GONE (JUST FOR WEEKEND)

I’m going away for the weekend.

It may sound like no big deal; to me it’s a big deal. I haven’t gone away in a long time except to work or to see family. Neither are occasions for complete relaxation. But I woke up on Wednesday, looked at Harry as he stared at me, Pinky the Elephant in his mouth ready to be tossed from me to Henry and back to me and back to Henry—you get the idea—and I wanted to go right under the blanket again. Ditto when I came downstairs and Aussie wagged her tail, wanting her breakfast.

When I can’t look at dogs anymore, I know it’s time for a break.

When I make a big bow to Kwan-Yin and return inside because I don’t have the energy for one more service, it’s time for a break.

When I can’t put together the meal for Aussie—dog food, cheese, fresh water—it’s that time.

When I don’t want to go down to the basement to empty out the dehumidifier, it’s that time.

When I can’t look at emails, don’t feel like checking in with mom, don’t want to check up on Brutus the giant baby bunny who’s twice the size he was some 9 days ago when we found him close to death outside, it’s time to get away.

I look but don’t see the hummingbirds at the feeders outside, nor the red flowers courtesy of July’s foot of rain, and don’t even mention the word cooking.

You need to get away, a voice said.

Why? another voice said. I already live in such a gorgeous place if only I’d open up my eyes and take a good look.

You need a change, the voice insisted. A place where you don’t take care of dogs or do things for the house or answer emails or any of that. A place where you can look at something else.

Like what?

Like an ocean. When did you last see an ocean?

I can’t remember.

Go to the ocean.

I haven’t gone away alone since before marrying Bernie, unless it was to teach or to write or to see family. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on my own and do nothing.

Who says anything about doing nothing? Go to the beach, window-shop, try a new restaurant or café. Sit and look out at the waves.

Like I said, doing nothing.

Are you afraid to be alone when you’re not working? Not being capable, not being valuable?

Before Bernie I traveled alone lots, didn’t think twice about it. It’s different now. I mean, whom am I going to talk to over dinner? Maybe I won’t bother with dinner, just eat a sandwich late afternoon and go back to the room.

Eat dinner in a restaurant, be a mensch. Bring a book. Order some wine.

I guess I could make some overdue phone calls.

Don’t make overdue phone calls.

The only vacations Bernie and I ever took were to Hawaii to see Ram Dass. We loved those times. It’s the only occasions when even he didn’t talk about work, his vision, the problems, all the stuff he always talked about. This is going to be a short weekend at the shore, and I’ll be alone. Storms again on Sunday. Who’ll watch over Aussie when she freaks out?

She’ll manage. You’ll be on your own in a new place. Anything can happen.

Or nothing can happen.

Which would you prefer?

 

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NOT HAPPENING ON ZOOM

We usually do our summer retreat in mid-August. Green River Zen closes for the month but we come back together for the retreat. It’s scheduled for August 18-22 this year, and I still don’t know whether we’ll do it just on Zoom or in person, too (hybrid style).

A handful of us have been coming together on Saturday mornings to sit at the beautiful Windhorse Hill Retreat Center, owned by Engaged Mindfulness Institute; others come in by Zoom. I know this hybrid technology makes all kinds of long-distance connections possible and enables folks who can’t get there, due to age or medical conditions, to be there as well, but I don’t really grok it.

A small group of people sit together, and even in silence we’re vividly aware of each other, we self-organize to do whatever has to get done, talk, smile, and laugh at the end. And there’s the group that looks from the outside in, or at least it feels that way. They’re at home, in fact you can see the home in the background of the square in which they appear. They’re in their own practice space as we are in ours, but to me it feels like two different groups.

When you’re there in person there are bodies, movement, chairs and cushions adjusted, robes put on, books given out, altars set up. We’re engaged in a practice that deepens not just awareness of self but awareness of other, too. How does that happen on Zoom? We can communicate deeply, but for me it’s still computer icons communicating deeply with computer icons.

The mind speaks its truth, but the body speaks deeper. Someone describes how he was hurt from a fall, but it’s nothing like seeing him limp around, sitting on a chair, even raising and resting the leg on another chair. Someone has had a hard time with her children who’re stuck indoors all week due to the rain. She has her story about it—we all have our stories—but it’s nothing like what the body shows: blue caverns under the eyes, getting up slowly from the cushion, preoccupied look on the face. The whole organism is showing the story.

Technology makes so much possible even as it drives us further apart from one another.

