GOD SNOOZES

WE’RE DOING OUR SHARE! YOU?

“Leave me alone, Aussie, I have work to do. And stop putting that dirty monkey on my lap, Henry, I don’t have time to throw it.”

“No time to throw a monkey? It’s not Pinky the Elephant, it’s not the green alligator, it’s my favorite monkey.”

“You have a dozen favorite monkeys, Henry.”

“Why are you stressed?”

“I’M NOT STRESSED! I have to attend this meeting, I have to post a blog, I have to make a bunch of phone calls and answer 100 emails. BUT I’M NOT STRESSED!”

“Aussie, what does she mean, she has to do all these things?”

“Oh Henry, these humans are crazy. They’re convinced that if they do enough, everything will go their way.”

Everything, Aussie? Is there such a thing?”

“Of course not, Henry, nobody gets everything they want. I love Big Macs keep the bun, so what do I get? Dogfood. But humans are idiots! They’ve talked themselves into believing they’re God.”

“What’s God, Aussie?”

“God is a dog, Henry.”

“You mean, like me?”

“Certainly not. God is everything but you, Henry.”

“Do you think Bailey the Bullmastiff, who was here a few days ago, is God? She’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen, she must be God.”

“Here you go, Henry, sounding like a dumb human. Humans assume that God has to be big. That’s not just silly, it’s macho. God is like most of us, an average pooch. This average pooch is everywhere, but we don’t recognize Her because She looks average. Humans think that God looks like them.”

“How can God look like a human, Aussie?”

“More important, Henry, who’d want to? Just look at those ugly squiggly fingers and toes. Can they run?”

“No.”

“Smell? Hear? Kill chipmunks?”

“No.”

“They can’t do anything except get anxious that they can’t do anything, and still, they think they’re God. Or at least that they look like Her. Here’s a lesson for you, Henry. Anytime someone says that they look like God, you can bet they don’t.”

“But you just said that God is everywhere, so why can’t She be a Chihuahua?”

“Because God would look stupid if She was a Chihuahua. Besides, everyone knows that God is all American, like baseball, jazz, and the Man.”

“Bernie Glassman?”

“No, Donald. If God was a Chihuahua we might have to deport Her, and we can’t deport God.”

“Why, Aussie?”

“It’s not the American way.”

“So, you’re saying that God is just an average pooch?”

“Medium-size, I’d say. Multi-racial, you know, a little black, a little brown, a little white. Ears could be floppy or straight, but She prefers straight.”

“I think I know someone like that.”

“Likes a little curve in her tail, friendly-like. Unobtrusive snout, maybe a little extra weight because She likes her snoozes.”

“God snoozes? Doesn’t She have a lot of work to do?”

“Yes, but She’s not anxious about it, like humans get. In the middle of taking care of everything, She likes her nap. She knows that things take time, so why rush?”

“You make Her sound a lot like you, Aussie.”

“Don’t be silly. She’s God, I’m just Aussie. There might be a little resemblance.”

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JUST START

My favorite place in the woods

Maggie comes in and sits at the table. She will clean the house soon, which she does every four weeks, but first we have our coffee together and chat (she says I make the best coffee). Sometimes she takes me out to breakfast, but I prefer when she brings me “my rice,” as she refers to it, usually cooked with meat fresh that morning.

She tells me about her conversation with Pilar (not her real name). The 22-year-old mother has made quite a pilgrimage. Together with her husband and two young children, she started out of Ecuador, got across Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, till they got to Mexico. There, at the very southern border of Mexico, they were stopped.

Mexico has an agreement with the US to stop immigrants heading here right there, in Chiapas. Pilar weeps as she recounts their five-month long stay there, with almost no money, and what it was like to see her 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter cry for food. “We survived it,” she told Maggie, “but the things I saw there were—” Tears flood her face; she can’t go on other than to say: “It’s hard for me to remember all these horrible things.”

They walk to the US border—an immense trip, pay coyotes, cross, and meet up with border agents. “When we got to the border we got separated. My husband stayed with my daughter, and I stayed with my son. I didn’t know if I was going to see them again.”

I believe the agents often separate a family and interview them separately to hear if they have the same story. Pilar’s family applied for entry to the US under a family reunification program. That means that the border agents call Pilar’s husband’s sister, who lives here. The rule is that if you apply under that program, they call once. If the person called doesn’t answer—if s/he’d gone out, gone to the bathroom or to pick up a child from school—the migrants are turned away. In this case the sister answered, and they were permitted to go on to Massachusetts.

They’re lucky because they both got jobs at a local restaurant. The restaurant owner himself immigrated from an Eastern European country and told them that his story is almost like their story, and therefore he’s helping them, teaching Pilar’s husband everything he knows about the restaurant business. But rentals are high here, as they are everywhere, and they need help.

