GETTING INTO COLLEGE

It’s over 90 degrees Fahrenheit today—there’s a heat alert for our area—but it’s far hotter with the humidity Index. I took the dogs out at 10 this morning. It was very unpleasant under the sun and a mosquito massacre under the trees. The plants and mosquitoes are thriving this summer.

Aussie went down to the water to cool down, her favorite summer activity other than chasing deer. I put on air-conditioning, a rarity for me, in mid-afternoon till tomorrow early morning; otherwise, we won’t sleep much tonight.

Earlier I spent some time reviewing a draft of an essay for college applications by the son of an immigrant family from Ecuador. The young man, bespectacled and very, very serious, feels that all his parents’ hopes are riding on him. He’s a first in many ways—in his class, in the Honor Society, to go to college. When not in school, he works to make money. He’s known for a long time that he wants to become a doctor.

He’s applying to a variety of good universities and is hoping to be accepted by one of the rich private ones that give scholarships to needy families. He’s already discovered that the state schools can’t give him much though his family can’t afford the tuition and living expenses, so a lot depends on where he gets in.

When we sat together in front of my computer, Henry scratching madly on the door trying to get in, I asked him what any university admissions person would ask: Why does he want to go to x, y, or z university? He said that it was his parents’ dream for him. I said, yes, but what about your passion, your drive, your dream?

The question didn’t evoke much of a response. He reiterated that he wanted to be a doctor, but those words carried nowhere near the emotion there was when he talked about his parents and how they had toiled to support him all these years. He talked briefly and seriously about helping families and the community through health services– “Helping is important for me.”–but it was clear that his parents’ dream mattered to him more than his own.

I’d already looked up various articles on how universities will try to maintain diversity after the latest Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, gathering information on what they were looking for. I told him that while his grades were good enough, the circumstances of his life might be the big plus.

After he left, I thought for a while about the difference between graduates in his shoes, with passion, hard work, good grades, and few financial resources, and those who get in through legacy admissions because their parents and grandparents had gone to the school earlier. I thought of one particular case I personally knew of, a young man whose grandmother expressed concern to me about his average grades and how they would affect Yale’s decision to admit him or not.

I said nothing, but thought to myself that since Yale had a building carrying his family name, there was no way they would reject him. That turned out to be right.

More to the point, I wondered at how she couldn’t acknowledge the tremendous heads-up her grandson was getting from being a member of a wealthy family. “He’s working hard,” she explained to me.

Of course, he was working hard. The young man who came to me today was also working hard, including putting in many hours in the summer at a chain store. Who doesn’t’ work hard? And as hard as we work, some will do well, some won’t.

I don’t say this to raise guilt or shame in people with money; I don’t even like the word privilege, which I believe evokes those feelings today. But at the very least, I want to be conscious of how much space and resources I take up in this world, and the implications of that for other beings. I try to bring curiosity into that inquiry, not judgment. Still, it’s enough to make me hesitate before turning on the air-conditioning this afternoon and remembering to turn it off as soon as possible in the morning.

Tomorrow, a day of thunderstorms, we will sit for the entire day. I’ve already arranged with my housemate to bring her car into the garage and make sure to open the back door so that Aussie could get in there and feel safe. I admit to some concern about me. I don’t do well in those storms, they trigger fears and bodily reactions I can’t seem to control. Maybe trauma, but that, too, is a word I suspect is overused. Whatever it is, it’s old old old—and still here.

Tomorrow I won’t be able to run away. Instead, I will sit in the big meditation hall without moving, like the others. Be aware of the cell descending on us from the west, carrying lighting, thunder, and downpours. More flood alerts, perhaps? More farms floating, waiting for emergency relief? Meditating atop the trail where Native Americans and settlers fought bitter battles and waged massacres in the 17th century. Yes, still sitting through all that.

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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.

PICKING, CHOOSING, VOW

Israel’s Knesset approved a measure on Monday to limit the power of its Supreme Court.

