NASA AND KABLOOIE

“I love painting my toenails, Aussie.”

“Silliest thing I’ve watched you do. Only humans do something so dumb”.

“You know something, Auss? It’s wonderful to do dumb things every once in a while, not to always be serious. Even as I talk earnestly on the phone about something, I look at my silly red toes, with the two tiny toe rings on the second toe, and I laugh.”

“I thought Buddhists don’t color their toes. Or their fingers. I thought you guys have to be serious all the time.”

“Don’t tell anybody, Aussie, but deep inside I’m happy.”

“Buddhists are not supposed to be happy!”

“Fall is magnificent here; it’s impossible to look out the window or walk in New England now without being happy, even frivolous.”

“Frivolous! Now? With the election coming up? Even I know Donald’s in trouble.”

“Even with the elections and the kablooie around the Supreme Court.”

“What’s kablooie, Boss?”

“A very important word that describes the circus we’re going through right now, Aussie. Kablooie means explosion. It means everything’s going down!”

“Donald’s not going down!”

“I think he is, Auss, but that’s not the point.”

“If only he’d take me into the White House to be his dog. Everybody will love him. I’m much prettier than Melania. Donald will huff and puff and yell Kablooie! Kablooie!, but I’ll bat my pretty eyelashes and look soulfully at the cameras, and you just watch, we’ll win paws down.”

“This is not about Trump, it’s about the country, Auss: the big dramas, the splashy headlines, he screams this and she screams that, a Senate that’s become a sandbox for toddlers—enough already!”

“Kablooie! Kablooie!”

“We’re not going kablooie, Aussie.”

“I don’t care, I love the word.”

“It’s always important to keep in mind that we don’t really know the outcome of things. I think Trump’s time as President unveiled much we didn’t want to look at and now there’s a loud wake-up call we can’t ignore. It’s time to live differently, to sacrifice. How many of us thought like this during Obama’s years? Trump’s years in the White House might be valuable in the long run after all.”

“Of course they’re valuable. We learned to appreciate the importance of a First Dog. Kablooie!”

“Aussie, I first came across kablooie in Calvin and Hobbs, a cartoon about a little boy and his stuffed tiger, which may be alive. Come bedtime, Calvin always asks his father to read him the same book: Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie. But his father’s so sick of it he won’t read it anymore to Calvin.”

“Why? Because it’s violent?”

“That’s the funny thing, Auss. You never find out what the book’s about. All you know is that Calvin always wants to hear that book read to him, and his father won’t do it anymore. They fight all the time, but you don’t really know what they’re fighting about.”

“Anything called Gooey Kablooie must be a great story, Boss.”

“I agree, Aussie. Some of that is what’s happening now. We fight and we fight, but we’re not always sure what we’re fighting about.”

“I’m fighting about having a dog in the—”

“Some might say that it’s all about racism, the pandemic, climate change, gender rights, religious rights and abortion, lots and lots of things. But it’s always good to remember that we never really know how things will pan out. We do what we do, and life takes over, Aussie.”

“Huh?”

“You have to stay open even as you fight for things, Auss. That’s not easy. It’s called not-knowing.”

“Here we go again. NASA.”

“NASA? What’s space flights got to do with anything?”

“NASA. Not another spiritual answer!”

“Aussie, there are things we know we don’t know, but there are lots more things we don’t know we don’t know. Like who knew a pandemic could change our life so radically?”

“NASA! NASA! That’s what I want you to call me from now on. Every time you want me to come, just call out: NASA! NOT ANOTHER SPIRITUAL ANSWER—come!”

“I can’t do that, Aussie. I’m a Zen teacher, spiritual give-and-take is in my blood!”

“I don’t mind what you take, it’s what you give that I mind. I don’t want no spiritual treats.”

“By the way, how would you like to be called Kablooie instead of NASA or Aussie?”

“Too long for a dog, Boss.”

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DISSENT AND DISSENT AND DISSENT

“I’ve been thinking a lot, Chavale, and I finally decided: My conscience is clear.”

“Conscience about what, mom?”

“About the family. I can’t say anything about your father, he’s his own responsibility. But you children were my responsibility and I think I raised you right, right?”

“Right, mom.”

“By that I mean that the most important thing is to help others, and all three of you do that. That’s what I tell my friends. ‘You want to be happy, help others. Maybe at first, doing bad things feels good, but in the end it won’t.’” She thinks a little. “I just don’t understand why life is so tough.”

“You mean, the closing down, mom?” Beginning last Friday afternoon, the eve of the Jewish new year, Israel began its second full shut-down, with residents limited in how far they can wander from home and checkpoints and police on the city streets. My brother and sister got written permission they wave to the police in order to visit my mother.

“Not just that. I have to speak more to God.”

“You spoke with God, mom?”

“On the eve of Yom Kippur [Yom Kippur has not transpired yet, it starts Sunday night, September 27] I spoke to God and I told him, ‘There’s a problem with creation. You made human beings to do good, not bad, so why do so many still do that? Why is life so hard? Something isn’t working in the creation. Somebody goofed here.’”

“Did you get an answer, mom?”

“Not yet.”

Over the past several days we’ve been on the cusp of winter. Temperatures plunged, especially nighttime, and for the first time that I can remember I put the heat on before October. We had frost warnings and I brought in some plants, though the mornings have shown no frost so far. It’ll warm up tomorrow, so the flowers have to survive one more night before returning to  more days of sun, but the end is inevitable. Some are already careening over and nothing flowers anymore.

