STAYING SILENT

Jimena and I sat outside her home, giving out food cards and discussing what else was needed, when a tall, dark, buxom woman arrived. She picked up a food card and then sat on the front steps along with Jimena while Jimena furiously worked on the woman’s phone.

“Lily [not her real name] is illiterate in both Spanish and English,” Jimena later told me, apologizing for leaving me a while, ”and I had to register the woman’s children for soccer activities and extra-help classes in the school. Now everything is done online but she can’t do it, she only knows her password.”

She leaves me to reflect on what it is to be illiterate in your native country and make your way illegally across the border all the way up to the Northeast, into another culture and language where you’re illiterate twice over. It’s not that there are no free classes in English here, there are, but most of these parents work long hours on the farms and rush home to take care of their children.

More important, they’re vulnerable. They’re afraid to make any waves, raise a voice, do anything that calls attention to them. And don’t many of us want to call some attention to ourselves? How many of us have lived an entire lifetime trying to stand out in the crowd, our system shouting: Me! Me! Me! Look at me! Listen to me!

Not if you’re in Lily’s situation. Or Hilaria’s sister, for example, who is taking care of Hilaria now. Hilaria, as you know, deaf her entire life, was hospitalized for seizures and came home after several weeks. Her sister took her in to take care of her while Hilaria waits for the brain swelling to come down and get stronger so that she could undergo needed surgery once they work out how to do this without medical insurance. Her meds alone, without insurance, are a lot of money.

The sister’s landlord saw Hilaria in the apartment and immediately insisted she leave. Jimena told me the story:

“I went there and explained what happened to her and that she needs care. She’s deaf and had seizures and was in the hospital for a long time. I told him she had her own apartment and her sons are there right now, but they can’t take care of their mother. She wasn’t trying to move in with her sister illegally, she just needed care for a while. He said she’s using water for her showers and therefore must leave. I told him they pay for their water, not him. It took a long time till he left them alone.”

“And her sister? Did she say anything?”

“They don’t say anything, Eve, they’re afraid. They pay their rent, they pay utilities, they work very hard, but anybody can say something crazy to them and they won’t speak up because they’re afraid.”

They’re vulnerable. People can hurt them; people can deport them; people can deport their children. There are many families with just one parent because the other was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So, they stay quiet. Their children, too, learn to stay quiet. They feel the sharp, raw edge all around them; it could give at any moment. They acquire new accessories: a mask, a cloak of invisibility, a muzzle on the mouth, or a toughness to scare away the terror.

“I think I’m going to die very soon,” my mother informs me when I call her this morning. “They can’t keep on beating me and beating me and expect me to just go on living.”

“Who’s beating you, mom?”

They. I go in to see the doctors and if I don’t give the right answers they slap me in the face.”

“What doctors, mom? What answers?”

“Chavale, don’t pretend you don’t know. Doctors. And they ask me questions that I don’t know and I get a slap in the face. Every day! One day my head will just fall off.”

“I’ll talk to them, mom, I promise.”

“You will?”

“I will talk to them and tell them they can’t beat you anymore, mom. We’ll all call them and tell them that, and they’ll stop.”

“You think they’ll listen?”

“I’m sure they will listen, we’ll give them no choice.”

I long ago learned to accept my mother’s stories arising from her dementia. If I try to persuade her that it’s not real she’ll hang up the phone. When things like that arise, we promise her we’ll take care of them, and that soothes her, at least till the next time. It’s very sad that experiences of Holocaust and an impoverished, neglectful family life come up for her day after day after a lifetime of brushing them off and trying to out-tough shadows and memories.

I wish my vulnerabilities and fears could be soothed so simply. When I look closely at what lies hidden behind confusion and stress, it’s old fears of messing up and failing, of again being unloved, again being abandoned. Same old same old.

What soothes me? Putting my hand through Aussie’s soft black hair as she nuzzles against my knee, reminding me that the computer isn’t alive but she is, that the screen has no heartbeat but she does, and that old voices in the head are nothing like two brown, bright eyes and dark, smudgy eyebrows. She’s saved me with her physical presence many times, just like my sister came to my mother’s home in the middle of the night a few days ago and lay alongside her in bed so that if a cult was coming to kidnap her, they’d have to get through her daughter first.

Marta [not her real name] asked for money to send her mother in Mexico. Her mother and family ran for their lives when a river flooded their Mexican village. Their small home was damaged beyond repair and they lost everything, including their beds. They are staying temporarily with relatives, but they asked their daughter for extra help just so they could eat. The family they stay with barely has food for itself, never mind for another family, so their daughter asked me for help to send them more money for food.

