A MADE-UP DISEASE FOR MADE-UP PEOPLE

An acquaintance of mine, gathering writings from local people about what they have learned from the coronavirus epidemic, asked me to write something. This is what I wrote:

I ask a friend of mine a question: “What do you think about the virus?” Only he’s not like other friends I have. He’s not a Zen Peacemaker or even a Buddhist, no graduate degrees, he’s not middle-class, comfortably sheltering in place because s/he could work from home or has an income unrelated to location-based work. He has no pension or 401(K) that would evoke the stock market. He’s just a friend.

“Four of my friends have died in the past 3 months,” he tells me. “At least a third of my friends or classmates are gone by now, died from illness, violence, opioids, or suicide. I don’t worry about some made-up disease happening to some made-up people far away, I’m too busy worrying about what’s been happening to my family and friends right here.”

He’s 40. He doesn’t live in New York City or Boston, as I once did. He’s pointing to friends and family right here and now, whose deaths continue unremarked by newspapers, television, or government..

When Donald Trump won the election in 2016 I read a lot about how so many of us on the East and West Coast—elites is what they called us—had missed the heartland of this country. Those of us living in the big cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and Atlanta—were so busy flying over the rest of the country that we had lost touch. People in rural America and small cities and towns felt ignored and even looked down upon by media, big business, big universities, and by the culture generally, and Donald Trump was their revenge. Not because they believed in him per se but because he promised to disrupt a system that wasn’t working for them.

Some of this resonated for me, some didn’t. I myself live rurally and appreciate the farmers I meet and whose farm stands I stop at to get my greens, tomatoes, and corn. But honestly, I don’t meet many.

In addition, our situation here is different due to 5 excellent colleges (including one large state university) that attract bright, affluent students and urbane, cosmopolitan professors. Stand on any local movie line and you’ll hear the same kind of comments and analysis—that combination of intellect and sardonic wit—that will remind you of a Woody Allen movie.

Those five colleges/universities are the biggest employesr in the region. If not for them, we’d be in a lot of trouble.

What I have gained most from the corona is seeing clearly who suffers. Not those who died or even got sick—we have remarkably few numbers of them—but those who’re seeing their livelihood go up in smoke, their savings gone, lining up to get food from pantries, abject failure staring them in the face. The undocumented families calling to find out when Jimena and I will give out food cards again (this afternoon, as it turns out). The shuttered doors of stores and restaurants, many of which won’t re-open, bringing to a crash the struggle, hopes, and hard work of their owners and employees.

They are not from big cities and universities, they are from here. That’s all I can talk to—not New York or San Francisco—but what I see here.

And then there are the others, those who obey the rules and shelter in place, who at times wake up depressed for lack of company or discombobulated, not recalling what day it is, but who don’t get scratched too hard. They shake their heads about the economy, feel bad for those who suffer. But they love the slowing down and the time for meditation.

They are vigilant against all risks and think that those in the rest of the country who reopen early are stupid and ignorant—I have heard those words often—that they have no respect for science and doctors, and are obviously Republicans and supporters of Donald Trump.

The divide of 2016 has become much more visible due to covid. Many people here don’t understand why it’s always the people in cities who dictate the shut-down of an entire state, especially their own areas that haven’t suffered much from covid. It reinforces their beliefs that the decision-makers who affect so much of their lives live in some far-off planet with no understanding of what their lives are about: A made-up disease for made-up people.

And I begin to pay attention—to them, and also to people around me, progressive, many of them Buddhists who vow to save or serve all beings. Their lack of real empathy and understanding shocks me. The chasm that separates those of us living week to week, bill to bill, who couldn’t afford a $400 emergency before the virus never mind now, and those of us who want everyone to just stay home till it’s safe to go out again, stares me in the face as never before.

We’re doing this not just for our health but for everyone else’s, some say. It doesn’t wash. If you have your eyes open you’ll notice how many people became ill and died because they were admonished not to go to doctors or hospitals. If you have your eyes open you’ll see the faces hiding inside their homes, knowing their life work creating a business is over. If you have your eyes open you’ll see the increasing gap between verbally-gifted children who do fine with distance-learning and those who struggle to follow what’s going on on-screen—provided they even have a screen and WIFI, and provided English is their first language.

If you have your eyes open wide enough to read the news, you’ll know that they’re upping the estimates of children who’ll starve to death JUST DUE TO COVID-RELATED SHUTDOWN OF THE WORLD ECONOMY from 200,000 to over a million worldwide. You’ll read of Chinese factory workers sent home because factories—yes, the very ones making cheap goods that so many of us like to belittle—are shutting down and workers go home to impoverished families who now have no one to put food on the table.

You’re doing this for me? Open your eyes. You want me to be safe? I don’t want to be safe and hide out, I want to open my eyes and keep them open as much as I can. That’s my Buddhist practice.

If you really have your eyes wide open you’ll remember that, as someone said, a live saved is really a death deferred. Like many, I admire Governor Andrew Cuomo’s inspiring work on behalf of his state and have listened to his press conferences, but when he says that he’s not ready to compromise over a single life I find myself disagreeing with him. Whether we like it or not, tradeoffs have to be made. Tradeoffs are made all the time, moment by moment, day by day. And as I wrote in a blog post a few weeks ago, I don’t want children to starve so that I go on living.

Yes, I  know the spiritual aphorisms about how if you save one life you save an entire world. But that goes for people living in favelas in Brazil and factory workers in Indonesia as much as it goes for me. Their lives are as important as mine, perhaps even more so because I’m 70 and have lived a rich life. It’s been good.

What about my 40 year-old friend and his friends who can’t find work, who can’t earn a livelihood, who see the horizon closing in on them day by day? What about the death of so many others—not from covid, but slower death from hunger, disease, lack of medical care, lack of nourishment, lack of hope?

