LET’S JUST FEED PEOPLE

Photo by Peter Cunningham

Yesterday I wrote about what stays behind after a person dies. About visiting with a friend, a new widower, walking around the house he and his deceased wife shared, and how vibrant the emptiness of that house was. It hit me strongly how much my eyes and mind fixate on forms, and it is when those forms are gone that I can sense something else that had always been there, more palpable than before, a deep, live awareness.

But we also leave something else after we die, too: the results of our actions.

A day after I visited with my widower friend, I sat down in a café 5 minutes’ drive from my house and listened to Kirsten Levitt describe to me her vision for the Stone Soup Café, of which she is head chef and Executive Director.

Stone Soup Café began at the headquarters of the Zen Peacemakers when it owned the Montague Farm. Most of our work involved creating programs and supporting spiritually based peacemakers around the world, but we wanted to do some direct service, so one day Bernie said: “Let’s just feed people.”

We called it the Café (it got the name Stone Soup later), and each Saturday volunteers cooked a big meal and laid it out in heavy pots on serving tables. The meals were fresh and fabulous, using a lot of organic produce we got for free from neighboring farms. They included meat and vegetarian alternatives, and lots of dessert.

Since this was a rural area with little or no public transportation, many of us drove all around in cars to pick people up from their homes, bring them over for the communal meal, then drive them back. Others took the kids into the woods for hikes and games. At various times acupuncturists, massage therapists, and even a doctor came to give free treatments. And we almost always had live music lined up.

When we gave up the Farm, the Café looked like one of those ideas whose brief lifetime had come and gone. Instead, Ariel Pliskin revived it in Greenfield. He and his housemates began cooking those great meals again and he persuaded All Souls Church to make their lower floor available for the sit-down meal. Kirsten Levitt came on as the head chef. No one was paid, everything was done by volunteer labor.

Those early meals in Greenfield featured at first just a few dozen people. Our Zen group, Green River Zen Center, was sitting in Greenfield at the time, and after the Saturday morning schedule we’d hurry over to the church to cook. Many of the participants stayed to do council, a circle process, in the end, and it was there that Bernie talked of the importance of feeding people with dignity. “My dream in Montague, and now here, is that we prepare delicious, healthy meals, not just sandwiches and a cookie, and that we will do this in such a way that when people sit down and eat, they don’t know if their neighbor is a millionaire or a homeless person. We are feeding everyone with dignity.”

More and more people came. Soon the Café was feeding 130-150 people every Saturday, with wall-to-wall tables and chairs for all the families coming in. Firsts were served, then seconds, and after that you could take as much as you want home in the paper plates and bowls that were offered.

Years later, when the pandemic broke out, I was afraid the volunteers wouldn’t want to come, so I came that first Friday night of the lockdown to cut vegetables and prep. And you know what? People came. At first, they dribbled in, then more came, and even more. Prep tables were laid out in the dining room so that we could maintain distance as we prepared everything for the cooks on Saturday morning.

Multiple courses were cooked, packed in beautiful boxes, and the boxes put inside bags with the Stone Soup logo on them. Every Saturday at noon people would line up to pick up these bags and drivers brought bags of food to the homes of those who didn’t wish to go out.

“We now cook 500 meals every weekend,” Kirsten says to me over tea. “Two-thirds of them go to people’s homes and one-third to those who line up outside. We can no longer feed people indoors; we just don’t have the space.”

Is that another reason for the vision to fade? For Kirsten, it’s an excuse to gear up, not down.

“We’re looking for a new facility, not just for a café but also for a Stone Soup culinary institute,” she tells me.

She knows what she wants: A large space in which people can sit to eat, with dignity (she emphasizes those two words all the time, just as Bernie did years ago). A big commercial kitchen for food prep as well as for classes and classrooms to teach food prep/service and basic job skills for students. She wants to prioritize people who’ve been unemployed, including those coming out of prison or jail. There will also be someone on the other end to help place them in jobs.

She thinks it’ll take two buildings and has her eye on a property that’ll require renovation of an existing structure and construction of a second building as well. Her plan is for people to eat in that building 7 days a week, the prep to be handled by students at the culinary institute. And she feels confident because they just won a big state grant enabling them to pursue all this.

I sat there, listening to her paint this vision, talking about how much she’d learned from Bernie’s Three Tenets, the first of which is not-knowing, opening yourself wide to the beck and call of the universe. And I couldn’t help but think of the small meal we began years ago half-a-mile from where I live now.

“Let’s just feed people,” the man had said. The universe listened.

You can see more about Stone Soup Café here.

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ENTER THE DRAGON

The door of my office looks out at the back yard and the many feeders hanging there. Sometimes a bird flies smack into the glass door. I heard that sudden, heavy sound yesterday morning, looked out, and there was the junco on the steps. Not flat out, standing on its small legs, but clearly stunned. I watched it for a while—wanted to make sure the dogs weren’t out and about, happy to make trouble—and soon it flew up to the nearest branch, ready to be a bird again.