I don’t usually solicit money for people to send their families back home (they all send whatever they can afford back home), with one exception, and that was when a woman lost both her parents to covid in Ecuador and the undertaker wouldn’t release their bodies for burial till he received $400. We sent her that money. But this time, too, I thought to ask for money for this woman’s family because I thought of the floods in Tennessee, New York, and New Jersey, people drowning in basement apartments and cars.

They’re no longer the only vulnerable ones; so are we. The scale and substance are different, but in essence vulnerability’s the same: the sense of life lying in ambush, ready to overwhelm and even destroy, losing track of what, if anything, holds us up. I share that with Lily, I share it with Marta and with Jimena. With my mother.  Except that they haven’t put on their masks as I have, haven’t told life they could beat it hands down.

They ask for help.

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RAW LONGEVITY

Happy Birthday to me!

 

“Aussie, I’m sick and tired of the ads that appear on my phone.”

“What ads?”

“At night I like to play word games on my phone, and in between games appear all these ads: Protect your brain, download this. Or: Keep your brain sharp! Or: Your parents should have played this game! Or: Doctors wish every person over 45 would download this! I’ve had it with all this fear-mongering about dementia and decline, as if any day now I’m going to lose my mind.”

“And why are you playing word games?”

“Because they’re fun, Aussie. Also, good for my mind. The point is, Aussie, age is a big deal everywhere you look. I went to get your dog food and—”

“What did you get?”

“The usual.”

“Uggh.”

“And what do I find? A dogfood line called Raw Longevity, Auss. Raw, as in raw food—”

“I love raw food!”

“And what about longevity? I mean, who calls dog food Longevity? Tell the truth, Aussie, are you concerned about how long you’ll live?”

“Nope.”

“Do you worry about how you look?”

“Of course not, I’ll be 4 tomorrow (Happy birthday to me!) and the cutest thing you ever saw. You, on the other hand—”

“What, Aussie?”

“Well, for one thing, you’re not four. You could dye your hair, you know. You’d be a terrific blonde.”

“I was a blonde once, Auss, and it wasn’t terrific. In my 30s I colored my hair every color under the sun. I even had green hair once, but that was by accident”.

“If you walked me more you’d definitely look better.”

“I went to have coffee with a man I never met, Aussie. He was already waiting when I got out of the car and watched as I walked over towards him, and instantly I could see I wasn’t his type. He didn’t care for my mixture of brown/gray/silver hair, for a body that is no longer lithe—”

“You were never lithe—”

“Or slender or agile—”

“In my lifetime I never saw you slender or agile—”

“You only know me for three years, Auss. And now, it’s not just the ads about mind-saving games but also ads for games to lessen your anxiety. They ask you to move about 100 cubes a minute or find 50 differences between two photos in 30 seconds flat. Just looking at those ads gives me anxiety.”

“You know what I think? I think you’re afraid of not being loved anymore because you’re getting older.”

“That’s very insightful of you, Aussie.”

“You’re afraid that if you lose your mind nobody will care about you.”

“Maybe you’re right. I’ve had a good mind for most of my life. What happens if I misplace it or can’t find it? Like maybe leave it inside the freezer or something like that. Will you love me then, my young Aussie?”

“Yes, but make sure to write down what you give me for breakfast and dinner and when in case you forget.”

“Loss is the price you pay for love, Auss. Somebody once said: ‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.’”

“Who said that?”

“I don’t remember.”

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GOOD PEEING CONDITIONS

Under the forsythia tree

“So how was your date?”

“What date, Aussie?”

“The one you had a few weeks ago. The one where you actually went out and met somebody. Had dinner. Talked. Remember dates?”

“Tell you the truth, Auss, I forget what they look like. It was very nice.”

“That doesn’t sound so good.”

“Nice is nice,  Aussie. Only it’s not enough.”

“Hey, you had dinner, right? I mean, you had food!”

“True. Italian food.”

“Were you able to go out to pee?”

“I don’t usually go out to pee, Aussie, I can pee indoors.”

“Outdoors is much nicer. So, what’s the problem? You had food, you could pee. What else do you need?”

“Good question, Aussie. I need some kind of hook. A kind of thoughtful intelligence. Humor. Sex appeal.”

“Sex appeal? At your age?”

“Yes, Aussie, even at my age.”

