Today Alisa, Bernie’s daughter, took me to visit the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.. “The lotuses are in bloom,” she said, “let’s go see them.” It was a warm, dry day and we took some precious private time to walk together and talk.
There were seed pods everywhere. Having spilled seeds into the water, they were now turning black and drying under the sun.
The beautiful lotuses rooted in mud have always been a symbol I loved for a spiritual life, but the only lotuses I’d seen so far, including in my trip to Vietnam many years ago, were those flowers that seemed to float right on top of the water.
But this is Washington, and these flowers opened wide and floated more than a foot above the water on very strong stalks. I watched them, wondering how such heavy flowers survived on tall stalks that were themselves rooted in soft, muddy soil. The wetlands were all around us; our feet sank and got muddy. Yet out of this soft, squishy mud rose up firm stalks and rainbow petals, with a yellow center the color of sun.
We talked of challenges at home and at work, we talked of much that is messy and unclear. You’d think that when one gets older (like Alisa) and much older (like me), things would fall into place a lot more. You’re wiser now, you choose your battles and engagements with more care. Tread more carefully; avoid weirdness.
That may well be true for some, but not here. In my life I see wetlands all over, places where you slip and slide, where the ground isn’t super firm, in fact you often can’t see the ground under you.
What can I do if my life gets squishier by the moment? I walk on more paths with unfamiliar destinations, and it’s not uncommon at all for the ground to shift under my feet. Life hasn’t gotten narrower and firmer, it’s gotten more porous. Goals and strategies remain, but peripheral vision has widened. And yet, I slip and slide less.
I also care less about spotlessness. Mud covered my sandals today and I shrugged. It was a fine price to pay to see lotuses, a black racer snake (the first snake I ever saw climbing a tree), turtles, and a blue heron. Don’t get me wrong, we walked on firm terrain most of the time, including on boardwalks, but the mud lay in ambush around corners, and we went ahead. A brief sensation of sinking into oozing mud, but it was warm and grainy, and would dry on my skin before we got back to the car.
Tomorrow I drive down to Maryland to see Bernie’s daughter and her family, a trip that’s been delayed a long time on account of covid.
I’m bringing certain art works from her dad, including this beautiful Kwan-yin that’s coming off the dining room wall. It was a free-hanging scroll for many years but was getting damaged, so finally we framed it behind glass. These works will bring beauty to their already-lovely Maryland home, and will leave some white spaces in mine. Not a loss; white spaces are interesting.
Every once in a while I remember what the last three years of my life with Bernie were like, mainly the fragmentation. The constant shifts one has to make, from answering emails to going to the bedroom to help him up to planning meals to trying to post a blog to speaking to caregivers or lining folks up to take him for chemo in Springfield to finishing edits on the Book of Householder Koans to preparing a retreat talk to phone calls for doctor appointments to feeding the dog to doing laundry to washing dishes to organizing the next day to wishing you could sit a little more. The inability to stay long with any one thing came hardest to me.
I wasn’t on top of the game, I was ahead of it. Even as I did one thing, my mind would already be in the next, assessing how much time it needed, would I get to it, etc.
And the sense of loss, and more impending loss, never let go.
It’s one thing to be full of energy and optimism. You’re facing challenges, but you have faith that you’ll persevere, that you are more than a match for anything obstructing you. But after your husband has suffered a severe stroke, loss stares you in the face every single day. You work hard to help him recover as much as possible, but you can’t fool yourself, it ain’t ever going to be like it was.
You spend your days hustling from one activity to another just to get to a modicum of what you had previously, when both of you drove and not just one, when both of you got things for the house (Eve, got an errand for me? I need to go smoke a cigar!), when he took Stanley to the vet and you didn’t because you were embarrassed by the dog’s antics in the vet’s office, when you moaned and groaned about his preference for sausage but loved his weekend breakfasts. It’s just you now, a brand-new identity, even as you watch him getting accustomed to his new identity.
But even then we had afternoons like this afternoon, when we’d walk outside carefully on the grass to the chairs looking at the afternoon sun and sit down. Bernie had never been a great nature-lover, his eyes would glaze over when I effused about hummingbirds and daffodils and complained about recalcitrant dahlias. From his seat, he’d look out to the south and not say much.
For many years I worried that he didn’t want to burden me with his sorrows and therefore stayed quiet. When people don’t share their feelings, it leaves me to suspect the worst.
But I don’t think that was why he was quiet. We met somewhere in that silent sitting together. There was no one stronger than the other, no one walking better or more stably on her feet, no one talking quicker and clearer while the other still labored at putting his words together, especially when he was tired. The sun beamed at us together.