After that I visited a friend who lost his wife a month ago. I knew both of them as a couple, and now I was getting to know him alone, as an individual. If my experience is any guide, it’ll take him longer to recognize himself as an individual than it takes a visitor like me.

Tibetan Buddhists and others talk of the person who died spending time in the Bardo, but I’ve learned that the people we leave behind, still living, are also in a bardo. Their identity as half of a couple has disintegrated now that their loved one is gone, and they are only beginning the process of reassembling a new identity. In my experience, that new identity often integrates qualities of the person who died and aspects of the couplehood they shared.

Three and-a-half years after Bernie’s death, that identity is still in formation. My friend is only beginning that process now.

We sat down and talked; then he took me around the house. I’d walked around that house before, but this time it felt very different. The absence was so present! His wife had been a powerful personality and you might imagine that with her gone, there might be a deadness in the air, a blank emptiness, a lifeless quality in their living room, bedroom, and office space. Not a bit of it. The house was completely alive. I don’t say this out of nostalgic remembering of her there, it was the absence that was alive.

When our human form doesn’t take space, the space that was there is still there. You realize it was always there and that it was fully and vibrantly present, completely aware, only our senses only focus on the person in the space. We think it’s the person that makes the presence, but that’s not the case.

Now the flesh-and-blood body is no longer there, but something vibrant and alive is. I could almost feel the hairs on my body trembling from all the energy in that house. When I first drove there, I was tired and dragging due to a lack of sleep the previous night. When I left, I felt wide awake and full of energy, ready that hour of the early evening to start a full day’s work.

Some people say that this vibrancy is left only when a great person leaves this realm of existence, and as I wrote before, my friend’s wife was a powerful woman. But I think it’s true for everybody. There’s something that shines all around and through us, and it doesn’t go when the body goes.

The thing is not to fill up the “empty” space they once occupied with distractions. Don’t be in a rush to leave the house, buy new furniture, seek solace in new boyfriends or girlfriends, in food, drink, and other addictions. My personal addiction is to being busy, to filling the day with projects, writing and housework.

After Bernie died, I didn’t leave the house for 49 days other than to sit in the zendo, walk Aussie, and get groceries. I wouldn’t see anybody. I worked, including keeping up this blog, but there were big pockets of silence, of getting up to go to the next room for something and just stopping. My friend told me yesterday that he at times sees and hears his wife in the house. That didn’t happen to me. Instead,, I stared at nothing, thought nothing. It wasn’t a dullness, it was entering a realm of aliveness that was quiet and deep, even intense.

To paraphrase the words of Eihei Dogen, the founder of Japanese Zen, I sensed that right there in my home, hiding behind the elephant of day-to-day life, day-to-day loss, was a dragon that had nothing to do with Bernie’s death.

I also knew, even in the midst of grief and misery, that that dragon was benevolent.

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GODDESS AND TWO DOGS

Burying her bone

“Okay, Goddess, have a great walk.”

I’m at the Farm Zen Peacemakers used to own, ready to go uphill and into the woods with Aussie and Henry, when the Farm’s current caretaker, after a brief chat, says goodbye with those words.

“Nobody ever called me Goddess before,” I tell Aussie.

But Aussie is busy. She has burrowed under the barn and come up with a bone from something that probably died underneath. Henry rushes to investigate and is almost executed for his insolence. Now Aussie is carrying the bone in her mouth with great aplomb, tail held up and wagging like a flag: This is mine, not yours, don’t even think of taking it away from me or we’ll start a killer war and not even bother to call it a limited military action.

But, as any spiritual practitioner can tell you, the trouble with having something is that you need to maintain and protect it. Aussie carries the bone in her mouth—she’s a dog so she can’t put it in a handbag, a shopping cart, or even a paper bag—and soon realizes she’s facing a quandary: If she keeps the bone in her mouth as we go into the woods, how will she chase deer, sniff out smaller varmints, scratch the tree bark as she goes up on her hind legs looking up at raccoon dens, and all the other things she loves to do? How will she run?

My pit bull Bubale encountered such challenges, but she was tough and adamantly held big bones in her strong jaws for hours, putting them down on the ground and licking them for a couple of minutes before picking them up again and carrying those suckers for a long time.

Aussie’s a different animal. What’s she going to do?

A part of me wants to help her out, relieve her of the bone, put it in the treats bag, bring it home, and give it to her then. She’ll be pissed for a couple of minutes, then forget about it, and be happy to find it in the back yard.

But a part of me wants to see what she does. She’s a dog, I’m not sure if she wrestles with the conflict or not, but she must have some awareness of both how much she loves the bone and also what it prevents her from doing. She can only do one thing; what will that be?

Part of life is working things out, making decisions. I sometimes fall into thinking that those are the things that stand in the way of life, that life starts only after I face the choices and make the decisions: Once I work things out, life will start again and I could go about my business. But the very process of working things out, making choices, and seeing what works and what doesn’t—that’s life, too.

