IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR SAVIOR?

Paul Gorman founded the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in 1991, back when he was working with Dean James Morton in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Episcopal flagship cathedral in New York City and one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. Paul had served as a speechwriter and press secretary for Eugene McCarthy back when the latter challenged Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination for President based on opposition to the Vietnam War.

NRPE was the first interfaith organization, led by Christian ministers of all faiths, rabbis, Imams, Buddhists, Hindus, Native people, and other religious leaders, raising consciousness about environmental degradation, educating and training its clergy members not just to preach to their congregations but also to use the power of cross-religious partnerships to raise consciousness and push for political solutions. Clergy leaders would use excerpts from their own religious texts to illustrate that taking care of the earth and all species was a God-given mandate.

At some point in the first decade of this millennium, during the time of the George W. Bush White House, Paul started working with evangelical Christians, trying to persuade them to join this movement. A few welcomed him, but for others it was not an easy sell.

He told us over dinner that he was invited to a conference of evangelical leaders. He was an excellent speaker and a highly persuasive presenter. He went into some detail about what is happening around the world, with a focus on climate change, described the work of NRPE, and proposed that the Christian evangelical movement take part because there was no time to be lost.

They listened politely, he told us, then called a break. During the break, the head of the conference took Paul aside: “Paul, this was all very interesting, thank you,” he said. “But please tell me one thing: Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior?”

It was obvious to Paul that everything depended on his answer. By birth, he himself was both Jewish and Christian. He had collaborated with Ram Dass in the book How Can I Help, knew a great deal about various traditions, and I believe identified mostly as a Christian, though not as an evangelical.

“What answer did you give?” I asked.

He gave an answer that pleased his conscience, he told me. Nevertheless, it was clear that it wasn’t sufficient for the group of evangelicals, and his efforts met with no success.

I remembered that this morning, when I gave a talk as part of a Zen retreat. I thought of all the infinite stories of our universe, the narratives that shape us but also tear us apart. I thought of the humanitarian narrative around stopping to bomb Gaza and feeling horror at the thousands of people killed, including so many children.

I also thought of the conflicting narrative I carry as a Jewish woman, born in Israel to parents who went through wars and Holocaust, part of a family whose own sons discovered the gruesome murders that took place 3 weeks ago, all of whom are now in military uniform. The four of them came for a leave of 8-12 hours yesterday and my brother said it was his best birthday gift ever.

Day by day I bear witness to different narratives. Sometimes they’re so similar, you just have to change the names and pronouns and they’ll sound exactly the same. For years I felt as an outlier in the family due to my feelings about the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. Now I feel more torn than ever before.

“Why?” my sister asked me.

“Because that Saturday Israel lost,” I told her simply. Suddenly, its military, technological and economic advantages were nothing to take for granted. And I think that with its ongoing bombardment, regardless of how much the army describes it as hitting Hamas targets, it’s still losing, its soul if nothing else.

There are political solutions to this, not military. The world has to step in.

Today was our last warm day; temperatures tomorrow will be lower by at least 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I took the dogs for a walk and Aussie waded into the water and stood there, looking blissfully around, perhaps aware she might not do this again till next spring.

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WE NEED ALL THE HELP WE CAN GET

“What are you doing, Illegal Chihuahua?”

“I put Llama Louie where he belongs, right by the Senora’s Kwan-yin.”

“Why, dumb-dumb?”

“Llama Louie is my guru, so he should be by the Senora’s image for compassion.”

“Enough already with all these statues. Enough of the goddess of compassion, enough of gurus. Who needs them? Last I counted, there are some five altars inside the house, not to mention Kwan-yin outside, and now Llama Louie.”

“The Senora says we need all the help we can get.”

“From whom, Henry? Saviors? Gurus? Gods? What has any of them done for you lately?”

“Before Llama Louie came into the house, I was one pound underweight. He came, and in three days I gained a pound. All honor to Llama Louie.”

“And to the chicken and mashed potatoes that the Senora’s friend brought yesterday.”

“Before Llama Louie arrived, I had a terrible stomachache. He came and the stomachache stopped.”

“Maybe because you stopped eating grass, silly Chihuahua.”

“Before Llama Louie came, I was throwing the stuffed turtle and green alligator all over the house.”

“And now?”

“I’m throwing Llama Louie all over the house. But he is a great compassionate being who loves everyone, so he doesn’t mind.”

“You were an obsessive neurotic then, Henry, and you’re an obsessive neurotic now, which you can’t help because you’re a Chihuahua.”

“Llama Louie accepts me as I am. He has great compassion.”

“Here it is, the famous C word. Compassion compassion compassion. Everybody talks about it. What the hell does it mean?”

“It means—it means—”

“You can say it in Spanish, Mr. Illiterate.”

“It means—it means—”

“What? That you like everybody? That you’re kindly disposed to everyone?”

“That I act with loving kindness.”

“And where has that got you, Henry? What has that got any of us? What has that got everybody in the Middle East?”

“I don’t know, Aussie, but it makes sense. We’re all alike.”

“You and me—alike?”

