BIG ROOM, BIG WORLD

Each morning, I wake up in a big bedroom that once accommodated two, and the first thing I feel is somewhat intimidated by its size. Behind the full-size bed (it used to be king-size) is the Medicine Buddha, on the side between two windows one of Mayumi Oda’s paintings of Kwan-yin. An altar and chair in the corner by the window, and standing on the floor on the opposite side is a terrific Peter Cunningham photo of Bernie and Jeff Bridges in a New York City restaurant celebrating Bernie’s 70th, Jeff sitting and playing guitar while Bernie looks over his shoulder. Never hung it up because I ran out of wall space; you have to give Peter’s photos the space they need. Yes, a TV screen on the dresser after his stroke that I never use, and a walk-in closet of which half is empty, the other half sparse.

The room feels too big for me, first thing in the morning. The world feels too big for me, too.

I then wonder what it would feel like to wake up in a smaller bedroom, something that fits one person, the walls closer in, the windows and door narrower. Wouldn’t that be more my size? More manageable at this time of life, as they say it? More handleable?

Bernie’s world was huge, and he had no fear. He didn’t understand other cultures or other languages—Brooklyn English and silence were pretty much what he spoke—but wherever he went he felt right at home. In 1997 he was even considering moving out of the United States. We could develop the Zen Peacemakers anywhere, he’d say. He gave some consideration to Poland, where his mother was born.

“I can’t speak the language,” I told him.

He didn’t worry because he could speak every language.

But some cultures he couldn’t get used to. Around 2009 or 2010 the Zen Peacemakers sponsored a safari in Tanzania led by Peter Matthiessen, with profits going to benefit the organization. We did what we were supposed to do, got khaki pants and shirts, decent sunglasses, and packed relatively little because we’d be moving a lot. Everyone else brought excellent, expensive camera equipment.

It was very memorable, as you can imagine. In the days we’d go out in several jeeps, each containing a driver who doubled as a guide, instantly pointing out the flora and fauna, and providing detailed explanations of habitats and habits, what to look for, what to watch out for. I remember the jeep coming to a screeching halt one day when the driver pointed out the highly dangerous Green Mamba slithering its way across the road. Peter, who loved snakes, instantly jumped out to take a closer look as the driver pleaded with him to come back.

That first night out in camping tents (fancy, with showers whenever you wanted them and coffee brought to you before dawn), we had a sumptuous dinner prepared by the staff in a large dining tent with a long table, linen tablecloth and napkins.

Where were the African guides? They sat separately outside, plates on their laps by the fire.

It’s the way it’s done, they explained to me when I asked why. The clients inside, the staff outside. Even the guides we depended on so much, those who’d demonstrated college-level knowledge of zoology, geography, and wildlife biology? The personable, good-natured black men taking such good care of the whites? The ones I’d love to ask about their families, their studies, how they knew so much?

 This is how it’s done in safaris, I was told.

Finally, our last dinner, a festive occasion on our last night together. People were invited to make comments about the safari, most of which were very positive, till it was Bernie’s turn.

“We shouldn’t be eating separately from the guides,” he said. “We’re together all day, they share all their knowledge with us, we should be eating all together.”

“Bernie, it’s the tradition,” Peter remonstrated from where he sat at the head of the table. “I’ve done this for many years, this is the tradition. It’s what they’re used to.”

“I’m not used to this,” said the guy from Brooklyn.

Peter was clearly irritated. “Bernie, it’s not helpful to come here and use a sledgehammer on long-term customs and traditions. People don’t appreciate it.”

It ended pretty much with that, and we went on.

Several years later, after his diagnosis of leukemia, when we visited him at his home for the last time, Peter told Bernie he’d been right that evening about the seating in the safari,

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NOT GOING ANYWHERE

One morning I came to light incense for Kwan-yin, the goddess of compassion, and found a branch lying neatly at her feet. It had to be Henry, the small chihuahua mix, who always loves to bring branches for you to throw. Maybe he was hoping Kwan-yin would throw it for him, and maybe she did. It was a sweet gift to put there..

On Monday, Presidents Day, I watched a webinar put together by OPIS (Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) which featured four peace activists, two Israeli and two Palestinian, speaking about what they’re experiencing and doing in this dark and violent time in their history.  One had lost his parents on October 7. Another’s father had been killed by the IDF. Still another’s family had lost their property in Jerusalem.

The webinar was inspiring and deeply moving, especially at this time, because most of the participants were young and saw this present moment not just as catastrophe but also as a huge opportunity for change. They’re clearly ready to pick up the mantle of an older generation of peacemakers. You can see the video of that webinar here.

