THERE IS SOMETHING SECRET GOING ON

My mother’s neighborhood

“Mom, how was Melabev?” I ask my mother when she returns at 3:30 pm on one of the three days she’s still taken to a senior day center. I am at her home to greet her after spending time with her live-in caregiver, Saint Swapna, who tells me that, at her urging and prodding, all members of her family in India have already had one covid vaccine. They would have gotten the second only India ran out of vaccines.

My mother collapses on the blue living room chair, exhausted, lips drawn back in a very severe line.  “There is something secret going on, and one day I’ll find out what it is.”

“What do you mean, mom?”

“You know,” she explains, “they have lots of secrets at the center. They don’t want us to talk to one another so they put us in a big discussion circle. As soon as we discuss one topic they move on to the next and don’t let us ask any questions. And if someone asks them if  they’ll be open next month during the holiday week—I forget what holiday it’s going to be—”

“Shavuot?” Pentecost?

“– they say they have to check.”

“Maybe they do have to check, mom.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t know what’s going on but I plan to find out. They fill up the day with so many things just so that we won’t ask too many questions. They have musicians, games, storytellers—”

“That sounds nice, mom.”

“If they want to be sneaky, I can be sneaky, too.”

“What’s sneaky about musicians?”

“I’m telling you, they want to know things about us.”

“Who, mom?”

“Don’t ask me stupid questions. They! And they want to make sure we don’t talk. But I am going to find out. Nobody is going to make my life a riddle.”

Those were here exact words: Nobody is going to make my life a riddle. But that’s what my life is, mom, one big riddle, I almost said out loud. Sometimes I get music, maybe a little singing or stories or even a little (very little) dancing. But always I get the riddle.

This morning, over coffee with my orthodox Jewish brother, he posed the following question: “Where’s our temple now, Eve? Not the old temple where they made animal sacrifices and Jesus got mad at the moneychangers, I mean the new temple, the center for passion and hope, the fire we yearn to touch again and again?”

Walking up to my mother’s home, I found myself asking the question: So, who’s on Vulture Peak now? Vulture Peak is the place in India where the Buddha gave many teachings. I thought of the great chapter in the Lotus Sutra, Lifespan of the Thus Come One, in which the Buddha promises that when people pray to him, he and his monks will be at Vulture Peak expounding the dharma. That, in fact, they never died, that’s just a delusion, but still and always they are preaching the Law from Vulture Peak.

Where are they now? I asked myself, trudging uphill in 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We need them now more than ever, we gasp for breath, we look everywhere for relief from covid, war, from brutality, degradation, and even complacency, so where are they now? More to the point, who are they?

If I work with this question as a Zen koan, then it is up to me to manifest as one of the enlightened beings who preach, teach, do, and dedicate their lives to bringing everyone to awakening. Or perhaps I manifest as Vulture Peak itself, the space where teachings take place one eternity after another, or else as the laywoman among the many gathered at the foot of the peak to listen, learn, take things to heart, practice at home but come back to Vulture Peak again and again.

The students, the teachers, the teachings, all one thing. One big heart.

And when the living have become faithful,
Honest and upright and gentle,
And wholeheartedly want to see the Buddha,
Even at the cost of their own lives,
Then, together with the assembly of monks
I appear on Holy Vulture Peak.

As a young student, I used to dream of a group of grizzled monastics meeting and renewing their vows in moon-drenched nights on Vulture Peak. Where are they? Where am I?

Now, hours later on a warm night, as my sister teaches English on the phone in her office behind a shut door, her Anatolian Shepherd Molly growls stretched out on the cool tiled floor, both of us listening to the brrrr of the ceiling fan, the shouting of a man on the street and the turn of the tires as cars park down below, I suddenly feel that terrible hunger to see the Buddha, to know it deeply in each and every thing and person, manifesting tenderly as a yellow handbag on a dining table, a green apron drooping on an old, careworn chair, footsteps on the stairs in the hallway, the hum of an airplane on its way east to Jordan. It’s always there, I know, only sometimes the yearning is so great.