Make no mistake, the Israeli Court was no great friend to the Palestinians, especially those living in the West Bank; most of the time it ruled in favor of the Israeli army. But some kind of friend is better than none, and the Court had an impact in other areas of Israeli life.

Israel doesn’t have a constitution as a base of national law because orthodox Jews clamored that the Torah be its only base years ago. That’s like fundamentalist Christians insisting that we don’t need a constitution in the US, we have the Bible.

The two countries are different in a whole lot of ways, but one stands out: We have a separation of church and state (somewhat endangered as it is); they don’t. There’s a lot to say about that alone, but not right now.

I wasn’t dispassionate as I followed the news. It triggered old personal memories of growing up in a household where religion was coupled with power and coercion, even with brutality and abuse. I’m grateful for years of practice which teach me what to do when I see anger coming up. If all they do is buy me some hours of patience and settling down, by which time my desire to react has lessened considerably, it will have been worth it. Less harm done.

But I continue to reflect on this turn of events, and especially on the question of how hard it is to combine liberal democratic values with a specific religious or spiritual vision. It’s so easy to fall in love with a holy book, a prophecy, a vision, and decide to enact it. Often, we do that at the cost of the people right around us, and sometimes human beings who aren’t on our wavelength and who we wish would just go away, or else we find ways to get rid of them.

Bear with me while I talk briefly about Henry (photo above). All Henry cares about, other than food, is play. It’s always the same thing. He’ll bring you a fluffy toy indoors, or a twig or branch outdoors, and either play Tug of War with you or else put it down at your feet. You will throw it, he will fetch it and bring it back, and repeat. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat, for hours.

Watching him, I often shake my head. What a dummy, I think. His entire life is consumed by fluffy toys or twigs that get tossed around back and forth. Nothing else is alive for him.

Then I think about me, and other beings, and wonder: If there is an intelligence observing my antics—my earnest blog, my talks, even my sincerest wishes to save all beings—it’s probably laughing at me like I laugh at Henry. All the games we play, the beliefs and practices—how different are they from Henry’s toys like Pinky the Elephant and Albert the black-and-white (and a little red) Penguin?

I actually don’t think there’s an intelligence outside me. I liked what I read about that out-of-this-world writer, Philip Dick. He said he didn’t believe in a universe, he believed everything, bar no one and nothing, was God, with nothing outside.

Roshi Seisen Saunders, writing from Alaska where she met with members of an Inuit tribe, related that one of the men said they rarely use their lips when they speak. Someone else told me that when he prays, he leans in rather than speaking—not into his mind or thoughts but just deep inside, perhaps where one big heart resides for all.

I also want to lean in and stay there for a while. In fact, I’d like to do that more and more as I get older. I want to go around my business, do the laundry, collect the dogshit from the yard, sitting practice, cook and eat my meals, talk to some people. Do in a nondoing way, as we might say in Zen, see what’s next and just do it. Take care of people, take care of the dogs. Live my life with less tumult, less thinking and wavering, take refuge in the monthly one-day retreat coming up this Saturday, find that place where everything is as it is. Pick and choose less.

Yet, as I wrote to my brother who resides in Jerusalem, we have to pick sides. Orthodox religious people of all persuasions tend to pick the side their Bible, holy book, or religious leaders tell them to pick, be it in elections or over questions like abortion, holidays, education, gender norms, books. Those of us practicing in the more mystical traditions, especially the practice of not-knowing, of Bodhidharma’s realm of vast emptiness, no holiness, face less clear options.

We know how to dwell in quiet; we’ve trained in how to deal with turmoil and the mess of attachment. At the same time, we must pick and choose. Do we let democracy in our own country, under Trump or another like him (and I don’t think that the end of Trump ends Trumpism), fade away? If you’re in your 70s, as I am, it’s easier to grow more detached, if only because, short of rebirth, you won’t have to live through the worst of it, or the worst of climate change. We also know how to find that safe harbor, a place of peace.