The walls are bare now, leaving big dusty squares where the pictures once were.
“Do you think I’ll have to repaint?” I anxiously ask my housemate, who did most of the work of loading up my Prius with those heavy pictures.
“It’s mostly dust. First brush it, then use some warm, soapy water. That should do it.”
A friend quoted the great Zen master Uchiyama Roshi: “Practice is active participation in loss.”
“Also, in life?” I added.
“Of course, in life,” he replied. “I want my actions to be life-giving every moment but I’m aware they’re accompanied by loss.”
This morning another friend took Aussie for a walk and said, looking around him at the fluttering leaves, “It feels like September.”
“t’s June,” I laughed.
But he was right, the leaves were fluttering madly. Saying hello? Goodbye?
“How old is he?” I ask the man who hovers over the little black dog. His white chin hints at an older age.
We leashed both Aussie and Henry as the two approached, which is our usual protocol when someone comes down the path, till we have the all-important exchange: Is he friendly? Ours are friendly. It’s a simple and important dialogue. If the answer is yes on both sides, it promises mutual sniffing, feinting, jumping, racing, and the possibility of an all-around frolic. If the answer is no, or even yes with caveats (He’s still a puppy and gets nervous, or She gets intense around other dogs), we keep Aussie and Henry on leash, smile, bid adieu.
In this case, the answer is “He’s afraid,” so we keep both dogs on leash. As far as how old he is, the answer is: “I don’t know.”
“What’s his name?”
“Hobo the Railroad Dog,” comes the answer. And before I know it, the man launches into his tale:
“I’m a train engineer,” he tells us. “I’m in the locomotive driving the train and we come to a stop. While we’re waiting I look out and something shines way down below in the bottom of a ravine literally under the tracks. I look again, and I realize it’s eyes, a dog’s eyes. He fell between the tracks right into a deep hole and there was no way he could get out. I wondered how long he’d been there. So, I got off the locomotive and walked down the tracks towards him and got him out. He was all skin and bones, hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for days probably. His ribs were showing. I picked him up, climbed back onto the locomotive, and we got on our way.
“My wife and I, we lost our dogs a couple of years ago and we decided at our age we weren’t going to get any more. We brought him to a local shelter and I called about a week later. Nobody’d picked him up; I think they were spooked by how thin he was. So, I went down there and picked him up myself, and now we got us another dog after all. I called him Hobo the Railroad Dog.”
Hobo looks at us vigilantly while his story is being told, and even Henry has the good sense not to bark. Aussie, on the other hand, sits on the ground, a skeptical look on her face.
“How could anybody take something that looks like that home?” she sniffs from the back seat once we get back to the car.
“A lot of hobos were like that, Auss,” I tell her. “Now it’s harder to ride the trains, but back then they often didn’t have a home or family, nobody wanted them. And after you live on the trains long enough, you probably don’t look that great, either. We used to live on the streets for days at a time in street retreats. Believe me, it doesn’t take long for you to start looking scraggly. There was usually plenty of food in food pantries and soup kitchens, but you couldn’t wash regularly or change your clothes, you got wet in the rain, you didn’t have a bed in which to sleep.”
“I wouldn’t take you home looking like that, either,” says Aussie.
I thank her.
“Besides, if I took you home, then what about all the other homeless humans I should take home? Once you start, you never stop. It’s better not to even start.”
“You know, Aussie, we never know when the stop happens. We have no idea how things will turn out.”
“I know how this will turn out. If I adopt too many humans, there goes my home. Caring for them, feeding them, training them. Do you know how much attention and work humans need?”
“If you think like that, Auss, you won’t do anything. Think of just one human. Let’s say it’s me. You see me on the street and I’m hungry, what do you do?”
“Nothing. You’re overweight already.”
“And what are you, Auss?”
“The point is, Aussie, I don’t have solutions for the problems of the world and I certainly have no idea how things end. I try to respond to things as they come up. Hobo lies down in a deep hole between the train tracks, I get off my locomotive and get him out. Even if I can’t keep him myself, I take him to the next step, which in his case was a shelter. Hobo’s companion didn’t plan on keeping him, he just did what had to be done that moment, see?”
“But what happens if nobody adopts him?”
“I can only respond to this moment, Aussie, not worry about how things will eventually turn out.”
“If I take you home from the streets, you’d never leave. And I’d have to brush you every day.”
“Aussie, I think it was the other way. Bernie and I took you out of a shelter, remember?”