“You’re a roshi. Doesn’t that mean old teacher? Old teachers don’t need sex appeal. And they certainly don’t have it.”

“Who says?”

“That’s the trouble with you humans, you’re always looking for something you don’t got. He gave you so much—good food, good peeing conditions—that’s a lot to build on. Did Bernie give you food and good peeing conditions?”

“Indeed, he did. But Aussie, I don’t compare people I meet with Bernie. I try to encounter them on their own terms. The trouble is, it’s hard to build a bridge between two lives when you’ve already lived most of them separately, see?”

“You and I didn’t have trouble doing that, and I met you when you were so old!”

“I wasn’t even 69 when we took you from the pound, Aussie. Speaking of which, Saturday will mark three years since you’ve come here.”

“There you were, an over-the-hill, used up has-been, and me a young hottie. But did I mind? I shook my cute butt, gave you a lick or two, went right over that bridge you’re talking about. You were the older woman and I was the young chick, and we made it together. You know why?”

“Because I gave you food and good peeing conditions?”

“Voila. And don’t forget the steak on Saturday. You always buy me steak on my homecoming day. Try to make it a rib steak this time—with the bone, please.”

“Should I get some for Henry, too?”

“Nah.”

Yesterday a big truck came down the driveway early morning to pump out our septic tank. The tank is under the forsythia tree in back and it took me ages to find it. But Lori dug it out and uncovered it, so all Calvin (not his real name) had to do was heave the thick, wide hose through the open gate and insert it deep into the tank, then return to his truck and turn on the mechanism that sucks the stuff out of the septic tank.

Calvin has done this every other year at our house for a long time, I know him and he knows me. He’s always liked to hang around and talk. Yesterday I noticed how he’d aged, his hair gray rather than blonde even as he looked fit in the usual overalls with the company logo. He told me I looked good though I was still wearing pajamas under a bathrobe (it was 7:15 in the morning). I made my excuses and left him to his work.

As soon as he turned the drain mechanism on the most awful smell surrounded the house. “We should have shut the windows the minute he came,” Lori would say later. It was the smell of rotten eggs, rotten everything, and though I knew it would go way down once the drainage ended, enough of it would stick around for several hours. And as I thought that while getting dressed, I realized that that was one of the reasons I’d left him quickly. Because it smelled. Not him, the work. It was our septic tank that smelled, and it was hard for me to be with the man who was cleaning it all out.

For a moment, I felt ashamed. It’s our shit, I told myself. It’s our good peeing conditions. And he’s just making sure we continue to have good peeing conditions in this house.

I hurried out. “Do you want some coffee?” I yelled because otherwise we couldn’t hear each other.

He grinned. “No, I had all that before I came here.”

I stuck around till he finished, and sure enough, the smell went down when the drainage ended. He asked me about the Kwan-yin in the back (“It’s Buddhist, right?”) and about the statue of the golfer that stands out front (it was left here by the house’s previous owners and was heartily disliked by Bernie). I guessed from our interaction over the years that he liked talking to me, maybe even found me attractive.

That used to alarm me a little when Bernie was down with his stroke and after his death, when I was alone, but this time I felt no apprehension.

He retracted the enormous hose from under the forsythia.

“The top of the tank shouldn’t be so deep in the ground,” he remarked as we both looked down at it. “Must be hard for you to dig it out and uncover.”

“Used to be hard,” I tell him. “This time my housemate did the work.”

“That’s good.”

We said goodbye. He walked to the door of the truck cabin and opened it. By then I was back by the front door. “See you again soon,” I said to him, knowing it would probably not be less than two years. Two years felt like a long time.

“I love you,” he said to me from a distance. I looked up, not sure I heard right. “I love you,” he repeated.

Then he climbed up into the truck, cranked up the engine, and drove away.

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RULES OF THE GAME

“Aussie, look at me! Please, look at me!”

Aussie’s in the water, Henry’s not. He goes into his stalking stance, belly down on the grass, hindquarters up, begging for her attention.

“Here I am, Auss! See me? Ready to play!”

Aussie stands in the middle of the stream and won’t look at him. Looks everywhere else, just not at Henry.

“Come on, Aussie! Come on, Aussie!”

At some point she may suddenly make a fierce dash out of the water and up the bank where he’s standing, he’ll give out his small, ferocious snarl even as she runs past him, and joyously try to catch up. And sometimes she’ll just turn and run up the opposite bank, leaving him to go back around and over the log bridge that’s suspended over the water, then hurry to catch up with her.