The words of one stood out. May Pundak co-leads A Land For All with her Palestinian counterpart, Dr. Rula Hardal. I’m paraphrasing what she said:

I’m doing this work for me, not on behalf of anyone else. I’m doing this because one day I woke up and realized: There are two nations living here and nobody’s going anywhere. I don’t have a different home, so don’t tell me to go to Europe or the United States. The Palestinians don’t have a different home, either. If they’re not here now they’re living in refugee camps or in Gaza (Palestinians living both in Israel and the West Bank almost all have relatives in Gaza). NOBODY’S GOING ANYWHERE, SO WHAT ALTERNATIVE DO WE HAVE TO PEACE?

May Pundak’s father, Ron Pundak, helped write the Oslo Accords many years ago and led the Peres Peace Center till his early death. Now the next generation continues the work.

Her statement was so simple, so sensible, and most important, so realistic.

All around me, people say that action towards peaceful co-existence is unrealistic given the extreme bitterness and trauma people have undergone. My brother was recently in Dubai speaking with Muslim leaders. Before leaving, he told me that he doesn’t tell too many people in Israel where he’s going because they’ll say he’s crazy. When he returned, he told me that his counterparts in Dubai told him that they didn’t tell anyone they were meeting him and his work partner because they’d be told they were crazy.

The financial support he depended on for day-to-day living has evaporated because supporters feel his work may be unrealistic. But tell me, who’s being unrealistic here? Who’s being impractical?

I’ve long ago run out of patience with those who say that people who work for peace and social and economic justice are starry-eyed idealists who don’t know how to put one foot in front of another. You want to see the results of those who’re being “realistic?” Take a look at the Middle East right now.

What choices do we make in our life? Short-term gain vs. long-term? When we think that the most important thing is to take care of ourselves and nothing else is practical, where does that leads us?

I recently had lunch with a friend with a long-time business career, working in big corporations almost his entire adult life. He’s taken care of his family, providing for their needs, and lives a comfortable retirement. I appreciate that life; who are we if we don’t take care of our families?

But tell me, was he more practical than Bernie or me or so many others who work to take care of ourselves, our families, and this entire One Body? We’re free to make decisions about what to do with our one life (and are very fortunate to have that), but please don’t label those who live one kind of life realists and the others pie-in-the-sky idealists.

If humanity doesn’t burn up and go extinct as scientists worry, we have those idealists to thank. If we actually take care of the gang warfare in countries like Haiti or Ecuador, if we find a way to bring peace to Ukraine, it’ll be because of those activists, along with governments and corporations who also have a role to play. Bernie always said that we need everything and everybody; he refused to jump on the corporation-bashing train so many progressives ride.

The bigger the problems, the more help we need from all sectors of life. What I object to is the framing of one side as unrealistic and the other as realistic. We are all in this together because we have nowhere else to go.

This is true everywhere, not just in the Middle East. Even before New Year’s Eve, when Henry was attacked by a neighbor’s dog, she and I had an ambivalent relationship because her German Shepherds were never fenced and would rush at whoever walked on the road. As I spent 4 hours that night in the veterinary hospital, she called and screamed in my ear.

But we’re both living on the same road, in the same town, in the same state, in the same country, on the same earth. We’re not going anywhere. Can I afford to carry that rancor with me? Can she? We have to find a way to make up because each of us is needed to do something no one else can quite duplicate. We bring our own tastes and flavors to this enormous life, and—WE’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE.

Peaceful co-existence is the most practical goal to work towards. See the webinar here, it’s very moving.

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ON PRESIDENTS DAY

Aussie on ice

Lori and Henry were gone this weekend, leaving just Aussie and me in the house. I went out to dinner Saturday evening. Putting my coat and boots on by the door, I noticed how she looked at me, instantly grasping that I was dressed differently, intent on going out without her (Aussie stays!). Suddenly it hit me how vulnerable she was, how dependent on me. What if I wasn’t coming back? How would she get food? Who would be there for her?

And with that, my own vulnerability hit as well. I’m in good health, but if the car skidded, we could be dead in a minute flat. Or ill, or disabled.

Feeling strong and independent is so foundational to this American culture. And why not? There are no missiles hitting our cities as they do in Ukraine or Israel, no bombings to endure like people in Gaza or, more sporadically, in Pakistan or Iran, no lack of food or drinking water. We celebrate Presidents Day and make this a long weekend, focusing not on courage or principle—who is our counterpart to Alexei Navalny of Russia?—but on store sales and sleeping late.