The naturalist John Burroughs wrote: “[O]ur good fortune is that we have our part and lot in the total scheme of things, that we share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe, that we have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay.”

Life is in those basic interactions, the instinct to do this vs. that, the exchanges, the back-and-forth, the process of two steps forward and one back, the indecisions, the choices. Accepting basic constraints such as that I can’t be at two different places at the same time, can’t do two different things at the same time, can’t pay attention to more than one thing at one time. Physical constraints, financial constraints, dog-imposed constraints. Realizing that right now it’s just this and therefore can’t be anything else.

Burroughs also wrote: “[I]n the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it have in the end triumphed.”

When we’re on top of the hill I look back and see her disappearing into the shrubbery. I step back quietly and watch as she buries the bone. Henry does his second stupid thing in the last 10 minutes and approaches to see the hiding place, only to get his head kicked for his trouble. She digs up the soil and the leaves, deposits the bone very neatly in the depression in the ground, and then nudges back the soil and leaves with her nose. When she emerges, she grins broadly, convinced no one saw or knows anything, unaware that the tip of her nose, colored earth-brown, gives everything away.

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THE JOY POSITION

“Look Aussie, the library is holding Paws to Read sessions, when you read books to dogs. In the first session you can read a book to Rio and the next you can read a book to J-Lo.”

“They look like Goldens to me, rich, coddled, and purebred. Discrimination!”

“Aussie, I didn’t know you loved books so much. What book would you like me to read to you?”

How to Kill Your Own Food.”

“Anything else?”

Running Away from Home: A Primer for Growing Up.”

It’s over 70 degrees Fahrenheit today. The skies are blue, the sun yellow, the birds cheerful. Yesterday I posted about how Aussie has an internal GPS always showing her where I am even as she pursues other animals or saunters far from me. I’m developing a different GPS in my mind, the kind that reminds me that no matter what I’m doing, what suffering I witness personally and what I read or hear from others, still there’s joy.

That hasn’t come naturally to me. I was one of the serious ones in my family, too aware of the Holocaust we came from and the improbability of my being alive. And since I was alive, I reasoned, I had to dedicate my life to helping others. That was my lifelong rationale for living.

“Wherever we’re from, we have the storms that we know,” said Krista Tippett in a recent interview of the Louisiana-based climate activist, Colette Pinchon Battle. But storms are not just a call for protection and vigilance, they’re also reminders of the blessing of survival, of being alive.

Bernie used to be my source of fun and merriment. He founded the Order of Disorder and loved to clown. When he was in the rehabilitation hospital after his big stroke, I always found therapists and nurses in his room. They liked hanging out there because, even with aphasia that limited his talking, he could still share humor and fun. They were accustomed to other patients, with strokes nowhere near as disabling as Bernie’s, who were angry and depressed.

In particular, I remember a college professor who’d gone in for bypass surgery and had a mild stroke in the middle of the procedure. His body didn’t suffer, he was fully mobile, but his speech was a bit slurred though the therapists were sure he would overcome that and have a full recovery. He’d come into Bernie’s room saying: “I hear you’re a Zen master, so what do you think of this?” And he’d ramble angrily about the doctors, the nurses, and his much younger wife who stood at his side quietly, even as Bernie tried to follow what he was saying from where he lay in bed, barely able to talk himself, unable at that time to walk or do anything for himself.

Later, when he came home, even when he fell on the floor and I’d hover over him fearfully, asking what happened, he’d say slowly: “The-floor-wanted-to-have-a-conversation. Just-a-small-one.”

While he smiled and grunted a lot, he himself didn’t fully laugh often. But there were several times when, either around the table or in bed, he’d say something and start laughing, then look at me. I’d start laughing, too, then laugh harder, and then he’d surrender to a long, drawn-out, high-pitched belly laugh that went on and on. It was as if we’d both egg each other on to see who could laugh harder and deeper. Lately I’ve been remembering those times quite a lot.

When he left this world, it was as if fun and laughter left with him. I realized that I had to be responsible for my own joy now. It’s what happens when a partner goes. You realize that, like in football, he played a particular position. If you want the game to go on, you have to cover that position yourself now, or at least find others around you to do this.

In my own life, the birds have taken over the position of giving me joy. The horses in a neighboring farm, who neigh and run over across the meadow when I appear with apples, have taken over Bernie’s “joy” position. There’s Henry, who litters my bedroom with Pinky the Elephant, the green frog, and half a dozen turtles that are wet and smelly from his saliva. He hears the meditation alarm going off in my room in the morning and stands by the door, scraping at it and whining. “Aren’t you done yet? Aren’t you done yet?” And when I open the door, he rushes forward: “Time to PLAYYYYYYYY!”