He’ll counter her smarminess by playing with the rat terrier Ginger ten minutes later, more his size, while I leash Aussie to prevent her from growling at Ginger for playing with Henry, who’s clearly her toy. But when it’s just the two of them they have their protocols, the dance they’ve perfected for almost a year now. Here are the rules:

  1.  Nobody goes after the other’s food. Henry did try a few times and was quickly disabused of any dream of success.

2.  If there’s a mole hiding underground and it’s time to dig, Aussie does the digging while Henry growls and supervises.

3.  Aussie always runs first and Henry follows. And if it’s deer they’re chasing, Henry will run for about 100 yards and then turn back, while Aussie will disappear for half the day.

4.  If Aussie’s playing with another big dog, both ignoring Henry completely, Henry reserves the right to bark. And bark. And bark.

5.  Seating arrangements in the car are fluid. At the start it’s Aussie in the back seat and Henry on the wide armrest between the driver and passenger seats. After a minute or two, Aussie nudges him aside and comes down on her belly, hind legs on the back seat and front legs on the armrest, and if she only put on her sunglasses she’d look like she’s on a cruise. Five minutes later she gets up and crowds into the passenger seat, too, while Henry adroitly makes his way back onto the armrest, sitting on his hindquarters and looking straight ahead, striking a Prince Henry pose. Some 10 minutes later they’ll switch again. Eventually Aussie will get back to the back seat where she looks out the window. She doesn’t look out the window of the front passenger seat, she disdains the sideview mirror, but I have not removed it so far, her protests notwithstanding. (It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)

6.  Sleeping arrangements have lately shifted. It used to be that Aussie slept downstairs (I’m on guard!). But this summer she came upstairs on account of all the thunderstorms. When the thunder and lightning start I hear paw scratches on the floor and then the quick jump on the bed. “Wow, Aussie, you’re heavy!”

“Make room under that blanket!”

“What about the sedative I gave you?”

”Triple it next time.”

We fight it out because I’m afraid of thunderstorms, too.

“You’re hogging the blanket! It’s covering all of you and none of me!”

“Who told you to get so fat?”

“Fluffy! I’m fluffy!”

And finally, when we come home to find lots of Amazon boxes on the front stairs with back-to-school supplies for local children, nobody—but nobody—is allowed to pee on them.

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MY HAPPY PLACE

I was at the dentist yesterday undergoing a root canal procedure, with a dentist and an assistant hovering over me.

I couldn’t talk (Whatever happens, don’t close your mouth!). I was further incapacitated by the heavy x-ray “blanket” they drape on you before taking x-rays, which they did several times during the procedure.

I usually like to tease Dr. Kim when he works on me. Once I wore a mala of skulls around my wrist and he asked me about it. “It’s the heads of all the dentists who screwed up my teeth,” I told him. He laughed so hard he had to put down his instrument.

Nothing doing this time. “Can’t you at least give me a running narrative of what’s going on?” I managed to garble out, but he shook his head, working quickly. He’d been delayed due to an emergency patient in the adjoining treatment room.

In the middle of it all, as the nurse prepared to do another x-ray,  I sat up a few inches and saw a framed picture of these words: “You are my happy place.” I groaned and lay back. And remembered this Zen koan:

”Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Kuei Shan. Kuei Shan said, ‘Old cow, so you’ve come!’

The Grindstone said, ‘Tomorrow there’s a great communal feast on T’ai Shan, are you going to go, Teacher?’

Kuei Shan relaxed his body and lay down; the Grindstone immediately left.”

Ah, the exquisite idiosyncrasies of Chan koan literature! Iron Grindstone Liu was a woman, an accomplished teacher, one of the very few women teachers mentioned. She could grind you right down to the essence if you engaged with her, hence her nickname. And yes, Old Cow was her teacher’s affectionate, respectful name for her.

She asked him if he was going to a big event. What did he do? He lay down. Maybe the floor was his happy place. Being the great Chan master he was, any place would have been his happy place.

Sometimes, in these days of covid, I want to go out and have fun. I miss live music, I miss dinners out, I miss going out with friends.

Much of my life has been full of activity. Even now, at the age of 71, I feel like I go from one thing to another to another, one job to the next to the next to the next, and at times I could feel a rushing energy go through my body that whispers: Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! I take a deep breath, even walk out into the back yard and visit with Kwan-yin, but the voice continues: If you don’t hurry you won’t get this done or that, you won’t blog, you won’t be ready for the class tomorrow, you won’t answer emails, and then the day ends. Your life will end, so hurry!