“They had a hard time with the Mexicans,” Maggie tells me. “Here, people are more helpful.”

“We’re also much richer,” I muse.

Maggie agrees. She herself arrived here from Colombia many years ago, married, and raised a family. She has a lovely home nearby with a back path to the river. She has cleaned our home for almost 18 years. “I live in Paradise,” she tells me.

I live in a house I share with Lori and two dogs. The laundry hangs outside under waving maple trees while the chimes ring endlessly from the breeze. In a newspaper mailbox a phoebe sits on her four eggs, and you can see lots of stars on clear nights. I, too, live in Paradise.

There’s lots of poverty here, but the poverty I’ve seen, both rurally and in urban areas, is very different from poverty in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where I’ve visited. We usually get some government help, not to mention lots of food pantries and soup kitchens like Stone Soup Café, which serves delicious meals. Those things don’t exist there.

It’s Maggie who started me finding support for immigrant families, especially undocumented ones. In the early days of the pandemic, she mentioned a family she knew where no one was working, and they had trouble putting food on the table. I drove to a supermarket, bought two $100 food cards, and gave them to Maggie for that family. I wrote about it, readers responded with curiosity, checks and support, and that started everything. We—readers, Maggie and I—have now done this work for more than 2 years.

Maggie also connected me with Jimena Pareja, the liaison for schools and social agencies with that community, and I started meeting Jimena every week. It was very poignant then, when everything shut down and nobody was working.

The federal government showered its citizens and municipalities with money during the pandemic. Some say it was too much and figured in the current inflation. And indeed, our town is one of many that has a surplus fund from that time that it now applies to other projects. But undocumented families received none of that, they really struggled. We raised a lot of money for food cards and help with rent, utilities, medical care, winter clothes and school supplies.

We continue giving emergency funds to people like Pilar.

One more thing. Often people tell me that they’re aware the world is suffering but they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get involved, how to even start. This morning Maggie told me that during the pandemic, her large family in Colombia was suffering because people had no work.

“But you know, Eve, my family doesn’t have much money, either. So what I did was, since I clean the houses for so many people, many drink sodas and things like that, and they have empty bottles and cans which they either throw away or recycle. So whenever I cleaned, I would take all their empty bottles and cans and bring them home with me. My husband would ask me why I brought so many home, but what I did was, I took them to the Big Y and got 5 cents for each. I did this till I got $100, and I would send that money to my family. To us, $100 isn’t very much, but over there it feeds a family for a month! I was so happy I could do that!”

Hardly a day passes without these words by Bernie echoing in my ear: “Just start. Don’t worry about the rest of it.”

Often where you start is right in front of your face. You see something, someone mentions something to you, and you see a certain possibility for acting. You don’t have to worry about whether it’ll be a lot or a little, important or a drop in the bucket, whether or not it solves the problems of the world. Forget all that. Just start.

And please continue to support immigrant families. 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.

 

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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.

SQUEAK ON, HENRY!

There are now four eggs in the newspaper mailbox on the road above our house, and a phoebe sitting on top, giving them much needed warmth. I don’t read my mail because the big news is in the adjacent box, where four eggs may soon hatch. Various people tell me they read the sign I posted and stop to look. I do that, too, each time I pass, though I hate to disturb the hard-working parent or cause it to fly away.

“What about chipmunks? What about squirrels?” I worry with Lori, my housemate. “Won’t they go after the eggs?”

We reminisce about the baby rabbit, more dead than alive, that she rescued from the cold, wet grass in the back yard last year, brought up to her office and created a warm and safe crate for it. She started it on milk from a baby dropper and ended up with greens and hay before letting it go outside after a month.

Ahh, new life.

Ahh, new death. Today marked 30 days since my mother died. In Jerusalem the family unveiled the gravestone, said prayers, and then retired to a nearby forest to share stories and talk about her. She wasn’t on my mind much of the day, but now, come evening, I light incense and contemplate a photo of her when she was younger.

Someone said that loving other people involves seeing them as separate from you and at the same time as fully alive as you are. A human being with her own yearnings, her own dreams. Not how we often love, treating the other person as an accessory in our life.

We ask so much from those we love. What does it take for us to finally leave them alone, let them be? Does it take a stroke? Does it take death?

I’ve written before that what characterized my mother most was that she was a survivor, and that is what she taught all of us. It’s a great lesson, but I often feel I need to learn other things, too: How to be less vigilant, less concerned about what will happen, less anxious to manipulate time and energy to get what I want or need. I don’t want to live my life as though I’m constantly at war with somebody, or as if devastation is right around the corner.