I met Jimena some 10 days ago to give out some food cards and help for a family that couldn’t afford rent, and came into a rehearsal for a quinceanera, a party celebrating a young girl’s 15th birthday.  The girl brought her friends, boys and girls, and they rehearsed the dances they were going to do in the April party. Her father operated the music and Jimena and I stood to the side watching girls and boys dancing in couples, stepping on each other’s feet, and generally having a blast. The girl celebrating the quinceanera took charge, organizing and cajoling them, saying: “Be serious, this is important!”

Serious? I don’t know. Important to dance? Definitely.

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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.

THE GPS INSIDE OUR HEADS

Like many people, I watched Volodymyr Zelensky’s talk to the US Congress that took place Wednesday morning.

At first, I was surprised that he used 2 minutes of his short talk to show a video, but once I saw it, I understood: Children playing in the park, then held by a fleeing father as rockets explode behind them; apartment buildings standing like Legos under the sun, then black smoke and sections of wall crumbling. Older people seated and talking on a city bench, then wheelchaired away from the fighting, an old man sitting weeping next to a body covered by a bloody sheet.

Day-to-day normal, followed by devastation, all under one heaven, one God, on a rock circling a sun in the tiniest corner of space.

But this was nothing like a video Andrzej Krajewski sent from Warsaw. My friends Andrzej, and more importantly his daughter, Orina, lead a Polish organization bringing medical supplies into Ukraine and bringing out refugees, then taking care of those refugees in Poland. I strongly recommend their work, they’re completely trustworthy and dependable. If you would use PayPal and would like to donate to their work, go to your PayPal account and put in biuro@fundacjabad.pl as the recipient of whatever funds you wish to give.

The video Andrzej posted showed Ukrainians facing down armored military vehicles coming towards them on a wet street. One woman is shouting at the top of her lungs as she, a man and another woman walk quickly towards the first vehicle with soldiers inside, a Ukrainian crowd behind them. The vehicle slows down and comes to a stop. The soldiers inside come out and shoot into the air. No one backs down.

The man lies down in front of the wheels of the giant vehicle while the women stand right in front of it.

Another vehicle comes down the adjacent lane and slows down, and several women lean right into its front and push with all their might. The phone camera captures their hands pushing hard against the metal grille, grasping for a better hold, their feet stepping back to give them more strength and balance as they lean forward and push against the armored carrier as hard as they can. A moment passes, another moment, the vehicle slowly inching forward, the women taking a step back, then another, then another, still pushing against the carrier as hard as they can, and then they can’t hold on any longer and it lurches forward, the crowd leaping to the side.

I watched those minutes again and again, and thought: This is why we support them so much. Yes, valid questions abound about why we don’t support people in Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and others like this, very important questions. But like it or not, cameras in Ukraine capture ordinary people, like you and me, putting their own bodies on the line against armed and armored soldiers. They’re not soldiers, have no guns, grenades, artillery, or rockets, so they use their bodies.

Sometimes we say: I don’t have skin in the game, an American idiom meaning I’m not engaged or involved here in any way. Putting skin against metal was exactly what these women did. For a few minutes it was not just Ukrainians against Russians, it was the human body, in all its smallness, frailty, and resilience, against the implacable, relentless machine.

On some level, I want to fight the good fight, but I don’t and often can’t. Even when I identify something in our own country that I wish to fight for, our causes are often so veiled in dogma, partisanship, controversy, and plain old abstractions that it’s hard to put skin in the game. We rely on structures: the courts, the police only sometimes, on voting, on getting our party in. None of that feels like bending our entire body into an armored carrier.

That things are coming at us down wet streets—no, they’re here already!—is clear. Even here in the Happy Valley storms feel more explosive, the lack of housing rears threateningly especially in the cold winter, and poverty will get worse as pandemic aid and child credits end. Still, it’s easy to get lost in the fog of words.

What are our equivalents to those women using their bodies to block armored vehicles from entering their city? I think of people protesting nuclear plants by trying to break open the padlocks of locked facilities or else shaking the metal bars that prevent entry. It’s physical and therefore feels real, even visceral, demanding not just skin in the game but every cell, tissue, bone, and muscle you got. I think of those who climb up the big trees and stay there to protect them from loggers.

The rest of us? We send money, participate in a local demonstration, volunteer. We may even take a bus down to DC for a protest, we’ll vote and even agitate for and against various things. These actions are not just good but crucial. We accept the long run of things, the slow step-by-step march towards achieving a vision for our society and country even as many of us won’t live to see its fulfillment.

The scene of going head-to-head with the monster as those women did blew me away. And inspired me to go on, continue on that march without distraction.

“You know,” Leeann Warner once said to me, “your dog Aussie has a GPS in her head. She likes to run away, but she never loses sight of where we are. She can leave the pack and run up the ridge so that we don’t see her, but she continues on the ridge never losing sight of where the rest of us are.”

Different things pull me away from my vows, but by now I, too, have a GPS in my head that reminds me, wherever I am and however I’m feeling, where the work lies.