So much happens on the way to the zendo:

A deer hops across the road.

You’re stuck going 15 mph behind a semitrailer trying to negotiate the Sunderland road that’s being repaved.

You thank the signal person who’s managing traffic on the one lane that’s open—and remember how many people work on weekends.

You see the clouds drifting over from the west and wonder if it’ll rain yet again.

You pass a local farm and remember to pick up some fresh corn on the way back.

And finally, you turn into the farm below the zendo where Haitians are picking vegetables, which brings Haiti right here to the Valley. Do they wonder what’s happening to their families? They’ve been working for low wages under this month’s perpetual rain even as disorder and violence run rampant back home.

The person who arrives at Windhorse to do a Saturday sitting is not the person who left home. She’s greeted animals, got nostalgic upon seeing a Ben & Jerry’s truck with its picture of happy cows in the Vermont hills, and finally, a flash of Haiti.

That person will sit with others who also had their adventures coming from home.

“Someone almost ran right into me,” one says, shaking his head.

“A hawk flew right over the car when I drove up,” someone else says.

The mallet is hitting the suspended wooden board, calling us to sit. We sit together, mixing it all up. My inhale is their exhale, and their inhale is my exhale. Our shared stories all mixed together so organically we don’t even notice.

This don’t happen on Zoom.

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SAFE! SAFE! SAFE!

Roiling floods in Western Mass.

“How did you reach me here?” my mother asks on one of my daily calls to her.

“What do you mean, mom?”

“How did you know where I was?”

“Aren’t you at home?”

“No.”

“Where are you?” I called her home phone number; she doesn’t have another.

“I’m in a resort. A place where people usually visit in the winter but  also in summer.”

I’ve stopped challenging her perceptions long ago. “And what are you doing there, mom?”

“We look around, we talk to people. I eat three times as much as I eat at home.”

I ask for more details and she changes the subject. “How are you doing?” she asks me in Hebrew, using the plural you.

I answer in kind. “We’re doing well.”

“Give my love to everybody.”

“I will, mom,” I say, and look around at the empty house.

Mother and daughter are confused about I and we, but maybe we’re not the only ones.

I live in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, one of the covid-safest places on earth. Massachusetts joins the states of Vermont, Connecticut, and Hawaii with the highest vaccination rates in the country. The state government issued excellent, tough guidelines about closing up, wearing masks, etiquette in stores, etc. when covid first began. We have superb medical facilities and lots of community support. It doesn’t hurt that, for many of us, population density isn’t high. Most days I see a lot more four-leggeds than two.

In the beginning I thought it was too much. I bore witness to the economic devastation afflicting low-income families, those who depended on stores, restaurants and farms to stay open. It was when everything shut down that I heard of families going hungry, especially immigrant families who didn’t get government assistance, and caused me to start writing about their need for help to put food on the table.

Closing up kept some of us, who could work from home, very safe, and it devastated others, including people who saw their small businesses destroyed and lifelong savings wiped out. But I was wrong to question the mandate to close up; the state got it right. We had local surges like everyone else, but overall, in our area, the numbers stayed low. In the last several months they’ve been very, very low.

Living in such a high level of safety—far, far safer than most people around the world—what do we do?

We have a choice. We can start advocating for those who’re not as safe as we are. We can actively look to support local businesses, stores, and restaurants. We can look outside of ourselves and inquire what others need and how we can help.

We can also try to ratchet up our safety another notch, and another notch, and then another notch. We can scour the Internet for radical solutions, for columns by epidemiologists who claim to know lots more than does the CDC, who push the buttons of fear and anxiety. We can get subsumed by the question of how many feet distance we really need (certainly more than the CDC’s 6, maybe 12, I even heard 25, which for many of us would mean we can’t be in one room with anybody else). Even as we’re reassured about the safety of food, we could spend our energy washing it all after it gets delivered, take more showers than usual, wash our clothes more than usual, and leave Amazon packages outside for days. Anything to feed the beast called fear.

I’m not speaking about people with severely impaired immune systems or who are especially vulnerable. I’m speaking of people like me and younger, including those with almost no special conditions to watch out for. I myself suffer from asthma and have had serious enough reactions to antibiotics that I was once put in ICU for a few days. And yes, I know that the CDC has erred in the past concerning covid—but who hasn’t?