I’m taking things off my plate so that I could slow down. Don’t need to go to the great communal feast on T’ai Shan—or anywhere else, for that matter. I can lie down on whatever patch of earth life gives me and feel that I am already here, nothing remains to be done because it’s all here. My happy place.

Bernie was full of action when he was younger. There were always a million projects going on around him, people hurried, people ran, but he, the center of it all, didn’t hurry, not even once. He wouldn’t speed on the road even if we were late to the airport, he’d be as cool as a cucumber. Someone would tailgate or cut us off; no four-letter word would come out of his mouth. Not a gasp, not a gulp, no sudden inhalation. He’d pause, then go on talking just as before after making sure the car was right.

He had lots of destinations, but he fully inhabited wherever he was—including that final bed in the emergency room of the hospital where he died.

Sometimes we’d plan to do something—have a talk, go out—and I’d say, “I’m quickly making this phone call” or “I’m quickly going to the bathroom. And he’d say, “You don’t have to do it quickly.”

Finally, after all these years, I’m taking his advice. I’ve always been a very slow student.

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NOT BECAUSE I DON’T CARE

For two days, small groups of women went out on the streets of Kabul to demonstrate for women’s rights and for their inclusion in the Taliban government. The articles I read didn’t say they were demonstrating against the Taliban per se, or the new government. They were demonstrating for women. For equal rights.

Their courage is indescribable.

They were mostly young, not having lived what their mothers lived more than 20 years ago. But they heard the stories and, weaponless, confronted the soldiers.

We, on the other hand, left in a big hurry, and as often happens when you leave in a hurry, we left many behind.

The safest country in the world, sandwiched between two oceans and two friendly countries north and south, is so afraid of terrorists that we created a visa system making it almost impossible for Afghans who helped us to get out. So many security agencies were involved, checking and double-checking on the referrals (Yes, but are you sure he’s not a double agent for the Taliban?), and bureaucracy was no match for the Taliban. In fact, bureaucracy fueled by fear is no match for anything. It’ll swallow up energy, innovation, and people’s dreams. And people.

A Latina friend, an American citizen, hoped to finally go on vacation with her husband and two children. They hadn’t gone on vacation since coming to this country, trying to save up money. They found a one-week package deal for vacation in Costa Rica and she submitted her application for a passport at the end of April, paying the extra fee for expedited handling. The family trip was scheduled for late July.

She never got her passport. The State Dept. announced there were delays in processing passports so three months’ wait was no longer enough. Too bad. They didn’t lose the entire value of the package for the four of them, but they had to pay penalties.

Is anybody accountable anywhere in Washington?

Meantime, almost 20,000 people were killed in gun violence in 2020 in the U.S. (not including suicide by guns) because practically anyone can get his/her hands on a gun, while Afghans who proved their value and support couldn’t get visas because they might be terrorists.

I look out in early evening. The sun still shines, but big rains and thunderstorms are on their way for the night and all day tomorrow. And even as I shake my head about how crazy this country is, I also think: It’s so beautiful.

In early September the trees are a dark, dark green, creating black caverns between the trunks. The western-facing leaves are lapping up the last rays of twilight while the others move lightly in the breeze. I’m sure that somehow, they know what’s ahead of them this evening. And I remember reading in Richard Price‘s great Overstory that leaves stir when humans pass by them. They register us, even as we usually don’t register them.

Where am I in these last moments of daylight? The Afghan women risking so much to claim human rights feel close even as I look at New England forests. The government repeats again and again how that far-away country is far away, not of critical importance to us here. But people wanting their freedom feel close. Women wanting education and jobs, the ability to support families and raise children, feel closer to me than the red shirt I’m wearing. They want to have a loud, intelligent, confident voice. A woman’s voice who cares more about life than death, who knows both tedium and patience, who plants, waters and harvests, who knows the cycles of infinity. Who knows the language of leaves and trees and won’t uproot herself from earth.

From where comes this resonance?

I watch a hummingbird drinking the sugared water I put outside for it. They’re usually not out so late, but the temperatures are warm, waiting for rain. This may be the last week I’ll see them here, they leave early.

My mother had a bad day just before Rosh Hashana.

“How am I?” she repeats my question. “Okay, I’ll tell you, but be very, very careful. They’re taking us away.”

“Where, mom?”