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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.

WHICH WAY?

We walked down a new path today. Veered off a well-known road that we’ve taken for a few years and instead followed an offshoot going further into the white hills. Of course, as we walked down the new path, we discovered additional trails veering off south and north, so I was again faced by the question: Do I stay on the path I’m on or do I go off?

Aussie peers down the snowy valley beneath us, body tensing. Something is there, she wants to run. If there were deer there, she certainly would. She’s tempted, her hair shivers, nostrils twitching, but she doesn’t run. I am her family and security, I represent food and shelter, companionship, security. Most of the time she stays with me, and sometimes she runs.

When do I stay, and when do I run?

Right now, I’m feeling a bit stale. I do the things I usually do, but don’t feel the rush of creativity in my bloodstream. The mornings don’t feel new (though we’ve had snow alternating with spring since the beginning of March); even the longer evenings that began on Sunday, with their gorgeous sunsets, don’t bring with them freshness and renewal. It’s as if I’m not exhaling thoroughly enough, so that my body contains old air and my life force feels weak and musty.

I don’t like these periods even as I know by now that they’re a natural part of one’s life, or at least of one’s creative life. Still, I want to do something about it. Do I go off my usual course? Where to? Do what? How?

Tomorrow in the early morning I’m in front of a Zoom screen with a small international group looking anew at the Rule of the Zen Peacemaker Order that was created towards the end of 1997, itself based on Buddhist precepts dating back 2500 years ago. Our job is to look at the Rule with new eyes and ask: Is this right for our life right now? How does this help us live both authentically and ethically? What strength and courage does it give us? What effectiveness to our work?

Sometimes renewal demands of you to pause and ask questions. Sometimes it demands of you to go off the path you’re on and explore something new.

There are risks to going off-road. Yesterday, walking the dogs together, I asked Lori if, when she takes Henry out after finishing her work, she could include Aussie as well, thus relieving me of some dog-walking duties. She was a little tentative in her response because of Aussie’s tendency to run. I assured her I hadn’t seen Aussie disappear for a while in a long time.

We were walking on the road all together, and had we stayed on the road everything would have been fine. Instead, I had the brilliant idea of going off-road and following a loop in the woods down to the railroad tracks and then back up. We passed a depression made by deer in winter, three deer leaped out and ran, white tails bobbing, and Aussie ran off after them, disappearing for at least 20 minutes.

“Where were you?” she says, greeting us in front of our house as we returned. “I’ve been waiting and waiting.”

“Aussie, I hoped you’d be on your best behavior so that Lori could see how easy you are. Instead, you ran and failed the audition.”

Is the moral of the tale: Don’t leave the road you’re already on?

Often, I want to stay the course because that way I’ll finish something: the blog, the book, the project, the job. I’m not in my 20s or 30s, don’t have a big horizon of time ahead of me, and I worry that if I veer off-course too much nothing will get done. In fact, I’ve always admired people who basically stayed the course, did their thing, didn’t mix it up too much, and therefore had a body of work to show for their consistency and focus—books, paintings, songs, even a thriving sangha.

But we did go off the road this morning, and once we explore it for a while, we’ll probably go off the path again to look at the other trails, too. We know the comfort of stepping in footprints already made by other humans and other dogs. Been there, done that.

In the photo above, Henry’s wondering which way to go, but I have my doubts about the side where, other than a few footprints at the very start, the snow is untrammeled. Does it lie on top of an ice-covered pond? Lots of those in this forest. How do I know it’s safe? More important, how do I know it will get me back to the main road, the car, and finally home?

In the photo below Aussie’s looking down the new path. Henry’s run up ahead, but she stands and listens, then follows. That’s what I think I’ll do, too.

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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.

DAYS OF AWESOMENESS

“Yesterday was my day, named after me.”

“Aussie Day?”

“No, it was the annual Day of Awesomeness. Aussie is short for Awesome.”

“Actually, Aussie, Bernie named you after Australia.”

“I don’t care, I’m Awesome Aussie. But did we celebrate it? Where’s my steak?”

I admit that every time I hear the word awesome, I remember Everything Is Awesome, the theme of The Lego Movie and the stupidest song in creation. It’s no wonder that we discover late in this terrific film that President Business uses the song to brainwash all the characters in the story—only he managed to brainwash me, too, and probably many others who can’t stop thinking of that song.

Have we lowered the bar on awesomeness? The Jewish Days of Awe are called that because during those days we are trying to encounter God as directly as we can. I sat next to someone undergoing a haircut this morning, and when asked what she thought of it, she said it’s awesome.

Maybe there are some awesome things happening. First and foremost, the awesome resistance by Ukrainians against overwhelming odds. Secondly, governments coming together across boundaries and continents to pressure Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine. Millions of private donations from people everywhere, individuals coming together to send shipments of medical supplies and other materials, open arms for refugees, and young people using the web, social media, and apps (including ones they themselves invent) to help the Ukrainians defend their country.