Nobody’s going to make my life a riddle. That’s what it’s been all these years, this life that isn’t just mine, and isn’t just life for that matter, either. I, who’ve never seen Vulture Peak in India, want to return there, want to spare these lands misery and death. Want to be like the moth that hung desperately to the bedroom wall all night, only to be lifted gently on the tip of a finger and then released this morning into new blue light.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

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TRANSACTIONS WITH GOD

I woke up this morning at 4:15 to the sound of the muezzin’s call  to prayer, and knew I was in Jerusalem. Just a few seconds later the taped call of Allahu ‘akbar was echoed from a second minaret in the Old City, and then a third. My sister’s apartment is way outside those ancient walls, and still I heard the calls.

I lay in bed and immediately recalled our interfaith study of Zen koans some 21 years ago. Bernie led it from the top floor of the Ecce Homo Pilgrim House right on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, the golden Dome of the Rock so close you felt you could touch it from the terrace outside.

In our first day there, someone said: “It’s noon, time for our moment of silence for peace.” Instead, dozens of cries to worship emerged from the surrounding mosques: “Allahu ‘akbar Allahu ‘akbar!” Hasten to the prayer, hasten to the salvation. Bernie sat back, a gleam in his eyes, and said: “Good. Let’s sit with that.” And we did every day that we were there.

This morning I thought of the many rising from bed and putting down prayer rugs, starting the day with prostrations. An unidentified bird began to sing, its warble long and complicated, as if warning me of the complexity of the day ahead.

I went back to sleep, and when I woke up a few hours later, my sister told me of the tragedy at Mt. Meron, when some 45 people were killed in a panic and stampede, with some 150 wounded, including children.

The evening before I sat in my mother’s apartment a few hours after landing at Tel Aviv Airport, along with her and my brother, and watched TV. We have a Hasidic side to our family, and our cousin is the rebbe who heads the Boyan Hasidim sect. By tradition, it is he who lights the first bonfire in the massive celebration at Mt. Meron, which commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai from the second century. Other Hasidic sects then take their turn in lighting a bonfire. Each such lighting is accompanied by song and dance by some 100,000 people.

“Make sure you see Dovi (our name for our cousin rebbe) on TV,” my brother told me as he left the apartment. There had been shots of his back as he prayed, waiting to inaugurate the big festivities. But we were on the road, so I missed it.

Shimon Bar-Yochai, buried in Meron, had to hide in a cave towards the end of his life for some 14 years, and is reputed to have written the Zohar, the key text of the Kabbalah. In actual fact, the Zohar was probably written a millennium later in Spain, but he is still celebrated for writing that text much as Shakyamuni Buddha is credited with authoring all the Buddhist sutras, including those written hundreds of years after his death.

Our cousin, the rebbe, was spared the catastrophe that unfolded at 1:00 am by virtue of being the first to light the bonfire, and after much dance and song by his Hasidim, leaving the site. But not so the others.

A national day of mourning has been declared for this coming Sunday, but accusations and recriminations are already surfacing and will come down in a deluge after Sunday: Who messed up? What regulations were in place—and what violations? Why is it that over a period of many years, warnings were issued again and again about what could happen and nothing was ever done?

While we watched TV last night, before the official lighting of the first bonfire, an orthodox television personality heavily promoted the magical quality of the evening and night. “Think of anything you want—a husband, a wife, a child, an end to sickness, a job, more money, whatever—and call this number,” he kept on telling viewers. “Tell the person who answers what you need, they will pray for you tonight and you will be granted any wish you have, no matter how large or small!” For a fee, of course.

Some wishes and prayers were answered, some not. And 45 people died (so far) along with many, many wounded. I think of the transactional nature of how many of us think of God—if I’m good, He will intervene and give me a good life. If I’m good, He will intervene on my behalf and make me special and favored, and I will find love, money, success, fame. Instead, hundreds of people witnessed or suffered the brutality of being trod underfoot, their bodies crushed, bones smashed.

If our relationship with God is not one of transaction, of you-do-this-and-I-do-that, you give this and I’ll pay You with that, what is it?

This morning, even with the grim news, the Lubavitch Hasidim drove in school buses all over town gathering children with bands and clowns and marching them down the streets to honor the holiday. I took the photo from the car as we drove past.

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WHO IS THIS MOVIE STAR?

Aussie and her friend, Winnie, in the beaver pond while Henry looks on.

I am on my way to Israel to see my family, especially my elderly mother. It took two vaccines, a negative covid test result (another test will be taken at the  airport in Tel-Aviv when I land), and special certification from the Israeli Government health department that I can enter.