“And I never left, see? Lucky for you I’m so adorable.”
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.
[With respect to The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report]
“Aussie and Henry, I’m driving to Maryland next week. I want to leave you with the best, most compassionate dog sitter I can find. Whom would you like to dog sit for you while I’m gone?”
“He won’t come, Auss. I never heard that he’s a dog fan. You may be the one taking care of him instead of vice versa.”
“I can always go to Mar-A-Lago and bring marrow bones for him. If Biden can meet the Queen of England, I can meet Donald!”
“Aussie, the Proud Pooches of New England have disbanded, it’s time to move on.”
“Don’t you liberals always say that you can’t move on without looking at the past? You want us to look at slavery, at what happened to immigrants, at what happened in Tulsa. Well, you can’t move on without examining the Big Steal, which is the crime of the century.”
“The century is only 21 years old,” Henry points out.
“Aussie, you’re not bringing our marrow bones to Donald.”
“Wellbites’ Beef and Turkey Recipe? Bison Jerky? Pure Buffalo?”
“He can have Tricky Trainers with Cheddar,” from Henry. “More his style.”
“Henry, who do you want me to invite to dog-sit for you?”
“Guzman? The drug lord? He’s a terrible man. And he’s in prison.”
“Watch Henry try to dig him out,” says Aussie. “Hee hee hee!”
“He’s in a supermax prison far from here, Henry.”
“But he always escapes! If you invite him to dog sit for Aussie and me, I bet you he makes it. Of course, depends on how much money you offer to pay him.”
“Aussie and Henry, there are so many kind, compassionate dog sitters in this area, why would you want Trump or Guzman? You know what the Buddha said, don’t you?”
“Oh no, here it comes. Henry, it’s dharma time. Shut your ears.”
“He said, ‘Having good friends isn’t half of the Holy Life. Having good friends is the whole of the Holy Life.’ By good friends, he meantt fellow companions on the path, who help you ask good questions, don’t distract you from your journey but rather strengthen your resolve and keep you going.”
“Henry and I don’t want a Holy Life. We want a life!”
“With Donald Trump and killer El Chapo?”
“I bet they eat steak every night.”
“And they have such gorgeous wives,” murmurs Henry.
“Who’re tall and don’t get shorter by the minute like Miss Compassion out there,” says Aussie.
“You mean the Kwan-yin who lost some of her base when we stood her up?”
“We don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore,” says Auss. “You see what happens when you go with compassion? You lose your stature. Life is too hard, too much, the compassion just ekes out of you, and you get shorter.”
“Right,” says Henry. “Melania doesn’t get shorter.”
But compassion doesn’t eke out and you don’t get shorter (unless you’re getting older), it’s here to stay. And in that spirit, in my work to support the community of immigrant families that live in our area, I’m asking you to buy Walmart cards for them directly and mail them to me.
Till now I’ve bought Stop ‘n Shop cards with your donations. Stop ‘n Shop is a local New England supermarket and doesn’t sell food cards online, I’ve been going there repeatedly to buy them. The Walmart sells its cards online and the store offers food, clothing, diapers, and drug items that are far lower priced than the supermarket. I’m told that families carpool with those who have cars and go up there to buy essentials.
This will also enable me to dedicate the money I have in their account to special needs, such as flying a young girl up here to reunite with her mother. I’m sitting down with more and more parents and finding out about special circumstances, which at times involve losing one’s home and needing to quickly move (they often double up in small apartments in order to afford the rents) and help to reunite families, members of which are deported or left behind. The pain of deportations or a family split apart is worst of all. I will write these stories down and ask for your help.
Meantime, please go here for Walmart cards. You can buy them in any amount and ask to deliver to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and I will get them to these families. You can’t send them directly to families, I have no addresses for them. Delivery is free.
In these past 15 months we’ve raised over $60,000 in help for food, rent, utilities, and special assistance for people who suffer illness, emergencies, deportations, and even death. This is incredibly generous and I would like to continue reaching out on behalf of the families and not just asking for donations, but also telling their very human stories.
If you prefer, you can continue sending checks to me as before, at the address above or through the link below, and if you write Walmart cards on the memo line I will buy them.
Bernie and I are on a Royal Norwegian cruise that originates in Norway. We fly to Oslo and from there board the ship. The cruise is not to visit glaciers, it’s to visit islands that look suspiciously like Caribbean islands. In fact, the ocean is tame and turquoise, just like the Caribbean, and the ship stops at one island after another.