At the same time, we’re immediately told that none of this is good enough. I’m not talking about Zelensky, who’s been asking for fighter jets, but rather about articles and columns I read coming from liberal activists. One such article appeared in our local newspaper. After declaring that everyone wants this horrible war to stop before the Ukraine becomes an ash heap, the writer immediately intoned: What about Afghanistan? What about Yemen and Israel/Palestine? What about the racism entrenched in this country that we haven’t even begun to address yet? What about reparations? What do we owe Native Americans? What about this, and this, and this?

Then it’s on to the end of biodiversity, the extinction of species, and the heating up of the planet.

I don’t contest the actual opinions of the writer. I support work to remedy almost all these issues and have done some of that work myself. I also think it’s good for us to remember that we are not innocent here and have no right to be self-righteous. We invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq in 2003, whose borders are very far from us rather than contiguous (as Ukraine is to Russia), based on faulty intelligence and the fact that their head of state was one of the least popular heads of state in the world. Speaking of awesome, remember Shock and Awe?

What I don’t like is to be on the receiving end of what feels like constant head-bashing. We’re okay here, but where are you on this issue? And this? And this? Feeling good about the massive cooperation the government achieved around Ukraine? Well don’t, because there’s still Saudi Arabia around, the Israelis still occupy Palestine, the Black Lives Matter fight goes on, just look at the recent decisions by the courts around abortion and LGBTQ rights, etc., etc.

Hannah Arendt wrote that totalitarian regimes spread misinformation as a vital tool for getting power. It’s not that they think that what they say will be believed, their objective is to basically sow confusion, create false equivalencies and comparisons, and make it hard to discern truth from falsehood so that in the end people shake their head, say Who can you trust?, and become passive. That’s the kind of population they can rule.

I don’t have to remind us how much of this appears in our own media today, in this country.

But I sometimes think the progressive side has its own version of this, consisting of the lobbing of denigrations and accusations one after another, with the rat-a-tat regularity of a machine gun.  It’s almost Puritan in its relentless focus, as if all of us are guilty of major sin by virtue of being American regardless of how we’ve lived and what we’ve chosen to do with our days.

What do these volleys of accusations and self-accusations achieve in the end? Does this really inspire people, or does it lead to a shrug of the shoulders as if to say, The world is fucked, nothing I can do about it? I read the article last night and tossed it. Didn’t feel empowered, didn’t feel energized, just felt tired.

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A LIFE THAT MATTERS

 

“Come on, Aussie, time to go.”

“Where are we going? Oh no, not to Jimena again and people needing help! I already did my work today, it’s time for me to have a rest.”

“What work did you do, Auss?”

“I went to Leeann. You think that’s easy? That means running around with Crazy Evi the Mountain Cur and going back for a treat from Leeann. Chasing Percy the Golden and going back for a treat from Leeann. Splashing around with Lucinda the whatever, going back for a treat from Leeann. Chasing rabbits, going back for a treat. I worked hard!”

“Aussie, Bernie used to say that throughout our life we must take care of ourselves, the family, the community, and the world. At various times we’ll emphasize one over the others, like when you have little kids, but always we should try to do something all around.”

“That’s too much for me.”

“I mean small things, Aussie. For instance, this evening we’ll help out the immigrant community that lives 20 minutes away from us. I also give money to send medical supplies to Ukraine. I talk daily with my mother and weekly with my brother and sister. And for me, I sit, read, enjoy the snow.”

“And what do you do for me? The Man should have said: We must take care of ourselves, the family, the community, the world—and our dogs!”

“Aussie, you can also serve. You’re the only dog Jimena’s not afraid of. She was bitten badly early in her life and she won’t get near other dogs, but she loves you. She comes out to stroke you in the car—”

“Big deal! And speaking of big deal, do you notice how many Ukranian refugees take their dogs and cats with them?”

“What a fight they’re putting up. In contrast, we live spoiled lives here in the Valley, Auss. When I think of the things we complain about! The WiFi is slow, a pipe froze and burst in the garage—”

“You weren’t so happy about that!”

The check didn’t come quickly enough. The car needs more work. Why is it always snowing when I want to go out? The Ukrainians have so much less, and right now their world feels much bigger than ours! They’re focused, they know what they want, they know what’s on the line. We forget. Often the world feels like it’s shrinking around me and I find myself worrying about small, petty things. It’s so easy to get self-involved! So guess what, Aussie? You’re coming with me to Jimena!”

As I was growing up, whenever I did something my mother didn’t like, which was quite often, she’d say: “You don’t know how good you have it. I never had the chances you have. I never had the opportunities you have.”

The chances for what? Opportunities for what? I think she meant higher education and a “good marriage,” none of which I cared about. It’s not my fault I didn’t live during the Holocaust, I wanted to tell her.