There are crazy people wherever you look, but generally, people are not stupid. They know what they need and they know damn well what risks they’re taking by going back to work. What choice do they have? What choices have we left them, insulated as we are in our educated, spiritual, Zooming bubbles

We didn’t start sheltering in place when covid started, we were sheltering in place long before that, unconcerned about how technology and global trade pacts eliminated factory jobs and rural stores, eliminated family farming and local stores, narrowing the horizons for so many people while we uttered progressive platitudes and wrote indignant letters to the editor about the antics of Donald Trump and those who vote for him, sheltering not in place but in self-entitlement and blindness.

We all have our walls, myself included. Covid has made them unmistakably visible if only we would look. If only we stop being each other’s made-up people.

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WHERE YOU SEE A YARD, I SEE A FENCE

There are days when I feel there isn’t much to say. It’s all been said, a voice murmurs inside, why bother? Even the dogs aren’t talking much, except for Aussie, who talks all the time.

“Why am I back in training?”

“Because when I take you off-leash anywhere, Aussie, you run.”

“Of course I run. It’s May! There are new-born animals to chase, fawns and bear cubs—”

“And bear cub mothers!”

“Nature created all these new animals for only one reason—so that I could chase them.”

Yesterday she ran in the Montague Plains, returning after 20 minutes panting happily, dirty and wet from wading in a puddle. She had obviously chased a scent for a long time, loping determinedly after some animal or other. She won’t catch it, but that doesn’t matter; her instinct, her soul, is to hunt.

“And you stop me! You won’t let me be me! You won’t let me follow my path, you won’t let me go on my hero’s journey.”

“Aussie, you have one of the biggest fenced yards in town!”

“Where you see a yard, I see a fence.”

I won’t let her run. I’d flirted with the idea, but got burned out. True, she never got lost, always found her way home, was never hurt. We live off a country road and she sticks to the woods where the animals are, avoiding people, avoiding cars and homes. But she’s young, and in a lifetime of running freely in the woods something will happen.

And yet, deep inside I sympathize with her. After all, she’s a hound and the smartest dog I’ve ever had. She wants to do what she was bred to do, what’s in her very marrow. All the liver/cheese/chicken treats in the world won’t change that.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, I thought about my mother. Her mind is slowly fading; rare are the phone calls when I’m not told that she’s afraid to go out because someone will try to assassinate her, that my brother is being interrogated by the police, that the violence “out there” is so great that her only safety lies in burrowing in bed and staying put. This at a time when Jerusalem was completely locked down for the coronavirus (it’s opened up a lot since then).

I was her oldest child, an in-your-face rebel, a lover of Ayn Rand who wanted to follow her individual path like Howard Roark, only with a lot less confidence, a lot more insecurity.

My mother, too, wanted to follow her heart, but it was a torn heart. She was raised in an East European orthodox family; she came out of the war with the feeling that nothing was more important than religion and family. God didn’t matter much, she wasn’t sure she believed in Him anymore, but religion and family were everything.

But as the years rolled by she discovered she also wanted things for herself. She wanted to write stories and study. She wanted to be a businesswoman and make money, she wanted respect. But she never learned how to go about these things, how not to be deterred by early failure, how to seek alternatives, how to stay the path even when it goes sideways.

“No one ever encouraged me,” she told me sadly several years ago as I was visiting her, both of us lying in bed together. “Nobody ever encouraged me.” And she had no faith in doing things alone.

Her feelings towards me were mixed. She was angry at the choices I made, the Zen practice, the plunge into a life that seemed unstable and unpromising of middle-class security. Till I was 50, she never gave up hope on reforming me. And yet, even then, I had the sense that secretly she admired me. She knew I’d gone my way, not hers or somebody else’s.

“You were like that from the time you were a little girl,” she used to say.

We find ourselves resting in so many mixed messages from our mothers. Go out and win the world/Be safe. I want you to be happy/I want you to make me happy. I want you to be strong/I want you to be careful.

I could never resolve these dualities, but I did find a way to rest in them, make them one of the puzzles of my life in which pieces didn’t fit. By now that’s fine with me. It’s when all the pieces fit that I start worrying.

So of course, there’s Aussie.

“Here, Aussie, chase the ball!”

“What am I, an outfielder?”

“Don’t you want to run?”

“After deer, not a tennis ball.”

Harry runs after the ball.

“Okay, Aussie, chase Harry!”

“I don’t chase Harrys, I chase wildlife.”

I shake my head, looking at her beautiful, intransigent face.

“I’m trying to keep you engaged, to give you exercise and fun!”

“It don’t work inside a fence.”

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A STORY ABOUT LOVE

I stare at the cover page of the printout I just picked up from Staples.

Script Title:

Written by:

Name of First Writer:

Based on, If any:

It’s the cover page of the screenplay I finished yesterday. The above categories are still blank because I forgot to fill them out. Still no title. It was written by me, and I am the first writer (Hollywood screenplays often have numerous writers). As for based on, if any, I guess it’s based on my life. Or the questions of my life.

Half a year after Bernie died, I called up an actor friend of ours and told him that I had an idea for a movie he should do.

“I think you should do a movie about an older couple that has worked together for many years till a big stroke finally cripples the husband. The wife continues to work as well as take care of him. Often she asks herself what happens to love now, when you’re surrounded by illness and the prospect of death, when partnership becomes dependence and two lives, once so entwined, become different one from the other. Love is still there, but it’s changed.”

“And?” he asked me.

“She falls in love with another man, with whom she has a passionate affair, but the question about what comprises love at this time remains. Does it include lovemaking or caregiving? Is it about sacrifice and loss? Is it about fun? She has choices to make, decisions to reach.”