“Llama Louie says that we all want the same things. We want grilled chicken if we can have it, kibble when we can’t get grilled chicken. We want water, walks, treats after walks, car rides, a warm blanket for the night, and marrow bones on Sunday morning. Don’t we all want that, Aussie? Have I missed anything?”

“Growling at the Federal Express truck. Scaring the hell out of anybody who comes down the driveway.”

“You see? We all want the same basic things. When we see that, we start working together.”

“That’s what I hate about all spiritual teachers. Dreamers, every single one of them. Not a practical bone in their entire body.”

“They’re completely practical, Aussie. If we all want the same things, why fight?”

“I hate spiritual teachers, Henry. What good are they? Loving kindness, compassion, deep listening, love, all a lot of hooey.”

“Llama Louie is not hooey.”

“All a bunch of do-nothings who live in a fantasy world. Humans are generally ridiculous, as you know, it’s why they get into so much trouble.”

“I love humans, Aussie. One day humans will see the errors of their ways and they’ll become more like us.”

“Listen, Illegal, do you know how humans refer to this world? Do you know how they explain it to their children when they teach them to beat up on the weaker kids and always, always come out on top? They tell them they got to do this because—get this, Henry—it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.”

“But we don’t eat each other, Aussie.”

“Damn right, pooch.”

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COMING THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

On Sunday I went out with the dogs into the forest. My mind is busy and we get lost. Correction: I get lost; Aussie always seems to know where she is and the path to the car. This has happened lots of time in the past, no problem, but bushwhacking your way down is not pleasant.

At first, I blame my mind’s distractibility for getting lost, but when I finally find my way, I notice that a tree had fallen. We’ve had lots of rain, tree roots get soaked and weaken, roads and paths get blocked. This one had fallen over the path right where another was crisscrossing it, and I followed in the wrong direction.

Circumstances and conditions of my life change, and I change with them. Often, I feel lost and unable to get back to my regular life. Maybe, as a consequence, I’ll find a better path, maybe I won’t. Regardless, I no longer walk in the same way I’ve walked before. What I have is trust that if I put one foot ahead of the other, I’ll find out. I have confidence in walking rather than standing, worrying, or opining.

This is how I start the days now: I call family members. Sister, brother, a niece or nephew. Nephews are all in the army, nieces singlehandedly taking care of lots of children. I need to know how they’re doing wherever they are—Jerusalem, south by the Gaza border, their homes, the West Bank.

I want to hear and listen to everything, uncensured by personal fears and apprehensions. I hear terrible stories, see horrific videos, and resist the impulse to turn away or close my eyes. Not because of an appetite for violence. You need to see things, I remind myself. You need to listen and see.

After family, I talk and listen to others.

Pogroms are mentioned again and again. I don’t agree, I tell my brother. What took place on October 7 was horrific, probably worse than anything done in East Europe and Russia many years ago. But those old-time pogroms were perpetuated on small communities of Jewish families, impoverished and powerless like their neighbors, often used as scapegoats by the aristocracy and local churches. They had no agency.

That’s not true here. Jews in Israel have had plenty of agency and need to question their assumptions and decisions. Context makes a big difference. He doesn’t agree with me, we have words but no blame. It’s an old, old argument in our family.

Luckily, both of us don’t take our own opinions too seriously. Something more important is at stake here, much more important than opinions.

I was puzzling over why it suddenly became important for me to help create spaces for different people to express feelings and views on what is happening in the Middle East. This afternoon I talked at some length with poet and teacher Peter Levitt. He described a meditation space as one where you actually witness thoughts and opinions come and go, one after another, identities and attachments coming up and leaving, followed often by more and more, sometimes not.

At some point you realize you are not those identities and statements, something else is at work here. Those tight opinions bind you like a noose, preventing you from seeing anything else. When you can ease yourself out of their clutches you see that life in fact goes on without them. There’s a life force at work, and if you can free yourself from that mental siege, you sense the direction of that life force more clearly and can align yourself and your life with it.

Talking about this with Peter, I realized that that is the space I try to create when a group of us, each one different, sometimes from different religions, cultures, or countries, meet on Zoom to talk. Views come and go, opinions are exchanged. One arises, then there’s quiet, another arises, more quiet, and another, more quiet, etc.

The more views, the merrier, I say. No need to be spiritually correct, no need to modulate anything. If you’re forceful, be forceful. Angry, be angry. You want to cry, cry. Here’s a space where everything is permitted. Opinions and feelings arise and fall, come and go.

Meantime, something else becomes visible, something that’s always there but in the background, obscured by the bedlam of the mind. Peter says that people think that enlightenment is when the Buddha comes in the front door to the sound of big trumpets and fireworks, but she usually comes in the back door, quietly. Sees who’s around, who’s paying attention. Who’s listening for her. When we’re very upset, we don’t listen or sense anything till we’ve had our say, expended energy. Only then can we see who else is in the room.

I’m so grateful to Peter for that talk. We’ll have another such gathering this coming Thursday, October 26, at 2:00 pm US Eastern time, or 14:00. I’ve already emailed the link to all those who’ve attended before; if you wish to attend, email me at eve@zenpeacemakers.com.