Outside the air is hot and muggy, almost a New York summer at end of April. The only direct flights leave from Newark, NJ, and coming from New England, I was way overdressed.

There are few passengers at the airport and a lot of staff. Getting to the ticket counter or through security are joyrides. Stores are mostly empty or else closed. Assuming I land on time, I will have been masked for about 16 hours.

I am so, so lucky in my life. A fabulous housemate to look after Aussie, who didn’t bat an eye as I left. A good friend who took me into her house overnight and we talked and talked, not having seen each other for a year-and-a-half. Simple things: a small bottle of water at my side, a working laptop as I wait, masked people keeping distance, careful for my sake.

I will be glad to see my mother. I will also be glad to spend time with her live-in caregiver, Swapna, who left a husband, small daughter, parents, and brother in India to come to Israel to make more money in one month, she says, than she could make in India in a year. And even with holiday pay and medical  insurance, she still makes a lower income than Israeli caregivers.

She hasn’t been back in a few years and I try to imagine how she feels reading and seeing pictures of the hundreds of thousands of infections and deaths, seeing footage of massive body burnings and hospitals without beds, ventilators and even oxygen. That doesn’t just affect covid patients, but also people with other illnesses. I think of a good friend who right now needs oxygen just to take some steps. What would he do without oxygen?

What would we all do?

Swapna is a religious Hindu, won’t touch meat or fish, and I’m told starts the mornings with prostrations even after a night when my mother has kept her up. She relies on this to make sense out of the chaos the world is living through. She has been vaccinated, but she can’t get back to India because no one’s flying in. All she can do is seek reassurance on her daily check-ins with her family.

I want to talk to her, look into her eyes. I want to find some way to connect.

The day I drove down to New York I had a short visit with my eye doctor, and as traffic slowed down to cross our narrow bridge I saw a man in his 50s or 60s on the walkway. He wore a decoration indicating he was a veteran. He pushed a shopping cart carrying his belongings, and leaned into it as if it was a walker. On both sides of the cart was an American flag held up on a stick and fluttering in the wind.

I, an American in a white woman’s body, feels so cared for, so treasured. A young woman from the Dominican Republic picked up my luggage and put it into a van as I arrived in the parking lot, took it out at the airport, and bid me a good and safe trip. A Japanese man looked over all my certificates at the ticket counter, making sure I had everything I needed. He kindly registered my passport, and a security agent actually held out his hand for me to hang on to as I put my shoes back on after going through security. I hesitated at that, then smiled and told him I had a very recent negative covid test result.

Who is this movie star who gets such good care even as others get sick and die? Who is this VIP?

If you can take off a mask to eat and drink, can’t you momentarily take it off to show a big smile? Who will see your dimples? Who will read the gratitude in your parted lips?

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DEATH OF A FRIEND

My friend, Levana Marshall, died last week in London. I found out about it on the eve of our spring retreat (the blog, too, was on retreat and therefore didn’t post on Friday).

She was from Greek Israeli origin and we met in 1997 in an old Jewish cemetery in Krakow, Poland. She was taking part in our second retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I saw a woman some 7 years older than me, in a red wool coat and dark red hair, detach from the group and sit on the ground, resting her back against a gravestone. I went over to ask how she was and ended up getting on the ground with her and talking for an hour.

After that we talked a lot by phone, occasionally meeting in London, where she lived. She was a psychotherapist who didn’t work with individuals and groups, she worked with human beings. Growing up in a poor immigrant family, she not only obtained various degrees and certificates in psychotherapy but did coursework in everything from the arts to shamanic studies to Jewish mysticism. We both loved the theater and even on my last visit to her, when she could no longer go out, she had a ticket waiting for me to see an all-Black cast do Death of a Salesman in the National Theater.

She unashamedly loved life. She made the most of her big house in Surrey, with a host of orchids on the wide windowsills of her office. I would look out at her garden to watch the foxes run across, or a blue heron alight on the netting with which they covered their coy-filled pond. She gathered art, loved Chopin and her family. She and Morris Marshall, her husband, traveled to India regularly to spend weeks at an Ayurveda spa, or else at a 5-star hotel on an island off the Thai shore. She was a master chef who cooked everything from French and Swiss cuisine to Middle Eastern and Indian.