Several days ago I worried about whether I’d be able to read books again. That fear was gone by morning, but when I walked in the woods the following day after snow in a gorgeous forest with only Aussie for company, I made my way with both confidence and simultaneous reminders  to be careful on the ice, not to slip and break a leg, not to sit or lie on the ground with pain and cold with no one around to help and no cellphone signal.

What would happen to Aussie if I didn’t come back from dinner? She has a dog door to get out to the yard, and if she’s hungry enough she’ll go through the fence and wander in search of food, someone will find her and bring her to the shelter, where they’ll feed her.

Aussie will be okay, but let’s face it, ultimately, we all take our chances. Maybe not the chances Alexei Navalny took, returning to Putin’s Russia after attempts on his life, but the very nature of our life is powerlessness in the face of life’s contingencies.

This doesn’t bring up fear, but rather the incredible sweetnesses of day-to-day. There’s a pivot I can make, not focusing on what’s beyond my agency but on the undeserved joy I get from calling my sister on WhatsApp and laughing with her—all for no money down, from a few tablespoons of a lemony rice pudding, from the smile I got from a woman who helped me move a 50-pound bag of birdseed earlier today.

When I face my own powerlessness in the face of complex conditions, I turn away from the losing proposition called control, which means fewer shoulds, fewer deadlines, fewer finish lines. Instead, the present moment becomes so alive! And why not, given that it’s the only thing I really have?

Vulnerability brings me self-liberation, but only if I make that pivot.

Over lunch today I described to someone the joy Bernie had from our Italian coffee machine. He had loved his cappuccino for many years, and when he had his stroke, he wanted to still be able to make it for himself. We bought a machine that ground the coffee and steamed the milk, but still needed handling (the ones that do it all cost $3,500). I wrapped a book in a plastic envelope and put it under the steam wand, and he was able to rest his cup on it while using his one good hand to manipulate the buttons and dials.

He loved showing off how he could make his own cappuccino. That coffeemaker is still around, and there isn’t a morning when I don’t relish not just making my cup but also remembering the joy it gave him. He had to give up doing baths (couldn’t get safely into the tub), but he could make his own beloved cappuccino.

Just like he could slice his own bagel. How? Because we had a guillotine on the counter which he could operate with one hand.

Aussie comment: “A one-handed Marie Antoinette, only she was the bagel.”

I can’t tell you that he loved life once he was paralyzed in half his body, but he loved those moments.

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SEASICK

Walking in the Plains

The American artist Rockwell Kent once wrote: “These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.” He was living in the northernmost regions of Alaska at the time, doing his art and surviving.

I would like to see my soul expand even when lots of things are happening.

I had cataract surgery on my left eye. Even as Byron Pareja, Jimena’s husband, drove me home, I could already see how much farther and clearer I could see. Came home, collapsed for two hours, wrote, did laundry, and in evening time I picked up a book and couldn’t read. Everything was a blur.

My condition of keratoconus complicates things a bit, I know that up front, but instantly I felt unmoored. What’s happening to my vision? Have I exchanged improvement in distance vision at the cost of my near vision? Will I be able to read books again?

I’d been told by my highly-trusted surgeon that it would take 3 weeks for the eye to heal, and that during that time the vision will change not just from day to day, but even at different times of the day. I knew all that, but Wednesday night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, kept awake by the winds outside, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t read books. I’d read before going to sleep all my life, what will happen now?

Night voices whispered: There is Kindle, after all. You’ll get one and magnify the letters; they’re lighter than books, right? But it’ll mean looking at another screen again. Or I’ll get books on tape, I thought. The libraries have decent collections, I’ll do the best I can with what they have, not the worst thing in the world by a long shot, other people go through so much more.

I fell asleep at 5 in the morning, woke up a couple of hours later, opened my eyes, looked towards the window, and knew that everything had changed. No blurriness, in fact the eye was better than ever. I picked up a book and knew that, yes, things were still healing but I was going to read my fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in books, real books, for at least a little bit longer.

Later that day, driving back after a reassuring follow-up with the surgeon, I wondered why I’d freaked out so much. Granted, surgery made me tired, worn, and achy. Lying back and letting a laser do its thing on your eye requires some surrender. When you get home you find your eyes listening to someone else’s orders, not yours.

When I was 12, a doctor told me I was going blind. I’d been prescribed a pair of glasses, but he found that my vision was still deteriorating. They hadn’t discovered keratoconus yet, a condition I would later remedy by wearing contact lens. Fear of going blind has lurked in my mental backstage all these years, though I’ve been able to see very well till now, at the age of 74.