It had commercial potential, I told him. “I know that most audiences in movie theaters are very young, which accounts for why so many new American movies are tailored to them, but I think folks our age (he’s my age) would pay to see a movie that asks these questions.”

I told him I never had an extramarital affair nor did I fall in love with anyone other than Bernie, but these were the questions I asked of myself when he was ill, this was the story that appeared in my mind—not like a novel or a short story, all of which I’ve written, but as a movie. “So that’s the movie I think you should make.”

He said: “You may be right that it has commercial possibilities, but you have to write the screenplay.”

“I don’t write screenplays,” I told him.

“Write this one,” he said. “Get the First Draft software, which everybody uses for screenplays.” That was it.

Why not, I thought to myself. I was still somewhat in shock, functioning but not present. I couldn’t go back to old writing projects, couldn’t find myself, so why not?.

I started writing the treatment that April, and completed the screenplay yesterday, a year later.

I wrote scenes during which I wept. I couldn’t sleep some nights. At times I had to take a break away from the words on the screen. I made final edits to The Book of Householder Koans, gave myself long breaks to teach, take Bernie’s ashes to Auschwitz, get sick for 5 weeks this past winter. And went on.

I had to do a lot of research, too, because I made the couple in the screenplay astronomers. One evening last fall I drove to the MIT Haystack Observatory and Radio Telescope two hours away for one of two evenings when they open to the public, writing notes, asking questions, watching how they maneuvered the gigantic radio telescope towards the stars (thrilling!), and drove home, elated, in an incredible storm.

I also attended a brief workshop on screenplay writing, and the woman who gave that workshop will review the screenplay.

She may tell me it’s the worst thing she ever read, hardly a screenplay (“You’re writing a screenplay, not a play,” a friend had warned me early in the process), that it won’t work at all. In that case I may never even send it out. What I hope she says is that it needs work, and here’s how to fix it. In that case I’ll make revisions and then send it out to my actor friend.

Once I do that it’ll be out of my hands. Something will happen, or it won’t. I don’t plan to hawk it myself, Hollywood is not my world. I am aware that only a very tiny percentage of screenplays ever become films. If that happens, fine; it’s also perfectly fine if not. I didn’t write it for Hollywood, I wrote it for grief.

There are so many things we do with grief. We walk it in the forest, on-leash or off; we look up at stars and see grief instead; we sit with it, plant it with flowers in the earth, clean house with it, pause to make room for it in lots of phone conversations. Surround ourselves with pictures of it, go down to the basement and drown in its books and photos, under the pretext of creating some order or cleaning things out.

We can also get creative with it—compose songs, paint, dance, write a screenplay. Things come up you never imagined, dialogue, jokes, the squint of an eye—they will disappear into forgetfulness unless you put them down on a living page, in service of a story about love.

It feels like the end of something. Already I feel a little nervous, wondering what now? What will drive me now? Now that it’s done, I feel, I can die content. There was a call, and I responded.

Only it’s not completely over. “I haven’t written the last scene,” I warned the woman I will bring this to tomorrow. Which is strange, because usually, when I have the characters and story all worked out, the end is pretty clear. So why haven’t I written the last scene? What have I yet to decide about love?

“Is it a happy ending?” a friend asked me.

I hesitated. “It’ll be a good ending,” I told her. “A rich ending.”

I think I know what it will be but I’m not 100% sure. Till the last minute, make room for the unexpected.

Take a few days to regroup. Do dumb things: bookkeeping, packing up books in the basement, packing up pictures. Let my mind stray here and there, unconsciously rake in life’s suggestions. Be open to nothing, and everything.

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BRAIN-DEAD VOODOO PABULUM

I WON’T TELL YOU HOW I RUN AWAY!

“Aussie, I’m beginning to talk to myself. Am I losing it? I’m even wondering if you’re not a figment of my imagination.”

“You wish!”

“Maybe not all of you—I can feel your soft fur and your silky ears—but your voice may be a figment of my imagination, Aussie.”

“What? You think you have it in you to be as tough as me, as annoying and frustrating, as BITCHY as me?”

“I’m surprising even myself.”

“No, no, no, Boss. If you want to create a voice, create Harry. Just look at him: does whatever you tell him, sweet, curls himself all around like a ball (I never do that!), will even sleep in your bed (though naturally he prefers to sleep with me downstairs), a dog who’ll do anything for food. No pride whatsoever. That’s more up your alley, Boss. I’m Aussie. You can’t conceive of my cleverness, my wickedness, my in-your-faceness. You can’t make me up even if you tried.”

“Aussie, it’s well known that many people with dogs project their personality onto their dogs. Or else their needs or their fantasies. Any chance I’m doing that with you?”

“Nah.”

“I’ve never seen someone so full of herself.”

“Excuse me, Boss, am I supposed to be just half of myself? Maybe a quarter?”

“I’m starting to worry, Aussie. What happens if your voice is my voice? What happens if you’re showing me a side of my personality I didn’t know I had?”

“Don’t worry about it, I’m beyond your personality, beyond your imagination. Which means I’m real.”

“Nobody’s beyond my imagination, Auss. You’re as real and unreal as everything else.”

“Oh Donald, here we go again. More Buddhist brain-dead voodoo pabulum.”

“Excuse me, Auss?”

“Those are the words used by my poet friend, Linda McCullough Moore, for people who talk like you. Except she didn’t say Buddhist. I added that.”

“Who talk like what, Aussie?”