We talked on the phone, we argued on the phone. With Levana, life didn’t just flash in and out, she experienced it. She gave it her all. She derived deep pleasure from some things, deep pain from others. She chose to be present and take it all in rather than live on the surface of things.

When I received the email about her death, I retrieve some of the last emails she sent me. One, three months ago, read in part like this:

“My dear friend,.
Getting older is such an interesting experience. For me, it’s stretching too long.. yet, it touches such a deep cord- who am I? … I feel I have nothing to say, nothing to learn, nothing much to feel. Strange. Nothing is that important. As if I already died … I sit and turn the pages of large Art books. I love the beauty of the Artist’s perception. Japanese art moves me deeply. My old familiar friends- Rembrandt + Titian. I love them. I studied them for years+ now, they are here for me. I feel they know me.. I can cry. Who am I ? A wave of love fills me. Once, I studied, once, I knew. Once I was touched, desired, I love this old, frail woman. Gently. I’m touching the end.”

And in the last email she sent me, just 5 days before she died, she wrote:“[S]kins of identity are being shed like an old Onion 🧅. Who am I?”

This question came up during much of this last retreat, which I personally dedicated to her.

For much of my life I wanted to live simply. Read frugal. Read abstemious, even self-denying. I was raised on a materialistic diet, easy to do when you and your family are indigent immigrants coming to this country. I’d been born in an Israeli kibbutz so simple communal life was in my blood.

After that, I had lowered expectations about things, acquisitions, homes and cars. At around 55 I got to own my first (and current) home, and 10 years ago bought my first (and probably only) new car; everything else was rentals and second-hand, with frequent (ongoing) visits to the Salvation Army thrift shops. Bernie showed me how to use frequent miles to get Business Class seats on airplanes; we had a good decade of that till the 2008 recession, when it died.

But there was also something else. From the time I was young, I intuited that whatever I had, I’d have to give up. From that, I drew the conclusion: Why bother? Why buy this or that, love this or that, and then go through the process of letting them go? Why not live simply and not have to go through any of that?

Bernie certainly had his attachments. He loved his cigars,  his blue Hybrid Camry, computers and phones.

My friend, Levana, unashamedly loved art, her orchids, jewelry, good food and clothes, gorgeous vacations, and wanted to create beauty all around her house. And at the same time, she was peeling her life layer after layer, buying and giving away, loving and losing, living and letting go all at the same time.

She began peeling that onion long before she got old. Even as she cooked great food, planted more roses, and read more poetry, the question Who am I? never stopped pursuing her. And to answer that question, she was ready to peel the onion of her life, examine layer after layer, laughing her loud, raucous laugh all the time.

She showed me there was another way to live, that instead of giving things up ahead of time to avoid the work of letting them go, one could, after all, say yes to whatever gifts you are offered. Don’t grow possessive or overly attached to them, don’t confuse your identity with them, instead be generous and give completely  And, like her, keep a sharp peeler in the kitchen drawer.

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VERDICT

At 4:00 yesterday I heard that the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin was coming down within the hour. In my office, things turned somber. The media, however, couldn’t stop playing it up, highlighting over and over again how many people were gathering outside the courthouse. Reminding me how even as important events are happening, the media’s raking in lots and lots of dollars making them importanter, not to be missed.

The verdict came and I turned numb. Turned off the news, tried to go back to work, couldn’t. Couldn’t do anything or feel anything: not relief, not anger, not even sadness, at least not at first. Just a complete hollowing out.

I walked outside and sat on the chair in back, looked at the glorious forsythia and the grass that blazes in the sunlit afternoons. Thought about how the next day was supposed to be rainy and gray, bright days followed by dark, no guarantees for anything.

For the media it had epic proportions, as if we’d all lived through a national catharsis. That was probably true for some; I didn’t feel it. A catharsis is meant to empty you out, help you let go of dread and anxiety. For me, a human in a white woman’s body, none of that happened.

Twenty-four hours later, I still can’t get Derek Chauvin’s eyes out of my mind. He seemed unconscious, a robot going through the motions. I watched as handcuffs were wrapped around his hands and he was walked out, his defense lawyer saying something to him quickly—I’ll be in touch?