I shook my head. After all these years of meditation practice, and I could still freak out over nothing! Zoom up and down like an elevator, lie awake with anxiety, crack a few cynical jokes to myself.

When that happens, you can actually feel yourself contract. It’s as if you’ve shrunk two sizes, your body curled up, shoulders hunched against your head, the world dwindling down to the size of a blanket, not an inch more. You’re aware of it, you understand what is happening, you shut off your brain and take deep breaths, but you seemingly can’t shake off the blanket.

The next day there was joy, but I look askance at these radical ups and downs, dependent as they are on ups and downs. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s words: “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”

And becoming the ocean can’t be conditioned on those times in life when nothing much happens, as Rockwell Kent said, in the outermost frozen, numbing reaches of Alaska.

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I’LL CHANCE IT

I had cataract removal surgery on my left eye this morning. It went like a dream—full of colorful visual images of clouds, squiggly forms, some even resembling Henry’s latest stuffed toy, a blue narwhal, a small whale with a tusk coming out of the front. Like dropping acid.

Thanks to Henry’s menagerie of stuffed animals, I’ve become an eager student of zoology, ichthyology (science of fish), and birdology.

“What are you calling the narwhal?” I ask Henry after he tosses it at my head, waking me up from a 2-hour nap after I got home from surgery.

“Norman,” he says.

When Henry forgets Llama Louie even for several days, with the latter’s deep spiritual teachings and radical optimism, the house can feel a little gray. Still, no snow yesterday (boohoo), skies are blue, several exchanges with my handsome surgeon John Frangie (“You’re high maintenance, you know?” says he), no pain—what’s there to complain about?

Speaking of cataract surgery, I wish there was something like it for my mind. It blurs all the time—the news, the Middle East, anger with a neighbor, impatience with manic Henry and Norman, even Aussie (Again I have to walk you!), the winter squash soup I made that didn’t come out right. I practice on and on, my perceptions blurring and unblurring. I clean my contact lens from blurriness like I wash my dishes after a meal.

Only cataract removal is way quicker!

Many people see much better right after the surgery; in my case, with keratokonus, it’ll take another 6 weeks or so, no catastrophe here. But the Handsome Surgeon dissolved the cataract, fog and confusion all gone. He inserted a new lens inside the eye and in about 6 weeks I will see clearer than I’ve seen in years.

What about my mind? Why sit forever and ever, morning after morning, evening after evening? Imagine a surgical procedure where, when I wake up from anesthesia, I REALLY WAKE UP!

But who knows what I’ll wake up to? After cataract removal, I wake up to the Handsome Surgeon. After mind surgery, I may just wake up to see more of the suffering of the world. Bernie used to warn about that.

Okay, I’ll chance it.

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone here. Thank you for your love and support, thank you for your financial assistance to immigrant families and to me. You know, those emails that come in from PayPal—You have received payment—or the checks that I find each Monday in my post office mailbox, all those are mini-surgeries on my mind, clarifying the total unpredictability of life and that I only am because you are.

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CONFIRMED MISDIAL

Look what’s blooming in winter!

Tuesday, 1/30, 12:23 pm

911 open line. When phone picked up, child said, “I love you.” Now quiet. Mother came onto phone stating accidental dial from her son. Confirmed misdial.

The above appeared in the Police Log of last week’s edition of my local paper, The Montague Reporter. If you think this is typical to our small New England town, you’re mistaken. The other posts are about hoodie-wearing males looking suspicious, neighbors banging on the walls and threatening violence, drug drops, shoplifting, deer-car interactions (the deer always lose), etc. You’d be surprised how much violence occurs in small towns.

So I was struck by what took place at 12:23 pm on January 30. I was glad for the police’s sake. They often get angry and abusive calls. They have to make snap judgments about what to do. They also get lots of crank calls occupying the emergency lines, to the detriment of all of us. But not this time.

“I love you.” Whoever took the call probably smiled, even laughed, noted it down. And the conclusion (conclusions follow all police logs)? Confirmed misdial.

Sometimes things seem to fly apart so badly you can’t imagine they’d ever cohered, or that they’ll ever cohere again. Such is the situation in the Middle East right now, where so many shake their heads as if to say, it’s all over. Nevermore peace, nevermore friendship. Gone, gone, gone beyond, so to speak.

Anyone who says differently, who even says that nothing lasts forever and that this, too, will change, is often seen as hopelessly idiotic. The result is that the very people we need to hear from now, the ones that urge us not to give up on our hopes and ideals, are mute. They’re looked down on and reviled. Anything that smacks of peace or love is a confirmed misdial—to say the least.