“Who say stuff like it’s real and unreal. Who say everything is empty. Let me tell you, Boss, if my dog bowl was empty I wouldn’t be sticking around. Who always second-guess how they feel, especially if it’s intense: I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but . . . Who always finish a sentence with the same words no matter what. They could be saying I’m getting really upset about having to stay home all this time or I hate the chili you made for dinner or I miss my mother. And then they always add the same words.”

“What words, Aussie?”

But I have to let it go. I have to let it go! I have to let it go! If I hear I have to let it go one more time I’ll become an attack German Shepherd.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“There you go again: Maybe, maybe not. What the hell does that mean? No wonder we dogs have no idea what you people are talking about! Do you hear us talking like that?”

“Yes and no.”

“More brainless pabulum. It’s either yes, or it’s no.”

“You don’t really know that, Auss.”

“Trust me, I know there’s a yes and I know there’s a no. I already know what you’re going to say next.”

“You shouldn’t know so much.”

“I knew it. Next you’ll tell me that I should not-know. You call this language? You call this communication? You call this a religion?”

“What religion, Aussie?”

“Your Buddhism. I never heard of a more fakakht religion. Everything is no or not: not-knowing, non-thinking, hearing that is non-hearing, speaking that is non-speaking. I hear you chant the Heart Sutra where it says that there is suffering and also no suffering, ignorance and no ignorance—Can’t you Buddhists make up your minds!”

“That’s exactly what we do, Aussie, we make up our minds. It’s all story.”

“Well, your story drives me crazy. When will it ever end?”

“There’s no beginning and no end, Aussie.”

“This religion is not fun. I mean, what’s a religion for if you can’t swear to anything? If you can’t be self-righteous, if you can’t be a know-it-all?”

“You can be a not-know-it all, Auss.”

“I’m outta here.”

“There’s no inside, no outside, Auss.”

“Oh yeah? Watch me jump the fence.”

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YOUR PEOPLE ARE MY PEOPLE

Montague Reporter Police Log, 4/30 headline:

“Fridge on the Bridge; Two Big Black Bears; Cooped-Up Residents Starting to Act Like Jerks”

Our local newspaper makes it sound as if these are the big concerns of our local police: a refrigerator left on top of the bridge connecting two towns, two black bears appearing on the road, and a host of people who drink too much, cause accidents, or are having too good a time outside when everybody’s supposed to be miserable inside.

Is this who we are?

I think of out-of-towners who see that headline and sigh: That’s the way to live. If a refrigerator left on a bridge, two black bears, and residents beginning to act like jerks are the biggest concerns, it must be a nice place to call home. No muggings, no rapes, no murders, none of what the rest of the world experiences.

Is this who we really are?

I grew up in an unhappy family with an abusive father, but you’d never have guessed it if you’d seen us walking on Saturday after Shabbat services in the synagogue, wishing and receiving blessings of Gut Shabbos, smiling in our best clothes as we made our way home for a festive lunch I usually dreaded, when rage, fear and insecurity spilled out. Days of Sabbath or holidays, when there was no work and no school, were hardest on the family.

Once I looked at the other well-dressed families looking so bright and kind, sighed, and said to my mother: “They all look so happy!”

And she said to me, “Don’t believe your eyes. You never know what happens inside the house.”

It took me many years to realize that here, at least, she was wrong. Some families didn’t just look happy, they were indeed happy. But I was obsessed with the difference between outside and inside, the visible and invisible.

A local friend of mine, barely 40, tells me how many of his friends are dead due to illness, violence, suicide, or opioids. It’s beautiful now that spring is here, trees and flowers blooming everywhere. But other things bloom, too: poverty, unemployment, hunger, fear, and violence, only they tend to stay  in hiding. Like us, they’ve quarantined themselves, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Today I was back handing out $50 supermarket food cards, mostly to mothers with children (occasionally fathers come, too). I also put cash in two envelopes. One went to a family paying down a large electricity bill that accumulated over an income-less winter. The second went to a mother suffering from physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She has no work, no car, and three children wondering where their father went (the police issued him a restraining order). She doesn’t show the children the marks on her arms and around her neck. With your help, I made sure she at least had cash for the short run.

Jimena described to me their domestic situation, and one image stayed with me. It seems as though the father locked the doors of the apartment so no one could get in. The 14-year-old son, fearing for his mother, broke a window to get in, and one of the things they now have to do is fix that window (our nights are approaching freezing once again).

I recalled a koan from many years ago. “A water buffalo passes through a window. Its head, horns and legs have all gone through. Why can’t its tail go through?” I worked on this koan with a teacher who day and night created new ways to help poor or homeless families, building homes and giving jobs, childcare centers and AIDS facilities. He was the very opposite of being stuck, of saying we can’t do anything.

I, too, tried to show how one can get through, how one can get unstuck. He wouldn’t let me get unstuck. At least in my case (I have no idea what he did with other students) he wanted me to stay with what it is to be stuck.

Jimena and I will meet  a second time this week to see what more is needed by these families. For me it’s no longer about being stuck or unstuck; life is endless, I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I don’t waste energy on pessimism or frustration.

I have received extraordinary donations: three gifts from three generations in the same family; donations from Europe in honor of a Dutch woman’s birthday, donations from a sangha in Germany, a check from an old friend and terrific poet I knew 40 years ago whose life took her to Virginia, and other checks coming into a post office box folded inside small yellow note papers saying: I wish I could do more.

Every time I open one of those I want to say to the person: You’re doing far, far more than you know.

There’s a koan in our Book of Householder Koans (given the cancellation of our talks and workshops due to the virus, I try to plug it a little in the blog), Little Bodhisattva, in which a 13 year-old girl is being tucked into bed by her mother who just came back from sitting in the Zen center.