Usually, Bernie and I relax on vacation and have a good time together. This time, after a short while, disagreements have crept in. Nothing serious, just the same old same old that tires you out.
One morning, I emerge from our cabin and walk out onto the deck, only the deck is right on the surface of the water. And there, securely tied to the cruise ship, is a rowboat. I watch the boat, noticing how it rolls gently over the water; it looks very inviting to a tired woman. So I climb over the rail and into the rowboat. There’s some kind of cot or bed there, because I lie down and instantly fall asleep, my hand holding on to the ship’s rail. The sway of the boat is just what I’m looking for.
I sleep for hours and wake up on my side looking down at the water, my hand still clutching the rail of the cruise ship. To my shock, I can see the sandy bottom of the ocean just two feet down. How can this ship float in such shallow water, I wonder? I turn around and there’s no ship; my hand is clutching a wooden board floating on the water. The rope tying the ship and small boat must have loosened, setting the rowboat and me adrift on the ocean.
I sit up, scared out of my mind, and see a beach nearby, with families and children playing peacefully. Only this is no Caribbean Island, I notice, it looks much more mundane, with apartment buildings, cars, stores, and businesses.
I get out of the boat and come ashore. People speak a foreign language and are very pleasant. By now fear has been replaced by worry. How could I contact Bernie? In fact, where am I?
A friendly young man says hello in English. I explain to him what happened.
“No problem,” he says. “Norwegian Air stops here. You can catch a plane to Oslo, which is not far, and then make the flight that’s supposed to take you and your husband back home to America.”
“That’s just what I want,” I exclaim. I visualize my sitting on the plane seat as he boards, surprising him, showing him I’m not dead, and am so happy to see him after all that happened, hugging him and saying: “Now we can go home.” I can see the picture vividly.
The young man shows me a bus to take to the airport and disappears. I am excited by this unforeseen journey. The bus doesn’t bring me to the airport, but I meet another man who explains that I now have to get on a train in order to get to the terminal. Once I board the train, the man disappears.
I’m sure I’m on my way. I hear an Israeli couple commenting to each other about me in Hebrew. I laugh and speak up in Hebrew, surprising them, and we chat very pleasantly together. By the time I get off the train they’re also gone, and now I meet a young woman.
“Come, I’ll bring you to Norwegian Air,” she says.
But there’s no terminal. Instead, she takes me to a trailer and opens a wooden door. Inside people are sitting at desks and there’s a small blackboard by the door listing their names and the areas each is responsible for.
“Here you are,” she says, and points to one square. It lists a man’s name followed by avocados, bread, doctor, and software. There are two names of airlines.
“I don’t see Norwegian Air,” I mumble.
“It’s right there,” she says, pointing again.
I still don’t see it, and the dream ends.
I woke up beaming, full of joy. I literally jumped out of bed, happy to come back to life; it’s hard to explain why.
Only that I’d gotten into a rowboat and left the cruise ship and Bernie behind even though I tried to keep a hold onto them. And instead of dying on the open ocean, I’d landed somewhere completely unknown to me, with polite but unfamiliar people speaking a language I didn’t understand. Yet every single person I met brought me one step closer on the journey. Each had come to me when I felt lost and shown me something—a bus, a train, a trailer with offices. And maybe I wasn’t going to make it on the flight which Bernie was going to be on—I couldn’t see Norwegian Air anywhere—but with it or without, I, too, was being pointed home..
“Aussie, why are you hiding out in the back of the car again?”
“Aussie, please come out of there, there’s no thunder.”
“The weather bureau, Auss. Chance of rain for the next several hours: zero.”
“What do they know? I can hear it!”
“Well, I won’t knock personal experience.”
“Damn right. You always tell me that personal experience is all there is. I have to wake up on my own, you can’t do it for me.”
“I don’t tell you that, Aussie, you’re a dog!”
“You won’t feed me till after I wake up! You’re a Zenoid, and Zenoids always say: Don’t read about it, don’t talk about it, you must experience it!”
“First of all, Aussie, Zenoid sounds like a growth in your nose or tonsils. And while it’s true that I value personal experience, there’s nothing true about it. Know what I mean?”
“It always depends where you stand, Aussie.”
“I’m not standing, I’m crouching.”
“Right now you’re crouching and hiding on the back seat of the car because something outside is scaring you, that’s your personal experience, Aussie. Henry, on the other hand, is lying outside, enjoying the heat; whatever’s coming doesn’t seem to worry him. That’s his personal experience.”
“I told you he was stupid.”
“No, Aussie, he has a different take on life than you. And it’s equally true and equally ridiculous.”