This is the time when behemoths rise out of the waves, expelling smoke and fire, gleefully announcing the end of co-existence, the end of peace, the end of mutual abiding, and that our survival doesn’t depend on everyone’s survival, but rather on how to pre-empt war, devastation, mass killings, rape, and torture by doing this, or at least some of this, to others.

For me, it’s not a matter of having hope, it’s trusting the reality of the One Body and supporting that faith and trust in others. I don’t minimize horror and suffering, only simultaneously pay attention to how infinite beings interact with and support my life.

And if that life is endangered? If panic and fear arise? That will be the question. That will be the practice.

I remembered something I may have reported on a long time ago. In 1979 my brother invited my sister and me to stay with him in the West Bank over the Sabbath. I went there Friday afternoon and returned by bus on Saturday evening. At that time there were no roads circumventing Palestinian villages or towns as there are now, and the bus went through Bethlehem on its way to Jerusalem (access to Bethlehem is now only through checkpoints). In Bethlehem, the bus came to a stop.

“What’s going on?” We were told that an electric wire had fallen across the narrow road, one lane in each direction, and no one wished to be the first vehicle to cross it.

Both Palestinian and Israeli cars and buses came to a stop, and all around you could hear the same words in both Hebrew and Arabic: “It’s dangerous, we’re not driving across it.” “Too risky.” “You want to drive across? You do it, not me.” The lines of stopped vehicles in both directions got longer and longer.

Finally, someone said: “This can’t go on forever, I’m driving over it.”

Now the arguments went the other way. The Israelis said: “We’re going first.” The Palestinians said, “No, we’re going first.” The Israelis said: “Come on, we’re not afraid.” The Palestinians said, “You think we’re afraid? This is Bethlehem, our town, we’re going first.” If before the argument was over who will not drive over the electric wire, now the argument became who would be the first to drive over it.

Finally, an Israeli army jeep arrived, drove over the electric wire, and everyone followed.

That night, almost 45 years ago, the two groups squabbled like siblings daring each other to be cautious (“You first!” “No, you first!”), then brave (“I’m going first!” “No, I’m going first!)” There were jokes and lots of laughter, and enterprising Bethlehem residents who started selling juice and ice cream to the stalled passengers.

Thinking of the pain in the Middle East, I feel sure that it hurts so much not just because of the hate and horrific violence, but because, on some deep level, Palestinians and Israelis are brothers and sisters. They share Middle Eastern genes, they arose from the land. Israel is not in Western Europe, not even part of southern Europe with its Mediterranean beaches. It’s part of the Middle East, which is a whole other kettle of fish; it’s what I love about it.

That Saturday night in Bethlehem, it all seemed possible. Someone would finally drive over the wire, we’d laugh about it, buy pita and fresh pomegranate juice, trade barbs in Hebrew and Arabic, and go on our way.

Since then, they built roads and tunnels that circumvent Arab towns and villages, taking you to Israeli settlements directly from Jerusalem. You can’t hang out anymore, can’t buy fruits at a fraction of what you pay in Jerusalem. Confirmed misdial.

But not always. And certainly, not forever.

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MAKOM

My father and I when he turned 80 and we visited the original kibbutz near Gaza..

Three years after my parents emerged from the Holocaust, they fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, defending their kibbutz against the Egyptian Army that came from Gaza. That kibbutz was a mile from Gaza City and the attacking army unit was led by Captain Gamal Abdul Nasser, who later became Egypt’s prime minister after an army coup. Much of the kibbutz’s buildings were destroyed, including its water tower, and one-third of the kibbutz members were killed, including refugees who’d just arrived from Europe and barely knew how to hold a gun. But the battle was credited with saving Israel’s Negev, the desert in the south.

They would have rebuilt the kibbutz right there but for getting an official order from Levi Eshkol (later to be Israel’s prime minister) instructing them to leave the destroyed kibbutz and rebuild it more north, in the center of Israel, because having it so close to Gaza wasn’t viable. They did that, and indeed, I was born in the second incarnation of that kibbutz.

After the war, all participants who fought in Israel’s independence war were given a small medallion commemorating their valorous efforts. Who didn’t get it? My parents. Why, given how successfully they fought a crucial battle for Israel’s south? Because they had abandoned the land.

Yes, but they did that on specific government orders, right? No one denies that. But the stigma of leaving the land where they had built the kibbutz was so strong that the Israeli government, then led by David Ben-Gurion, refused to recognize them. This misdeed was only rectified decades later by the government of Menachem Begin.