The little girl says: “I love tuck-me-ins after meditation with the community.” Then she adds: “I like you, Mom, and, at the same time, I like all of the people that you sit with. Your people are my people. They just don’t know it yet.”

In her reflection on the koan, Roshi Egyoku Nakao wrote: “Meditation is vast and wide with nothing obtruding its flow. How about you? How far do you extend? Where do you draw your boundaries?”

The same can be said about compassion. Compassion is vast and wide. You may think it ends with you and the person you’re helping, but it doesn’t, it goes on and on. A week ago, when we did our book launch in the zendo by Zoom, I said to the group of people whose koans appeared in the book: “When you sent in your stories, did you ever imagine that they would move people in various countries and somehow contribute to their wellbeing?”

We have no notion of the extent of our compassion. One thousand dollars, one hundred dollars, one dollar—is any one of these more limited than the others?

Like meditation, compassion is vast and wide, with nothing obstructing its flow. Long ago a young girl was consumed by the difference between outside and inside. What a blessing that 60 years later she finally understands.

Donations to these families can go through button below, but please write on the note: for gift cards, or for families. If you don’t, the donation will go to my blog—which I also deeply appreciate and need. Or send checks to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 USA, and write the same on the note.

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HAPPY

“I hope it is not too personal a question,” the man in the far-right square asks, “but can you tell me how it is for you now with Bernie not here?”

I am on Zoom with a group in another country, talking about The Book of Householder Koans. Lots of questions about Zen, practice, and koans, and then this.

“I am happy,” I tell him. “Don’t tell anybody, but I am actually happy.”

In fact, minutes before the Zoom meeting began, I had written those words down. It was pouring outside, a second day of rain, skies miserable and gray, dogs miserable and gray. And I picked up a pen and wrote in my notebook: “And yet, I’m happy.”

“You’re happy?” snaps Aussie from the futon behind me. “You’re already happy? You couldn’t wait a little, prolong your grief for another couple of years? You couldn’t delay being happy? You have to be happy right now?”

“I know, Auss,” I tell her. “Monday will mark a year and a half since Bernie died, and I don’t know how I’ll feel then. But today I’m happy.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself! You’re supposed to be under the covers prostrate with grief, not talk to anybody for a couple of years, shut the curtains, dim the lights, and sink into depression.”

“Bernie didn’t want that, Aussie. Bernie wanted me to live. He always worried that taking care of him was too much for me.”

“And after you come out of the depression make sure you wear only black, try to always slump when you walk out, and don’t talk on the phone. AND DON’T PAINT YOUR FINGERNAILS!”

“I love painting my fingernails, and my toenails too for that matter, Aussie.”

“You’re supposed to be laden with grief, you’re supposed not to think of anything or anyone other than Bernie. And me, of course.”

“I do think of him, Aussie, especially first thing in the morning. There’s something about waking up in the gray dawn hours that remind me he’s not there.”

“And that’s how you’re supposed to be all day!”

“But I’m not, Aussie. Once I sit and then have coffee and feed Harry and you—”

“Feeding us is always a cheerful act—”

“And get back to work, I feel lighter and more engaged. I get back to life.”

“You’re not supposed to get back so soon, you’re supposed to be dead a little longer. Don’t forget, I knew the Man. Not too long, less than two months, but enough to do some serious studies with him in bed—”

“In bed, Aussie?”

“That’s where the most serious studies happen, every good Zen teacher knows that. Let me tell you, that was some guy you had. Harry will be a lost case forever because he didn’t meet him. But you were his wife! You should be eternally devastated!”

“I feel bad sometimes—”

“Feeling bad is nothing. You should be ravaged with grief, torn apart, your body and life ruined forever. That’s how good widows behave.”

“I’m not a good widow,  Auss.”

“I’m ashamed of you. Ashamed for this family, for this house.”

“Aussie, how would you feel if I met another man?”

“Another man? OMG, maybe a couple of babies, too? Or worse, more dogs?”

“No, Aussie, just another man. I don’t expect another Bernie, don’t even want another Bernie. Someone to talk to, have fun with.”

“You talk to me, don’t you? Is that much fun? Besides, who’d want you? You’re OLD!”

“I’m only 70, Aussie.”

“Should I tell you all the people who died before they were 70? Let’s see, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens—”

“Aussie, there’s bound to be someone interesting out there who’d like to meet me.”

“If they’re heading towards 90, sure. Otherwise, forget it. Everybody knows men want younger women. Besides, how are you going to meet anybody living like this in the middle of the woods?”

“Good point, Auss. Maybe online. Everything’s online nowadays, can’t meet somebody even if you meet someone, know what I mean?”

“The only reason anyone would want to be with you is that then they get to be with me.”

“What are you saying, Aussie?”

“If you’re posting photos anywhere, make sure it’s a photo of me. One look at me and they fall in love. Of course, what happens once they come in the door and see you instead—well, that’s not my problem.”

“You know, Aussie, I was happy before we started this conversation and you took me right down.”

“Which is where you should be, down and out, finished with life, and certainly finished with love and romance. As Bernie used to say: fuggedaboudit.”

“No way, Auss.”

“So, send my photo. What a response you’ll get!”

P.S. Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will start a weekly discussion of householder koans starting this coming Monday, May 4, at 12:00 pm Eastern US time, as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ Zoom offerings.

 

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ESTRESSANTE

Escuche y repeta la palabra para stressful: estressante.

Listen and repeat the word for stressful: estressante.”

Monday night Pimsleur Spanish classes instruct me how to say stressful in Spanish. No problema, I’m a natural when it comes to stress.