“They’re taking people to concentration camps. I’m all packed.”

“Mom, nobody’s coming, believe me. Nobody’s coming to get you, I promise.”

“I packed some food for the children.”

“Mom, nobody’s coming.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re in Israel, mom. They have good army and police, there’s our family. No one is taking you away anywhere.”

“I promise that I will contact you from wherever I’ll be.”

“You’ll be home, mom, with Swapna. It’s the new year, you’ll have company for meals, you’ll be fine.”

“If I don’t get in touch with you it’s because I can’t get in touch, not because I don’t care.”

My sister later confirmed that she did indeed pack a bag.

The wind is picking up, a flutter among the branches. Fall is coming, their fall. Everything is in that rush of foliage: the courage of women in Afghanistan, an old woman still living out her fears of 80 years ago, Henry the Chihuahua’s stuffed blue alligator on my lap waiting to be tossed and retrieved, a green hummingbird ready to fly south.

The compassion of leaves.

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REACHING OUT NOT IN OUR LANGUAGE

I have so many different thoughts and feelings from this long weekend I hardly know where to start.

“Start at the end.”

“I don’t usually, Aussie.”

“That’s why it’s a good idea.”

Which instantly reminds me of the death of Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little in the best TV series ever, The Wire. I’m not the only one who calls it that, so have British newspapers, and you know what great series the Brits create.

Bernie and I devoured all five seasons of The Wire, and he later watched the interview Barack Obama did with David Simon regarding that series. He was especially gratified to hear the two discussing the challenges that ex-cons face as they try to get jobs upon their release from prison. Greyston, which Bernie founded, addresses those issues with their Open Hiring policy (in which no questions are asked of an applicant’s jail or prison record) and have become national spokesmen for it.

While all the characters were beautifully developed—police detectives, politicians, teachers, journalists, etc.—it was the drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore that stood out best. Instead of just seeing them as abstract violent hoodlums running amok in poor neighborhoods, the series explored them as human beings, as competitors, family people who stand by each other, and the neighborhood kids who see their participation in the drug trade as their only entry into not just the economy but also into a family that cares. It didn’t hurt that some great actors appeared in that series, including not just Williams but also Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan.

One of the many jewels that came out of Omar Little’s mouth was: Boy, you got me confused with a man who repeats himself. A far more eloquent presentation than one of Bernie’s favorite Buddhist aphorisms: Don’t be consistent. If you thought you knew Bernie, you were in serious trouble. If you thought you knew Omar Little, you were in worse trouble because Omar carried a shotgun.

“That’s the end, Aussie. What else has come up?”

“All the packages that prevent me from getting down the stairs. That driver comes round again, watch me bite him!”

I posted the Back-to-School 2021 list of school supplies needed by children of immigrant families (mostly undocumented) late Saturday. Some 24 hours later I received a message that the list had sold out. And late morning of Monday, Labor Day, an Amazon truck brought the first shipment of boxes and left them on the front steps.

“Don’t they believe in holidays?” Aussie growls.

Today I rushed them to Jimena’s house, who took a quick break from the schools where she works to meet me and take them in. She and her family will break those boxes down and put various materials in the new backpacks and give them to the children, all filled with paper, notebooks, calculators, pencil holders, etc.

And suddenly I have a flash memory of what it was like to be a young immigrant girl myself. I came to this country when I was 7. No language, no sense of American culture, no childhood TV programs, no slang. I was puzzled and disconnected. I looked funny, too. My clothes later on were often clothes discarded by my mother, I always seemed to have the wrong bags, the wrong covers on books (we always covered our books and notebooks), the wrong hair. I simply didn’t fit in at an age when fitting in is all that matters.

Now that I think about it, I can see that the issue of fitting in has been with me for much of my life and has led me down some interesting paths. At the same time, I’m glad that we could provide school supplies to Latin American children, strengthening their confidence and ability to be with their American peers. My parents did the best they could for us, but I always seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.

So thank you thank you thank you. It’s great to start the Jewish New Year with gratitude. While Aussie grouses all day about these obstructions on the front steps, I see the boxes as people connecting from around the world (yes, even outside the US) with a local community that needs help. They also connect with me and with each other. We’re often not aware of these connections—we tend to be more aware of connections by friends and family, folks we’re directly involved with—but these more remote relationships are going on all the time.