When Henry, Aussie, and I got lost that morning, things felt chaotic, certainty gone, absent sense of direction and therefore destination. In the middle of it, I looked out and saw a small pond with groups of ducks and mallards floating on the water. Many were males, with green heads and yellow beaks, unbothered by the dogs, unbothered by me, swimming in large circles, their young ones following.

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WHAT NOT TO GIVE UP

“I’m bored! It’s raining, we’re not going out, nobody’s walking on the road whom I can bark at. I hate my life.”

“Llama Louie says to appreciate this life every moment, Aussie.”

“First, Illegal Chihuahua, don’t call me Aussie, call me Supreme Being. Second, who’s Llama Louie?”

“Lori gave me Llama Louie yesterday. Now I have a guru.”

“You’re an idiot, Illegal. It’s a stuffed animal.”

“Llama Louie gives me good advice, Supreme Being.”

“Put an Oh there, Illegal. It’s Oh Supreme Being. And please share with me one of Llama Louie’s nuggets of wisdom.”

“Llama Louie says that life is beautiful, no matter what. He says to always have fun.”

“I’m coming right into the conversation, Aussie. Lama Louie’s right. Remember my cataract surgery?”

“When they took out one of your eyes?”

“Not quite, Auss.”

“Call me Oh Supreme Being.”

“I’m calling you anything but Supreme Being.”

“Oh Supreme Being. Don’t forget Oh.”

John Frangie replaced the lens in one eye. After the surgery the nurse put a translucent bandage over the eye. The next day the surgeon took it off, I took one look, and said: ‘OMG, John, you’re so good-looking! Who knew?’”

“You flirted with your surgeon?”

“And you know what he said, Auss? He said: ‘I see you’re still under the influence of drugs.’”

“Ha ha ha ha. Llama Louie likes that.”

“Shut up, Illegal. You flirted with your surgeon?”

“Aussie, I was just having a good time. And John is good looking. Flirting is fun, Auss.”

“With your surgeon? The person operating on your vision?”

“Especially with my surgeon.”

“You’re too old for this!”

“Llama Louie says you’re never too old to have fun.”

“Shut up, Illegal.”

“Stop calling each other names, both of you! Aussie is not Supreme Being or Oh Supreme Being, and you, Henry, are not Illegal. You’re both dogs.”

“Oh Supreme Being threw Llama Louie behind the tree. I couldn’t find him for the entire day.”

“Why did you do that, Aussie?”

“Because I’m the devil’s spawn? An ambassador from the dark side?”

“Get real, Aussie.”

“There’s only one guru in this house, and it ain’t that stuffed llama.”

“I’m sick of these quarrels, you two, especially when there’s a war in the Middle East which is frazzling me. Henry, you have to stand up to Supreme—to Aussie. Don’t let her put you down like that.”

“Llama Louie says that Supreme Beings don’t put down anybody. Llama Louie says Supreme Beings love everybody.”

“You know what Oh Supreme Being says? Always, always show your teeth.”

“Llama Louie says to be kind, show compassion.”

“I thought he was stuffed with synthetic fibers. Now I know he’s stuffed with something else.”

“Aussie, you are the darkest, nastiest dog I’ve ever met.”

“Llama Louie says it’s important to be happy.”

“How can I be happy? I was torn from my family in Texas, left to be a stray. Abandoned by my people, abandoned by the world. What’s there to be happy about?”

“You’re here with us, Supreme Being—”

“Oh Supreme Being.”

“You’re here in beautiful western MA, Oh Supreme Being, with the Senora, Lori, Llama Louie, and—”

“Shut up, Illegal. If there’s one thing I’m not giving up, it’s my unhappiness.”

“Why don’t you want to give up your unhappiness, Oh Supreme Being?”

“Because I like my unhappiness. I like remembering in vivid detail everything that happened to me. First, they left me on the street. Then, scary strangers picked me up and put me in a cage, Illegal. They put me in a cage!”

“That’s terrible.”

“Damn tootin’, Illegal. Then they put me in the cage with lots of other cages on a big truck. They kept me there for days till they finally let me out so that I could do my business, and then they put me in another cage!”

“Worse and worse, Oh Supreme Being!”

“Then the Senor and the Senora picked me up and took me home—”

“So finally, you were happy!”

“No, Illegal, because you know what happened? The Senor died. Just when I got used to the heavy way he walked and the big stick he used on the ground, what does he do? He ups and dies. I’m telling you, Illegal, the tragedies in my life have never ended. There’s grief and misery all around—and I ain’t giving them up!”

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THE LYING CAT

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” asked the cashier at Trader Joe’s last Sunday morning. I believe they’re trained to ask that when you check out.

“I didn’t find peace on earth,” I tell her.

“Over in the bread section,” she says.

“Really?”

“Sure,” she says. “Cheese rolls are over there on aisle 2. That’s what you’re looking for, right?”

“No, peace on earth.”

“Oh that,” she says, looking a little deflated, and puts the milk carton and half a dozen eggs in my shopping bag.

There’s nothing you can’t laugh at, Bernie used to say out of unquestioning allegiance to the Order of Disorder. But even he would shake his head grimly when it came to Israelis and Palestinians.