Time to rest? Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

For the past month, since reading of cancer appearing in her pancreas, she’s been on our wellbeing list, so I wasn’t surprised when she died. I was shocked. Somehow, I thought that someone as strong as she could cheat death, at least till January. I visualized her lying back after the inauguration of Joe Biden and saying, “Now I can rest.”

She’s resting now; not me.

She’s been quoted a lot lately, but the words that really spoke to me were her words on dissent, which she had to do plenty of on a conservative Supreme Court:

“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong, and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions, and gradually over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but tomorrow.”

And that has to be my hope, too. All too often I get discouraged. As I wrote the other day, I try to stay centered and stable, but at times it feels as if the world has become the Great Tempter: So, you think it’s been bad till now? Well what about this, and what about this, and just you wait till tomorrow. We’ll see you stay centered tomorrow!

What about Ginsburg’s seat being replaced by Republican senators? What about if Trump, against all odds, wins in November? What do I do?

I’ll dissent, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll say to whoever’s listening that this doesn’t work according to my understanding. I’ll take courage from Ginsburg’s words. It’s not for now that I’m fighting, it’s not for me or my peers, those of us who have fewer years ahead than behind. I dissent for later, for future generations. I’m not predicating anything on results today or tomorrow or next month or even next year.

Hope has nothing to do with tomorrows, it has to do with what your vision is today, where you stand now, what you stand for. And if things don’t go your way, dissent and dissent and dissent. There are infinite ways to dissent, not just writing a court opinion, so find your way.

One of my ways of dissenting, in this grim, uncharitable time, is to do the opposite of what my self-preserving instincts tell me to do: loosen up, and instead of grab—give. So I made up an Amazon Wish List for the children of immigrant families who got Dell Chromes from their schools but no headphones, no backpacks, no notebooks, no calculators or protractors, no money for paper and binders and even crayons.

The list includes two expensive calculators for igh school students studying calculus; the rest are backpacks, more moderate calculators, and also items many of us would find cheap, like index cards, graph paper, flash drives, and sticky notes. In a family that struggles to feed its children, there is little money for such “extras” even though their teachers gave us this list of items, indicating they’re essential, not extras. You can find this Amazon Wish List here.

For now, the items will come to me and I’ll bring them to Jimena. Whatever you could afford to help these children learn would be greatly appreciated. You can also use the donate button below to send money for food cards, or else send a check to me: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.

I feel like saying, “Do it for Ruth.” Instead, I invoke my mother: “That’s what I tell my friends, you want to be happy, help others.”

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A BIRTHDAY, RBG, AND BEING A TREE

“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to Aussie! Happy birthday to you.” Aussie was three years old yesterday.

“I’m a dog, I don’t do birthdays.”

“I do birthdays, Aussie. I love to celebrate, get a cake, go out. We’re also celebrating that you’ve been here two years! Remember when you came to us from Texas?”

“I was supposed to go to Washington and be the White House dog, but the truck got lost and here I am.”

“And lucky for you, Auss, because you’d be homeless once again after January. They’ll throw you out to the streets, you watch.”

“He won’t take me to Mar-A-Lago? I can do Florida.”

“Naah, you’re a New England dog now, Aussie. Remember how much you love the snow?”

“I want to be a Dixie dog.”

“Being a Dixie dog is not so kosher anymore, Aussie. People don’t like Dixie because it brings up the antebellum South.”

“What happens to Dixie cups?”

“You know what else, Auss? Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.”

“Is that bad?”

“I’ll miss her very much. She was so fierce and honest. Some people say it’s a catastrophe, but actually she lived a long time and was very ill, she couldn’t go on much longer. She once repeated this advice that her mother-in-law gave her:  ‘In every good marriage it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’”

“What?”

“It helps to be a little deaf. Meaning that if somebody says something nasty or insensitive to you, it’s not bad to pretend you’re deaf and never heard it.”

“What?”

I didn’t know RBG died Friday till I returned from the zendo this afternoon and opened up my computer. The media, of course, gave some space to Ginsberg’s humanity and achievements but focused bigly, in Trump’s words, on the politics of her death.

I almost wrote dirty politics, but politics isn’t dirty in and of itself, it’s how it mixes with our fears and small, stubborn insanities that makes politics dirty. Instantly the ramparts go up, the archers and shooters take their place, and instead of embodying Ginsberg’s combination of fierceness and respect for all, we’re into hate and contempt.

The more I actively resist getting pulled into the vitriol of this election, the harder life seems to make it for me, almost as if it’s saying: You thought you could weather these lies and calumny that are our daily Presidential staples—now see this! Where is your peace now?

Ruth Bader Ginsberg centers me. She was fierce, but not insulting. A lady, but at no cost to her brilliance or tenacity. She stood firm, using her skills and gifts to push the horizon just a little further, and a little further. The choice between resignation and backlash isn’t the only one available to us. If anything, these are the times when we should take a break to mourn and reflect on what we’ve learned from her.

Today was the first morning we returned to the zendo to do a memorial service for a man who died so young. I  reflected on the vast hope we put into our children, how much we want them to be well, to succeed, to be happy. I could see the young man’s photo close by while the trees outside waved and fluttered, clearly aware of fall.

That’s what I want to be like, I thought. I want to sit like a tree, stand like a tree, and move like a tree. Be strong and centered, giving and taking with the seasons, harboring life inside and underneath, in silent, endless communion with the rest of the world.

Instead, I got angry after reading the papers.

“I can’t believe that you want to be THAT MAN’S dog, Aussie.”

“I can’t hear a word you say.”

“You know how he loathed RBG? He hates strong females, Auss.”

“Not a word.”

“He doesn’t care about dogs. He doesn’t care about nature, about animals, about anything that isn’t money.”