Covid is new, we’re learning more about it even as we live with it. But we have to look wider and bigger than just our individual health. We’re part of a community, a country, and a very well-off one at that. I feel I want to go with the national flow because I want the nation to thrive, not just me. I want to be part of a bigger community that finds its way through this. Recognizing our interdependence, I mask up to protect others. I take the vaccine to protect others.

I go to restaurants to help them open up, because I may well know the dishwasher or the one who comes to clean afterhours, they’re the same people who come to get food cards on Wednesdays. I buy at local farms because the workers there are also familiar to me. I’d like us to be safe enough in order to send massive shipments of vaccine to other countries rather than safeguarding them here, because I’m part of a world that was left topsy-turvy by this virus, much of which hasn’t recovered at all.

When I was in Israel during their latest war with Gaza, I couldn’t help but be moved by the rawness of feelings coupled with a nationwide determination. It didn’t matter whether you were left or right or directionless, old or young, soldier or pacifist, people helped each other and expressed deep concern for each other. There were many who expressed deep concern for Gaza. Then I’d read the American media, which was full of petty caviling about whether the CDC was right or wrong in lifting mask mandates, full of columns by those who knew  infinitely more and better, full of fearmongering, red warning lights blinking rapidly, undermining any sense of national solidarity—and I’m not speaking just about Red states, either.

Safety! Safety! Safety! they kept on wailing to the safest people in the world.

Petty, petty, petty was my response.

The Delta variant may be coming our local way, so what do we do? Shut the doors of our minds and hearts, resolved to up our safety level more and more and more and more? Is this what it means to live and practice in the safest area in the richest country in the world? If we have to close up, how do we keep our hearts open? If we have to mask up again, how do we stay aware of what other families need? And even as we accept physical limitations in order to avoid getting sick, how do we continue to reach out?

As my mom said: “Give my love to everybody.”

 

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WHAT I KNOW ABOUT LOVE

It’s a busy morning.

Starts out as usual: shower, meditation, brief service to Kwan-Yin, feed Aussie, look at news and answer emails with first coffee of the day, yoga sun salutations. It’s already hot and muggy, I want to take the dogs out as early as possible because a good friend is coming for lunch, only first there are important phone calls from my brother, followed by the plumber who replaces an old, leaky toilet.

I take the dogs up the slope—”Aussie, where are you?”—in a hurry to leave the hot sun behind and enter the forest, and run into someone I haven’t seen since before covid. We exchange pleasantries—”How are you? Fine, how are you?”—and I’m in a hurry to get into the shade when he says to my retreating back: “Eve, do you know anything about love?”

I stand still. Then I turn around slowly, say the first thing that comes to my mind: “Not much.”

He tells me a story; I can’t share it here because it’s not my story to tell. He’s younger than I am, which makes a difference. Love changes as we go from one period of life to another.

Do you know anything about love?

Before going up that slope I’d paused for a moment at a small, pretty meadow, a mound of green. The dogs cavort there now, but there was a farmhouse there till about a month ago, an 18th century farmhouse where a dozen of us lived communally for a couple of years. Bernie and I lived in the oldest part of the house, two rooms with walls, floor, and no insulation. We froze in winter and perspired miserably in summer. I had an old, full-size electric blanket with me from years ago. Bernie had pooh-pooed it at first, no electric blankets for him. Came winter and I draped it over my half of the bed, only to notice that less and less of it was covering me as the night hours passed, the rest pulled over towards the left.

Muji the dog had shivered in that room in mid-August, Bernie put on an electric heater for him, but he died shortly afterwards.

To go to the bathroom, you walked out the door and down a ramp into a freezing pantry, then through a thick wooden door to a dining room, then the kitchen, and hoped to God nobody was taking a bath.

“I’ve done enough communal living in my life,” Bernie growled, but he stuck with it for two years.

“It’s as if nothing had ever been there,” a friend said the first time she saw the mound of grass. Not a log or a piece of lumber, not a single trace of history.

No problem, we’re Buddhists. We believe in change.

A blog reader wrote me: “Up to now, I can’t wrap around my head the fact that he hasn’t contacted you in any way just to let you know how he is. A very simple thing to do.”

Truth is he’s contacting me all the time. He was in that farmhouse and now he’s in the absence of the farmhouse. He’s in the converted barn that once hosted the best conference of Western teachers of Engaged Buddhism and that now hosts weddings every weekend.

He’s in the left-hand side of the bed whether it holds his body or not.