What did I care about? I wanted to live a big life, a meaningful life. From a young age I didn’t want to live according to what’s acceptable. Even when, as a teenager, I worried about dates on Saturday night or what friends would say about me, I knew deep in my heart that none of those things really mattered. I didn’t want my life to end small.

What I did was, I’d go to the ocean. We lived a mile from the Atlantic and I’d walk there and stare for hours at the big waves crashing on the sand. There was violence there but also wide horizons. I saw there both big desires and big threats I couldn’t yet articulate. Ocean storms could be terrifying, but I wanted to be part of them. I didn’t want to live in the margins.

The Ukrainians are now the waves reminding me of the bigness of life. It’s why we cheer them on, isn’t it? American veterans who have no history there go there to fight because, finally, there’s a fight for democracy and human rights that’s clear and straightforward, without equivocation. You can argue about different aspects of the war, but given the Ukrainians’ resistance, there’s not much argument around their fight for their right for self-determination.

We can’t all go to fight like that, but I think that many of us ardently wish for a life of principle, of cause, the kind of life our children will tell their children about.

Outside the snows are melting, causing white-foam streams that hurtle down rocks and into rivers that gush into oceans like the Atlantic. In our heart we want to be part of that explosive energy, the water that always flows back to the essence. Living a Life That Matters, a subtitle of one of Bernie’s books. In silly ways and in serious ways, this was what I wanted for myself.

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WHAT DO LESBIANS DO?

Aussie chancing the ice.

I’m thinking of my great aunt today, we called her Aunt Tzipi. She was my paternal grandfather’s younger sister. The family grew up in Russia so dirt poor that my grandfather left the house at an early age to forego his share of the food. The girls, of course, couldn’t leave; if anything, they were a burden because they weren’t trained or allowed to fend for themselves and would also require a dowry to marry.

Why do I think of her? Maybe because I started seeing the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the Neapolitan Quartet by the elusive Elena Ferrante. I loved all four books. Together, they make up some of the greatest writing about women that I’ve come across. Forget the hyper-emotional Anna Karenina or the bored and restless Madame Bovary; in Ferrante’s books you see far greater complexity in two different, passionate women struggling against poverty, ignorance, stinginess, and misogyny. Don’t just see the series, read the books..

My great-aunt, too, grew up very poor and a burden on her family for no reason other than that she was a girl. A beautiful one, I gather. She was also clever and self-taught. She taught herself languages and could declaim German and French poetry even when she was very old. It was the old story: The son of a wealthy family fell in love with her, she didn’t love him back, but she had no choice. He didn’t demand a dowry; he even promised her parents to help them marry off their other daughters.

“You have to marry him for the sake of the family,” they told her. And unlike Ferrante’s Lina, who gives the world the finger rather than do something she doesn’t choose to (and pays the price), my great-aunt acquiesced. They had children and grandchildren, and finally made it to Canada where I would visit her to listen to her stories.

Once she sat me down. “I have a question for you,” she said. “What do women do?”

“Pardon?”

“You know, women lovers, lesbians. What do they do? How do they make love?” She saw that I still didn’t get what she was asking. “I understand how gay men make love; I understand what they do with their biology. But what do lesbians do? What goes into what? I don’t understand how they make a connection.”

If the biology doesn’t quite fit, if there’s nothing concave to accommodate the convex or vice versa, how is a connection made?

It’s tempting to think that connections can be made in just one way—till other ways arise. I just got a replacement credit card with a note that I could tap it and it will work. Do I have to remind anybody about how credit cards used to connect? You had to give it to the cashier who put it into a separate machine or else called in the card number, hoping against hope that the credit card company number wasn’t busy. It was a big deal when we could keep the card and just swipe it down the side, and after that there was the card with the chip that you inserted. Now, to make a connection, you tap. What’s next, I wonder? Maybe I’ll just look at my card and that’ll do it.

Regardless of what happens in Ukraine, there’s no such things as broken connections because everything is so fluid. Energy becomes matter, then energy again, then matter in a different form this time, atoms splitting apart and coming together and splitting apart again and again. That’s not Buddhism, that’s science.

I feel we have to do whatever we can to defeat Putin’s goal to overrun Ukraine. Raising the price of the war on various fronts may, in the long run, have results. We certainly can’t just stand back and do nothing in the face of shelling, killing, bombing, and shooting.

But be careful when the world degenerates into a panorama of black and white. The biology of life is so much more complicated than that. In the midst of war, it’s important to remember that all we really are is connection, all we really are is relationship.

How do they connect with their biology, my great aunt wondered? But people do, they do.

It’s hard to work that out right now, especially with the man sitting at the end of the long white table needing carrier pigeon to receive and give messages, almost a perfect picture of what it is to be disconnected. The same might be said of the people he rules, connected less and less to the world and more and more to state-approved media and self-serving narratives.

The chasm between us feels unbridgeable even as the shelling and devastation in Ukraine continue.