“What did you say?”

“Comes January they’ll throw you out of that White House quicker than you could say Boo.”

“Bow Wow, not Boo.”

“And stop pretending you can’t hear, you’re a dog, you have better hearing than I do.”

“I’m pretending to be deaf so as not to ruin our relationship. Try to be a little grateful for my wisdom and maturity. From now on I won’t hear a word you say. Nothing will penetrate, promise.”

“I bought you steak for your birthday, Aussie.”

“Where is it?”

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A HAWK FLIES

“Mom, how are you?”

My sister texted that my mother is having a hard time. Israel is going into a strict 3-week lockdown for the Jewish holidays. There is arguing and fighting on TV, much confusion. No synagogue for my mother this year, no hearing the shofar.

”She thinks that somebody’s trying to kill her,” my sister explained.

I called her.

“Don’t worry about me, Chavale,” my mother says, “we have a plan.”

“What plan is that, mom?”

“We’re going to do something very big to beat this. Very, very big.”

“Beat what, mom?”

“You know,” she says vaguely, “this. What is going on.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“I can’t tell you, Chavale, it’s a secret. But listen, do you have a television? Watch the news tomorrow and you’ll hear all about it.”

“Who’s planning this, mom?”

“Two friends and me. But I can’t say anything now, you’ll know tomorrow because you’ll hear it on the news.”

In the middle of dementia, my mother is still the eternal hero. There are enemies everywhere but she will beat them, she will serve on the front lines of the coming war. She tells me this often. It’s how she copes with hardship and the loss of her mind.

How do you cope with it? How do you cope with loss of your mind and your body? Of someone you love?

My friend, Fleet Maull, lost his only child, a 42-year-old son found in bed by his mother in Peru, probably from complications coming out of epileptic attacks that began after a horrific beating he suffered years ago. There’s something about losing a child that catches me around the throat so hard I can hardly breathe. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: the phone call out of nowhere, the news out of nowhere. The absolute, irredeemable fact of loss.

I come across people whose relentless caution with covid seems to me to border on the extreme. Put gloves on all the time, don’t stop at a rest stop but pee and shit in the woods (a mask, sanitizer, and gloves aren’t good enough), take a covid test before venturing anywhere (though I come from an area that has seen 0 covid infections in August and 1 in July).

Everyone has a right to their own guidelines, as I have a right to agree to those terms or not, but at times I wonder what control we’re trying to exert here. There’s a difference between taking precautions and trying to practically guarantee that nothing bad will happen.

“Americans haven’t learned that life carries risks,” an African woman told me.

Risks and loss for everybody, not just our poor cousins in Third World countries or the hundreds of employees who died from covid infection because they worked in unsafe conditions in slaughterhouses so that we could have our supply of meat. Exposure is everywhere, you can’t avoid it.

I take the usual precautions, but I don’t wish to fight exposure. My life isn’t any more important than anyone else’s. It’s true, I don’t work in a slaughterhouse and I’m not about to lose my home, at least not in the near run. But I will be part of a group holding an in-person service for Fleet’s son on Saturday morning. We will maintain distance and wear masks, all the usual covid-related accessories will be there, but I need to show up in person. I need to see him face-to-face and see his grief, and be seen by him, in my deep, deep sorrow, face-to-face. I want to expose my broken heart to him, and while there will be opportunities to do that on Zoom, sometimes we just need to do it in person.

I wanted to be exposed in flight and airports in order to see my mother still alive because I don’t know when she’ll go. If she goes soon, I won’t be able to attend her funeral or the Shiva. The brave, demented woman continues to imagine herself at the head of an army, taking care of her family, taking care of Jews everywhere, taking care of the world. Even with a clear mind she would wish to be exposed, to share in the risks of being human.

We love and we lose. The risks of being human are everywhere.

I often think of love, of finding someone who wishes to deeply connect, to share a life with a man once again. At the same time, a voice tells me inside: You know, we humans are pretty small when it comes right down to it. We’re small creatures with enormous needs for this and for this and for this and for this, hungry ghosts everywhere. By all means, find love if you can, but don’t forget, you’re not that big. Ours is not the tape measure by which to measure the world, by which to measure how much I give and how much I receive by tiny teaspoonfuls.

So much gives me life that I’ll never repay it in a thousand lifetimes.

How do I repay the gently sloping oak behind the Kwan-Yin in the back yard? We would be nowhere without the green universe that none of us created. How do I repay the hawk that several days in a row has flown low across the windshield of my car as I drove down the road above my house? I must remember to tell this to my Indian friends, I think, and immediately recall that 4 days ago we heard from Renee Iron Hawk that her grandson, whom she is raising, had a fire accident and now lies in a burn unit bed in a Sacramento hospital with burns on 92% of his body (you can support Magnus’s recovery by going here).

Renee took precautions, and still this happened. She knows it, and sounds stoic on the phone. It’s the risks of being human.

Just do your work, I tell myself. Not in some huge way—my work doesn’t have such proportions, nor do my mistakes. I’m not heroic like my mother. Just be ready, I tell myself each morning, and take care. A hawk will guide you on your way.

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I’M YOUR ASSISTANT

Jimena continues to amaze. She works in the schools from morning to evening, focusing on the Latino immigrant community from 3:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon, and then goes to the offices of Catholic Charities to tutor teens in algebra and younger kids with remedial reading and arithmetic (“Whatever they  need!”) from 6:00 to 9:00 four evenings a week.

“At 5:30 on Friday I collapse,” she tells me. “I won’t work on weekends. Weekends are for my family.”