Over many years and in many interviews he said that he first met up with Zen in Huston Smith’s Religions of Man. Smith only had a page or two on Zen, he said, but when he read that brief chapter as a teenager he felt like he’d reached home. Some years later he began to sit, and then met Maezumi Roshi, his teacher.

Walking in the woods so many years later, I remembered that in the 1970s, during my first marriage, I watched a PBS documentary series based on Smith’s book. It was almost 50 years ago, yet I remember that the hour on Buddhism began with a Zen monk in black robes hitting the suspended wooden board called han with a mallet in a cadence that started slow and got faster and faster, finally ending with 3 beats: medium, soft, LOUD!

“It measures how our time passes,” someone said there. That’s all I remember about that hour, only a feeling I couldn’t put into words, bare, abrupt, slashed down to the core. A dozen years later I began to sit.

I wished I’d remembered that earlier and told him. He would have gotten a kick out of it, he loved coincidences only he didn’t believe in coincidences.

This morning, as I walked up that slope under the burning sun, my mind was one big list of reminders: Don’t forget to take the bread out of the freezer—Do you have enough cheese?—Where did Aussie go?—Are we going back to sitting in person at the zendo?—Can I finish Jimena’s grant application this weekend (it pays part of her salary)?—What am I going to do about the cracks in the roof gutters?—Where are you, Aussie?—My sneakers aren’t drying out from all that rain!—and in the middle of all that, someone asked my back: “Eve, do you know anything about love?”

 

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BRUTUS THE BABY BUNNY

“How’s your patient?” I ask Lori.

Our baby bunny is doing very well. Warm and dry in his pink towel in a carboard box, he gets fed twice a day with milk and baby cereal through an eyedropper. On Day 1 he looked close to dying, lying in that cold, wet grass (it’s been raining every single day here for the past two weeks). That evening he ate his first food greedily and slept. Lori left the office door open; she wasn’t sure he’d make it through the night.

The next morning, she walked into her office and he was gone. She searched frantically, then went downstairs and found him at the foot of the steps, eyeing her with great curiosity. She put him back in the box, returned downstairs to look for a bigger box, and when she came back he was gone again. This time she found him right away in the trash basket. From now on her door remains shut, especially after sundown when he’s active.

Lori’s collected various grasses, hay and clover, and on Day 3 he’s eating that, too. A fastidious researcher, Lori says that bunnies don’t develop a scent this early in their lives, which might explain why Henry shows no interest in that direction. Lori doesn’t want it to get accustomed to dogs, not healthy for a wild bunny. At this pace, she’s wondering when the baby bunny becomes a bunny and could go out into the wild again. As you can see, he’s pretty tiny.

“Let’s call him Brutus,” I suggested.

We thinks the bunny burrow was just behind the house and may have been flooded by all the water coming down from the roof and gutters.

“I can’t believe what Aussie did,” Lori tells me. “She probably found Brutus lying in the wet grass, shivering and cold. She gently took it in her mouth, walked across the yard with it, brought it into the house and laid it down on the rug near her. I looked that bunny over, felt it all over, and it didn’t have a scratch on it.”

“I’m proud of you, Aussie,” I tell Aussie. “We think you saved Brutus’s life.”

“I’ll never live this down.”

“And look, Aussie, Leeann has asked for you to stay late tomorrow because she’s training another dog and she wants you there to model good behavior.”

“Moi? A role model?”

“You may not like this, Auss, but you’re becoming a Demo Dog. A demo diva.”

“Lower your voice,” she implores. “I’m losing my reputation.”

“I don’t understand you, Aussie. You have so much softness and gentleness. That’s what I first noticed when I went with Bernie to adopt a dog at the shelter. There were four dogs there, all fine, healthy, and noisy, and there you were in the corner, quiet and watchful. And when Bernie played with you, you were as gentle as could be.”

“Don’t remind me. I’ve been doing my best to change.”

“Why, Auss? Why do you want to be bad?”

“Bad is good. Bad is exciting. Who cares about good dogs or good people? BORING! The bad ones are always the interesting ones. When the Man was in the White House I was loud, I was obnoxious, I wanted all chihuahuas to be deported, I was head of the Proud Pooches. A whole new world opened up to me! What do I have now?”

“Joe Biden?”

“Brutus the baby bunny.”

“You know, Aussie, I used to think like that, too. I always fell in love with bad boys.”

“Was Bernie a bad boy?”

“The worst. Except for Raskolnikov. I loved Raskolnikov.”

