this country, a medical pandemic that has united the citizens of other countries has here sundered the body and thrown us away like so many body parts.
I talked about it with my brother, who also lives in Jerusalem. The country is opening up. Individuals, of course, make up their own minds about how much they want to go out or not, but it’s not divided into principles: those who open up and those who won’t.
“We don’t have what you have there,” he told me. “We have huge political divides; don’t forget, we went through three elections before we could form a new government. But what you have is something deeper.”
What do we have here? Is it cultural? Is it geographical, i.e. rural vs. urban, heartland vs. the coasts? Globalists vs. nationalists? What have we wrought here, I ask myself. Since when have even the smallest actions—putting on a mask or not, going to a restaurant or not, raising a flag or not—become partisan political symbols?
I went to buy food cards this afternoon to hand out to undocumented families tomorrow, and on the way back, passing two local cemeteries, watched as cars turned in to pay their respects. There were small American flags planted by the graves.
I don’t care what Donald Trump did on this Memorial Day—golf, Twitter, a visit to Arlington—I care what I do. I light incense at the altar of Maria of Guadalupe and Kwan-Yin and vow to watch my words. I light incense at the altar of a sitting Buddha and vow to watch my thoughts. I light incense at the altar of a standing Buddha and vow to watch my actions.
Soon I will start cooking dinner, but who am I feeding? Gods or demons?
“Why does the fruit fall from the tree before it has ripened?”
This is the koan that Roshi Egyoku and I will work with this coming Monday at noon, US Eastern time, on the Zoom network of Zen Peacemakers International (to register for free, go here) . You can also order The Book of Householder Koans; Waking Up In the Land of Attachments from independent book stores or from Amazon. The Reflection on the koan starts like this:
“Our time seems to come whether we’re ready for it or not. Whether I’m eighteen or eighty, am I ever really ready? For that matter, am I ever really ripe? What does ripe feel like? Is it that I’ve fulfilled all my dreams? Is it that I’ve lived a happy life? Is it that I’ve aged gracefully, with a loving family beside me? Is it that the promises of my birth have all been creatively and joyously fulfilled?”
The promises of my birth. What were they? Only one that I remember, and unfulfilled at that: That I would be a great writer. That I would leave my restrictive orthodox Jewish home, build my own life, and write. No relationship other than the vaguest, sex-infused notion of a handsome knight in white armor somewhere in the periphery. No more about religion, I swore to myself. Nothing about God.
Nothing, for that matter, about helping people, trying to walk in their shoes, learning about lives different from mine. Just the lone woman scrounging novels together, that’s it.
Interesting to look back now on what an individualistic vision that was, drenched in misanthropy. I wanted nothing more than to be an island.
At least in my case, my life has surpassed my dreams. Through an act of grace, I started meditation practice. What act of grace was that? Failure. I failed in my first marriage, failed in publishing books, failed in locating my community, failed in finding my way. Nothing like failure, bless it, to turn your life around.
So, like so many others who couldn’t navigate their way out in the world, I went in. Looking back now, I can see how much I wanted to escape. But my teacher had no patience for any of that. Over and over he threw his students, kicking and screaming, out into the world, into neighborhoods that felt foreign to them, into connections that didn’t seem to connect, into the very problems of people and money and lack and disappointment that they had tried to escape by retreating into a quiet meditation hall with birds chirping their songs at dawn. Transcendence was not for him, and it wouldn’t be for us.
I couldn’t leave the world as I’d planned, first through writing, then through meditation. That was not going to be my life after all.
I write these words from an office with six windows (Bernie’s old office), giving me a view of green maples, elms, and beeches, and a blooming lilac bush brushing against the window. I have my isolation, I have my aloneness.
But just three days ago I photographed Fernando holding up a food gift card from a neighboring supermarket. Jimena and I sat on our usual bench on the street corner while folks came, one by one, to get a tarjeta. Some cash, too, to help pay down very high utility bills. Altogether, close to $1,000 in all.
Jimena directs traffic. As one comes to get a card, others wait in the corner. Not because of the virus (almost everybody’s wearing masks), but not to call too much attention.
“She blogs,” Jimena explains to a small woman whose home-made mask practically covers her face and who wonders where the cards come from. “Money comes from friends from todo el mundo.” The entire world.
“From Europe,” I correct her—how do you say Europe in Spanish? “—and all over this country.”
“Pero no nos conocen,” the woman says. They don’t know us.
Oh yes they do, I want to say. Not because of what I write, but because people know in their gut what it is to be afraid for your children, what it is to feel that there’s no ground under your feet, how you don’t know where tomorrow’s meal will come from, whether you’ll lose electricity or not because you haven’t paid bills, how you might get kicked out of your home. You hear about others receiving help from the government but you’re invisible; they have too many people to worry about already, people who are real Americans, so they don’t worry about you.