Someone becomes an icon for systemic brutality and we’re surprised when the person on the screen looks as confused and overwhelmed as a child. For a brief moment I thought of Adolf Eichmann at his trial, the mastermind of the Holocaust resembling a timid bank clerk, and remembered Hannah Arendt’s words, the banality of evil. But no one is so banal that s/he is not a human being, a lesson not just for Chauvin but also for me.

I didn’t appreciate Maxine Waters saying what she did in the middle of the trial; I didn’t appreciate Biden saying what he did before the verdict was announced. You’re not a private individual, I wanted to tell him, you’re President, you should have said nothing till the very end of the trial.

Still, I’m glad he didn’t Tweet in all big caps. Because that’s the problem, the situation doesn’t lend itself to capital letters, to marquee headlines, to the endless talk talk talk of news shows. A black man was killed and his white policeman murderer will go away for a very long time.

It was a just verdict. If I had any doubt of that, all I’d have to do is imagine how I’d have felt had the verdict been different, the outrage, the shock, anger, and frustration. But when the right verdict came down it felt two-dimensional in a world of infinite dimensions.

I thought of King’s words, that “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Somewhere along that arc Derek Chauvin is justifiably paying the price for murdering a black man, but the thought brought me no joy.

Earlier in the day, I watched the adventures of Percy and Ginni. No, not the doxies down the block, but the incredible pieces of machinery currently exploring Mars. I cheered for Percy the Rover descending into Mars, held aloft by a big, ebullient parachute, and Ginni the helicopter twirling those cute blades as she zoomed up and down the Mars landscape. Science fiction movies couldn’t compete with those videos. For those moments I felt as expansive as that parachute, and unreasonably happy.

Now, after the verdict, King’s words reverberated in my mind: the arc is long, the arc is long.

And then I thought of a mailing I’d received from a foundation that has worked for many years with prison inmates. It was peppered with beautiful quotes, don’t know from where, and one caught my eye:

“The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give.”

I laughed when I read it and thought: No, you’re wrong. Because the Dead Sea is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I have always loved it. I, for one, found a lot of life around those sulphur waters, as do bacteria and algae, as does vegetation around the sinkholes, as do the animals along its shores. As have mystics who wandered there over millennia, finding God.

Nothing is a dead end, I thought as I sat on that chair looking at the hill across from where Aussie and I live, from where Bernie and I used to live. Life–be it humans, bacteria, or machines like Percy and Ginni–finds a way even in the most uninhabitable of places. In the Dead Sea on Earth, even in Mars. And for one vivid instant I knew as sure as day that life is compassion, and compassion life..

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JUST LIKE YOU HUMANS DAY

“OMG, would you look at that thing?”

“What thing, Aussie?”

“The lodge! The beavers’ lodge.”

“It sure is big, isn’t it?”

“Big? It’s a condo village! They must be adding a room a day. Just like you humans.”

“Auss, they’re beavers!”

“Yeah? A baby gets born, they add another room. Another baby beaver gets born, add another room. Judging from the size of it, they’re reproducing like rabbits.”

“How do you know it’s for new beavers?”

“You’re right, it could be for new television sets. Just like you humans , every time they get a new TV they add another room. Probably watching Leave It to Beaver.”

“I think they’re too busy to watch Leave it to Beaver, Aussie.”

“They don’t have to watch it, they do it. They’ve transformed the entire river into Beaver Pond, they’ve cut down trees and made this the Beaver Deforestation Program—just like you humans!”

“What is today, Just Like You Humans Day?”

“Didn’t you get my card? Trouble is, every day is Just Like You Humans Day. You leave your imprint everywhere all the time. Somebody gets a baby, you add an extra room. Somebody gets a new TV or computer or even a bagel—”

“I never heard of adding a new room for a bagel!”

“Do those beavers have a permit? Did they get a variance at Town Hall? Because you can bet that if I wanted to add another room to our little house just for me, I’d have to get all those things.”

“You remind me, Aussie, that one of the ways Israel makes life miserable for  Palestinians is that when somebody gets married and they want to add a floor or a few rooms to their parents’ house, which is very customary in that culture, they can’t get a permit. And if they build anyway, the army came come in and destroy everything. Used to drive Bernie and me crazy.”

“Are we indulging in a little nostalgia here?”

“Sometimes I like to think back to years when I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to a dog.”

“Look at how stupid these beavers are. They cut down this tree, you could see the marks of their teeth, but did it fall on the pond like it was supposed to? It did not. It fell to the side on the ground. Now I have another thing I have to jump over.”