I tell this story to give people just a small sense of how critical the land of Israel is, not just to Israelis but to most Jews. I hear of Israelis now being looked at as settlers or colonialists in what should be an all-Muslim Middle East. My brother was in Dubai last weekend, meeting with Muslim leaders, and told me that a few said that the Middle East should be all Muslim and that Jews had no business being there at all, in any way, shape, or form.

If you know any history of the region (try to study it before issuing loud opinions and using colonialism templates to explain what has happened in the Holy Land), then you know that according to both Biblical and archeological evidence, Jews were in present-day Israel and in the West Bank, not to mention the western part of Jordan, since around 1200 BC. The locals there were primarily Canaanites, comprising seven different tribes, with different deities. Islam itself didn’t come about till almost 2,000 years later.

Genetic tests have shown again and again that Jews share most of their genetic make-up with Arabs, both coming from that area of the Fertile Crescent.

For many Jews, the land encapsulates their personal, national, and spiritual identity. It’s at the center of national and cultural aspirations and is evoked in literature, prayer, and history.

It’s hard to explain this to Americans. We may love this country, but how much of our cultural, religious, or spiritual center is here? American Catholics may think of the Vatican as their center, or Israel even more so, where Christ lived. I’m not sure they find their center in New York or Chicago. Buddhists think of Bodh Gaya in India, American Muslims of Mecca.

How does one capture what Israel means to Jews, except to remind ourselves that the Hebrew word for place is makom, and makom is one of the many names of God. A few secular Jews argue that Israel doesn’t have to mean that anymore, that Jews live meaningful lives elsewhere, too, but no one can deny what it has meant till now in both the narrative and psyche of Jewish people.

The people who understand this in an equally deep, fundamental way are the Native American tribes who called this country Turtle Island. When the Lakota talk about their places—Paha Sapa, which we call the Black Hills, Washun Niya, which we call Wind Cave, Matho Tipila, which we call Devil’s Tower—they’re not talking geography. They’re talking origins, their relationship to Earth and to Tunkasila, Creator. They evoke the hawks and eagles that act as messengers, water that is sacred, and the burial grounds of their ancestors. Do the rest of us relate to this country like that?

I was so ignorant about this. Bernie, Genro Gauntt and I traveled to the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge Reservation before our 2015 Native American Bearing Witness retreat. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in this country. We start our meeting with Lakota elders and people are coming late or not at all. One had to go to distant Rapid City for a grandson’s surgery, another’s foot is bandaged because there’s no doctor close by to give it care, another could barely make it because her ancient vehicle broke down en route. This is a constant ingredient in our many prep meetings for that retreat.

At the end of that first meeting in 2015, I finally asked Tiokasin Ghost Horse, of the Cheyenne River Lakota, why people don’t leave the reservation. After all, they could easily live among other Americans where there are more jobs, more opportunities, better health care and education. Why stay in a place which has so little to offer them?

Tiokasin looked at me and simply said: “It’s hard to explain.”

I look back and shake my head at my well-meaning ignorance. Ignorance of what land can mean to some people doesn’t excuse how white Americans declared that this is a Christian country and Indians have no business being there, much as it doesn’t excuse the Muslim leaders in Dubai declaring that the entire Middle East is Muslim and Jews have no place there.

Does majority power give anyone that right? And can we non-natives say that we have the same profound devotional ties to this land that Native Americans have? I would love to see the Lakota get back the Black Hills, which they have fought for and were promised by treaty. If that ever happens, will the white people living there call them colonialists?

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TAYLOR SWIFT IS A DOG

You whistle, and I come running!

You say Come! and I come.

And when I get there, you give nothing,

Only treats that are like crumbs.

I’m not falling for that no more,

I’m not your bitch or dog.

I’m just as good, if not better,

And you’re nothing but a—

What rhymes with dog?”

“Blog.”

“I can’t sing And you’re nothing but a blog.”

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“I’m singing a song.”

“You call that a song?”

“We need an alternative to Taylor Swift right away, like fast!”

“You mean, you, Aussie? An alternative to Taylor Swift?”

“And why not? Because I’m black?”

“Because you’re a dog, Aussie.”

“And how do you know Taylor Swift isn’t really a dog?”

“Because she’s a female singer who’s wildly successful. A human.”

“You call that proof?”

“Aussie, do you know how many Grammys Taylor Swift has won?”

“She’s an AI-generated robot who will make a BIG announcement at the end of the Super Bowl on Sunday, mark my words.”

“You want me to pee on your words?”

“I just know that when her boyfriend and his team win, they’ll both stand and tell everybody to vote for Joe Bidet.”

“And if her boyfriend’s team loses?”