She’s amazed that folks across the ocean get what that feels like. They don’t have Spanish names. I look at the list of names who together contributed some $1,400 dollars to a birthday benefit sponsored by Eef Heinhuis, a Dutch woman, to benefit Fernando and his family. Those names are Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, German, English, even Native-American.
Or the German members of a Zen sangha who adopted these families so many miles and cultures away. They also know. They know what it is to be human.
I used to feel self-conscious about handing out food tarjetas like a version of Santa Claus, but no longer. All I am is a messenger carrying the best tidings in the world, that regardless of where we come from and what we’re called, we recognize the essence in each other, and we know it’s our essence, no different.
No gift of newly picked asparagus this time, but the trust that said “Si!” when I asked if I could take Fernando’s photo.
I never wrote a great novel, but great means almost nothing to me now. I don’t have to be great in order to do good. Every once in a while, I muse that if Bernie was in my shoes he’d be starting businesses to help these families, redesigning the entire depressed town where they live into a vibrant, living mandala. That was him, it’s not me. I do what I do; great has nothing to do with it.
The fruit continues to fall; my time arrives again and again. I never feel ready, I never feel ripe.
This is enough.
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It’s May, which means intoxicating scents and sounds. Which means that Aussie needs more training with a remote collar.
“Stop buzzing me! I’m only chasing that chipmunk!”
“When I see you lunge like that, Aussie, I don’t know if you’re rushing down to the creek below or starting a marathon. But you were a good girl and came back when I called you, so I’m giving you this.”
“Chicken? Not dog treats? Yum!”
“Aussie, every time you start running after some scent or animal and come back when I buzz, I’m going to reward you according to the level of difficulty. Since this was difficult, you’re getting chicken. It’s called Fine Dining.”
“Fine Dining, Boss?”
“That’s what your trainer calls it. When you’re being obedient, you get a treat. But when you come back in the face of a major temptation, you get chicken, which is Fine Dining.”
“Boss, watch me rush to the puddle, see? And here I come back. Fine Dining, please!”
“I don’t know, Aussie, that’s not quite it.”
“Okay, watch me pretend to rush after Harry, give him a bite in the butt, and when you call me I come back. Fine Dining!”
“Maybe this qualifies. After all, you do love to give Harry a bite in the butt.”
“I should get Fine Dining all the time. Lately we’ve been going on these short walks, and every minute it’s something else: Aussie, come! Aussie, far enough! Aussie, uh uh uh! Aussie, let’s go! Aussie this, Aussie that! I can’t stand going on walks with you anymore. I’m a grown dog and a great hunter.”
“That’s the problem, Auss. You’re conditioned, see? Your conditioning is to run after every scent in the world. Then you run and run, and don’t get back till midnight! Fine Dining is part of the effort to decondition you.”
“I just jumped up on my hind legs against that tree after the squirrel. You buzzed and I came back, deconditioned. Fine Dining!”
“Aussie, you’re not being serious.”
“Why should I resist my conditioning? My conditioning is me!”
“No, Aussie. Being a hunter is just one aspect, it’s not all of you. And I’m not asking you to resist your conditioning, I’m just asking you to soften around it, to—”
“I know, I know, let it go. I hate that phrase. There’s nothing wrong with my conditioning.”
“There’s nothing wrong with hunting per se, but there’s plenty wrong with running for miles and not coming home. Besides, Aussie, if you can let go of your conditioning—”
“I hate that phrase!”
“—then you’re free to respond to each moment. You’re free to act more spontaneously in the world rather than according to fixed patterns. Don’t you want to be free, Aussie?”
“No, I want to run. I just ran after Harry who was chasing crows, and I came back when you called. Fine Dining!”
“Just a dog treat this time, Aussie.”
“Only dumb dogs chase crows.”
“Maybe chasing crows is Harry’s conditioning, Aussie.”
“Oh, yeah? Does he look like a bird dog to you? Here he comes.”
Harry: “Hey Boss, how come Aussie’s getting white chicken meat and I’m getting dog treats?”
Boss: “It’s called Fine Dining, Harry.”
Harry: “So why does she get to dine so finely?”
Boss: “Because Aussie’s being deconditioned. She’s in training not to run away.”
Harry: “I don’t run away.”
Boss: “True, but you never ran away to begin with.”
Harry: “Let me see if I understand this. Aussie won’t do what you ask her to do, so in order to get her to do that she gets Fine Dining. I do what you want from the get-go, and I don’t get Fine Dining. Is that it?”