“How could anything be both true and ridiculous?”
“Our lives are true and ridiculous, Aussie. Exquisite on one hand, and silly on another. We can’t see beyond certain walls, know what I mean?”
“So we make up stories, which is fine, but none of these stories are true, or they’re as true as every other story, see what I mean?”
“This morning we had a class on Zoom, Auss, and a long-time teacher, trying to show the shift that happens due to meditation practice, took off his glasses. Taking off our glasses is like letting go of some of those beautiful stories about our life, see?”
“He probably fell right away. So you know how you like to brush me every day?”
“Of course. You have two coats of fur, Aussie, and a lot of fur comes out every time I brush you.”
“And do you remember what you say whenever you brush me? You say: ‘Come on, Aussie, let me make you more comfortable.’ And you remember what I do?”
“Squirm out of my hands and rush for the dog door?”
“Correcto. And that should tell you that I don’t want to be more comfortable, I don’t want to be brushed. But do you listen?”
“Aussie, your fur gleams after the brushing.”
“I don’t care! I hate being brushed! It doesn’t make me more comfortable! Everytime you take that brush out I want to run away from home!”
“We have two different stories about brushing you, just like we have two different stories about whether a storm is coming or not. So what’s to be done, Aussie?”
“Take off your glasses. Your story about brushing me is stupid, put it away.”
“And what about your story that a storm is coming even though the sky is blue?”
“I’m a dog, I don’t wear no glasses. Staying right here where it’s safe.”
My friend Doug arrived yesterday. We hadn’t seen each other in a long while. It was he and one other man who’d brought the Kwan-Yin to us a decade ago. He looked at her now, prostrate under the blue tarp, and said: “I think we can do this.”
The back of the thin stone pedestal that had held her up all these years had sunk into the ground, causing her to lose her grip and fall backwards. We cleaned up the wood chips and dust from the bottom part of her body (she had been a nice meal and home for certain critters). After that we put pieces of slate under the back part of the pedestal to level it, and after a few more efforts and repeats, she came up and stayed up.
I thanked Doug. He said: “I don’t know if she’ll be around for another 10 years.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be around for another 10 years,” I answered.
This morning I went out to make bows and recite the Kwan-Yin mantra for the healing of suffering beings. Aussie watched.
“I think Miss Compassion got shorter,” she said.
“You’re right, Auss. Doug had to saw off the bottom part of her that had been gnawed and eaten by rodents.”
“She used to be a lot taller than you.”
“She was easily 7 feet tall when she got to us. She’s lost at least a foot to feed and house hungry critters.”
“Sons of bitches,” says Aussie. “At this rate she’ll become a pygmy.”
Five minutes and three peals of thunder later, Aussie rushes out of the office.
“Where are you going?” I hurry after her.
I know where she’s going. She runs to the kitchen and out the dog door into the garage, waits by the car. I open the door to the back seat and she jumps in. After a short while the thunder passes and I go out to the garage. No Aussie inside the car. I look all over downstairs and up, then go out to the back and call her name, see the tip of a wagging tail out front. I go to the gate and open it.
“How did you get out of the fenced yard? And why?”
“I had to run,” she tells me.
“Where did you go?”
“All over New England.”
“Aussie, you can’t keep on running from what scares you.”
I returned from Israel with a deep dissatisfaction that hasn’t gone away. I worry about how insulated I’m getting in this beautiful Pioneer Valley, where everything is green on time, the bearded irises bloom on time, the dogs run around joyfully in the woods and, at worst, run into the back seats of cars for safety.
Of course, not everyone lives this way.
In my heart, I understand the Palestinians. Those living inside Israel are second-class citizens (I don’t care whether you call it apartheid or not, almost no one disagrees that they’re second-class citizens), those in the West Bank are governed by a corrupt regime in cahoots with Israel, and those in Gaza live in abject poverty under a repressive religious regime whose goals aren’t necessarily the relief of suffering of citizens.
I have very little sympathy for Hamas; the people here who raise its banners would never choose to live under its intolerant auspices. But among Palestinians they’re becoming more popular than ever because they’re sending a message to Israel and the world: Our suffering counts! You can’t forget about us! You may think you’re safe in pleasant, prosperous lives, hanging out in cafes or else on Zoom while we at times have electricity only for 4 hours a day, the water turns off, we have no jobs and the only way we feed our children is through giveaways by the EU, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, who can pull the plug whenever they—or Israel—want to. But as long as we’re not safe, you’re not safe.