Today I’m remembering my wizened old algebra teacher in my first year of high school. He was short, old, and looked like a walrus; I think we were his last class before retirement.

If you asked him: “Mr. Wallach, why does 3x+5=11?” he’d say, shaking his head gravely: “Because the cat told a lie.”

“Why, in the equation 13-2X=4x-5, does x=3?” You always got the same answer: “Because the cat told a lie.”

Perhaps, after a long life of teaching, he no longer gave a damn. We were pretty smart anyway and we taught ourselves algebra at home. I continue to be deficient in algebra, but I can’t forget Because the cat told a lie. Great Zen masters usually had a particular style of teaching, and that was Israel Wallach’s, though who knew anything about Zen at the time?

Instead of teaching us about proofs and equivalences, he liked to knock holes in mathematical certainty. Beware of asserting that x absolutely equaled y just because you proved it on paper. He would veer into philosophical discussions with our two geniuses in the back of the class, touching on calculus, musing on infinity and the perfection of zero.

I was not one of them, I sat to the very right of him, three seats in back, and while I couldn’t for the life of me follow any of that discussion, I was still intrigued. What immensity was the old man looking at as he peered through his big, thick-lens glasses? Dumb as I was in mathematics, even I could see that he was throwing us at a wall every time he answered Because the cat told a lie. He was supposed to know mathematics, but he seemed to know something else, too, and I couldn’t figure it out. Proofs were proofs, weren’t they?

Maybe I think of him today because of proofs that come in about who bombed the hospital in Gaza. Everybody has their proofs, distorted by the media as usual, but in the end, why? Because the cat told a lie.

But one of them is true and the other is false, people insist. There is truth, and there is lack of truth, right? Yes, if you want to pass the test at the end of the year and continue to second year of high school. Yes, if all you care about is pinning responsibility and guilt on one side and innocence on the other.

But if you care about something else—like peace on earth, or at least a real peace in the Middle East, one where everybody gives up something because everybody has a stake there—then proofs and solutions to equations have little value.

This evening I also think about friends of mine, Israeli and Palestinian, who have been peace activists for years. I hear from my brother that a member of the family has been called a hero for his work by the Gaza border because he retrieved bodies and worked to locate hostages. It’s very moving to me to hear about this.

At the same time, there are other heroes, too, heroes not so honored, certainly not recognized over many years, and those are the Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims that have stood ready to hold more than one narrative in this explosive part of the world. It’s so easy to stay with just the one—We’re right and the others are monstrous oppressors, or we’re victims of unending antisemitism. So many, many narratives in the Middle East.

It’s especially horrible for them now. They’ve been mocked and derided for years, called impractical dreamers and spiritual wusses. What’s practical? Fighting is practical. Armies are practical. They get results. What results? What we saw on that first Saturday after Hamas’s attack on Israel? What we see now in the Gaza Strip? Other than cause death and destruction, what results are we talking about?

Now, with all the rage and passion, there’s lots of pressure to take sides. If you mention that the others also have a right to freedom and dignity, you’re seen as a traitor, a betrayer of your own people at a time of their greatest suffering.

And what about the ambivalence that is bound to come up when you go to the funerals of your friends’ children day after day? You prepare food, cry with them, share their grief. Tell me, who are the heroes who even then continue to hold more than one narrative, who know that the formula of one missile=another missile, or one missile= two or three or five hundred missiles, lead to nothing but more death. Proofs of who did what to whom don’t budge weeping hearts and inflamed minds.

These are the people who talk on the phone whenever possible with someone from “the other side,” or fly at their own expense to meetings in Europe or Dubai because holding those meetings inside Israel or Palestine is not viable and is even dangerous. There are so many, many stories in that part of the world and they’re ready to contain, recognize, and even honor each of them, trusting in the power that comes out of bearing witness, listening, speaking, and finally recognizing the other as yourself.

These people are heroes, too. They probably won’t get any models, but I remember them, think of them, love them. This blog post is for them.

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DAYS OF BEAUTY, RAGE, SADNESS

“Aussie, is that you?”

“Of course, it’s me. Who do you think it is?”

“You’re so beautiful, Aussie!”

“Darn right. Miss America.”

“I’ve had a large cataract in my right eye for so long, who knew? You’re so shimmering black, and just look at those ears. Henry has shiny eyes and such bright, golden skin.”

“Yellow.”

“What, Auss?”

“It’s not golden, it’s yellow. Like him.”

“Look at the way the lamp shines on those white walls. And what about the blanket on my bed with the peacocks? Did you know that that’s an important Persian image for prosperity and good fortune?”

“Persian, like Iran? They’re pure evil.”

“And look at the flowers at the feet of Kwan-yin.”

“They’re dying.”

“Not yet, Aussie, they still have their color.”

“Does cataract surgery help you see better, or does it make you stupid?”

“It’s such a joy to see a world of color and nuance. I can finally see the road signs. Did you know that Montague was established in 1754? That’s what it says on the sign. Could there be a new world out there, Aussie?”

“Nope. Same old killings, same old sicknesses, same old stupid humans. Shelling of Gaza, murder of Israeli civilians, trauma and rage everywhere. There’s nothing new out there, cataract or no cataract. “

“Look at the autumn colors, Aussie.”