Boss: “I’m afraid so, Harry.”
Harry: “There is no justice in this world! Where are you running to, Aussie?”
Aussie: “I’m only pretending to run, Harry, see? She buzzes me and I come back. Fine Dining!”
Harry: “This deconditioning is the biggest racket I’ve ever seen. I have a question for you, Boss. You know how every morning you sit in that chair silently by the window till I crash through the door to remind you to feed us?”
Boss (sighs): “You don’t need to remind me. You’re so punctual, Harry, I don’t bother setting an alarm.”
Harry: “Don’t you sit to decondition?”
Boss: “Why, Harry, as a matter of fact, you’re right. The thought patterns slow down, the mind settles. Things become more transparent and clearer.”
Harry: “How long have you been doing this, Boss?”
Boss: “At least 35 years, Harry.”
Harry: “And in all that time you never tried chicken?”
Our apple tree has begun to flower. For me, that’s the tree’s best time because its small, green apples have so far been wrinkled and sour. I take a bite every year and make a face; I can’t even cook them. Instead they fall to the ground, food for birds and animals. The flowers are gorgeous.
When we lived in Santa Barbara, California, our neighbor, a gardener, said to me one day: “Fall’s begun. Don’t you love it?”
I looked around, sniffed, and said, “How can you tell?”
You can tell in New England; it’s easy to get intoxicated by the seasons. Now, springtime, the birds wake me up every morning at 5. I open the dog doors and Harry and Aussie rush out, barking and sniffing at the tracks and scents of all the animals that had crossed the yard at night, when they were shut in and couldn’t protect the house from invaders. Fawns and cubs are out there, a newborn generation beginning its life, and slowly, slowly—for this has been a cold spring—the lilac buds are opening up outside my office window.
I don’t have to say much about fall in New England and even the cold winters are beautiful to my eyes: icy, white, vast.
But those are not the only seasons around here.
A friend, neighbor, and poet, at the age of 71, is planting 50 fruit trees. ”They’ll start growing soon,” he said, “but after a while I won’t be around to enjoy their fruit. It feels good to be doing this for the next generation.”
He opened my eyes to another sense of seasons. I have a season, too. When I die, is it over? What am I planting for the season after that, and the season after that?
The Native Americans say the ancestors are always with us. What kind of ancestor am I?
Every morning I walk out to do a service by our wooden Kwan-Yin, of whom I’ve written a few times. Built by a neo-Nazi student for his teacher, it arrived at the Montague Farm where we lived and worked once upon a time, and when we left, the new owners were ambivalent about retaining it, so we brought her to our back yard where she’s been standing all this time. Tulips are now growing in her honor; Harry pees on them, also in her honor. And I’ve been noticing the sawdust that has piled up behind her.
“It’s probably the chipmunks living there,” Tim told me. “They’re eating at the wood, which is soft by now anyway from all the weather damage.”
We’ve known for a long time that Kwan-Yin is being carved up by the weather; we also know that she’s so fragile it’s impossible to move her. But this pile of shavings is new. I see it each morning and think about the critters taking shelter inside her, her body hollowing and hollowing as a result.
On the one hand, she’s had her season. At the Farm we celebrated Buddha’s birthday in front of her with food and tea offerings. She gazed down on the Saturday lunches cooked for the community (the progenitor of the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield), dozens of families from all walks of life coming into a circle to introduce ourselves and say grace, children playing ball in her shadow.
Then she came here and watched over Bernie through his illness and death, watched over me and two generations of dogs, not to mention the wildlife, finally giving her body over in order to become their home.
One day she’ll collapse, or rot. But will her season end? We won’t be able to use the sodden wood in the fireplace, but critters will continue to live inside the crevices and between the wood logs. The dogs haven’t touched the sawdust but other animals will. In one form or another, her season will go on and on.
Your season will go on, too, as will mine. Bernie himself didn’t believe in reincarnation. “What remain are the results of your actions,” he used to say. Some of us will leave books, some new, thriving institutions, some fruit trees, and some teachings and memories, that will become almost a physiological part of the next generations. Even as new seasons begin, what ends?
The streets have more cars now. Massachusetts is still locked up but more and more people are leaving their homes. I park by the bench where Jimena and I always meet. A line of people waits a block away to buy ice cream, wearing masks and maintaining distance. Jimena’s not there; a man is there with a brown paper bag, muttering.
“Oh oh,” says Aussie from the back seat. “Don’t go there.” She hates men.
Harry whimpers: I’ll go! I’ll go!