Bernie asked: If the world is one body and the arm gets gangrene, what do you do? Do you cut it off? Do you let it infect the rest? And who decides?

On some level, we all have to decide. Governments and corporations make decisions, and I also have to decide. Do I give in to hate and rage? What price am I, a simple American living my life, ready to pay for peace?

This is an urgent question for me even now, as I get closer to my life’s end than to its beginning. Since life is a mess, there is no right way or wrong way. But maybe there’s a way of how to be, what to embody hour after hour. What to never lose sight of! To realize that connection is the essence of who we are.

So, if we impose sanctions, it’s not with glee but with grief. It’s not out of hate or revenge, but out of clearsighted vision of how to inflict the least suffering. We can’t be self-righteous here; we invaded Iraq, a sovereign nation that has no adjoining borders with us, for no reason other than false intelligence and that their head of state was one of the least popular heads of state in the world. By all means, pay what I must at the gas pump, do what I can to support Ukrainians in their struggle. But stay clear, stay compassionate. Trust more in humility than arrogance.

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NO CANINE, NO CANINE INFLUENCE

WE’RE DOING OUR SHARE! YOU?

“OK, that’s it, I’ve had it.”

“Had it with what, Aussie?”

“I’ve had it with people. You humans aren’t doing anything for the Ukraine!”

“What do you mean? We’re sending money and weapons. 16,000 foreigners have gone to volunteer. We’ve frozen assets of Putin and his oligarch friends, taken Russian banks out of the SWIFT system of international banking, pulled out of big economic ventures and—”

“Has anything helped? Has it stopped the Russians from advancing one bit? It has not. It’s done nothing. Humans are pathetic. It’s time for me to step in.”

“Oh yeah, big shot? What are you going to do, Aussie?”

“We’re banning Russian dogs.”

“What?”

“All Russian dogs. No more Boris the Borzoi, no more Laika or Samoyed, no more Siberian Huskies—”

“Wait a minute, Aussie—”

“No more Caucasian Shepherds—”

“Aussie, you’re half Shepherd yourself!”

“I’m half German Shepherd, the good kind. No Russian dogs allowed anywhere. You’re not allowed to breed them, kennel them, show them in dog shows (which is a stupid thing to do anyway), or cast them in movies (except those made in Bollywood). You can’t buy Russian dog collars or leashes, no Russian treats or dogfood. THIS IS GOING TO HAVE AN EFFECT, JUST WATCH!”

“And who, pray tell, is we?”

“DAP, of course! Dogs Against Putin.”

“Aussie, what’s happening in Ukraine is not the fault of Russian dogs.”

“It doesn’t matter, everybody has to pay the price for what Putin’s doing. I’m giving up premium Russian dogfood with caviar. You can count on me to do my share.”

“Aussie, innocent Russian dogs might suffer.”

“Right now, nobody’s innocent in Russia. That’s the trouble with you humans, you’re such wimps. I wish I was back in Texas, no wimps there. No trans canines, either. A girl is a girl is a girl!”

“Aussie, we need a little restraint here, ok? Those poor dogs. Who do you think is the first to go hungry when the money gets scarce?”

“War’s war. Putin has to get the message, which they have to send by pigeon to get it across that big white table where he’s sitting. Do you see him at the end of that table? Tell me, who else is there?”

“His ministers, I think, or senior staff.”

“And who isn’t there?”

“Huh?”

“There’s no dog there! Do you see a canine anywhere around Putin? Do you see anyone leaning her head against that man’s leg, waiting for attention? For a big, juicy marrow bone on a weekend morning maybe, a little rawhide, or at least a Tricky Trainer with Salmon? Do you see a dog whispering to him to take things easy, drink a lot of water, throw a ball here and there? Do you see a pup chewing up a felt boot or getting comfy in a sable dog bed? I don’t. No canine, no canine influence. What do you get? War.”

“And who’s head of Dogs Against Putin, Aussie?”

“Need you ask? Moi.”

“Sounds like a big organization. How many members do you have?”

“One. We’re starting small.”

“What about diversity in DAP, Auss?”

“Diversity! Diversity! I hate that word. I hate it more than any other word—except Putin.”

“It’s good to bring in all kinds of different members, Aussie.”

“Like people?”

“No, like Henry, Aussie. Make him vice president.”

“Henry, vice president? A chihuahua in DAP?”

“Look what we humans are doing. Everybody’s joining the fight—the US, Europe, various countries in Asia, even Switzerland. Diversity pays off, Aussie.”

“No, no, no, DAP is an American organization, no foreigners allowed. Besides, how do you know Henry’s not a spy?”

“Oh Aussie, he lives with us. Surely, we’d know—”

“How do you know that Putin isn’t sending Henry to infiltrate DAP?”

“He may have other things on his mind right now, Auss—”

“Remember how he threatened to do things the likes of which we never imagined? Can you imagine Henry a spy?”

“No.”

“I rest my case.”

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