Bernie often quoted his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, one of the pioneers of Zen in the West, who said that there’s direct karma (causes and situations) that we see clearly, such as those arising out of our close relationships, work, and family, and there’s indirect karma, which arises from causes, situations and people that are invisible to us. And, Maezumi Roshi added, it’ the indirect karma that’s most important.

Finally, I got a text message from a non-Jewish friend: Le’Shanah Tova to you and loved ones. The first two Hebrew words mean: A happy new year. And it instantly reminded me of how he and his husband, also not Jewish, had sent Bernie and me a card some years ago saying: Le’Sanah Tova to you and Bernie. As you can see, I have kept that card all these years. Why? Because a Latino Texan and an Italian New Yorker wished us a happy new year in Hebrew.

It touched me very deeply then, and continues to touch me now. Not just the blessing, but the blessing in a language foreign to them and familiar to us. Reaching out to people in their language, not just ours. It continues to be a big lesson for me.

And finally finally (I told you there’s a lot), Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao and I did a podcast on our book, The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments, with Simran Singh on her radio program: 11:11. We had a good time doing it. Our book tour had been completely upended by the covid outbreak, so it was fun to do this together at least remotely, if not in person. I think it was very good. You can listen to it here.

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

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CORRECTION TO AMAZON LIST

Hi everyone,

It was wonderful to see how many folks began to respond to the Amazon list of back-to-school supplies that I posted for the children of immigrant families. I know that because I quickly got emails letting me know that my shipping address didn’t show up. So I called Amazon (for the first time ever!) and found out how to do it, and put in my address.

But–it does need a new link, which is this.

Please use this link instead of the first one, and I hope it will all work. Here it is again.

Many, many thanks for the most unsavvy tech person you’ve met yet.

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GOD IS LONELY

I drive with Aussie in the back seat to bring some cash for Hilaria, the deaf mother with sons who’s now home after treatment for a brain aneurysm. Thank you to all those who have helped her. Hilaria’s home now, waiting for the swelling of her brain to come down so that they could operate on her, probably at Worcester. A lot of issues relating to medical insurance are still being worked out. Meantime, she can’t work at all.

“You understand the challenges she’s facing, Aussie?” I tell Aussie. “Imagine someone can’t speak English, can’t hear Spanish, and has to lip-read the translator who’s talking in Spanish and translating from English. Think of all the troubles you and I have understanding one another, and now think of what Hilaria faces. Hard to imagine!”

“Given the situation she’s in, maybe it’s good she can’t understand too well.”

“Aussie, we have to fully face and understand our situations in order to take care of ourselves in the best way possible.”

“Ignorance is bliss!”

When we return home there is a conversation with my mother. “How are you, Chavale?”

“I’m fine, other than allergies. I walked the dogs and I can’t stop sneezing since. You know, mom, it’s Rosh Hashana next Monday, the Jewish New Year.”

“Chavale, do me a big favor. Talk to God.”

“To God, mom?”

“You have a good relationship with Him, talk to Him. He’s a lonely person, He needs socializing.”

For a minute I wonder if she’s referring to my neighbor, an older man who indeed lives alone. I had just invited him over for a cup of coffee this weekend. “God is lonely, mom?”

“Of course! Who does He have to talk with? Who’s there to help Him? Ask Him if He needs something from the store, He’ll tell you.”

“I never thought of that, mom.”

“I know, I know, He’ll tell you He’s okay, but who knows? If you could at least talk to Him, He might tell you the truth.”

“Mom, I want to wish you a happy holiday and a happy new year.”

“Can’t you come for the holiday? You’re not too far away.”

“Mom, I’m in a different country.”

Pause. “Since when?”

“I can’t fly just like that for a 2-day holiday. And Israel now imposed new quarantine restrictions even for vaccinated people like me, which makes a trip like that impossible. I don’t want to travel all the way just to go into quarantine and not be able to see you for 10 days. See?”

“Ye-es,” she says skeptically. Then she brightens up. “Well, look, whatever you do, whatever you can do, I love you. Whatever you can’t do, I love you too.”

“The same goes for me, mom. Whatever you do—it’s a good day, you understand things, they make sense—I love you. It’s a bad day—things don’t make sense, you confuse me with my sister, you confuse my father with your father, the present with the past—I love you, too.”

“Yes. But can’t you at least try to  come for the holiday?”

I can’t come for the holiday, but to celebrate this Jewish New Year I can at least post a list of back-to-school supplies that children of immigrant families need, like Hilaria’s sons.