By the time I get out of the car the man is gone. A woman and her small daughter are already waiting at the corner and I ask in Spanish if they’re waiting for tarjetas, food cards. Si. We wait for Jimena to arrive, but this is my chance to practicar mi espagnol. Her name is Grace (made-up), her 8-year-old is Manuela (not my oldest, she explains, the one in the middle).
“How many are there?”
“Five.” And then adds, “No mas.” No more. “Y usted?” And you?
“I have no children,” I tell her, “but my husband had two.”
She ponders that awhile. “Why not?”
How do I summarize a life in my 2-word Spanish mumblings? “Demasiada occupada.” Too busy. Not much of a reason, I know.
Jimena’s arrival spares me from further philosophizing in Spanish, and we go on with our business, which is giving out tarjetas, food gift cards from two supermarkets, to these families. Since those first days in April when I wrote about the need for food by undocumented families, we—mostly you, dear friends—have altogether given food cards and gifts worth at least $6,800 over 5-6 weeks and I have close to another $4,700 in the bank account. Jimena believes we’ve fed 90 families; I estimate a lower figure, 50-60. Still a lot.
At first, I wanted to go slowly. Jimena and I needed to build trust and transparency in our own relationship. At first it was only food; then it became help with rent, paying of utility bills, cash to an abused woman who’d put out a restraining order against her husband and now needed help, etc.
By now we all know that this is going to go on for a while; Massachusetts restaurants, hotels, and B&Bs aren’t opening up soon, the colleges are closed through the summer as are the schools, they won’t hire anyone back very soon and the farmers are cultivating a lot less. I’m now comfortable enough to urge Jimena to tell me about special cases where cash is needed quickly.
Sure enough, Carmen (made-up name) arrives holding a beautiful little boy in her arms. After she picks up a food card and leaves, Jimena tells me that the boy is autistic and Carmen’s husband just left them. Carmen needs money. I give her an envelope with cash and she hurries after her.
Usually we plan this ahead of time, when I ask Jimena to make a list of people she knows who need extra help in addition to food cards. I now make a mental note to myself to bring more cash anyway, because things will come up even as we sit there.
“Oh oh,” I hear Aussie from the car.
The man who sat on the bench earlier reappears and wants to sit down again, though this defies keeping distance. Jimena says okay. We wear a mask, he does not, but he’s also eating a big ice cream sundae. I’m jealous.
He asks Jimena her name and she tells him, he asks mine, ditto, and I ask his. “Greg,” he says.
Jimena and I stiffen. It’s not great to call folks to come and pick up tarjetas if he’s sitting right there.
Greg surprises me. “I’m leaving my place real soon,” he says. “Do any of your friends need some furniture?” He’d watched us do our work, he knows who our friends are. Jimena provides a phone number.
He then tells us that he drinks (I could smell the liquor) and that the ice cream sundae is his first food in two days. “They’re kicking me out because I went back to drinking,” he says. “I need to find another program that’ll take me in. But I can’t stop. I’ve tried, but I can’t stop.”
He mumbles to himself for a few minutes. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I feel like crying. Finally, I say: “Greg, get your act together. You’re a nice-looking man, you can change things around.”
“Nice looks aren’t everything,” he tells me, “though the two of you are beautiful.”
A couple of minutes pass and he leaves, thanking us. Jimena takes a big breath and goes back to making phone calls inviting folks to come.
They are mostly concerned about what will happen to their children’s schooling, and Jimena, bless her heart, hands our pages with arithmetic notes and problems to a little girl and asks her to start working on them.
A woman arrives, sees me, and says in Spanish that she had freshly picked asparagus for me and forgot it by the door. “Would you come to my home to get it?”
“You bet,” I tell her, and when eventually I leave, I drive over to her home and knock on the door of a second-floor apartment. Three small, bright-eyed children are playing a game on the floor. Their mother shows me two bunches of asparagus that had been picked by her husband that very morning, still warm. “Just give me one,” I tell her, and she does.
I drive home, one hand on the warm asparagus next to me. If it’s a gift to give things to people in need, and an even greater gift to get things back from them. Jimena and her husband want to cook me a meal and I can hardly wait.
“Don’t forget to bring us along. I love Mexican food,” says Aussie with a sigh
“They’re not Mexican.”
“Whatever,” says Aussie.
This coming Monday., May 18, at 12:00 noon US Eastern time, Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will talk again about householder koans. We’ll deal specifically with Andrea: Nothing, about a woman who wanted to help refugees in her home city in Germany but didn’t know what to do. You can register for it here. It’s free, but take care! You never know what it may eventually inspire you to do.
And if you want to donate for food cards, please use the button below and write on the memo: for food cards. Or else send a check with those words on the memo line to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.