“That’s the thing, Aussie, they do all that hard work, but there’s no guarantee of where it’ll fall. Also, it can get caught in the branches of other trees and never come down.”

“Imagine if we all worked like that, with no guarantees.”

“We do, Aussie. We can do as much as possible, but in the end, nobody knows how things will really turn out. There are no guarantees how the tree will fall.”

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FORSYTHIA IN SNOW

We had a spring snowstorm today and I estimate we ended up with at least 9 inches of heavy, wet snow before it turned to rain. I loved every minute of it.

Yesterday I collected daffodils, but I was most concerned about our forsythia. In full bloom, its yellow flowers and the weight of so much snow were too much. I went out with a broom and cleaned the snow off it and off two budding lilac trees. Heavy snow at this time of year can cause serious damage.

Still, I loved it. Aussie and Henry cavorted in it in between vegging out on the sofas. From early morning on, with snowflakes as big as acorns coming down, the goldfinches kept on feeding, happily diving in and out of the feeders, as if to tell the snow: You can come down all you want, but it’s still spring. Or, as the famous wabbit said: “Let’s face it, Doc. I’ve read the script and I al­ready know how it turns out.”

I revel in the comfort of a warm home, draped under a thick gray shawl that Bernie brought me from Colombia years ago, now full of doghair. This comfort reminds me of those who lack comfort. I am still confounded by the inequities in life, not just limited to our species. I eat a slice of bread with avocado and remember the hungry. I enjoy warm clothes and can’t forget the young Lakota boy with holes in his sneakers as he took a friend and me around Wounded Knee in a glacial January twilight at Pine Ridge. I love my life, and can’t forget that I will die.

Something is true, and the opposite is true, too. If it means that a certain composure is beyond me, so be it.

I’m amazed at the resilience of things. Sitting on the steps with Jimena Pareja two weeks ago, waiting with food cards for immigrants to show up—mothers with children, a young man coming to pick up a food card because both his parents are still working on the farms—Jimena and I talk about the many young people, even children, trying to make it across the border from Mexico.

“They know it’s a window of time,” she says, “they know it will close.” A severe reaction, I fear, is just around the corner.

She tells me about Jose, let’s call him. When Jose was barely a toddler his mother got pregnant with a second child. She and her husband left Ecuador, made it all the way up to our neck of the woods, and have been living and working ever since, leaving Jose with his grandmother. But the grandmother is now sicker and older, so they decided to take a chance and bring Jose up here.

They found two older men who were planning to do this trip and sent Jose with them. They made it all the way up to Mexico—

“Did they fly?” I ask. Ecuador is way down in South America.

Jimena shakes her head. In Mexico they found a coyote to bring them across the border.

“How much is a coyote?” I ask her.

“Three thousand dollars per person,” she tells me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a man, woman, or child, it’s $3,000. And all the coyote does is take them across the Rio Grande and then close to a Border Patrol, leaves them there and goes back home. Many people die like that.”

But Jose and his two older companions met up with the Border Patrol.

“When there’s a child,” she explains to me, “he has to have a name and phone number for his parents, the Border Patrol will call them, and the parents have 48 hours to respond. If they don’t respond, they send the child back. If they do, and let’s say they live here, they keep him/her till  there’s a group of children from the Northeast and then a Border Patrol officer takes them into New York and they let the families know when and where to pick them up.”

Jose’s parents waited for the phone call, and finally one came. Jose informed his parents that he was tested for Covid and found positive. The other two men were negative and passed through, but the Border Patrol returned him to Ecuador.

“So now what?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “They will probably try again. They have to get all that money together, find another adult or two, and Jose will again leave Ecuador, get all the way up to Mexico, find a coyote, do all those things again and hope this time it will be different.”

“How do you do that?” I finally ask her, after we’re both quiet for a while. “How do you send a 9-year-old boy across such a distance a second time, with such risks?”

“I don’t know, Eve,” she says. “I won’t even let my boys go to the street corner alone, and they’re 12 and 14.” The older one is already planning to study mathematics at MIT, taking extra classes, volunteering all over town at various projects to meet that school’s requirements.