Walt Whitman wrote:

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,

Now I wash the gum from your eyes,

You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

The headlines in the newspapers, the list of things to do each morning, the old routines, the way I fill my day—is that my holding a plank by the shore? And what happens if I let go?

It’s Sunday morning, 6 am, and I hear something squeaking outside my door. Squeak! Squeak! Squeak! In my sleep I think: Henry has a new toy.

Sure enough, I get up a little later, open the door, and Henry the Chihuahua rushes in holding a blue/gray stuffed animal with a long, thin body and short legs. A Dachshund?

Aussie comes up the stairs and rolls her eyes, as if saying: “We’ve been here before!” Every time Henry gets a new toy he waves it around in the air for hours, showing it off in front of everyone’s faces. Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

This will go on all day.

Do I get annoyed? After a while, sure, especially when he jumps onto my lap and waves around the squeaky toy right in my face. Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

The following conversation takes place:

“I have things to do, Henry.”

Squeak!

“I have emails to reply to, Henry.”

Squeak!

“Bills to pay?”

Squeak!

“Mail to open and soup to cook?”

Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

That little dog has left the shore way behind. He has lost his way in the ocean of joy, in the squeaky kingdom of stuffed toys. The birds chirp outside, Henry answers: Squeak! The woodpecker knocks on the tree hollow. Squeak! He has an ecstatic answer for everything, shaking his new toy at the world and throwing it up in the air, then chasing it down. War in Ukraine? Squeak! School shootings? Squeak! Suffering everywhere? Squeak!

Long ago it annoyed me. Enough already, I’d think, time to get serious. Not anymore. I learned from Bernie’s death that when someone dies, it’s the idiosyncrasies and weirdnesses you miss, not what made them normal.

So, squeak on, Henry! Swim boldly, and squeak on!

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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.

JUST START!

“Can you tell what bird it is, Lori?” I asked.

Like many people here, I have not just a mailbox on the road but also a white open mailbox for newspapers. The only one I subscribe to is the local Montague Reporter, which arrives each Friday morning. Subscriptions are a measly $40 a year so it depends on volunteer labor and community effort to put together this weekly labor of love summarizing civic engagement, town hall meetings and police logs in 5 different towns, concerts, exhibits, school budgets and sports, and historical features on the Native American people that lived here and the old mills that were the backbone of the economy 100 years ago.

Only this time I was leery of picking up The Reporter because of the nest a bird had built inside.

Lori strode up the hill and texted back: “I think it’s a phoebe.” Then added: “Strange bird.”

At first, I thought it might be abandoned because I didn’t see a bird anywhere near there, but then an egg appeared. I wrote out a request to put the newspaper in the closed mailbox so as not to disturb things, and we’ll see what happens.

The whole thing still looks iffy to me, but one never knows. What will spring to life? What won’t?

A few weeks ago, I decided to visit the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield. Zen Peacemakers began those Saturday community lunches some 15 years ago at the Montague Farm, with organic food, activities for children, music, various healing therapies, and council. When we had to leave the Farm, the Café moved to Greenfield, under the tutelage of Ariel Pliskin, where it found a home in the basement floor of the Unitarian Church and will soon be celebrating 10 years there.

Trouble is, after 10 years, it’s outgrown its home in the Church. During the pandemic they couldn’t let people eat inside, so they bagged their multi-course meals either for pick-up or delivery. Now they still can’t let people eat inside because there are too many of them.

“We prepare at least 400 meals every week,” their new director and head chef, Kirsten Levitt, said. “We don’t have the space to feed everyone at the same time.”

Instead, volunteers stand in assembly lines where spring greens salad, garlic greens, vegetable medley, yellow rice, chickpea/fish curry, and lemon cookies and cheesecake (tomorrow’s meal) are put into boxes, which are then put into large paper bags and brought outside (see below). Outside there’s a line curving around the corner to pick up the bags, as well as a line of cars waiting to load up the bags for delivery to individuals in different local towns. There are also long tables with free food (much of it organic and fresh) to be given out.

Stone Soup has also begun a culinary institute to train people in cooking and serving food. In their words, “we especially are looking to grow a cohort of students who are currently in recovery, formerly incarcerated, people living in poverty who need a new career path, and all other community members who are interested in culinary arts.”

The Café is starting a capital campaign to buy and renovate a larger facility so that they could once again have hundreds of people eating together a gourmet hot meal, made from scratch and served with joy and dignity. And consider this: Each week they need some 35 volunteers to cook, set up, package, give out, deliver, and clean up. And—they get them.