“Raskolnikov the Borzoi?”

“No, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, who murders an old woman and steals her money. Naturally, the young woman who loves him is a saint.”

“Uggggh!”

“Exactly. She prostitutes herself to feed her family and in the end follows Raskolnikov to Siberia. If only he didn’t talk so much.”

“I ain’t no saint. Saints are BORING! Except for how they die. I love how they die!”

“Who knows? Underneath that smart-alecky, obnoxious self, there may yet rest  a bodhisattva. You did save Brutus, after all.”

“Should’ve ate him.”

 

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THE REAL SOFTIE

The rain was coming down with no end.

“Maybe we should start growing rice,” a fellow Zen teacher said this morning.

“Or else learn how to blow those storm clouds out West,” someone else said, thinking no doubt of the droughts, record-breaking temperatures, and fires.

By late morning the rain diminished enough for the dogs to go out. I came back from the kitchen and saw something dark on Aussie’s rug, bent down, squinted (it was dark inside the house), and something fluttered.

“Aussie, what did you do? You brought in a chipmunk!”

She slapped her tail happily against the rug.

I got a paper towel and picked it up. It’s almost dead, I thought. I took it outside and put it among the wet shrubs in back. “Don’t go out to get it,” I told Aussie. “Let it die in peace.”

An hour later I mentioned it to Lori, my housemate and a far wiser woman than me. “Let me see it,” she said.

We walked out back. It was still there and it was still alive, though it barely moved. And it was no chipmunk. “It’s a baby bunny,” she said. “I think it’s in shock. We need to get it warm and dry.”

With that, she picked it up, covering it up with her hands in the rain, and tried to find its burrow. But it was almost impossible, she explained, because mother rabbits dig their burrow inside the soil and cover it up with moss and grass. “Or else the den may have gotten flooded by all the water that’s come down.”

We went back in. “I need a box, a towel, and a heating pad,” the good doctor said.

We put out a small cardboard box on the kitchen table and covered it with a towel, and Dr. Lori put the tiny bunny inside. We then both scurried around looking for a heating pad. She set everything up in her office by her desk, keeping Henry far away.

When I went out with the dogs she gave me precise instructions about getting non-cow milk, dry baby cereal, and an eye dropper. We came back drenched through the skin.

“It’s really perked up while you were gone,” Lori announced, opening up the towel. The almost dead chipmunk was now clearly a baby bunny, squatting warily on its back legs, eyes open. “I looked it over thoroughly and Aussie didn’t put a scratch on it. She probably found it and brought it in gently in her mouth.”

“You mean, I didn’t kill it?” says Aussie.

“Afraid not,” says Lori. “If Henry’d gotten it, the bunny would be a mess by now, but you, Aussie, are a real softie.”

“Am not!” says Aussie, raising her tail high, deeply insulted, and rushes through the dog door to kill as many living beings as she can. But it’s raining again and she comes back quickly.

“You know how many birds I’ve killed?” she demands.

“One bird this season, Auss. Last year there were two or three.”

“You know how many mice I’ve killed?”

“A few.”

“And chipmunks! Don’t forget the chipmunks.”

“So far, Aussie, I’ve seen zero dead chipmunks.”

“What about squirrels?”

“One dead squirrel. ”

“Don’t tell anybody,” she begs. “When we go out with Leeann and ten other dogs, I’m the one who rushes out after prey, big and small, and they follow. If they knew that after all those runs I scored just one dead bird, a few mice, and one squirrel, I’d never be able to hold up my head. And now I really messed up. I could have killed a baby bunny, a new specie in my collection. Instead, Lori is busy bringing it back to life. I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Aussie, why do you like killing so much?”

“It’s my nature. I’m a world-class hunter.”

“But what I’ve seen is that you like to chase and run; I’m not sure about the killing part. You don’t shake them to death when you catch them, they die because you grabbed them too hard. The bunny doesn’t show a scratch.”

“I am not a softie, I’m a killer!”

“What’s wrong with being a softie, Aussie?”

“Soft is for wimps. Killing’s for heroes.”

“Aussie, you could have killed that baby bunny with one bite. Instead, you carried it gently in your mouth across the yard, through the dog door and kitchen, to your rug and left it there for me to find. There are four Buddha images alongside the walls surrounding your rug, maybe they had something to do with it.”

“Don’t make me throw up.”

“Could it be that they’re having an effect on you, Aussie? Making you sweeter, for instance, more compassionate?”