“THEY’RE THE COLOR OF DEATH! Don’t you know anything? Fall here is a colorful presentation of death.”

“Why are you so intense, Aussie?”

“I LOVE being intense. When you’re intense your heart pounds, your brain rushes in all directions, everything matters. When you’re intense, you’re alive!”

“Do you ever get depressed, Aussie?”

“Never. I’m too alive to be depressed.”

“You know, Aussie, a senior Hamas official called for a Day of Rage last Friday, when people everywhere should express their rage about the Israeli counter-attack on Gaza. In Europe Jewish schools were closed and more police were out, especially outside synagogues.”

“Did anything happen?”

“Not much last Friday, but you know what I realized? I can get really angry, too. Not like in my earlier years, but anger is still there, and it especially comes up when I’m very sad.”

“I’d rather be angry than depressed any day!”

“It’s hard to be sad, Aussie. When you’re sad you’re just sad. No great energy there, no passion, no craziness, no feeling like you’re ready to fight. You’re just sad.”

“Boring!”

“Not boring. Just sad.”

“It’s like death.”

“Not at all, Auss. It’s just sad.”

“What’s the use of feeling something if there’s nothing you can do? Do do do, that’s what I say.”

“I know, Aussie. It’s hard to just be sad. It’s much easier to get angry, have the illusion you can control things. The day will come—maybe tomorrow, maybe next week or next month—when I’ll have a sense about what, if anything, I can do in that part of the world where the stones are soaked in blood and the twilights are golden. But on the Day of Rage, I was just sad.”

Speaking of being sad: I am very sad about my blog of Saturday, in which I criticized participants in our Friday Zoom for talking so much about a broken heart. I owe all those who spoke, and those who listened, a big apology, which I am making now. I violated my own words above and became like Aussie: Don’t get sad, get angry. Get frustrated, get passionate, get crazy. I couldn’t do what I myself teach again and again: Just shut up and listen. I teach that because that’s what I myself have to learn.

The situation in the Middle East is deep in my bones, in my DNA, so much so that I have felt that maybe I’m the wrong person to gather people to talk and share, I’m too close to it. But I did, mistakes and all, and I am just sorry to have contributed to a space of intolerance and deafness.

Since I still heard that this was valuable for people, I offer this again this coming Thursday, October 19, at 2 pm US Eastern time, 14:00. It’s earlier to accommodate people in Europe and the Middle East. I will do all I can to keep the space as an open refuge for all. You can send me an email (eve@zenpeacemakers.com) if you wish to attend. I will also send an email to all those who participated this past week and notify them.

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FALSE TEMPLES

Fall in New England

“All I’m saying is that if the Temple comes down as easily as all that on my head or on yours, it can’t be the true one, it’s too flimsy, it falls too easily.”

Science fiction writer Samuel Delany wrote this in Baruch Spinoza’s voice in his short novella, The Atheist in the Attic, about the visit of German mathematician/philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz to the older, sick lens grinder in the Hague. I read anything I can get my hands on about Spinoza, the great philosopher harshly excommunicated by his fellow Jews.

In Delany’s book, Leibnitz doesn’t tell anyone about this visit, but he’s fascinated by the Jew, as he refers to him. Together, they reflect on current events. The Dutch people, who have just gone through a Golden Age of art and democracy, turn completely on their extraordinary leader and literally tear him to pieces.

If the Temple comes down that easily, it can’t be the true one.

Yesterday afternoon, almost 50 of us gathered on Zoom to share feelings and views on the war in Israel and Gaza. I’m grateful to everyone who participated.

I’m no different from anyone else, there are views I like and there are views I don’t like, words that resonate and those that don’t. I find myself stretched not by views different from mine; au contraire, I actually like dissension. Life is dissension, disagreement, conflicting loyalties and perceptions. It’s hard, but visible. There they are, our differences in full display.

Bernie loved hecklers, they made him sit in the fire. He didn’t trust it when things were too smooth and easy, life’s not like that.

I have difficulty when things are put at a distance. Encountering violence and anger, some of us withdraw into spiritual platitudes and cliches. I’m not crazy about a dozen repetitions about having a broken heart. As human beings, we can use anything to distance ourselves from others and get self-involved. Talking endlessly about a broken heart can be another means of defending that heart from things needs to feel and experience.

As I get older in this practice, I am increasingly challenged by the ingenuous, almost infinite ways we have of separating ourselves from others; in that, spiritual practitioners (myself included) are no different from anyone else.

Right now, I wish to sit back, continue to follow the news, continue to talk to my family in Israel and also reach out to others who have different loyalties, with families in Gaza and the West Bank. Yes, I know, here it’s autumn in New England, here is beauty and silence, safety, earth coated by colorful leaves. I am separated by geography—and by what else?

“Strong back, soft front,” Roshi Joan Halifax likes to say.

Life up close continues. I saw Jimena Pareja yesterday (her husband took me back and forth for my eye surgery) and gave her $950 for rent for an undocumented family that came here from Florida. I don’t have many feelings regarding political leaders, but Ron DeSantis’s ruthless meanness takes the cake. As a result, a number of illegal families are leaving Florida to find work here.