Who would have thought it? Back around 2005 when the meal began, under the generous supervision of Karen Werner with cooking by Rosalind Jiko McIntosh, who would have thought it would flower like this? Since it took place in a rural farm, people had to come by car and we often had to pick up and bring folks who didn’t have cars, then take them back home. There was enough space, inside and out, to feed people and we had woods for the kids, but the place was clearly not very convenient. Even then, I don’t recall we fed more than 100 people on any given Saturday.

I remember talking about this with Bernie, but he didn’t care about whether it was the right fit or not. He wanted to do something to serve people.

Now the Stone Soup Café prepares 400 meals every week. And with their new facility, they hope to serve meals every single day. On June 12 they’re celebrating ten years since they began in Greenfield with great food, music, art-making, and other activities.

Who knows what takes on more life and what doesn’t? I hope a chick comes out of the egg. “Just start,” Bernie used to say. “The universe will take care of the rest.”

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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.

THREE POUNDS AND COUNTING

“Aussie, congratulations. You lost three pounds.”

“Quick, where are they? I need to get them back. Three pounds are a lot for an itty-bitty thing like me.”

“57 pounds is not itty-bitty. If anything, you have to lose more weight.”

“This is in direct violation of my vow.”

“What vow is that, Aussie?”

“I vow to become a balloon. Binge or bust, that’s my motto.”

“Sounds more like binge and bust, Aussie. Balloons bust when they get too full of hot air.”

“I want to be a gourmand.”

“You’re a dog, Auss—”

“Let me ask you something. What do you say when somebody gorges herself? You say that she eats like a horse. You don’t say she eats like a dog.”

“That’s true.”

“And in similar circumstances, do you say he dogs out? No, you say he pigs out.”

“I never thought of that, Aussie.”

“I want to be a horse. I want to be a pig.”

“Aussie, there’s more to life than food.”

“Name one thing.”

“As you get older, your knees will thank me. Your hips will thank me.”

I won’t thank you. Besides, why are you humans so worried about old age?”

“It’s the end of potential, Aussie.”

“Is that bad?”

“As you get older, you’re usually finishing things, Auss, not beginning. You realize the world will go on without you. You’ll go on without me.”

“Of course, I’ll go on without you. All I have to do is find someone who’ll feed me every day, bring me to Leeann twice a week, marrow bone on Sunday—I’ll go on without you very well. Of course, if I don’t find those lost three pounds and get them back quick, I may not make it, either.”

“You know, Aussie, as we get older, we start ruling things out. I’ll never become proficient in Spanish. I’ll never become a naturalist. I’ll never get to be a great writer.”

“You’ll never be like me.”

“How do I live without regrets, Aussie? How do I not feel as if I’ve missed out?”

“It helps to eat as much as possible.”

“Actually, it’s the time between meals that’s important, Auss.”

“Huh?”

“We pay attention to things, Aussie. I pay attention when I get up, when I’m in the shower, when I sit, eat, walk, or work. But there’s so much space and time in between, know what I mean?”

“I try to sleep as much as I can between meals, that way I don’t suffer.”

“But time isn’t wasted just because it happens between the things we pay attention to, see?”

“No.”

“If we make life all about the things that are important and memorable to us, we miss out on so much! We’re the tiniest blip in the landscape, Aussie.”

“So don’t be a blip in the landscape, be a blimp. Hee hee!”

“You just got food on the brain, Aussie. Don’t you know how much can happen between your breakfast and your dinner?”

“Sure. Lunch can happen.”

“You’re not getting lunch, Aussie. And stop thinking along old, familiar lines. The nice thing about getting older is that you have more time to see things anew, to see the breaks between things as the real deal, not just the same old things we pay attention to again and again. Getting older is a time to contemplate empty time. Where are you going, Auss?”

“Off to chase squirrels.”

“You’re always chasing squirrels. Don’t you want to contemplate the time between chasing squirrels?”

“Not really.”

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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.

ARCHES EVERYWHERE

“Innocence is the ability to be found by the world; it has nothing to do with naivete,” says the poet David Whyte.

I think of it a little differently, more like seeing the world open up before you again and again, as though every corner is an arch beckoning you forward. Here’s another thing to explore, and another thing to see, and another thing to pay attention to.

I feel there are arches everywhere in my life. The photo above is of the road above the house, the trees bending towards each other high up. Each time I go out into the world and each time I return home I pass under these arches and feel a taste of adventure, as though something is yet to be discovered right around the bend of a road I’ve traveled each day since 2004.

I’ve written before about a fantasy I’ve had all my life, of walking outside in the dark (I always step out before closing up the house for the night) and seeing lights descending from the heavens far out in the fields. I run through the forest, sure that a spaceship has just landed, visitors from outer space have arrived, and I will be the first to see and greet them. As I run, I’m equally sure that no one else has seen them but me, and I must gather up my courage for that meeting.