Tuesdays are my days for meeting Jimena Pareja and members of undocumented families who come to get food cards from two neighboring supermarkets. By now I know them and they know me. I even remember some of their names, though Jimena warns me that that there are new families on the list because more and more are hurting desperately from the economic closure. Almost all are wearing masks (this wasn’t the case several weeks ago) and a few make quite a fashion statement with home-made colorful scarves tied behind their heads. I compliment them on their look.

Then come the stories about covid.

Jimena gives condolences. She murmurs on the side: “Her aunt died of covid.”

“Where does she live?”

“New Jersey.”

“Lo siento,” I tell her.

More condolences. “Her uncle died in Nueva York,” Jimena tells me.

“Donde en Nueva York?” I ask her.

“Brooklyn.”

“Lo siento,” I mumble.

Someone comes who had the virus 3 weeks ago along with her husband, but now it’s gone. I ask about the children; children are fine.

Everyone comes quickly this time, one after the other; other weeks we’ve had to wait longer. But today is bright and sunny, Jimena and I aren’t huddling under a marquee against the cold and rain like last week. In the end one more card is left.

“We have to bring it to her,” Jimena says. “She just gave birth two weeks ago and has two more small children, and her husband got four hours of work today.”

It’s the first time she takes me to visit someone at home. “Little by little they will trust you,” she tells me, “and you will hear their stories.”

I hop into the car.

“Keep away from me,” Aussie says, straining her body against the window in the back seat.

“I’m not sick,” I tell her.

“You talked to somebody who was sick! Are you crazy?”

Harry screams into my left ear: Open the window! Open the window! I open it up halfway. All the way! All the way!

“No way Jose,” I tell him, “you’ll jump out and I’ll be chasing you up and down Main Street.”

I follow Jimena to a neighborhood I’ve visited before and get out. She knocks, a pale, tired woman opens the door, two small children peering at us from behind her legs. Jimena explains that I’m a friend and I give her the Stop & Shop card. I also rummage and take out $50 cash. “Un regalo para el bebe nuevo,” I tell her. A gift for the new baby.

Listen and repeat the word for stressful: estressante.

I need to keep this going, I think as I finally drive away. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s still a drop. And we have no idea how long we’ll be shut down. Massachusetts has extended full shutdown at least till May 18, no schools till September which also means no summer programs for the children. And now the Great Leader is talking about not giving help to cities that support undocumented families. How are they going to live?

But I should know better. I don’t have to keep this going, it’s never been up to me, it’s everybody’s work. On the way home I stop at the post office and there are some 7 envelopes with checks totaling over $700 in contributions. A friend met me at the supermarket and gave me two food cards that she had bought on her own; these went today to a woman who told me of friends of hers who’re living on the edge.

Finally, I get the most wonderful email from my friend, Heinz-Jurgen Metzger, a Zen teacher in Germany, accompanying a Paypal note that he’s sending me over $680 for food cards that he collected from students and friends. Additional donations are coming separately from Germany.

It’s not about me, the world does everything. Life takes care of life.

A long time ago, in one of the many times Greyston was floundering financially and we hoped a certain donation would come through, I asked Bernie (Sensei to me then) how he could be so unworried. “It’s the Buddha’s money,” he said. “Life takes care of life.”

Earlier that day, when we were handing out cards: “Does this come from the church?” asks one of the mothers, looking at the food card in her hand.

“No, not from church,” says Jimena.

“From the school?” the woman wonders.

“No, not from the school.”

“A social agency?” No, Jimena says, not a social agency. “These are her friends,” she explains, motioning to me. She can’t explain about blog readers.

The woman thinks about that, looking at the $50 food card, and nods. She understands. Amigos.

If you wish to donate for food cards to desperate families, use button below and note on Note: “For food cards.” Or else send a check to me, Eve Marko, at POB 194, Montague, MA 01351.

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PRIVILEGED DOGS

“What are you doing, Aussie?”

“See what the bear did last night? Do you think I could jump over that?”

“No. Besides, it’s cold and raw and wet.”

“Gotta get out of here, Bubkes. Put the kindness virus behind me. The Boss went to Stop & Shop to buy more food cards, met a friend of hers who bought a few more and gave them to her. HOW MUCH DO PEOPLE NEED, I ASK YOU? Then there are these people from Europe—”

“What’s Europe, Aussie?”

“Foreigners, Harry Bubkes, foreigners supporting more foreigners living here. All they care about is foreigners. Who supports us, Harry? Tell me that.”

“The Boss does, Auss. She says we’re privileged dogs.”

“We’re not privileged, we’re suffering! Always the same food—”

“Premium dogfood, Aussie—”

“With the same chicken broth—”

“It’s organic, Aussie, from free range chickens who love their lives!”

“Always the same jerky and rawhide—”

“I love jerky, Aussie!”

“And we have no more toys!”

“That’s because we’ve torn the innards out of each one, Auss, and the Boss says enough is enough.”

“Marrow bones just once a week!”

“The Boss says we’re costing her an arm and a leg. But she’s still walking pretty good, Auss.”

“Oh, Harry—”

“She also says it’s a hard time and we all have to sacrifice.”

“Well, I’ve sacrificed enough, Harry Bubkes. They complain about not being able to go anywhere, but that’s true for us all the time! We’ve been sheltering in place since the beginning, except when she takes us for walks, and now she’s only taking us on leash on the road.”

“The Boss says that you’re starting to run away again in the woods.”

“Of course I’m running away. It’s springtime, Harry, when else do you run away? Everybody’s waking up and walking around. Did you get a whiff of those wild turkeys in our back yard last night? There was a parade of them, Harry. And where were we, I ask you?”

“Shut up inside the house, dog doors barred.”

“The bear is coming back at different nights, breaks down the fence, does whatever it feels like. And where are we, Harry?”

“Shut up inside the house, Aussie.”