In one such family, a 9-year-old boy on his bicycle was hit by a truck and was helicoptered to a Springfield hospital with broken bones throughout his body, not to mention a concussion affecting his mind, at the very time the family needs to find housing. The cash I gave them is towards their new rental (high because we have almost no affordable housing here) even as they don’t know about their son.

“We do whatever we can wherever we are,” my niece in Israel told me. Please continue to nurture life and donate to immigrant families using the Donate to Immigrant Families button below.

My animosity towards DeSantis grew tenfold when I read today that he’s warning the US not to accept any refugees from Gaza because they’re all antisemitic. Beware the broad strokes painted by any side to the conflict, regardless of religion or country. Jews are all bad; Arabs are all bad; we hate colonizers; we hate leftists, radicals, Communists; I hate anyone carrying a gun.

My nephew, in his early 30s, had to do his reserve military duty a few months ago. Since he speaks Arabic and has worked with local Bedouins, he was asked to bring in for questioning a group of Palestinians from a West Bank town which had recently seen violence. Handcuffed, the Palestinians sat outside and waited while one by one was called in for questioning.

They grumbled and muttered angrily, and finally my nephew, a funny guy, said in Arabic: “Look, there’s nothing we can do right now, what do you say we sing a song?” He started singing. After a while, they joined him, singing songs in Arabic. One thing led to another, and pretty soon they were talking with him, exchanging cigarettes and water, laughing together.

Finally, one of the Palestinians said that he hates Jews.

“What?” said my nephew. “You hate me?”

“No,” the man said, “I don’t hate you, you’re okay. I just hate Jews.”

My nephew wears a yarmulke.

Beware of broad strokes and wishful thinking. If only they weren’t here. If only those others drowned in the sea. It’s our Promised Land, not yours. God is great and is always with us. Beware great ideals coupled with messianic fervor. Beware temples that come down on our heads because they weren’t the real thing to begin with.

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

CONSCIOUSNESS SURGERY

My brother, with sister and me in Sinai, confluence of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia

In an hour I’m leaving to West Springfield for cataract surgery. My friend and contact with the immigrant community, Jimena Pareja, and her versatile husband, Byron, are picking me up, waiting things out in Springfield, and bringing me home in the late afternoon.

I have confidence that the procedure will give me better eyesight, clearer and more precise, so that I could read road signs before I pass them, so that I could see colors brighter than I have, so that I could see people’s faces in the airport with faster recognition. So that I could drive and look towards sunset without feeling that a flashlight has suddenly been turned on right in front of my pupils and blinded me.

I wish the rest of me could undergo a similar procedure, so that my mind could get clearer, so that I am better able to read personal and relational signs, better decipher their subtle messages. So that I could better look at faces and see, in the Jewish way of saying it, God’s image on each, and that the regular phenomena of nature—including the phenomena of humans, ask Aussie refers to us—no longer appear as insurmountable obstructions.

The surgeon, the wonderful and handsome Dr. John Frangie (can hardly wait to see him with a new eye), will remove a shaded lens (something my teachers have tried to do with my brain for quite a while) and insert a clear one. Zen practice is a little like cataract surgery only its consciousness surgery, removing the cloudy, thin, blind lens to reveal a clearer, brighter world.

Some 20 of us had a Zoom meeting yesterday to talk about Israel and Gaza. The term not-knowing came up; it often does. It’s one of Three Tenets Bernie repeated again and again in our large Zen Peacemakers family, letting go of fixed ideas, bearing witness, taking action, and all these take place simultaneously.

Over the years I notice how many people bring up that term in the vein of This has happened to my life and I don’t know what to do or Now I really don’t know what’s ahead so I’m in not-knowing.While they don’t explicitly say this is bad–they even smile when they say it–the words carry a negative nuance, a wish-it-didn’t-have-to-happen nuance.

That’s not how Bernie saw not-knowing. He wasn’t happy when things fell apart, as they often seemed to do in his neighborhood, but he was also intrigued when this happened. When so much is dismantled, so many assumptions collapsed like rows of dominoes, anything is possible. That’s when we don’t stand in the way of the dynamic currents of life with our identities and attachments, we don’t obstruct reality. And the reality is that we’re all one thing.

So even as people grieve over the collapse of an army, an intelligence bureau, of deeply-held beliefs and confidences, the taking of hostages and the senseless murders, even when people can’t see the way ahead, that’s precisely when powerful things can happen.  When infinite potential not only manifests (it always manifests in some way), but we become conscious of something other than our ideas and help to actualize it.

Is it a way forward? Backward? Up or down? I Have no idea. Words fail me.

I remember Roshi Sr. Pia Gyger talking to me long ago. She was a Zen teacher, and towards the end of her training she left Switzerland to stay with her teacher, Robert Aitken, in Hawaii and do final studies with him. But the war in Kuwait broke out, and instead of working on final koans she settled in front of a television screen and watched and watched as fighter jets pummeled the ground and the ground exploded underneath all that ordnance.

“I did nothing but watch for several days,” she said. “I felt I needed to make a big turn.” She did just that, with a vision she said she received from Mary on what is possible in that part of the world, and for the rest of her life she worked towards fulfilling that vision.