Some people feel very discouraged by this, a sense of existential insecurity: Nothing will ever change. But for me, this is encouraging news. It’s as if Kwan-yin is saying: You want to be safe, help others be safe. You want to have comfort, help others find comfort. You want to breathe clean air and drink pure water, give these to others, too.
I’m looking for ways to be more involved with the local community of immigrants, many of whom are here illegally and fall easily through the cracks. I want to be more connected to the rawness of things, to the chainsaw cutting away at our height because of critters needing homes and food.
Glad that Aussie, after panting and trying to climb up on my lap during the thunder, has finally found a restful silence and is taking a nap behind my chair.
My family calls me Chava, my Hebrew name, the name I was given at birth. It’s a soft ch, not a hard ch as in chive. The first woman in the Bible; Eve is the English translation. My mother calls me Chavale. Jews like to add le to names to show they love them.
“Just don’t call me Aussiele,” Aussie informed me. “Pass the bacon.”
In The Book of Householder Koans, which I wrote with Roshi Egyoku Nakao, there’s a chapter on names. Names can evoke completely different realities. This came home to me again in this past visit to Jerusalem. When my mother calls me Chavale it brings up her world, the Jewish world of East Europe, the struggle to survive, the clinging to family and tribe for safety. In orthodox Jewish families you’re usually named after somebody, in my case a grand-grandmother I never met and heard nothing about other that, of course, she died in the Holocaust.
I had ID papers and credit cards in both Chava and Eve, but after 9/11 I had to decide which one to go with and I chose Eve. But long before that I had chosen Eve because I didn’t want my parents’ old world. I felt strangled by it. I was convinced that if I stayed with family and tribe my life will be choked out of me by expectations, expostulations, admonitions to live a certain way, etc. For me, family stood for critical, not much more, and one way I put a stop to all that (in addition to staying thousands of miles away) was to use the name Eve.
Eve was English, not shtetl. Eve was a woman on her own, working out her path in life without anybody’s advice, thank you very much. Eve wasn’t letting family, clan, or nation decide her destiny; Eve was going to live her life no matter what.
That was then, this is now. And now there’s rarely a day when I don’t miss my family, when I don’t pine and wish they were close, neighbors, even housemates.
The question of what name we go by has to do with how we identify, a profound question. In my case, at least, it had to do with limitations. I didn’t want any limits placed on me by my family’s preferences and expectations, of which they had plenty. I wanted to be an individual, I wanted to go my own way.
Isn’t that our national credo? As a friend recently pointed out: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—isn’t that a warning not to miss out? Hey, your job is to go after your own happiness, whatever that is, and if you don’t do it you’re missing out! You’re not living the American dream! You may even not be a red-blooded American. Don’t accept limitations, the sky’s the limit, and now not even the sky because look at all the rockets we’re sending up there. Your life’s an open book—write it! It’s the greatest adventure in the world—live it!
I know people who gave up jobs and even careers to better care for their families. Sometimes they have regrets, sometimes not. I don’t think we admire that in our society. On an individual basis we might respect the choice to stay home to care for an aging parent, but we don’t do big-budget movies about that. Best-selling memoirs are written by folks like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Barack Obama, who over and over put out the message: You can be whatever you want to be, just go for it. When people in the rest of the world think of Americans, the words big, bold, flashy, individuals come to mind, not self-imposed limitations and sacrifice.
The three years I worked hardest in my life came after Bernie’s stroke. Had I just wished to attend to him, they wouldn’t have been that arduous, but I fought to have my own life. I was not going to give up teaching and writing, I was going to do all those things (and added a blog to boot) in addition to taking care of a very sick husband. I could do it, I thought. I was Eve: stubborn, tough, my own woman.
I hadn’t yet learned the value of limitations. I hadn’t yet learned the value of being fully present for someone even at the cost of my own plans and ambitions. I hadn’t yet learned that there’s a price to be paid when you go all out to follow your dreams, ignoring the family and community around you. Nieces and nephews will grow up and you won’t see them. Your mother will age and you won’t be able to take care of her. The coronavirus will hit and you won’t embrace anybody for a long time.
I can hear it already: Yes, but there’s Zoom! There’s FaceTime! We are more united across this globe than ever. There’s “shares” and “friends” across the globe, virtual communities arising everywhere around every theme and cause. This and this and this and this.
And and and and. More people, more opportunities. The American way.
Life will impose morelimits on me, it’s almost unavoidable. I often think of Bernie and how freely he accepted the limitations brought on by stroke and then cancer. If he couldn’t do something basic on the computer, something he’d done so easily before, he’d sigh, shrug, and say: “I can’t do it anymore.”