“They won’t lose. Their opponents will lose on purpose, they’re from San Francisco, everybody knows who they support—assuming they even exist, which I don’t believe. Taylor Swift doesn’t really exist. Her boyfriend probably doesn’t exist, either. In fact, I think both teams are entirely AI-generated, all aimed against the Great Man.”

“That’s some conspiracy, Aussie.”

“It certainly is. The umpires are in cahoots, too. The judging will go for the Chiefs every single time.”

“The entire National Football League is not real?”

“You thought the turf is the only thing that’s artificial? Ha!”

“And you’re the alternative, Aussie?”

“Sure. How hard do you think it is, beating out an AI-generated bot? I mean, she and Kelce are so generic.”

“And you, Aussie?”

“I’m wild, original, and unpredictable. I even ran away from Leeann today, didn’t come back for an hour.”

“I know, I had to go to go pick you up twice because you weren’t there the first time.”

“No way AI can generate me. Of course, I’ll support Donald Trump in 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036—”

“If you’re still rooting for Donald in 2036, you’ll definitely be AI-generated. Aussie, do you really think that the Super Bowl, this country’s biggest sport event, drawing more television viewers than anything else, is a hoax?”

“Let’s face it, the reason folks really tune in is for the commercials. Aren’t those hoaxes to make you buy things?”

“Aussie, what you’re saying is just not real.”

“Hah! A Zen person telling me what’s real! Aren’t you the ones who say everything is a delusion? Well, Taylor Swift and the big romance are one big delusion. In fact, that should be my next song:

Taylor is a delusion,

Travis Kelce too.

They’re an AI fusion

Designed to make you vote for you-know-who.

This one will go platinum, just watch.”

“Aussie, do you think I’m also not real, generated by AI? After all, I’ll probably support Joe Biden.”

“Mr. Vanilla!”

“I’m white, middle class, older, as generic as could be. Is AI my daddy and mommy, too?”

“Based on the kibble you give me twice a day, absolutely.”

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NOTHING DEPENDS ON YOU

Bernie at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Peter Cunningham

Rami Avraham Efal, an old associate at the Zen Peacemakers, became Rabbi Efal at his rabbinic ordination ceremony a month ago. He sent out the text of his first talk as a rabbi, and it included this:

“As we were about to lead 120 anxious people into a week of bearing witness at the nightmare that is Auschwitz-Birkenau, I turned to my Jewish Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman for last words of advice before commencing. Quick, and gaz[ing] at me sharp as a nail, Bernie said: ‘Nothing depends on you.’”

This was in 2017, two years after his stroke, a year before his death. He insisted on going there even though it was very hard in his condition. He told me he always had something new to learn in that retreat, year after year. I wondered what it was.

Rami’s words reminded me of another retreat at Auschwitz many years before, when he asked me to be the lead there. I didn’t think it worked very well and expressed frustration at the end. He turned to me and said: “You really think that a retreat in a place like Auschwitz depends on you?”

The relief never left me. You do your best, but nothing depends on you.

Bernie knew that not-knowing had nothing to do with ignorance and everything to do with endless karmic forces constantly at work, making our lives more fluid than the Sawmill River below the house. Where others saw not-knowing as uncertainty and anxiety-provoking, he saw it as infinite potential for the most unexpected turns, life turning on a dime. He worked like crazy, and didn’t think anything depended on him.

What happens if I dropped (dead) the next minute? Some people will feel deep sadness, even grief. The sweet potatoes in the toaster-oven may burn. Someone will adopt Aussie, especially since I left a little money for her care in my after-me instructions. Lori will find a new place to live, which she’s done in the past. The birds will go to the neighbors’ birdfeeders and Boris the Bear will show up in other people’s back yards. The zendo has wonderful new teachers, the Zen Peacemaker Order is flowering, and hundreds of thousands of written and unwritten words will go bye-bye, like the leaves of summer.

What happens if the wooden floor under my feet drops? Humans and dogs will drop with it, probably dying in the process. So will the furniture, including various Buddhas on altars, Soen Nakagawa’s magnificent calligraphy of prajna, computers and screens, cabinets holding important papers, disks holding traces of the past. The rest of the house may go as well.

I depend on this wooden floor every minute of the day that I’m here, and this winter, I’m here a lot. Who or what depends on me? Practically no one and nothing, yet somehow, the delusion persists that the actions I take are crucial to everybody’s wellbeing.

Some years ago, an article in the local newspaper made a brief reference to the Zen Peacemakers and called them do-gooders. Many of us do-gooders fall into the trap of thinking that the world will fall apart without our work. But the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote: “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the eyes of the universe. What might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what is most serious. If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear the call and follow along in the mysterious, cosmic dance.”