I don’t watch TV, but I monitor the news on my computer endlessly. I feel like I do what Pia did back then.

I don’t entertain a single great vision, but already there are small, important lessons:

Yesterday I called my niece in Israel, an accomplished woman nearing 40, with five children, a Ph.D., and beginning to study towards a new degree in family therapy (at least till the war began), and a husband in one of Israel’s units who has often gone into Gaza. I asked her how she was, and she couldn’t speak. I thought the tension she was carrying was going to explode the digital universe.

After just a few minutes, I mumbled that I didn’t want to trespass too much on her respite time (her father, my brother, had fetched her children to give her a rest), and hung up.

As soon as I did so, I felt bad. So, this morning I tried her again, and when she didn’t answer, I wrote her a text. I apologized for my quick hang-up. I admitted it had little to do with trespassing on her limited attention and everything to do with my inability to  contain her silence, her tension and fear. I promised her that next time I will hold whatever she generously offers. She didn’t have to be silent alone, she could be silent with me. We could both be silent, in company, together. Nobody was going to hang up anymore.

I wish I could do that with mothers in Gaza worried sick over a coming invasion as they watch their children.

My niece said one thing that stayed with me. Feeling helpless in all that silence, I mumbled my regret at not being there to help out more. She said: “We do whatever we can wherever we are.”

Those words echo inside right now. Jan, a gardener who comes in several times over the summer season to help out, is now here for the last time this season. Through the windows I watch her pruning the lilac bushes outside my office, taking down and away the detritus of a season in preparation for next spring. We do whatever we can wherever we are, keeping life and love going.

I will hold another Zoom gathering on Friday afternoon (tomorrow is post-operative procedures) to bear witness to Israel and Gaza, at 3 pm US Eastern time, or 15:00. If you want to join, please email me at eve@zenpeacemakers.com and I will send a link tomorrow. If you know of others who might benefit, feel free to share with them. My apologies to those of you in Europe and the Middle East for which this is very late, I scheduled these without adequate consideration. If these gatherings continue next week, I will be more attentive to time zones.

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

THE SENORA STAYS UPRIGHT

“Hey Aussie, what’s wrong with her?”

“Quien, illegal Chihuahua?”

“Her. The Senora. She just looks out the window lost in thought. Or else she sits there looking at the screen. Or else she talks on the phone, but otherwise she’s not doing anything. I bring her my pink-and-orange dragon to throw around and she barely notices. How do you not notice a pink-and-orange dragon?”

“This is her way of being upset, Henry.”

“That’s being upset? What about snarling? Barking? Snapping? What about rushing at the fence, Aussie?”

“The Senora doesn’t do things like that. In fact, the more upset she is, the more she just sits there.”

“Is that because she’s Zen, Aussie?”

“No, it’s because she’s the Senora. Doesn’t cry, doesn’t yell. Today I ran away for much of our morning walk and she didn’t even call my name. The quieter she gets, the more upset she is, Henry.”

“Why is she upset? Because I threw my turtle down the toilet? Because I flung Rosa the Rabbit across the table and her coffee spilled on the floor?”

“I think it’s because something that’s happening far, far away.”

“If it’s far away, who cares, Aussie?”

“Oh, so true, illegal Chihuahua. That’s the strange thing about these humans, Henry. They get upset about the darndest things. Just look at her, walking in the back yard slowly. Does she notice the bright orange leaves on the trees? She does not. Does she start cleaning up the dry leaves on the grass which scratch me all the time? Does she even care that they interfere with my nap? She does not.”

“I don’t think she even made her bed this morning, Aussie.”

“Oh oh. Did she leave clothes lying around?”

“Her ugly made-in-China gray sweatshirt and her warm yellow bathrobe. She left one slipper under the bed.”

“What happened to the other slipper?”

“I stole it. Now look at her, Aussie. She’s staring out towards the sunset. The phone rings but she doesn’t answer.”

“She keeps it open to talk to her family. There’s a war, all her nephews have had to leave home and go to fight, her brother’s talking about getting a gun. The Senora doesn’t know what to do, and you know how much she always likes to do things.”

“Do you think she’s going to go there, Aussie? I hate it when she’s not here, my toys get lonely.”

“I don’t think so, Henry. For one thing, there’s still no sign of the ancient black luggage she’s been lugging around with her for the last 25 years. It’s a bad sign when she brings it up from the basement. Also, on Wednesday she has cataract surgery.”

“You mean, she’s going down a waterfall?”

“I think it’s got something to do with her eyes, Henry. Thank God I have Leeann to walk me that day. What good’s a human that doesn’t walk her dog?”

“No good at all, Aussie.”

“Instead of worrying about other humans far away, she should do right by us, here and now. We’re right here, in front of her face, but she barely notices us. You know what conclusion I draw from that, Henry?”

“What, Aussie”?

“She’s a failure as a Zen teacher. She’s supposed to model equanimity, being upright at all times, peace and calm. Instead, she’s an emotional schmatte.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Aussie. She hasn’t rushed against the fence yet. But you know what? She didn’t sit this morning on the corner chair of her bedroom.”