There isn’t a night when I don’t open the front door to look out west, in the direction of the mountains, without that picture coming to mind. I don’t go running outside in the dark, I go upstairs, but I remain optimistic that somewhere the curtain’s still going up, still revealing something new.

Or else going down the path from the old Montague Farm to where I parked my car after a long jaunt with the dogs in the morning of Memorial Day, wildflowers on both sides (see below). We had our walk, we’re going back home on a road we all know well to a red car we know even better, and still, there’s mystery lurking there, awaiting us at the bottom.

On our walk in the woods this morning we ran into a bear. It was the first I’d seen since the one who came into the yard in April, ate all the birdseed, broke three birdfeeders, then clambered over the fence and left. This hot morning the dogs ran down to the creek to drink, I followed slowly, turned around, and saw a black shape sidling past the bushes some 30 feet away.

Almost immediately I knew it wasn’t Aussie, not light-footed enough, the gait was sure and heavy. It walked up the slope smoothly and quickly. Hard to believe how fast they are, given how big they are. Henry ran over and I immediately leashed him. We both watched the bear, Henry’s eyes as big as the rest of his body, and he didn’t bark once. I’m sure the bear knew we were there, must have gone down to drink, registered our presence, and was scurrying up the hill in its own cumbersome way.

I decided not to go back but rather further into the woods, looking out carefully. Aussie joined us soon and we three made it to the pools that are the end of that walk. We stayed together, but the two dogs didn’t stop looking in the direction where the bear had disappeared.

I’ll admit that the thought flashed in my mind to fish out my telephone and try for a photo, but I didn’t. That’s the danger of blogs, you see. Something interesting happens and you right away think of the story you could write, the photo you could take. It’s the nature of the writer, but it takes you out of what’s happening. In your hurry to capture the moment in story or picture you forget the suspended breath, the wonder mixed with alarm at the realization that this moment, at least, you’re not on top of the food chain. Something way bigger, stronger, and wilder is in your vicinity!

Later on, when you get home, you tell Lori the story of what happened to you, and then you blog. But while it happens it’s not about you at all. It’s a meeting between you and the unexpected, the unknown, before civilizing human words ever enter the picture. You gasp, your heart beats rapidly and loudly even as everything else is still. You don’t think but you sense: Here it is! Here it is!

And you don’t mean the bear.

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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.

WHAT I PAY ATTENTION TO

The school massacre in Uvalde lays a shadow on me, especially at night. I go to bed, read, get sleepy, turn off the light, and then lie in bed looking at the night outside my window. It’s night inside, too, night looking at night.

In the daytime the flowers are exquisite. The white bearded irises are out, as they’ve been for 18 years, and the first hummingbird, green and red, has arrived, guzzling so much sugar water I’m sure it’ll develop diabetes. It’s almost summer but not quite, though mosquitoes and black flies are out and biting plenty.

It’s hard to get too gloomy in such daytime, but then comes the night.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing a one-day retreat. What will come up? Roshi Alan Senauke, of Berkeley Zen Center, wrote: “There is no enlightenment. There is only enlightened activity.” Yes, but what is that?

I miss talking to my mother every day. I remember her walking in the yard behind our house and Bubale, our pit bull, ran into her while chasing her friend, Stanley, and took her down. Mom hurt for a long time, but Bubale had no bad intentions. She was just who she was, jumping into people on her way elsewhere.

Parents’ death is just what it is. It feels natural that they go before you, there’s an inevitability about it, even a blessing: May you die before your children. If this happens, then life is basically fine.

Life isn’t basically fine for the families of 19 children and 2 teachers in Texas, not to mention 17 more who were wounded.

It’s so easy to hurt, then get angry, rage, and strike out wherever we can: mockery on social media, hate aimed at gun-owners, politicians, Donald Trump, the NRA. None of that’s the answer, so what’s the answer? It’s why I’ll be sitting tomorrow.

But something stays with me from my mother’s shiva, the mourning period, in Jerusalem a few weeks ago. One evening an older couple came to pay condolences. He’s a doctor who, aside from managing one of the country’s leading hospitals, was also head of the Israeli chapter of Doctors Without Borders, and on weekends would visit West Bank villages to treat Palestinians who needed help.

We talked about my mother’s stories of the Holocaust, her right-wing righteousness, her hate of Arabs. He listened quietly, and then said that he, too, had survived the Holocaust. He was born in 1943 in France, and the family lived on a farm in the Dordogne region.