He’d moved into a very small room after living in a mansion. But believe me, that room was really something.
Limitless horizons exist inside and out. In America we think it’s mostly out, but other cultures see each member as part of a bigger system—call it family, community, earth.
When I was in Israel during the war with Gaza I saw a wide range of people with very different feelings about politics, leaders, Palestinians, and what the future would bring. But when rockets flew, they felt as one country. People had different ideas about what to do about the conflict, and they were bound to go back to their ideas once the war was over(just look at the political infighting now), but during the war they cared and hoped and worried together regardless of where they lived and what political party they voted for, as one people.
That didn’t happen here when the coronavirus hit, we broke apart into even more blame and anger than we had in 2016. Why is that?
Go West, young wo/man, was the famous advice. Or East or North or South. But you can also go home. You can also stay home.
It’s evening now, the end of Memorial Day. We had rain for much of the weekend, which made life easier for farmers, plants, flowers, and gardens, and harder for children and people who love to go on walks.
“We need the rain,” we remind each other all the time, “the soil is so dry.”
But who’s the we? When does everybody have the same need, the same want? Tt’s those moments when needs arise and I can’t fill them that require my attention. Loving attention. Tender attention. Not shutting my eyes, not crouching in a defensive mode (Do you know everything I’m doing? Do you know how tired I am?)
I remember well after Bernie’s stroke being confronted again and again by his needs that I couldn’t fulfill. His need for more presence from me, more physical touch. I did so much, but I couldn’t meet all those needs. I also wanted my own life, I needed meaning that wasn’t just defined by taking care of him.
Those moments were filled with such helplessness. But they also humbled me, as if they were saying: Take your place in the line of all those who can’t avert losses, who see gaps wherever they go. And pay attention to them. Tender, loving attention.
And now, it’s my turn to miss physical touch. Not sex, though that would be nice, but the feel of a body, an arm, a hand. Rolling towards a familiar body, the feeling of the chest hair, the contours of legs, body, arms. Warm, physical touch.
Get a massage, someone suggests.
Everyone knows how important physical touch is for infants and young children. Is it any less important 60 or 65 years later? When we become adults it seems to get subsumed under the need for sex. We’re busy going out and conquering life, reproducing our genes, imprinting as much of ourselves on the world as possible. Maybe it’s only after that that we admit to ourselves the need for touch for its own sake, flesh to flesh, warmth to warmth.
The Northeast has been cold this past weekend; I shut the windows and put on the heat, remembering how much Bernie complained at how cool I kept the house. I finally let myself admit how much I need the physical presence of other people. Sure, I enjoy talking to folks on phone and by Zoom, reaching out to invisible ghosts in the digital world who mean so much to me. But I want to return to basics, and basics include physical warmth, physical touch.
I had no idea I’d be writing this this evening, the words just jumped onto the page all by themselves.
I haven’t checked physics lately, but my memory is that our molecules are formed by atoms which bond with other atoms through a constant exchange of electrons. The things we consider solid are not solid, they’re bonding and re-bonding all the time. We’re permeable; we permeate others, and they permeate us.
Bernie used to lead a meditation in this way:
“Pay attention to your inhale. Now pay attention to your exhale. Notice that whenever you inhale, you are inhaling the exhalations of everyone else. And when you exhale, it’s your exhalation that others are inhaling. The air you breathe is everyone’s air, and their air is yours. The air they breathe has already gone through your entire body and the air you breathe has gone through theirs.”
Even our breath isn’t strictly our own. It’s been all over the world and we give it back to the world.
I covered up our Kwan-yin with a blue tarp. It’s silly, she’s made of wood, she’s rotting already, but we were going to get lots of rain and I wanted to protect her from it while we clarify if she could still be stood up, and more important, if she can keep standing.
You can always stand somebody up for a moment or two, you can stand up yourself for a short while. But how many of us stand steadily and reliably day after day? Of course, like her, we’ll fall back at some point, she’s old, she has a right to rest. But how I miss that gaze from afar!
I used to enjoy touching her, feeling the crevices and cracks, feeling how used she was. Our bodies, too, get used up. They’re tired from the daily grind of muscle and bone, the work of holding us up as we go about our business. Again, I often think of how Bernie had to put heavy black shoes on in order to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t go barefoot, he couldn’t put on slippers or sandals even on the hottest summer nights because his right foot didn’t work, he could only rely on those black, heavy shoes to keep him up. I’d hear him sigh a little as he sat up in bed in the darkness and bend down to put those shoes on to carry that fragile body.