“You see, Eve,” she explains to me, “they have nothing there. If you’re not part of a certain class, you’ll never go to school, you won’t get into college, you can’t even get a job because to get a job you have to be connected to people, and if you’re not, you have no life. I don’t mean what they say here when kids say they don’t have a life in the virus because they can’t go out and see their friends, over there they really have no life. No job, no money, no education, no food, just nothing. That’s why they send little boys from as far away as Ecuador.”

In late afternoon I looked at the forsythia once again. More snow had fallen on top after I’d cleared it up, but now, with the snow melting, the branches lift up and the bright yellow flowers are still there. Not all, a few stay down, weakened and maybe even broken by the snow. But most rise up.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

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ANOTHER SNEAKY BUDDHIST

I came across this photo of Bernie and Pake Hall, from Sweden, at a restaurant the last time we were in Krakow, Poland, for our annual retreat at Auschwitz. It must have been November 2017, almost 2 years after his stroke, and Bernie had a band-aid on his nose. Underneath was a squamous cell melanoma that would eventually necessitate a couple of surgeries. Already it looked pretty ugly, so he covered it up with a band-aid.

For the last year or so of Bernie’s life, he spoke to a counselor by phone every week. It was a generous offer by an old friend, and to my surprise, Bernie took him up on it. I still remember the phone conversation.

“If he’d like to talk to me, I’m available,” was the message.

I said: “Bernie doesn’t talk to therapists; he doesn’t talk to counselors. Just to warn you ahead of time.”

Bernie said yes, and they talked weekly. Not very long, I noticed, sometimes 15-20 minutes. I didn’t hear what they said. Every once in a while I’d ask how it was going, he said fine, and that was it.

They had their conversation the day I returned home from Europe on November 2, 2018, and Bernie died 36 hours later. A few weeks later his counselor died, too.

Very shortly after that second death I had a conversation with the counselor’s partner, who  told me that while his partner never shared the contents of those conversations, much as Bernie hadn’t shared them with me, he did say that his last conversation with Bernie had been a very important one, and that something had really opened up for Bernie during that last talk.

“What?” I asked on the phone.

“I don’t know,” he said, “he never told me, and he’s not here anymore.”

Bernie didn’t tell me anything, and he’s not here, either, I thought to myself.

At first I was very moved. Then I started torturing myself. What was it? What did they talk about? Was it about his stroke? Was it about his life? Was it about us? Was there some breakthrough? It had to be big, I reasoned.

Over and over again I tried to imagine the phone dialogue as he sat on his chair after lunch, his closing up the phone, resting in bed for the afternoon. Over and over, I imagined what life might have been due to that big opening. His body was probably going into sepsis even then, but no one knew.

I got upset about it. What’s the good of a breakthrough if you go and  die right afterwards? It’s just like Bernie to do something like that, I thought.

Remembering those times, I think: You still want things to have been different, don’t you? You still want him to have been different. What a sneaky Buddhist you are! You still can’t be with things as they are, with Bernie as he was. You want another turn at the wheel, another opportunity, another change.

Whatever happened in that phone conversation, I’ll never know. I’m left with what was, which was huge, and still, at times, not enough.

I think of Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. God (an old white guy with a beard) stretches out his right arm to touch Adam, while Adam (young white guy) stretches out his left arm to touch God. They reach but never touch.

It’s not about God and Adam but about me and people,  me and him. I wasn’t him and he wasn’t me, I think to myself. We had our moments, hours, days, did so much together. We empathize, listen, care for, yes, love too—all that’s available, but we’re different so we can’t fully touch no matter how hard we try.

But oh, that trying! That reaching!

 

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AUSSIE UP FOR ADOPTION

“OMG, it’s raining again.”

“Aussie, it hasn’t rained in a long time. We need rain.”

“We need dog walks worse.”

“Not in the rain.”

“There you go again, being old!”

“Aussie, I take you out every single day.”

“Not in the rain, you don’t! Not in snowstorms! Not to mention all the other times.”

“What other times, Aussie?”

“You know how embarrassing it is to walk with you? You breathe hard!”

“We went up a steep hill yesterday!”

“You don’t walk, you pant. You stop a million times—”

“Not a million times!”

“–while behind us jog a cute black Lab with a YOUNG woman. They go go go while we do slow slow slowI. BORING!”

“Aussie, no one stopped you from running with the Lab, you’re usually not on leash. I think you were a little scared of him.”