“You know,” he said, “our stories are different from your mother’s. Our stories focus on all the help we got from our neighbors during those years. Every time there was a German army unit coming our way, a neighbor would inform us so that we could hide. My grandfather ended up in the hospital, and a German army officer came in and told the doctor that they’re going to take him away. ‘This is a hospital,’ the doctor said. ‘You can’t do that here.’ The officer left and the doctor himself drove my grandfather home that night to safety.”

He went on: “My parents fled Paris when the Germans came in and moved into the farm. No one from the area knew them, and they assumed that no one knew they were Jews. It turned out later that everyone knew or suspected that they were Jews, and everyone helped them to survive in that small village.”

“In the end,” he said, “it depends on what story you tell. It could be a story that you, your family, and others like you are the only ones who matter and everyone else is to be ignored or, if seen a threat, smashed to pieces. But it could also be a story of how you and your family would never have survived without certain neighbors and friends, maybe the unknown kindness of a total stranger. If your story is that your survival depended not just on you but also others, and that they came through, that changes everything.”

We have elements of both sides in our lives. Even my mother, who dwelt mostly on the suffering and heroism of her own family, remembered the hospital doctor who took care of her sister when her sister fell and broke a bone in her leg while they were hiding in someone’s cellar. Bratislava was supposed to be free of Jews; he knew well who they were and could have reported them. Instead, he took a big risk and treated her.

She mentioned this episode, she mentioned a few others who helped, but didn’t dwell there. The doctor dwelt there.

My life experience depends on what I pay attention to. For much of my life I paid attention to disappointments and failures, to how things could and should have been different. No more. Now I pay attention to white bearded irises. I pay attention to Jean, whom I met in the morning after getting lost in our Plains with the dogs. Everyone was hot and thirsty, and Jean took me and two dogs into her SUV, gave me a mask, and drove us to where I’d left my car.

Are there funky things, too? Of course. But they no longer reign on my life’s marquee in big neon letters. No denial at all; I just changed what I pay attention to.

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FACES OF INNOCENCE

Front garden at night

On May 16, while still in Israel on account of my mother’s stroke and death, my sister, listening to the radio, suddenly  said: “There’s been a mass shooting.”

“Where?” I asked. Before she could answer, I said, “Forget it, I know where.”

Where else?

It’s not like Israel doesn’t have shootings, especially between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, not to mention the battles with Gaza. And it’s not like other countries never have mass shootings. But when you hear of one, you know the odds. You know that in all probability, it’s another mass shooting in the United States.

On May 16 it was Laguna Woods, California. Yesterday it was Uvalde, Texas.

By now we’ve had so many school shootings that many of us are numbed out with helplessness. But the two that really take my breath away are the mass shootings in elementary schools, in Sandy Hook ten years ago, and now the Robb Elementary School, where a massacre took place in a fourth-grade classroom. That means young kids, 9 or 10 years old. In Sandy Hook, they were first-graders and kindergarteners.

Sandy Hook is in Newtown, Connecticut. I pass the exit to Newtown every time I drive down to New York City on Interstate 84, and I think about those shootings. Just as I pored over the details of that event—the children, the parents, the killer, his family—I did the same now, and will continue as more details emerge.

All mass killings are terrible, including those aimed at certain groups of people for no reason other than their religion, skin color, culture, or immigration status. But I think a lot about Sandy Hook and now, Robb Elementary, because in those cases little children were targeted.

What do you do when you kill a child? You’re killing a girl or boy, a small person. You’re killing faces that show innocence and trust, eyes that haven’t yet endured cruelty and disappointment, that still open wide to contemplate the world with curiosity and optimism. Skin unwrinkled by worry, mouths that jabber and talk about anything at all, shiny teeth revealed by happy smiles, headbands and ribbons in their hair, braces or else a tooth that fell out just the night before, followed by a visit by the tooth fairy. Faces of vulnerability and hope; most of all, of innocence.

I think back to a time long ago when I had little patience for such faces. For various reasons, I grew out of my innocent phase very early. In old photos of me that I found in my mother’s apartment, I’m a wary child by the end of my first decade, a fixed smile on my face, straining to give the camera (and the person taking the picture) the photo it wishes, a photo of a happy, hopeful child. I stopped being that early on.

But as I grew up, I disliked friends who still had those faces, who believed in the basic goodness of the people around them, who took peaceful families for granted, who knew there was always a safe, loving home to return to.

It’s no accident that I never had children. I disliked their loud clamor on airplanes and in restaurants, didn’t join in the cooing and coddling by indulgent parents. Those scenes were alien to my experience and therefore felt unreal. Looking at those lucky children, I wanted to say: You know nothing about life, that’s why you have such pretty smiles and shiny eyes. You wouldn’t look like that if you knew what I know.