It’s late afternoon and pouring down buckets. The plants need every bit of it, but not the crowd of women and kids waiting below. Jimena and I stand on one of two steps under a small marquee, and today of all days a crowd has arrived for food cards. Everyone is careful, only one approaches at a time. The others stand outside patiently in the downpour, some with small children, some with umbrellas. Nobody seems to mind one bit. Unreserved gratitude everywhere.

“Espere!” Jimena yells to the first woman and runs to get something from her car. When the next person arrives she does it again, and by that time I’m running with her to empty her car trunk of many white plastic bags that she is giving out to parents, one by one. I peer inside. Each bag contains a Dell Chromebook.

Schools are opening up remotely, and the families need their computer notebooks. Perhaps in mid-October they’ll go into a hybrid learning situation, with half the students coming in for two days a week and the other half the other two days.

I should have taken a picture of the 15 plastic bags with Chromes (she’ll give out more from her home the next day), but I didn’t think of it till just a few were left. The reason is that when I realized what was in the bags, I felt a surge of pride and appreciation. Of what? Of this country that provides Dell Chromebooks to immigrant children who need it—including children in undocumented families.

I know the horror stories from the border: family separations, children in prison-like conditions, illness, even death. But I’ll take the good news with the bad anytime, and the good news is that here, families are getting help. They’re getting care for the kids. The school district hires a speedster like Jimena. Comcast agrees to provide Wifi at $10 a month for the first 6 months.

A while ago I talked with an old friend who moved to Mexico.  A photographer, she drove through adjoining villages to take photos of the old people living there. “It’s hard to believe the poverty,” she said on the phone. “They’re practically starving. The young people all leave to the States because there’s nothing for them here, absolutely nothing.”

So yes, I hear from Jimena that Moise needs money to pay down the electricity bill and Manuela can’t work anymore because she’s giving birth any day now, and somehow—through us, through people reaching back into their purses again and again—we and they get it together. Yesterday the president of Green River Zen brought me a letter she had to sign and added two $100 bills in the letter. “For the families,” she said.

This life-giving generosity should never be taken for granted; it should be made visible, marked, shouted from the rooftops.

“I’m your assistant,” I tell Jimena as we rush out into the  rain to bring more bags from the car. I give out food cards and the few remaining crosses that I brought from Jerusalem as she gives out the Chromebooks and has folks sign for them.

And there are further implications, as a famous Zen master wrote. In some families there are 4-5 kids sitting in different corners of a room over their Chromebooks doing different classes. They need over-the-ear headphones. l do some online comparison shopping  (ordinarily I’m a terrible shopper, but I may have to get better at it), found that Best Buy was selling the Insignia headphones she needed for half the price of the others, and ordered 15 of them for a total of $440 because I was afraid they’d run out. I think they’re coming in tomorrow, so maybe on Thursday it’ll be Jimena’s assistant bearing gifts in white plastic bags, of which she doesn’t have many in the house.

Many don’t know how to use the notebooks without a mouse; they don’t know how to log in or choose passwords, so they come over to Jimena’s house and she shows them what to do.

“I need $400,” she tells me in the middle of handing out Chromebooks, “can you help?”

A family is being kicked out of their home. Apartments even here, in this low-income town, rent out for $900, so families crowd in together because no one family can afford that rent. Sure enough, the landlord told one family to get out. Each time they change homes they need to come up with first month’s and last month’s rent, and security.

“I think the Interfaith Council will give me some, and the church up the hill will give me some,” she says. “Could you do $400?”

“Yes,” I say on behalf of all of us. “We’re your assistants, Jimena.”

She laughs. “They’ll also need furniture because they have nothing. I already found them a couch, here, take a look,” and out she takes one of her phones to show me a photo of the couch that someone is donating. Jimena has several phones for the various entities she works for, not to mention her private life. When one rings she goes from one to another till she finds the right one.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I tell her. Someone is renting a room in my home and is ready to give away a queen-size bed and two cabinets. Trying to keep up with Jimena is like  racing a whirlwind.

I’ve often thought of bringing in one of the families into my own home. But I live in a rural area, not in a town, only accessible by car and without the neighbors and family they rely on so much.

I don’t work on weekends.

But I happen to know she does because she put me to work this past weekend, sending me a wish list of things the kids need: everything from computer-carrying backpacks to computer mice to calculators to cheaper crayons and paper.

We’re both amateurs at this. “I need quantities,” I write her back, “and please be more specific.” I figure I won’t hear from her till Monday at the earliest.

Four hours later I get a list with quantities and specific details. So I order the headphones and start working on an Amazon wish list.

Do I worry we won’t get what we need? “You have such a mind of impoverishment,” Bernie used to say, shaking his head.

“Oh, and by the way, Byron sent soup,” Jimena says. Byron  is her husband, a great cook.

“Sent who?”

“Sent you. He makes great chicken soup and he did this especially for you. I have some in the car, I’ll get it.”

“I’ll get it, I’m your assistant,” I tell her. “Please thank him for me. By the way, is Byron Jewish?”

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ZEN PEACEMAKER POOCHES?

“Of all times, why are you taking me on a ride now? We had all morning and you didn’t make a move.”

“I have the time now, Aussie.”

“You know what I just left back home? Emma’s frying up bacon!”

“I’m taking you to the Farmers Co-op, Aussie, where I get your dog supplies. I’m getting you your food, your treats, all kinds of wonderful things.”

“You took me away from bacon for the Farmers Co-op? You want to compare dry kibble—”

“It’s premium, Aussie!”

“—and rawhide—”

“Buffalo?”

“—with bacon frying on the oven? Do humans have a nose?”