“Moi? I stay with you on purpose to make sure you don’t drop dead. Let me tell you, it’s embarrassing to be with an old person.”

“Aussie, it was really steep.”

“I didn’t see it bothering her!”

“She was at least 30 years younger than I am.”

“Why, oh why, do I have to waste my youth, my one precious youth, on being with somebody old!”

I look at my face while on Zoom this morning. This isn’t my pasty early-morning look with glasses and sleepy eyes—Aussie hates that, tells me not to show up till I get things more together. So I did the best I could, combed my hair, put in the contact lens, a little make-up, tried to smile. But all the cheer in the world doesn’t hide the lines, the eternal mole on the side, shadows under the eyes, grooves and creases.

In the past I wanted to look like my mother as I got older. I used to look like her a lot as a young girl, then my face seemed to go its own way, but I always hoped that as I got older our two faces would reconcile. Why? Because to this day she has very fine, upstanding cheek bones, naturally arched, disciplined eyebrows, and till about 5 years ago, a debutante’s pale, silky skin.

Not me. Don’t have the bone structure, the delicate, narrow chin, the angled profile. Let’s say that, in my case, things are more spread out.  So I gave up, decided to look like myself.

Aussie’s comment: “That’s nothing to smile about!”

Sometimes my big question is: Who am I? I suspect the rest of the world knows because it’s right there in the open, I’m the only one who still gets confused about it. And please, spiritual people, don’t tell me I’m nothing because I’ll remind you that I’m nothing in my own way.

“I’ve decided to put myself up for adoption.”

“Don’t do that, Aussie.”

“Here’s the ad: If you take three-hour walks and half a dozen car trips a day, then do I have a great dog for you! Sleek—

“Ha!”

“—and loving, gentle, docile, and all-around adorable pooch. Email your applications,; males and retirees need not apply, also anybody who shoots guns. I require very little: cohoe salmon in the morning, a little fillet in the evening, maybe some roast chicken, a bunch of buffalo treats in the middle. I’m a STEAL!”

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.
 

 

 

 

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THE BACK SEAT OF THE CAR

“OK, everybody, we’re here in the park. Jump out.”

Prince Henry jumps out of the passenger seat; Aussie hangs back.

“Come on, Aussie, we’re off.”

“I don’t know if I can concentrate. All that noise!”

“There’s construction up the hill, Aussie, but we’re not going there.”

“It’s too much.”

“Aussie, they’re not even drilling.  I’m putting a leash on you and taking you out. I’ll take it off as soon  as we’re in the woods. There, now you’re free again.”

“I’m running! Free as a bird!”

“You know, Aussie—”

“Here it comes.”

“Here what comes?”

“Every time you say the words You know, Aussie, it’s the start of a dharma talk.”

“Aussie, life is full of disruption. We can’t avoid it.”

“I avoid it great.”

“How?”

“I cower in the back seat of the car.”

“Aussie, we all like things to come out the way we plan them, we want everything to be just right.”

“You bet!”

“It won’t happen. Where are you going? It’s gunshots, Auss, and they’re far away. This entire area is full of shooting ranges. You’re from Texas, I thought you’d be used to gunshots.”

“It’s like the OK Corral out there!”

“Aussie, we feel that if we do things just right everything will work out. Don’t go left, go right. Don’t marry that person, marry this person. Try not to make mistakes. But that’s just hogwash, Aussie. Disruption and disturbance are part of the game.”

“Not in the back seat of the car they’re not.”

“Even there, Aussie, even there. Life happens. Turmoil happens. The real question isn’t how to prevent them, it’s how we work with them when they happen.”

“I jump onto the back seat of the car.”

“Aussie, you’re the one who bugs me to take you out all the time. You want to go on outings, you want adventure!”

“I don’t want anything unexpected.”

“What kind of adventure is that? Now where are you going?”

“Listen to that noise!”

“It’s a group of little kids, Auss. They’re playing and laughing, having a good time. Aussie, don’t go back to the car!”

“I don’t like little kids, they scream and squeal, make sudden moves.”

“Look at Henry, Auss. He’s playing with them, jumping up, getting petted right and left.”

“I have an appointment in the parking lot!”

“Aussie, if you don’t face your fears, how will you be fearless? Aussie, you come here now. Aussie? AUSSIE!”

 

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