I recently read that the average American family spends over $400 for back-to-school supplies. Obviously, not every American family can afford that, and certainly not the children of these families, whose parents work on farms, clean up restaurants after closing hour, or make pizza in the back of pizza parlors. So Jimena, with the help of teachers in the local schools, made up a list of what they need. It’s in the range of $2.47 (highlighters) to $42.99 (calculators), and many in between.

Many of the students from the previous year are still using last year’s backpacks and calculators, so this is for the new contingent of students. For these families, nothing—but nothing—is as important as going to school. The parents especially are well aware how critical that is for their children to make their way in this world, a way which is usually out of reach for the parents, who’re often not just illiterate in English but also in Spanish.

Whatever you can do, please do. You can find the Amazon link here. The boxes will come to me and I will bring them to Jimena, who will then distribute them.

The sun is beginning to set on our record-breaking hot, wet New England summer, which included major flooding. Ahead of us, I hope, are the beautiful colors of fall and the optimism that a new year often brings with it. Covid is still with us; the students all wear masks, not the best school experience. Let’s cheer them up, let’s give them a boost and help them at this critical time. Here is the link for the list for back-to-school supplies once again.

And to everyone: A happy Jewish New Year. If you can help—I love you. And if you can’t—I love you too.

 

 

 

 

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A NEW HOLOCAUST

“I still can’t get over how we left Afghanistan, Aussie.”

“It’s terrible!”

“You know, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, yesterday admitted that there were serious problems with the special immigrant visa program that was used to clear interpreters and everyone else who helped the army to come to the US, but it was cumbersome and took way too long.”

“Son of a bitch!”

“So I looked up that SIV program, which stands for Special Immigrant Visa. It was started over a decade ago and involves the State Department and a whole bunch of intelligence and security agencies whose job it was to vet whether the people coming in actually worked for the army or were terrorists.”

“Give me a break, f—ing a—–e!”

“They didn’t have enough budget or manpower, and even though Trump came to an agreement with the Taliban back in February 2020, and we knew we didn’t have much time, the program never took off. There was no momentum, nothing was rushed.”

“They knew back then! This is so shameful I can’t stand it.”

“Exactly, Aussie, and you know why? Because nobody, but nobody is taking responsibility; nobody is being held accountable. Why doesn’t Anthony Blinken—”

“Who?”

“The Secretary of State stand up, hold himself accountable, and resign? Or the head of Homeland Security, which was part of the process?”

“I’m heading off to Washington to bite them.”

“This was doable, this was achievable. What kind of government do we have that can’t do this? We left thousands of people there who should have gotten those visas and escaped with their families and their lives instead of leaving them there because our paperwork was so slow!”

“Thousands of people! Who cares about the people? What about the dogs?”

“Yes, I know about the dogs, Auss—”

“Fifty dogs were left in cages at the airport. It’s a new Holocaust!”

“Not just a minute, Auss—”

“Don’t just-a-minute me. Dogs are left on an airport tarmac after they faithfully served this country! Nothing, but nothing can be more brutal than that.”

“Look, Aussie, leaving the dogs behind was terrible, just part of a pattern of leaving people and dogs behind when we no longer needed them, but comparing it to the Holocaust is a little over the top.”

“Goddamn f—s sons of bitches, I hate them hate them hate them!”

“Careful, Aussie. I’m angry, too, but that kind of hate starts getting in the way.”

“In the way of what? You know they’re not changing anything. Just like you said, did that guy who said the program failed offer to resign? Did he say that he’d failed? Snookertail! Hateful, sleazy, yecchy yuck!”

“Aussie—”

“Gutless, spineless, yellow-bellied chihuahua!”

“I think you owe Henry an apology, Auss.”

“Rotten piece of carrion!”

“Aussie, what’s got into you?”

“They left those dogs behind!”

“Aussie. I think you’re very sad about this.”

“Sad? I’m jumping out of my skin. I’m furious!”

“That’s when we have to be super-careful, Auss. Sometimes we get angry because facing our deep sadness and grief is too painful. Many years ago a therapist told me: ‘Sadness feels passive to you so you quickly shift to anger because that’s more active, it feels like you’re doing something.’”

“Shitbag, dickface, ass—”

“It sounds like you’re sad, Auss.”

“Piss on you, jackass!”

“This is not a good way to express your grief, Aussie.”

“Lameass! Turdface! Man-slut!”

“Aussie, none of this helps.”

“Your mother likes it RUFF!”

“That’s disgusting, Auss.”

“Whew! I feel better already.”

 

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

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