“Don’t worry, Auss, she’ll leave you some of the bacon fat.”

“And what about the pan? How is it going to get clean if I don’t lick it up? Speaking of which, do I get paid for all this housework, for licking dishes clean before they go into the dishwasher? I do not!”

“What’s gotten into you today, Aussie? You’ve been complaining nonstop.”

“I do so much in this house and get no credit! I work and work and work, and nothing ever changes!”

“Things change all the time, Aussie. Take a look at the Washington Redskins.”

“Is that a new kind of dog treat?”

“It’s a football team from Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, that for years called itself a name that insulted Native Americans, the original people who lived here. Year after year, at the end of another losing season, I’d send them an email: Change the name! And guess what?”

“What?”

“They finally changed their name, Aussie! After swearing up and down they’ll never do it, they did. See? Things change after all.”

“What do they call themselves now?”

“The Washington Football Team, at least till they come up with a new name. You know, something inspiring. This is American football, Auss. They’re probably looking for something that sounds courageous, warrior-like, and tough.”

“What about the Washington Dogs?”

“Not sure about that, Auss.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Not all dogs are courageous or warrior-like. Harry was. Remember when the big bear came to the fence? You politely withdrew, but Harry ran right up to him barking like crazy, protecting the house. He went nose to nose with the biggest bear I ever saw. Harry was brave, Aussie.”

“Harry was a dummy. What about Washington Bitches?”

“You know, Auss, naming things can be tough. You should have seen what happened here when they wanted to change the local sports teams’ name from Turners Falls Indians to something less controversial. They went through a whole process, held a referendum, listened to everybody, but what an uproar that caused—right here, in progressive Massachusetts!”

“I don’t get it. What’s in a name?”

“That’s a famous question, Aussie. There’s a lot in a name. We get courage from names. We get inspiration, dedication, physical and mental toughness.”

“I think you should call your Zen group Green River Zen Aussies.”

“I don’t think they’ll approve the name change, Auss.”

“Zen Peacemaker Pooches? I like the sound of that. Do you think they’ll be offended?”

“Some Zen Peacemakers may be offended.”

“I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about the pooches. Indians don’t want to be used in a name, why should pooches? I know! Zen Peacemaker Trumps! It’s flamboyant, it’s charismatic, and it’s flashy. And he won’t mind at all, he loves having his name out there.”

“I’ll propose it to the board, Auss.”

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GREG BECHLE’S PRAYER

A friend emailed for ideas regarding a memorial service, and as I looked up different files I came upon this prayer:

As I light this incense

I offer this prayer

to you Kanzeon.

Please protect me from internal demons

and bad situations.

Sure the world is a mess,

just help me not to worry.

Just do what I can do to help,

and to realize my capacities and limitations.

Kanzeon is Kwan-Yin, the goddess of compassion. The man who recited this prayer every day in the years before his death was Greg Shindo Bechle. I wrote about Greg in The Book of Householder Koans, namely, that he had struggled for decades with PTSD after being stabbed with a 9” knife when he was 16. 35 years later, when meditation practice and psychiatric treatment had finally begun to stop the horrific flashbacks he suffered from, he was told by his doctor that he had terminal cancer and would die within the year.

After his death I was shown his prayer, and we incorporated it into the memorial service for him.

Today I came across it again, and realized how many people I have met over my life who have been my teachers. Of course, Bernie immediately comes to mind. When he and I got together a good friend asked me: “So what’s it like, living with a Zen master?”

I didn’t know how to answer that—we were arduously working things out like other couples, and we’d continue to do that till the end—so I shrugged and said: “He’s my husband.”

But over the years I understood. There wasn’t a meal or coffee that we shared that a certain part of me didn’t watch and listen to him, not a private time seeing a movie that my eyes didn’t veer to the periphery not to lose sight of him. There was a special layer of alertness there that I don’t think I gave others, perhaps I should have; still, I stayed attentive to him over many years.

When he died, he didn’t leave a small emptiness, rather a vast emptiness. And as time goes on, the hollow sense of that emptiness is fading and the vast part of it takes over. I don’t know how else to put it.

I got an email from the new president of Greyston Foundation, Joe Kenner, asking me how I could put Bernie’s motivation for starting Greyston in just a few words, and one way of saying that is vast emptiness. But I won’t use that term, I’ll probably use One Body instead.

Only it’s not Bernie I wish to write about, it’s people like Greg who sat together with us for a short time and then died, leaving me this gorgeous small prayer. It’s people who dribble-drabbled to Greyston as we built and developed it, curious about this phenomenon of sitting in the early morning and getting up to work with folks from all walks of life for the rest of the day, including those without homes or work.

It’s the people we met at many retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau who came from the Balkans, Palestine, Rwanda, Pakistan, and Syria. It’s people I’ll see later today for food cards (assuming the big thunderstorms permit it). THEY GIVE MORE THAN THEY TAKE.

“I pray all the time,” a woman told me. She has two children at home and supports them on a midnight factory shift till the factory closes. I don’t think she meant that she’s constantly asking God for help, she probably does, but I knew from her words that it was far more than that, an acknowledgment that there was something far bigger in her life than poverty and worry, something beneficent and connecting, the most alive thing of all.

I have received so much from them, as I have from fellow travelers, those of us on this path of spiritual engagement, who know that meditation isn’t just something you do on a cushion but continues through your every movement. Meditation does you, you don’t do it. This life of purpose we share is the great gift of my life, Bernie’s great gift to me and many others.