“There was a band of coyotes yipping and yapping half the night, and where were we, Harry?”

“Shut up inside the—”

“Wild animals are taking over, birds parading in the back yard like models on a runway—what’s this world coming to?”

“Does it have to come anywhere, Aussie?”

“It’s going to come to an end if not for Donald, Bubkes. A nice visit with Donald restores my sanity. He knows what’s what.”

“What’s what?”

“Donald knows how important we are, Harry.”

“I’m glad somebody does, Auss.”

“He knows we were here first on this land.”

“When we were wolves, Aussie?”

“My ancestors were wolves for sure, Harry. Yours, I’m not so sure. We cuddled at will, the bigger the pack the more we squeezed together. We shared everything! It’s time to reclaim this land, Harry, it’s all ours and nobody else’s. We should do whatever we want with it, right? Watch me jump over this fence.”

“You won’t make it, Aussie.”

“Watch me.”

“I’m watching.”

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TO KEEP ME SAFE, PEOPLE ARE STARVING

“Back from Washington so soon, Aussie?”

“Donald sent me here to be a spy.”

“Welcome home.”

“He said he hated to send anyone to Massachusetts—”It’s a bad place, a bad place,” is how he put it –but he needed to get information.”

“What kind of information?”

“You know how you took Harry and me for a ride one day and parked the car? And we waited in the back seat while you were outside handing out food cards behind your mask? That kind of information.”

“And did you tell Donald?”

“Expect to be arrested any day now.”

“And who’ll feed you then, Aussie?”

“Oh oh, didn’t think of that.”

I left the house early this moment and went to Trader Joe’s for their early morning opening hours for the elderly. I’m not that elderly and I prefer mixing with younger folks, but the lines are shorter at this hour.

Usually I like to chat with the cashier while I pack my bags. This time I stood behind the yellow line while he totaled things up and someone else bagged them. Still, I had a chance to ask them how they are doing and to thank them for working. What would I do without them? What would I do without food?

We have to open things up here. I feel that even though just three days ago the governor confirmed that all schools and childcare centers are shut till summer at the earliest. Around me almost everyone is afraid of opening up too soon, everyone wears masks and almost emphatically keeps distance. “Be safe,” I’m told all the time.

Honestly, I don’t want to be safe anymore. Honestly, I feel that being safe, closing myself up at home and limiting my exposure, is a luxury I can’t afford—not if I want to be a conscious and aware member of the human race. Aware of what? Of being among those who can afford the shutdown because they can work from home or else don’t depend for income on a salary for location-based work.

Someone wrote me from Germany asking if food gift cards are truly what undocumented families need here. In Germany, he wrote, getting food is not an issue; medical care and other things are. I checked around. We have three food pantries in our area; each gives out supplies once a month, so families with 4, 5 and 6 children get only three supplies of food a month. These consist mainly of canned, nonperishable foods; they usually don’t include things like vegetables, fruit, eggs, or fresh meat. A neighboring city has churches giving out various meals (in virus times, mostly sandwiches, though Stone Soup Café gives out full hot meals once a week) but many families can’t get there because they have no cars, essential in this rural area.

That doesn’t mean they don’t need lots of help with other things, and I’ve talked with Jimena Peraja about how to get them cash to meet other kinds of bills. We agreed to keep the focus on food cards but use some money to help in emergency situations.

I watch workers at grocery and food stores, at medical facilities, the dishwashers and floor cleaners and hospital cooks, not to mention the entire medical profession. I read about the starvation that has already begun in Asian countries, the Chinese factory workers who produced our cheap clothes and household goods, and who now have no jobs so their families barely survive. Migrant workers in Africa and Asia walk home hundreds of miles, emptyhanded, while those who await them are wives and children who need food.

I can’t not see it: To keep me safe, people are starving. Stores, restaurants and hotels shutting down means that I’m safe while millions are out of work. That’s not a price I wish to have paid.

For me, “Be safe” has come to mean: stay home, don’t mix, don’t shop. Holler at every governor who opens up restrictions just a little bit, get puffed up with indignation because your very life feels threatened. And while I’m being safe, children go hungry.

I wish I could see it another way, but I can’t.

“Life doesn’t feel suddenly great because you have a big experience of how we’re all one body,” Bernie used to say. “If anything, that’s when you really start seeing the catastrophes all around. Before you saw them, too, but now you know they’re all you.”

I am ready to be careful, but I won’t live in fear of death. There are people who rushed to New York to help when the pandemic hit. There are also folks who left their homes and hurried like refugees to vacation homes or an island surrounded by clear blue water.

“How are you doing?” I emailed a friend of mine.

“I’m perfectly safe and far away,” he replied.

I don’t want to be far away. I want to be up close and personal, bound and pledged to the human race.

I don’t live in New York; our hospitals haven’t run out of beds. I’d like us to open up with some caution. Promote guidelines on how to bring folks back to work, wear masks everywhere. Those of us who don’t wish to take risks can stay home. I can make my  own decisions about going to restaurants, flying, and traveling. You don’t have to close up the world on my account.

I get it’s different in a dense city. I get it’s different where hospital facilities are inadequate. But a country-wide or even a state-wide ban isn’t effective until we all appreciate the full price being paid—and are ready to pay it ourselves rather than delegating it to others.

I try to remember that, as Charles Eisenstein wrote, “a life saved is actually a death postponed.” When I really face that—that whatever I’m trying to avoid is in the long run inevitable—it restores some perspective.

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MEANWHILE, LET’S LIVE

Jimena Pareja and I huddled under a store marquee for protection from the wind and rain as she called families in the area to come collect food gift cards. The marquee was so narrow that we couldn’t maintain 6 feet distance.