“Vomit vomit!”

“You used to be a lot tougher, Aussie. You were once a real killer.”

“Get those Buddhas out of my room. Quick!”

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RUMINATIONS AT THE HAIRDRESSER

A tree has its beauty even when ravaged by woodpeckers.

I am shopping in Trader Joe’s this morning, on the way to get my hair cut, when I recognize a woman I haven’t seen in over a decade by the ice cream and frozen pepperoni pizza display. Once the wife of a friend, both have been happily divorced and happily united with other partners for a long time.

“You don’t look a day older than when I last saw you,” she gushes.

I thank her. I don’t believe it. A lot’s happened over the last dozen years. And yet, I wonder silently as she and I talk, she’s the one who doesn’t look a day older. She seems to have the same trim, athletic body I remember from before, her blonde hair is now blonder, longer, and falls in waves over her shoulders. The face is a little more worn, the skin not as smooth and satiny as I remember it, but there she is, a testament to time almost standing still.

She’s retired, she tells me. Works out every day in the gym. Her children and grandchildren are far away but she takes care of things in the house, takes care of her partner, relaxes, enjoys TV. She commiserates over Bernie’s death and a minute later we say goodbye. Twenty minutes later I’m sitting in a hairdresser’s chair contemplating my face and hair in the mirror.

I retain my brown hair but mostly in underlayers and in back; up front it’s gray and silver. I’m a little heavier, a little more squat. And my face, oh yes, my face. It’s always had blue furrows under the eyes; now they’re less blue but deeper. The mole on my left cheek has expanded. Vertical lines climb up above my upper lip and between my eyebrows like the pre-9/11 towers, and a patch of skin under the lower lip is somewhat mottled.

We make different decisions on how we age. There was a time when I flirted with the idea of coloring my hair, and decided no. Decided not to beat my age, but to look it. Not to try to look younger, that period when I was on the lower rungs of the learning curve, climbing slowly and painfully, illness and loss of someone I loved kicking me higher up that curve day by day.

Why shouldn’t I show my experience? Why shouldn’t I reveal some white hairs in my eyebrows? Why shouldn’t I let my hair age in peace, as I let the leaves age in peace come fall? I don’t yell at them for turning red, yellow, and orange in October, I don’t think they have to stay green all year. Why should I stay the same?

We’d made different decisions. Mine was to push forward with my work while staying as healthy as possible. Dumbstruck by life day after day, I see more creative opportunities than ever before, more alignment among the various things I do, be it writing (two additional writing projects in addition to this blog), teaching, and the organizing, planning, and teaching we’re doing on behalf of the Zen Peacemaker Order. There’s the undocumented families I care about, there’s my mother turning 93 today.

When you do that, all is not peaceful. Keeping things going, concern, meeting deadlines, the endless work that doesn’t satisfy all and never will—they have their effects. Don’t be surprised if you look at a mirror one day at the hairdresser and see their traces all over your body, your face, and your hair.

I don’t regret my decision. If anything, I’m grateful for the encounter in Trader Joe’s followed by the rumination in front of the mirror, reminding me, more and more consciously, of the choice I made.

Late yesterday I met Ofelia with her four small children. Her husband was biking to work and a white car ran him down in a hit-and-run. He lost control, the bike careened over the guardrail, smashed down into a wide culvert and he lost consciousness for almost an hour. When he awoke he lay there, unable to move. He called out, finally someone heard him and called an ambulance. In the hospital he was told that, among many things, he had a broken ankle and wouldn’t work for two months at the very least.

Ofelia (not her real name) works in the farms part-time, but can’t do more with four children at home. Jimena’s husband already promised them he could fix an old bike to bring him to work, but now they need financial help just to make it through this next period because, like everyone else, they barely make it paycheck to paycheck. If you can help, please do so by using the link for immigrant families below.

Thank you very much.

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EVE IN THE BARDO

Thunderstorm weather

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like I’m in the Bardo. Outside the sun is shining for just a little while, but it doesn’t fool me, I know thunderstorms are just around the corner,. I’m not rushing out of the house.

And that’s how I feel about going out into this post-covid world. It feels safe (I live in one of the states with this country’s highest vaccination rates). On July 4 I was at a picnic hosted by Windhorse Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield. I joyfully recognized folks without their masks, hugged them, felt those hugs like never before pulling my entire body forward,. Friday night the restaurant in which I met friends was humming just like previous Friday nights, noise at the bar, the tables full of laughs and chatter, the waiters tempting you with menus and drinks. And last night, a culminating delicious dinner at old friends’ home, catching up, listening to the Moonlight Sonata played on the piano. Yes, live music!