Last winter I read a book, another gift given me by Abundance, by a European Zen teacher on how he saw the coming climate crisis. There was no doubt about it, it was going to be catastrophic. He talked of the garden in back of his center in Sweden and said he’d like to think that future generations will have that garden to come to, sit in, and get sustenance from as they face these big challenges.

I thought then to myself that I, too, wish to leave something for the future generations. I have no children, I certainly don’t have money. I don’t even garden.

And that’s when I remembered the Zen Peacemaker Order that Bernie always tried to get off the ground, an order of people living a vow-driven life to act on behalf of our entire planet and all its inhabitants. People who sit first thing in the morning to experience once again that vast emptiness that births everything, and then get up from their chair or cushion and work in the world as agents of that great emptiness. It does them, they don’t do it. They’re the best people I’ve ever met, but even for the short while that they and I exist, we’re not doing really anything, it does it all.

So a wonderful group of teachers and senior practitioners is creating that Order as I write this. Earlier today I spoke to Jorge Koho Mello, a teacher in Switzerland . He will represent Europe in our discussions. He said: “Zen has to change some of its forms and we are the generation that, through Bernie, are the bridge to what future generations will do.”

Yes, I thought, but we must also be a bridge to a future when people will be broken and angry, disillusioned and afraid, Perhaps when rivalry over depleted resources and ecosystems will threaten us all. Some say we’re there already, or close to it. And indeed, I won’t lie to you, there have been times when I’ve closed my eyes and thought: It’s good I’m 70 and won’t live to see all this. But no, a Zen Peacemaker Order is a far better alternative.

This Order for people who seek fellowship for a meditation-based active life may be a gift and maybe not. I try not to exaggerate my importance in any of this, I’m a creature of small steps. And I’m reassured by Greg’s prayer of so many years ago:

Sure the world is a mess,

just help me not to worry.

Just do what I can do to help,

and to realize my capacities and limitations.

We’re doing something new. Below are now two Donate buttons, one for immigrant families and one for my blog. Each is tied to a different PayPal account and to separate bank accounts, for greater transparency–and to ease my bookkeeping. It’s taken a while and I hope they work; we’ll find out soon enough and make whatever adjustments are needed. Please follow your heart, and if you prefer to do this by check, send it to me: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write For food cards on the memo line.

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NO GOODBYE

Marie (not her real name) leaves without saying goodbye.

She rented a room here and lived in this house for 6 months, and told me she was leaving in early September when I returned from Israel. This morning she packed her bags into her car with her boyfriend’s help. I am in my office doing early-morning tasks, and when I go upstairs she’s gone. There’s the bed, the lounge chair, the side table, the dresser, my furniture, and nothing else.

I look around, shocked. She didn’t say goodbye, I thought to myself. I was looking forward to wishing her well, to congratulating her on the next steps she was taking in her life, moving to live in a different state. Life is so exciting when you’re in your early 20s. How could she not pause to say goodbye?

My mind hurries to cover up the rawness: Abstraction 1: She’s young, what can you expect? Abstraction 2: You were good neighbors but you weren’t close, what’s the big deal?

But I was here, I remonstrate with my mind. Where is the interaction, the human acknowledgment?

I think back to times I didn’t say goodbye, too. Skipped town, went on my way, and didn’t acknowledge the people I’d met at that specific event, on that specific evening, didn’t acknowledge that for just a few hours or even minutes we’d talked, exchanged looks and feelings, shared a ripe moment together.

Bernie was a little like that. We’d be having dinner and I would tell him about events of the day or difficulties I was having. He’d listen, say nothing or else change the subject, and I’d expostulate: “Wait a minute. I was just sharing something with you. Why don’t you say something back?”

After he died, for a long time all I could think of were the missed opportunities to listen to him, have a good back-and-forth. I was happy for the many days over the three years of his stroke when he’d sit up in bed at 10 in the morning and I’d join him, ask him about his night (they were not easy) and what the plans were for the day. We’d talk about the weather, whether he’d try to walk outdoors or not, what virtual meetings he had. Not that he had much to say. He almost never talked about pain or discomfort, I had to wheedle those details out of him like coaxing honey out of a bottle.

“Why don’t you tell me?” I’d say.

He’d shrug with his one unstroked shoulder. “What for?”

“I want to know!” You’re my husband, I care about you, I want to know. Don’t go into your shell just yet!

When do people start becoming abstractions to us? We nod hello without even seeing them, say good morning or goodbye with no eye contact. We may have lived in their home, exchanged pleasantries in the morning, asked about using the milk or butter, but when it’s time to leave we go without saying a word, as though their time with us was inconsequential, didn’t affect or change us in any way.

On Sunday I hosted a potluck gathering for members of Green River Zen Center. I baked some chicken (I don’t have a grill) and made a potato salad, and they did everything else. It was in the back yard, which is big enough to give everyone plenty of room for distance. We laid out the dishes on 2 tables and put out clusters of chairs and tables with plenty of distance in between.

Not everybody would come, but I had to see folks from the chin down. I had to see their shapes, how we changed, who grew taller, who grew more horizontal (moi!), who grew leaner. Who slumps when he walks, who is freer with her arms, what does their body look like, WHAT COLORS ARE THEY WEARING! What music are their arms playing, their legs, their necks and shoulders? How do they occupy the space they’re in?

Sensei and musician extraordinaire John Sprague played music right next to our Kwan-Yin, Aussie played with her friend, Joe, and the sun slowly set behind the trees.

That adventure worked out so well I decided to be really brazen and went to the movies last night. I purposely decided on a movie that wouldn’t bring in the  throngs, like Tenet, that had just opened, and saw David Copperfield instead. It was well done, there were a couple of scenes where I laughed out loud. Dickens, you son of a gun, I thought to myself.