I got dogs instead, but was often impatient with them, too, in the early years, testy in the face of vulnerability, needs, and trust. Stop being so dependent, I wanted to say.

I think of the two young men who killed children in Newtown and Uvalde. They killed Charlotte, Daniel, and Olivia. They killed Xavier, Jose, and Navaeah. They also killed innocence, trust, hope, and love. Why? What happened to them that, confronted by scared youngsters, they didn’t immediately assure them that all would be well? Why didn’t they automatically take them into their arms and tell them that their whole life was ahead of them, and everything would turn out fine? Isn’t that what everybody would do? Isn’t that what you and I would do?

Now I would, without a doubt. But in the past I might have turned away, thin-lipped, and thought: What do you know about life?

I don’t know what Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza felt when they looked upon those faces. They just aimed their guns and shot.

When we kill anyone or anything, who are we really killing? I scan the media for hints: He didn’t get on with his mother, he shot his grandmother, he felt excluded by other kids, he was a loner, he was bullied. I know who he killed outside, but what did he kill inside? What happened to his young life?

After the mass killing in Newtown, I thought there was no way we wouldn’t pass gun control legislation. Ten years later, the odds are still not good. But I don’t resonate when political leaders or the police call the killers monsters. “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” It doesn’t say that God created mankind in his own image except for Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza.

Please remember, in both cases they shot the woman taking care of them first, as if only then could they go on to kill young children. What partts of life couldn’t they deal with anymore?

When we say the names of those who were killed, let’s add these names as well: Innocence, trust, optimism, hope. Love.

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JUST THE DONUT, THANKS

“Aussie, they named a food after you, look: Aussie Bites.”

“The only one I bite is Henry the illegal Chihuahua.”

“I think they mean bites of food, and they named them after you!”

“Do they contain steak?”

“Let me see what it says, Auss: Loaded with an assortment of healthy ingredients.”

“Oh oh, that doesn’t sound so good.”

Great source of protein, omega-3 and fiber.”

“Any hamburger meat? Bacon bits?”

“I’m afraid not, Aussie. Rolled oats, dried apricots, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, coconut, quinoa—

“Sounds like one of your dinners! Not even chicken? What about salmon?”

“I don’t see any, Auss. Sure sounds healthy.”

“I don’t want my name associated with anything healthy! They’re trying to commodify me, use my good name to sell healthy dog food. Did I give them permission to do that?”

“I don’t know, Aussie—”

“More important, am I getting paid?”

“I can ask them for 10 years’ supply of Aussie Bites, Aussie. It’s the least they can do.”

“I’ll never live for 10 years if I eat that stuff. I’ve had it with humans! You take your problems—like being fat—and load them on us.”

“Aussie, let’s be honest. You are a little portly.”

“I got anxious when you were gone so I ate more than usual, but that’s no reason to recommend a healthy diet.”

“Wow, Aussie, you are pretty upset. You know what I should get you?”

“A Big Mac?”

“No, an anxiety donut dog bed. It’s a dog bed in the shape of a donut. You lie in the middle—”

“Where the hole would be?”

“There’s no hole in the anxiety donut dog bed, Auss. The whole thing is made from faux fur.”

“You mean fox fur?”

“No, Auss, faux fur. Faux for phony.”

“You want me to sleep in a phony fur bed?”

“It’s supposed to be calming and fluffy.”

“I don’t want to be calm and fluffy.”

“Listen to this, Auss: The anti-anxiety bed creates a sense of security, allowing your dog to enter deep sleep.”

“Holes in the middle of a bed don’t give me a sense of security.”

High quality soft faux fur surface material feels like mommy’s fur—”

“My mommy didn’t have phony fur!”

“—and helps them to calm down faster, ease anxiety, and sleep well. Keeps your dog calm and relaxed.”

“Now I’m getting upset.”

“Maybe I should order that bed for—”.

“Just thinking about an anxiety bed makes me anxious! I don’t want to be calm! I don’t want to relax! Besides, my anxiety began when you were gone. What took you so long to come back?”

“My mother got sick, then died, Aussie, and then we did shiva.”

“What’s shiva?”

Shiva literally means seven, Aussie. It’s hard work. You sit for seven days, morning to night, and the whole community comes by to talk about your mother. They cook meals for you, bring drinks and snacks—”

“That’s hard work?”

“Aussie, I wasn’t even allowed to get myself a glass of water or clear the table. The minute someone saw me get up to do something they’d tell me to sit down, they’ll do it.”

“Forget the anxiety bed, I’d like to do a shiva for my anxiety.”

“For 7 days?”

“No, 7 years.”

“Aussie, someone close to you has to die for you to do a shiva.”