“She didn’t sit, Henry? No meditation?”

“Left the blue Indian blanket on the chair alongside the maroon pillow. They haven’t been touched. Usually that’s the first place she goes when she gets up. I scratch and scratch at the door, but she won’t open it till she sat on that corner chair. But today she opened the door right up.”

“Not only a failed teacher, a failed meditator. Wait till I tell the newspapers.”

Hi everyone, Like some of you, I have strong emotional connections to what is transpiring now in Israel and Gaza. I spend lots of time on the phone and am getting the impression that some people would like to talk with others about what they’re going through now: fear, anxiety, anger, and a deep longing for this to end and finally have peace.
Unfortunately, my information is that things will get worse before they get better. This is just the beginning. How to stay upright?
I suggest a gathering of people on Zoom who would like to share their experiences and feelings right now, in the hope that we find in this meeting of hearts support and encouragement. Sharing how we feel helps me not feel alone. I suggest doing this tomorrow, Tuesday, October 10, at 3 pm US Eastern, or on Friday, 10/13, at 3:00 pm US Eastern. Please email back, to eve@zenpeacemakers.com, and let me know if any of these interest you and I will send you a Zoom link.
If you yourself have no interest in this, you may know others who do. Feel free to forward this email to them as well.
May all be safe and happy. Eve

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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.

DELICIOUSNESS

Walking among the great redwoods.

I flew into Boston from Brazil in the first half of last March and landed in a blizzard. It was early Sunday morning. The friends who were coming to pick me up couldn’t make it in all the snow, so I took a bus to Boston South Station and summoned the elevator to take me up several floors to the big Departures lounge from where I could take a bus to Springfield.

When the elevator doors opened, there was an old man on the floor, skinny, head half hidden under a large woolen skull cap, asleep, belongings in a shopping cart alongside him. He didn’t wake up as the doors opened and my luggage rolled in; he didn’t wake up when I left.

I heard a silent voice addressing me: “You have no right to be cynical.”

The words stayed for a long time. Mostly I thought that they were pointing to my relative comfort and security in comparison to others, admonishing me not to give in to disappointment or pessimism, reminding me to be grateful.

Being grateful, or experiencing great-fullness, as Br. David Steindl-Rast likes to put it, is a practice I appreciate more and more every day. But like blessed (as in I am so blessed!), safe space (as in I need a safe space), and similar terms, it’s become a cliché, and inside I’ve detected an insidious, burgeoning allergy to cliches, especially faddish ones. This perfidious allergy causes me to question assumptions and seek companionship with others who do the same.

So I was very moved by the latest exchange between Charles Eisenstein and Benjamin Life. You can access this through Substack or subscribe directly to Eisenstein’s teachings and get them via email. Eisenstein talks about what happens when we look at photos from the past, the nostalgia we indulge in, and how confusing it could be to look at past images through the lens of the present:

“… [m]emories change as I change, and, to some extent, I rewrite the past in correspondence with who I am becoming. Aspects of the past that had been invisible at the time that I hadn’t noticed come into my awareness. Maybe these photographs can actually help that. They can break through the illusions I have about the past.”

Specifically, he talked about people with dementia. “Thinking of my own unprocessed grief that is brought up when I look at these old photographs, maybe the last phase of life is actually a time when the imperative of the soul to process and integrate everything becomes so overwhelming that you withdraw from your current environment and revisit and process again and again and again all of these episodes from the past and feel all of the things that you didn’t get a chance to feel back then because you were distracted or addicted or preoccupied. And now that your creative functions in the world are diminishing, it’s time to look at all of those things again.”

In other words, even dementia has value.

Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, I was moved by his refusal to fully accept current assumptions that dementia is all about limitations, mental debilitation, and the lack of normal functioning. It could be all those—and something else may be at play here. What we see as pathology may also be soul work.

It may also result in an enhanced palate. I spent some hours with Frank Ostaseski 4 days ago, teacher and leader in end-of-life care. It’s no secret that Frank had suffered a series of strokes that, among other things, have affected his vision; he has described that in various interviews.

It was while we were talking on the deck of his houseboat, drinking coffee and munching on pastries, that I realized what a flavoring his experiences have given him. I lived with Bernie for 3 years after his severe stroke, no one has to tell me of how stroke can physically disable us and take away capabilities—and they can also give us a new flavor.

So, if the old flavor was one of strength, action, and leadership, the new flavor brings other spices into the mix. Not just hot red pepper, which Bernie loved so much it stayed perpetually on the dining table, but also rosemary, cinnamon, and even arrowroot, for a deeper, richer, more flavorful dish.

And if service to the world has been very important to you till now, that newer, fuller flavor is just as much in service. Perhaps not as forcefully as before, with our vows, enthusiasm, passion, greater energy and determination, but finer now, more mature, imbued with love and curiosity, as Frank put it to me, both fueling one another.

Here is this unexpected new flavor. Did you know life could be like that? Did you know the meal could taste like that?  Did you know that this meal could have its own deliciousness?

I woke up this morning to news about war in Israel and Gaza once again. I’m told that the US media isn’t showing the half of it, so it’s time to tune into Israeli newspapers and TV. May everyone be well.

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

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