And remembered  several days in London with Bernie for a big meeting, and one of those days we spent sightseeing with Peter Matthiessen, who was in London for his own purposes. We visited Westminster Abbey where Dickens was interred.

“A genius,” Peter says in his gravelly, lowest-I-ever-heard voice.

“Hmm!” I snort. “And where is George Eliot? Dickens left his family for an 18 year-old actress and they never hesitated to bury him here. They wouldn’t bury George Eliot in Westminster because she lived her entire life with George Lewes, whose wife wouldn’t divorce him because she was Catholic.”

“But he was Dickens,” mutters Peter.

“But she was George Eliot,” say I.

He snorts back.

Last night I loved Dickens all over again. But here’s the thing. I’d gone to the movies to be with people. I was the first to arrive and found a seat next to the wall, to be as safe as possible. And I ended up as safe as could be because no one else came. I watched the movie completely alone, the only one in the theater.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL

On Thursday I met Jimena and together we handed out more food cards and wooden crosses.

“Es Catolica?” asks Jimena of the people who come. Most nod, so I take a wooden cross and put it into the envelope with the $50 food card while Jimena cracks: “One is for your stomach and one is for your soul.”

In addition to $750 in food cards she asked for $300 in cash, $200 of which will be sent down to Honduras to pay for the cremation of the parents of a woman who lives up here, both of whom died of covid. The crematorium won’t release their ashes until they get $500 in cremation costs, otherwise the family won’t get the ashes back.

This isn’t just happening far away. A friend sent an article from The New Yorker about Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor helping undocumented families in New York City. Over half a million of them work at all kinds of jobs in the Big Apple, and Covid hit them hard because of the exposure of their jobs and their density in apartments. Four of them often squeeze into one small room. There were horror stories of folks being told that without money, their brothers’ bodies will be thrown into a pauper’s grave. People literally starved in their apartments, or else were turned back from hospitals because of lack of insurance, and even kept corpses of family members or friends in the apartment for several days because they had no idea where to bring them.

I don’t think we have that here. On the street corner where we sit, I see humble, tired, but cheerful faces, grateful to get both their stomach and soul saved together.

Aussie has become a good-will ambassador. I take her out of the car, leashed, and keep her with me when people come, but she greets everyone, licking those who approach, winning them over. With the exception of one little girl who’s afraid of dogs, she’s a hit with the kids while I’m busy converting folks to Catholicism with the wooden crosses I brought from Jerusalem. “Es Catolica?”

Driving home afterwards, I remembered something that happened when I was growing up in my orthodox Jewish home just a few years after we came to this country.

My mother had given birth to my brother, and for about a year we must have had some money (that ended later) so my parents hired a black woman from Alabama to live with us and help out with the baby. Her name was Annette, young and very pretty, with sad eyes. She got a Ph.D. learning program in kosher cooking from my mom, who told her sternly never—but never—to cook ham or bacon in the kitchen.

Since the killing of George Floyd, we’ve had lots of conversations in the Zendo around the racism that people absorbed as part of their upbringing. I don’t relate to it much because my parents knew nothing about African Americans or Latinos. For my Holocaust survivor parents, there was just one thing that mattered: Is the person Jewish, and therefore safe to be around, or is he not? They stuck fiercely to their East European orthodox Jewish ways and inculcated me with terrors of churches, nuns, and priests.

We had a small piano in the living room which I, a Jewish girl blossoming into bourgeoishood, was learning to play with the help of a song book. I easily played one song after another, turning the pages, till I came to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

I stared at it. It was identified as Christmas Carol; I had no idea what Carol was except that it was a girl’s name. But I knew what Christmas was, and I knew it wasn’t my holiday.

I started playing it softly to myself and immediately fell in love with the melody, especially the haunting part in the beginning. Soon I even hummed the words quietly to myself, figuring that my mother, in the kitchen, would have no idea that this was a Christian song as long as I sang the words low:

“Hark the herald angels sing,

Glory to the newborn king.

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled.”

I excused the sin of playing this by remembering that it was written by Felix Mendelsohn, whose grandfather was a famous Jewish rabbi. Too bad his parents had converted to Protestantism.

Everything was good till I reached the words “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Big problem. I was sure that if I sang those words aloud a bolt of lightning would come out of the sky and strike me dead. So I’d sing the other words softly each time I played the song, and when I reached “Christ is born in Bethlehem” I’d go silent, leaving a blank, then pick up the volume again.

I know, I know, it’s hard to understand, but that’s how I was taught, warned off Christmas toys and cards, unable to say “Merry Christmas” to the milkman, and if someone wished me “Merry Christmas” I’d pretend I didn’t hear it or else mumble something back. I had learned very well how to be afraid of the Goyish world.

In the meantime, I grew close to Annette. She had a boyfriend whom she would see on Sundays, when she had off, and I liked to ask her about him and see what clothes and make-up she wore.

One day, during the Christmas season, she sits next to me on the piano bench and says: “Eva, play Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

I freeze.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t play it,” I say glumly.

“Come on, it’s my favorite Christmas carol. We sang it at church all the time back home,” says she.

Now I’m really nervous. How could I, a good Jewish girl, play something that they sang in church? Support Christianity! What would God say?

“I can’t play that song.” How can I explain to her that it would be a travesty, a betrayal of Judaism of the worst kind, a betrayal of my parents, their parents who were killed, their parents and their parents, etc.,  and that I would be horribly punished for it?

“Come on, Eva, I’ve heard you play it,” she says. ”I know you can play it.”