I think of myself as participating in life, no more. Co-creating sounds pretentious. The invite is to participate, not to save anything, not to put the finger in the dyke, maybe not even to transform, but to participate.

It doesn’t mean you do nothing. By all means, enter the room marked Bodhisattvas, but don’t worry how much attention people are paying you. There will be various commotions at different times; ebbs and flows of trends and popularities.

At certain times one person may seem to be making all the difference, for good or ill, other times it will be someone else, or a new musician or politician (I walked on air for several days after the election of Barack Obama), a new high-tech invention, some AI headband that’ll make all our decisions for us. We’ll moan and groan, cheer and party, and forget momentarily that nothing depends on us—or on any other person, for that matter. The forces in the universe are way too great.

I once flew to Israel from New York. Sitting in the front of economy on a full plane, I saw a stewardess approach the two elderly couples sitting in the first row of economy, middle section.

She looked at one couple. “You’re in luck. I have to put a couple with two infants in your seats because they need bassinets, which are only available in your row, so I have to put you in First Class.”

They got up, and a young couple came instead with two twin infants. We were going to be in for a night of babies, I thought to myself, but that was way less than what the elderly couple remaining next to them was going to endure. Funny, isn’t it? A young couple didn’t book the proper seats, so one couple went to First Class, and another was in for hours of bawling and fidgeting.

We don’t control anything; we don’t save anything. But we can participate fully, be it in Economy or First Class.

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ABU HUNTER

“Look at these trees, Aussie. The snow usually falls off the trees within a few days, but not this time.”

“How come you’re looking at them so funny? You’re not looking straight ahead, you keep on turning your head from one side to another.”

“My vision is skewed, Aussie. The eye that had cataract surgery is clear while the other is blurry. Once they operate on my second eye the vision will be restored, but not right now.”

“That’s the best trick in the world. If you want to see something, look right. If you don’t want to see it, look left. I love that trick, but I have a better one. If I want to see something, I open my eyes. If I don’t want to see something, I close them. I don’t even have to go under the knife!”

“Laser, Aussie, not knife.”

“Whenever Henry shows up, I shut my eyes. Soon as he’s gone, I open them. When we go to the House of Horrors—”

“The vet, Aussie?”

“—I shut my eyes the entire time. I need my own seeing eye dog. Hee hee hee! And just watch me whenever Abu Hunter shows up on the screen.”

“Abu who?”

“Abu Hunter. In Arabic, Abu means father of, so I call him Abu Hunter. I always knew he was a terrorist.”

“Aussie, don’t you believe in changing your mind?”

“Never.”

“Malcolm Gladwell said that he changes his mind all the time. He said: ‘If you don’t contradict yourself regularly, then you’re not thinking.’ That’s why we need both eyes, Aussie. If we keep one side clear and the other side blurry, we only get a partial view.”

“Or no view, if you keep both eyes closed, like me. I got a great idea. Do you think I could train Henry to be my seeing-eye dog? Hee hee hee!”

“What an interesting thought, Aussie. That way you could keep your eyes closed if you don’t want to see anything especially challenging—”

“Like Abu Hunter!”

“—or vexing. There’s one thing though, Auss. You have to let Henry guide you. You have to follow wherever he goes.”

“Follow a chihuahua? Me?”

“Think of it, Auss. There’s you, 55 pounds—”

“Hopefully on my way to 80!”

“—guided by Henry at 15 pounds. Don’t forget, with eyes closed, you have to follow him. No veering from side to side.”

“Not even right?”

“That’s the beauty of using a seeing-eye dog, Aussie. My brother-in-law helps to train them. It helps to be open and curious, and you have to have lots of trust.”

“In Henry? The Illegal Chihuahua? You know where he’ll take me? The Border Wall!”

“Mexico is a long way off, don’t be silly.”

“He’ll take me to the courts, he’ll take me to English classes and fiestas, he’ll take me to the Center for New Americans. Me, a Texas dog, at the Center for New Americans! I’ll never live it down.”

“Mexican restaurants?”

“I hate tacos.”

“Then maybe you can’t use Henry as your seeing-eye dog, Aussie. Or Donald Trump, for that matter.”

“The Great Man is not a seeing-eye dog.”

“I think he is for some. He tells you what to think and how to vote, and you think and do just what he says.”

“(Sigh) I’d follow him anywhere!”

“Aussie, in Zen we say that often, the person you have the most trouble with is your best teacher because he or she helps you see the things you are most attached to.”

“So is Donald Trump your best teacher?”

“He’s pretty good, Auss. He’s pretty good.”

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.