You must think I’m the social butterfly of the season, but I believe it’s only the third time I’ve gone out socially in almost a year and a half and these all congregated together across one long holiday weekend. I have almost no such plans for the foreseeable future, and that’s the point.

There was a social world with certain rules before covid. During covid we were locked up here, obeying new rules. And now we’re vaccinated, looking forward to September when the kids will start getting vaccinated (a whole new layer of safety added). And still, I’m not jumping to do what I did before. I’m not eager to rush out to movie theaters or restaurants, not hurrying to invite people over, I remain very uncertain. Not from fear, from—uncertainty.

What is this?

Something happened to us, to me. During covid I discovered the joy of solitude and the boredom and sadness of loneliness. I saw my hankering for protein and sweets zoom. A house I love came in on me, feeling a little like prison. I was busy, but sometimes felt lost.

Now I see people, and I still feel lost. Do I really want to go out, I wonder? Do I really want to see them? Wouldn’t I be happier looking at my computer screen and getting work done, or else reading, or taking another walk with Aussie?

“Most people talk of what they know,” a friend said to me the other day. “They leave little room for surprise.” And yes, after the first few minutes when my arms open up for a hug, feeling happy and grateful that they’re in my life, after pleasantries are exchanged, after we catch up (Are you healthy? Is our family healthy?), then what? I catch myself sneaking a look at my watch.

Not this past weekend, which was wonderful, but other times for sure.

What’s going on? Did I feel this way before covid? I used to enjoy social chatter. I appreciate what it does, the relationships it strengthens, the community that is reinforced. But now I sneak a look at my watch. And when the next invitation comes,  I stall, I wait, and finally ask myself: Do I really want to do this?

It can be a little dangerous for a single person like myself to be too alone, not to meet the world, to contract and find refuge in the four walls called myself. And yet, covid changed something in me.

Right now, I feel like I’m in a kind of Bardo, not here and not there, not doing the things I did earlier but not clear what I’m supposed to do now. Something’s changed, but what? Do I re-emerge? How?

The world begins to beckon but I still hesitate.

 

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THE REAL KING

It’s been raining hard for some 36 hours. The dogs entertain themselves while I call my mother.

“How’re you doing, mom?”

“I’m waiting to meet Barbara.”

“Who’s Barbara, mom?”

“Barbara is the woman who the king met at the seashore.”

“Is that so?”

“He met her and he liked her so she thinks she’s going to be queen. Because he made her.”

“What do you mean, made her? Who’s he?”

“The king, of course.”

“And who is Barbara again?”

“Some woman he met at the seashore. I’m waiting for her, she’s supposed to come here. And I’m going to tell her some things.”

Then she starts singing a song from her childhood in Czech.

“What does it say, mom?”

“A child looks out the window and sees a dark city, but there is a light in one window,” she translates cheerfully. Then she sings another, and when I ask her about that she tells me it’s a hopping song they used to play when they were children. She sounds very happy now and adds: “Barbara’s not coming but it doesn’t matter, she can’t ruin my happiness, you know why?”

“Why, mom?”

“Because I’m waiting for the real king. The real king!”

I love these conversations with my mom, I can stay on the phone forever.

Some might call them nonsense. They are non-sense, in that they don’t meet the criteria for sense. Whose criteria? The criteria of consensus reality. I read that term somewhere, implying that there is a general sense of how things really are that a consensus of humans agrees on. According to consensus reality, the above conversation makes no sense. My mother doesn’t know any Barbara and we have no king in the family last I checked.

Neither do I try to psychologically analyze this. For example, is she referring to her son who remarried a year ago because he found another woman to make him happy? Cliché, cliche.

I love this conversation precisely because it makes no sense. It’s some kind of channel to invisible images and tales, stories from other planets, other beings who may see the real reality that I can’t because my senses are so limited.

Since we create reality with our mind, my mom and I don’t live in the same reality. Sometimes her mind creates nightmare scenarios for her. That’s when I get urgent appeals to make sure I have food in the house (“Always, always keep a loaf of bread in the refrigerator and a bottle of milk, you never know what can happen!”) and not to leave the house no matter what because the tanks are on the streets. This latest reality involves a Barbara who is not the real queen, and a king who may not be the real king.