“Mabe we could go to their homes in this weather,” I suggested. Jimena immediately said no. Nobody wants me to know where they live.

A woman came with a thank you letter to me, written by her children because she spoke no English. Some weeks ago I had helped her with rent money she needed for a new apartment. Her children had learned the lesson of coronavirus, drawing stick figures with gloves on the hands, saying: God bless your hands.

I look at my hands as I type this on the keyboard, one still with my old wedding ring (I think of taking it off, but haven’t yet), the other with a ring my father bought me. Two rings from the two men in my life. I wonder if there will be a third.

I also brought some cash to help someone meet an $858 electricity bill, which a woman showed me last week. “They are both farm workers,” Jimena explained. “That means they have no work in the winter till they return to the fields at the end of February. So the bills build up in the winter when they have no income, and they pay them down when they start to work. Only now there is no work.”

Your monies have all gone to buy food cards—putting food on the table is essential. The other needs were met by me. But I’ve received a few payments where people wrote to use for the families in whatever way I think right, which gives a little more flexibility. For now, food gift cards are still most important.

On another front, Eef Heinhuis, a beautiful Dutch woman, is asking friends, as a birthday gift, to donate for food cards for undocumented families here. I was taken aback and deeply moved. I thought of the Marshall Plan after World War II, when America gave billions of dollars in aid to devastated European countries. We had the Democrat Truman in the White House and a Republican Congress, but there was bipartisan understanding and support of the Marshall Plan, not the blame game we see going on now.

The circle has come round in this Dutch-based effort to send money to families who suffer here. They understand that while the virus affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us equally, and those already poor or on the margin are being pushed off the edge. The thing to do at this time isn’t to find villains and bogeymen (Lock her up!, Trump, China, Democrats, Republicans, etc.) but to see that while we’re all in this together, some will hurt more than others.

The other day I talked to my mother, who tells me that she has no more reason to live. “Will this ever change?” she asks.

“Will what ever change?” I ask her. “The virus? Human beings?” She’s not sure what she’s referring to. “If it’s the virus, doctors will find vaccines and reliable tests.”

“And a vaccine for humans?” she wonders.

“I don’t know about that, mom.”

After a few more minutes she’s ready to hang up. “Okay,” she says. “Meanwhile, let’s live.”

My friend, Roshi Dr. Ken Byalin, wrote a very moving blog post celebrating 20 years since deciding to take early retirement. He describes how, at that time, he had no idea what he wanted to do other than continue helping youth with mental illness, which he had done earlier.

He could have continued doing this at a regular job with a salary; instead, he chose to go his own way and find a Zen Peacemaker path. What’s the difference between a social worker doing his regular job and that same social worker doing his work as a Zen Peacemaker? In some way, that’s what his post is about.

He describes starting a small foundation which integrated mental health treatment with the arts. Finally, someone suggested he consider opening a charter school to help youth with mental illness get to college.

Ken was not an educator, schools had not been his thing. They encountered one hindrance after another, obstacles from a state and city bureaucracy that didn’t believe that such a school could be successful. Application after application was turned down, there were frequent trips to Albany, all seemingly in vain. Patient, determined, and humble, he persisted.

Ten years ago they began a charter school for some 75 pupils. Now there are three schools serving over 1,000 students. Half have mental health issues, a big majority are from low-income families, including immigrants; almost all of them go on to college. Read his post.

Someone asked me the other day how I started raising food money for undocumented families. “You always say that all you want to do is write,” he reminded me.

I shrugged and said that I sat down with the woman who has been cleaning our house monthly for the past 15 years. We always talk over coffee first (we like to go out to breakfast but can’t now). I reminded her of how she described to me one Thanksgiving when she invited over for dinner workers at the local Chinese restaurant, mostly Chinese immigrants. She knew they slept 5 to a room in local apartments, their families back home.

“What happened to them?” I asked her, knowing the restaurant had closed.

“They’re gone, Eve. They left,” she said.

“But where did they go? Everything is shut down.”

We discussed this, and somehow the hardship of getting food for one’s family came up, so a short while later I drove to a local supermarket, bought 2 food cards, and gave them to her.  Her work had been cut down, too, but she’d told me: “We’re okay, we don’t need anything. They need.” The food cards were for two families she knew who were struggling.

She gave the gift cards away and I blogged about it. Immediately came the online inquiries: How do I help? Can I contribute to this? I said yes, and now meet every Tuesday to give out food cards bought with donations from kind and generous people. Meaning you.

The bank account I just opened for this purpose has some $2,500-$2,600 in it right now. In three weeks’ time we altogether gave some $2,700 to undocumented families in this area. That totals well over $5,000, which takes my breath away.

Life opens up, shows what’s needed, and people step up. Not-knowing is not ignorance, it’s complete openness, fully engaged rather than passive or sedated. It’s feeling blindly in the dark for what I can do now rather than trying to figure it all out ahead of time.

It started with food cards. It led to someone needing to raise rent so their family could have a roof over their head. That led to helping to meet an electricity bill. Now I’m looking for a techie to help the kids figure out how to do school on Zoom.

One need leads to another need to another need. That’s fine, it’s how the world works. I can’t do it all, not even much. I can do what I can do—with your help. It’s what I loved about Ken’s blog. He went into retirement with no idea or expectation that he would be starting 3 charter schools for youth with mental issues. He found his way in the dark, one thing leading to the next and then the next. Twenty years later you look back, shake your head, and say: How did this all come about?

God bless your hands. We’re all the hands of Kwan-Yin, the great goddess of compassion. We work like she does, fumbling with the pillow at night, the hands knowing blindly where to go. Life tells us what to do, we just have to listen.

And as my mother said, meanwhile, let’s live.

 

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