We don’t find bodies that need to be held up attractive; it’s not what movies or TV show us. But, like Kwan-yin, we all need to be held up somehow. Some things, some people, hold us up. When they’re no longer there we realize they’ve always held us up, we were never alone, we were never really that independent, we depended on so many things, including on a warm body getting weaker and more fragile, an arm that lost its way trying to finding you.
We had a thunderstorm early Wednesday evening. The sky darkened even while I spent time with Jimena Pareja at her home meeting with undocumented families–my first time there since my return from Israel, and by the time I went home it was clear we were in for a storm. About an hour later thunder and rain began.
I looked for Aussie, knowing she had a fear of the thunder. She wasn’t downstairs. I went upstairs, asked my housemate; she hadn’t seen Aussie. We both went out to the back, where the rain was pounding, and called out to her: “Aussie! Aussie!” She wasn’t anywhere, and I was afraid that in her terror she’d found an opening in the fence and run for her life.
“Eve!” my housemate called out. “Come here.”
She was standing inside the closed garage, looking into my car, and there was Aussie in the back seat. She’d jumped through an open window into the front, then made her way to her seat in back and was sitting on her cotton blanket.
I opened the door and hugged her. She wasn’t shaking or shivering, she seemed calm and comfortable. I left the car door open and went back in, knowing she’d leave the car when the storm ended and enter the house through the dog door to the kitchen. I also knew that when the next storm came, I’d make sure the car door to the back seat was open so that she could run there, jump in, and feel safe.
It was moving to sit with her for a few minutes, feel both her fear and her tenderness. There’s something about that moment of fear and vulnerability when there’s no hiding, no pretending, no bullshit. When life has surprised me and I am seen in that place, when I let myself be seen in that place. The roles slide down like masks and there I am, at a loss, raw and defenseless.
Inside there’s always faith in the moment, that everything arises that should arise, but the armature has come down and there’s just me: Okay, show me what you want. Here I am, tell me what to do.
Whom am I talking to?
Next week Zen Peacemakers will offer an introductory session on the Zen Peacemaker Order, and I decided to look for a short video of Bernie to air on the segment. I started looking at my own videos of him, then those on the ZPI website, and finally on YouTube. Subtly, my energy began to dip; before I knew it, I was feeling forlorn. I realized that since his death I hadn’t looked at any video of my husband, didn’t listen to his voice not even once.
This was the first time.
“It’s 2-1/2 years since he died,” I told a good friend, “I didn’t think there’d be a problem anymore.”
There was no problem, just something that sank inside the minute I saw his face, the minute I looked at the jeans shirt he was wearing and the beige, padded Columbia winter shirt he liked to put on for extra warmth, which was probably hiding his suspenders. I looked at the flush in his cheeks when he’d been in good health, before the stroke.
One brief video really caught my attention. He was wearing a cowboy hat, of all things, so maybe he was in Colorado. A brook was gurgling in the background, and the water seemed to punctuate every word:
“What makes me most happy is when I encounter life or things where I’ve no idea what the hell’s happening. When I can honestly say, what’s the deal here? Then I’m at my peak. I’m full of life, it’s just: What’s going on?” He looks down at his cigar and says: “So I’d love to let go of my ideas of what’s going on and just deal with the question: What’s the deal here?” And he takes a puff on his cigar.
I’d seen Bernie defenseless and hurting, wounded by people and life, just like the rest of us. He didn’t like to be seen like that, he had his pride, people had looked to him for so many years as the one who had all the answers—even though he’d said again and again that he had no answers, that the practice was one of no answers.
We’re trying to get more help for a family whose mother was deported along with her 9-year-old son. The child had come across the border and had been sent for a few months to a children’s facility in Georgia, a little like the ones we read about. His family was finally called to meet him in New York. Father, mother, and two children went down to New York; finally, the family would be together. The father waited with two children on one side of the desk while the mother went to the other side to sign papers for her son, hugging him, and as soon as she did that ICE agents arrested her and accused her of smuggling the boy in illegally. She and the boy were deported that very day.
“The father told me,” Jimena said, “he was sitting just across the desk from his wife, the same distance I am sitting from you. He is sitting on one side of the desk with two children—they’ve been here for years—and she went to the other side of the desk to sign papers and hug the little boy. And they removed both of them from us and I haven’t seen her since.”
He’s working in the local farms and needs money to take care of the children while the mother is gone. We appreciate any help you could give.