There are implications for her wellbeing here that I’m not blind to; I’m especially concerned when she feels terrorized and in fear of her life.

At the same time, I’m fascinated by my mother’s many lives. I even envy her somewhat, for she has to deal with a Barbara and a king, while I wonder how to walk two dogs in the midst of rain. We label one dementia and the other common sense, but I forget that when I talk to her on the phone, when I hear the indignation in her voice that her position is being usurped by a strange woman or the promise that she’s waiting for the real king—the real king!

Who is that, I can’t help wondering. My mind, feeling rootless and barren this gray, rainy day, now goes to a sunny seashore. By that seashore a king meets a woman called Barbara and falls in love, or in lust. Now Barbara thinks she’s queen. The rest of us groan under her whims and dictates. Who does she think she is? So what if she’s beautiful or curvaceous, does that make her queen?

And who made her queen? If he can be fooled so easily, maybe he’s not the real thing, either. Who’s the real king? Where is he?

The dogs can’t compete with that.

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THE ONE BIG ONE

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“Hiding.”

“From what?”

“Everything. The heat, thunderstorms, Henry the Foreign Menace. What about you, Boss?”

“During severe thunderstorms I like to go to the small bathroom that has no windows and hang out there. It feels safer.”

“You know what, Boss? This world is a scary place. There’s something to be afraid of everywhere you look.”

“Maybe. You know what I think, Aussie? There’s one big one; the others are important, too, but not like the one big one.”

“What’s that?”

My friend, the journalist Jon Katz, likes to quote one of his journalist mentors from way back: “There’s only one story, and it’s about the rich screwing the poor.” For me, that’s the big story. In over 40 years the middle and lower economic classes have made almost no headway in salaries and lifestyle; too many in this rich country can’t afford decent housing, nourishing food, and medical care. The other stories are good stories, maybe important stories, but often I feel they hide the main story in this country.

So, what about the latest instance of police violence against a young man of color hanging out in his garage and not hurting anyone?

What about the Delta variant of the coronavirus that may have us reaching back for masks and curbside pick-ups again?

What about our leaving the people in Afghanistan to their fate, not to mention Hong Kong?

What about Bill Cosby?

The hundreds of graves of Indigenous children found in Canada?

Republicans voting down a committee to investigate the events of January 6?

All important, all valid, causing us to cringe, sigh, shake our heads, even weep. But they’re not the big story. The big story remains the rich screwing the poor, be they African American farmers, white miners in West Virginia, or undocumented families right in my own back yard.

In fact, if the culprits had to put their heads together and figure how to conceal the massive robbery that takes place in broad daylight every single day, how to disguise their corrupting influence over government, or generally how to sacrifice the wellbeing of so many for both the power and the playthings of the few, they couldn’t do a better job than creating the daily front page of every major newspaper.

Look at that front page now. Everything I mention above appears there, but not the biggest story of all. We get upset and worked up: How did Bill Cosby get out of prison after testimonies from so many women? What to do about Trump’s heading down to the Texas/Mexico border? The uproar about how American history is being taught, and whether or not a highly respected African  American professor will get tenure or not in a North Carolina school. The articles themselves repeat the word uproar all the time, the word defines us. They want us to feel upset, they want us to feel righteous indignation.

And—they don’t tell you that the rich are screwing the poor. They don’t tell you much about who pays the real price for our cheap clothes, our inexpensive dishwashers, the actual cost of cars, the implications of cheap food and cheap restaurants, the quick delivery of Amazon goods.

They ignore the fact that we can solve the challenge of poverty if we make that a top priority, just as we can solve homelessness. Other countries have narrowed income discrepancy, and so can we. They don’t tell us that at the price of cutting down our costly lifestyle, we can feed all our children and take families off the streets. We can narrow the range between haves and have-nots and make it into halves and haves-a-little-less. The media makes these sound like intractable, unsolvable problems, but that’s not the case.

Alleviating poverty is simply not our goal, and if you doubt that, look at the decisions we make and implement all the time.

Meantime, the puppeteers are lighting cigars and congratulating the media and each other on the diet of red herrings they continue to provide, headlines that cause us to be at each other’s necks, that cause us to despise folks who’re like us only of a different political party, a different race, a different religion, a different place in the country.

Sometimes we win the battles, sometimes others do. But who wins the big one? Who wins the war?

And where do I find that answer in the newspapers?

 

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

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