“Let’s kill Henry.”

“Aussie, you can’t kill Henry and then mourn him in a shiva. It’s hypocritical.”

“We’ll honor him, we’ll tell everyone to bring tamales.”

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”

“What? What? What? Now I’m getting anxious again.”

“You want me to get you the anti-anxiety donut bed?”

“No, just the donut, thanks.”

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I SACRIFICE

I am home. The leaves are out, as are wildflowers scattered in the grass. Spring in New England—new birth, new life. Purple and white lilacs reach for the sky outside my office window. They live and die quickly and soon, no complaints, no apologies.

As I take my daily dog walks, I think of Swapna Santhosh, my mother’s caregiver for almost 6 years. It was she who was by my mother that Saturday morning, at 6:30, when she died. She called my sister and brother, weeping hysterically: “Ima isn’t breathing! Ima isn’t breathing.” She was changing my mother, turning her around in the hospital bed, when a wide-awake Shoshana coughed a few times, took three long breaths, and left.

From the beginning, Swapna called my mother Ima, Hebrew for Mother. She wept more than any of us, not because she loved more, I think, but because her emotions were closer to the surface than ours with little standing in the way of their expression. She treated her as if Shoshana was her own mother. My brother told me that in the 7:00 am Jewish prayers that he led in the apartment, as is the custom in shiva, she would stand in the kitchen, behind the group of men, and murmur her own Hindu prayers on Shoshana’s behalf.

But Swapna is a foreign worker, as she’s designated in Israel, so she couldn’t just mourn. Israel treats the caregivers they bring in from India and the Philippines quite well. They have clearcut standards for salary, holiday and sick pay, as well as medical insurance and severance. Most important, they’re legal. But the rule states that if the person they care for dies, they are paid for one additional week and must immediately start a new job, otherwise their work visa expires.

That meant that even as she mourned my mother deeply, Swapna had to quickly find a new job. No family leave, no time to deal with loss.

Rather than waiting for an agency to deal with this, my sister talked to various visitors in the shiva about Swapna—there were lots of families who would want her services—and identified an elderly couple that didn’t live far. She vetted them, brought Swapna over to meet them, and helped her negotiate a salary. When the week was over, my brother drove her with her things to her new work family, assuring her that we want to stay in touch; we all want her to be happy.

Her vulnerability hit me hard. She’s been in Israel for 7-1/2 years, having left parents, brother and sister, husband, and small daughter behind in a small Indian town. Every Wednesday she wires them money. With my sister’s help, she mailed an enormous box of clothes back home. She’s supporting an entire family with her earnings and hasn’t seen them in four years. She’d planned to go two years ago, but the pandemic hit. This year she planned to go for August and September, but my mother died. That means she’ll have to negotiate her leave with new employers, who may not wish her to go to India so quickly.

With all of Israel’s generous benefits for foreign workers, when you scratch under the surface you see how thin the net is they rely on. No matter how well they work, no matter how loved and appreciated they are, the smallest change causes big disruptions in their life.

“Why do you do this?” my uncle asks Jennylou, his caregiver from the Philippines. At 83, he’s the last of his generation, and the minute he gets up from his chair Jennylou is at his elbow, making sure he stays stable on his legs, taking him wherever he needs to go, giving him his vitamins and medications, supervising long, daily walks, carrying with her everywhere a big bag with an extra sweater and supplies that he may require.

“I have two children in university in Manila,” she says slowly in English. “I also have aunts and uncles in northern province of Philippines, and I send them money.” She shrugs: “I sacrifice.”

They live in strangers’ homes and negotiate years, often most, of their lives in a strange land with no family and few, if any, friends because their families back home depend on their money.

Would I be ready to give my life to this? Would you?

I thought of Swapna when Jimena asked me for rent money for Claudia (not her real name), one of our immigrant mothers. She lives alone with her young daughter, but the daughter got sick and the mother had to give up her job to take care of her. That means no income. And since she’s illegal, no sick leave, no unemployment, no net to prevent a fall.

We make such big deals of the twists and turns of life. Messages abound about how much I need to take care of myself, warnings that this will take time, try not to work too hard, offers of food and meals. We read books about mourning and loss, attend bereavement groups.

Not so Swapna and Jennylou, not so Claudia. Nothing shields them from the blows. A baby gets born, they need to take care of her. Someone dies, they need to get another job quickly so that they could continue to support a family. No one to complain to, no therapist to help them process change, no layers of protection. They go on because life goes on, either with them or without.

We make things precious. They know life to be precious because they live it in all its rawness.

If you would like to support Claudia and immigrants like her, please make a financial contribution to “Immigrant Families” using the button below. 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.

 

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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.