I feel terrible. I like Annette a lot, I know she’s homesick, can see it in her sad eyes, and here is something I can do to help her.

“I can’t play that,” I mewl, “I can’t play that.”

Finally, she left the piano bench and I never played Hark! The Herald Angels Sing again.

But I did on Thursday evening driving home from meeting with the families, I sang it to Aussie in the back seat. And I thought of what God would say if I did one day appear in front of Her just as I had anticipated back when I was 10.

“So what did you do with your life, Eve?”

“Well, I went from being a scared Jewish girl who wouldn’t play a Christmas carol to someone I liked who asked to hear it to becoming a Zen Buddhist teacher and am now proselytizing for the Catholics.”

God: “That’s good.”

Please support the purchase of food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.

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SEVEN

On Tuesday, a gorgeous day, I went to vote in the state primary.

I voted in the local fire station, as usual. It’s easy, you don’t have to stand in long lines they have in big cities, and I enjoyed voting in person instead of by mail. Driving off, I was filled with appreciation for this process of voting for a Senator and Congressman, both of whom fiercely challenged by younger candidates.

I thought: There is so much here we take for granted—a primary election and interesting candidates with different and not-so-different visions for the Commonwealth (a fancy way of referring to Massachusetts). Nobody looking over our shoulder, nobody meddling with the machines, just the kind, gentle people at the voting locations asking for the district, the street name, the number, your name, etc. I remember gratefully how helpful they were when Bernie voted in 2016.

Now there are all kinds of brouhahas about what will happen in November: Will the system break down, will the Russians (or Chinese) take over, will the mail deliver the mail, will the man in the White House live with the results (will we?). But none of this was on my mind Tuesday, walking out of the station house to the car with a deep sense of contentment and even love.

I then took Aussie to our classic walk in the forest above the Montague Farm, where Bernie and I once lived. I’ve been doing that walk for 18 years, with two generations of dogs, but Aussie and I hadn’t been there for a month.. Since I know the hidden paths so well, this particular walk feels like a prayer. My feet know where they’re going without any direction from me. Aussie knows, too, knows she can go off somewhere and find me further on.

Aussie’s changed so much since Harry left. She and I are now the pack, not she and Harry. No more two wild dogs running away and coming back when they feel like it. She goes up the path and looks back, checking in on me. She knows we’re a team.

And in the middle of my contentment, I could hear the words echoing in my head: “Why the fuck you’all shoot him? Why the fuck you’all shoot him that many times?” A witness to the shooting of Jacob Blake shouted that at the policemen, especially the one who shot Blake seven times. Seven times! The number has not stopped ricocheting inside my head like a volleyball since that day. Seven times!

Every time it comes up I ask myself why. I could understand once or twice, the man turned away, ignored the cops, there was talk of a knife somewhere (though a knife is not a gun), he went into the car. Once or twice would be beyond excess, but in that case, what do you say about seven times!

Words come up: Anxiety? Fear? Hate? A sudden wave of power and its accompanying energy?

And then he was handcuffed to the hospital bed? Paralysis from the waist down wasn’t enough, he had to be handcuffed to the bed? Something else then comes up inside: Ignorance. Tone-deafness. Or even their own kind of paralysis in the face of protests and demonstrations.

I can’t get into police-hating, or the Defund the Police message. From everything I heard, many low-income communities of people of color want more police, not less. They also want smarter police. But none?

For me, the police reflect society. We all have some responsibility for the shooting of Jacob Blake. At the same time, they have the guns.

.And still, I happily voted.

It’s easy to shoot down what we have in this country. I am aware that its protections, and specifically the right to vote, are extended very unequally. Too many people are barred from voting because of previous offenses or are obstructed in the process.

Yesterday I read about how our electoral system and the composition of the Senate favor rural states with lower populations than urban areas, which are not just more numerous but also far more diverse, with the result that the impact of the vote of white urban voters is lower than that of their rural counterparts, and the impact of the vote of African-Americans is even lower, and that of Latinos lower than that. And that’s before we take gerrymandering into account.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I mutter to myself as I walk. It’s important to keep on going, keep on fighting, demand parity, transparency, and justice. But if we keep on reciting the mantra it’s all corrupt, all corrupt, all corrupt, we get cynical, instability arises, and finally destructiveness. We get deflated and no longer wish to fight for what we think is worth fighting for. When I appreciate the beauty of what I have, I find it only natural to want to share it with others. If I think it’s all a nasty hoax, it weakens my resolve.

So I took a deep breath and heard a voice inside: “There’s something here worth saving.” And then the old words again: Seven times! Seven times!

At this point, bearing witness is all I can do. I can’t shut my ears to anybody. There’s a lot to say here, including about the locals who vote for Trump. People don’t understand what happened here, why the economy is so segmented, why it’s so, so hard to stay ahead of the game, never mind advance, never mind have a better life than your parents did.

For now all I’ll say is that I was horrified that the Democratic House and Republican Senate left for summer vacation without hashing out a bill to help the unemployed, small businesses, and local governments. Each side blamed the other—but Democrats and Republicans both adjourned for the summer and left so many in the lurch!

Later today I’ll visit with immigrant families and will hear of much tougher, heart-wrenching stories from their lives. In response to my message to Jimena about meeting later today, she wrote back: “$750 for food cards and $300 cash, $100 to pay gas bill for Norma (not her real name) and $200 for Maria (not her real name).” But I can’t miss it: They envy us. They came here to be like us. They’ll fight for this dream long after others give up.

Cynicism is a privilege of those who have money; it’s not for those that don’t.

Please support the purchase of food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses. You can do that by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.

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