But my vow is to help suffering beings. If I don’t mean it, if I think it was only for a specific time and not later when I’m older and don’t have the energy I used to, then I shouldn’t recite that vow. I find that I take it more seriously now than ever before.

Martin Luther King had deep faith in God, even had an opening one night, in the middle of doubt and despair, in which God spoke to him and reassured him, said He’d be with him, early in his days of leading the bus boycott in Montgomery. He didn’t seem to hate anyone—and he picked sides. So did Gandhi, who read from the Bhagavad Gita every afternoon and still wanted the British out of India.

Bernie, with huge insights into the oneness of life in his early years, ended up taking the sides of the homeless, the poor and unemployed, people coming out of prison, people who were sick. He had deep equanimity—and also great passion.

The religious leaders on the other side shout their slogans and words, I wrote my brother. Why do the moderates mumble?

The vastness of life, going far and wide and across millennia, seems to dwarf our inclinations and activities. Seeing that, it’s easy to sit back and identify with the nondual essence of reality.

But does that exempt anyone from picking sides? Does that cause us to mumble?

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LIFE THROUGH STORMS

“You can’t get rid of me, Aussie,” I tell her as she stands on the back seat, looking out front.

“I try,” she says, “but you always get me back. One day you won’t and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I had lunch with a student today. Midway through the meal, we heard a loud sound. “Thunder?” he wondered.

I looked out the window and up at a gray and blue sky. “Naah,” I said. “They said nothing about storms today.”

But it was thunder, and I drove in peals of it with showers alternating with downpours. There was no car in the garage, no open door to the back seat for Aussie, her safe spot during storms. I came home, called her name, went upstairs, went outside. She was gone. I drove around and around, and finally called the police. This time she had a collar round her neck with her name and my phone number.

Ironically, as I drove home a dog rushed towards me. But it wasn’t her, only an Irish Setter, wet and frantic. I opened the back door of the car for him to get in and he hesitated, probably smelling Aussie there. A neighbor appeared, the dog ran to him, so he got home.

Eventually, a neighboring couple I happened to know, who lives half a mile away, called. They’d picked up Aussie, wet and shivering, on a far-away road. We met and had our reunion.

But Aussie’s right, one day I won’t get her back. Maybe because she’ll rush around in terror and fear, far from this dog-crazy valley, and not get back. Maybe because she’ll die.

I talk with elderly people. Often, I hear variations on the same refrain: I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of dying. The process of getting weaker, shifting from independence towards dependence, less access to the outside world (can’t hear, can’t see, no one comes around), loneliness. What can give them confidence?

I sometimes feel that the longer I teach, the more sensitive I become to bullshit, to saying things I’m not sure about.

A friend long ago used to joke that Buddhists value and practice emptiness and not-knowing, but when something bad happens, they pray to God. We dive deeply down into our hearts and make a plea for help that shoots up to the sky.

My job isn’t to give an answer (I tell students that I don’t give advice). Probably the best I can do is take the trip with them, at least as far as I can go. Point out the scenery, maybe, especially what the guidebooks left out.

I learned a lot from Bernie after his stroke. I watched him deal with all these things very suddenly, no warning. He had many times told me he wasn’t afraid of death, but dying in this way, over three years of incessant dependence, unidentifiable pains somewhere in that half-paralyzed body? Watching him, I would ask silently: Who are you now? And he would sign his name as above, Bernie. With squiggles this time, unmanageable, barely legible. Still Bernie, and not.

I’ve seen his signature so often over our years together, but this is the one I treasure.

Thank you very, very much for your donations to the immigrant farmers living here. Jimena and I are talking about how to distribute these funds to people who are not working. Usually, I wait till she sends me an unpaid bill for rent or utilities.

We did manage to send 10 children to 3 weeks of camp and 7 of them to six weeks, which is huge. They’re so proud of their children. The mothers look at them with tenderness, as if saying: We made the dangerous trek north to work on farms and in low-paying restaurants so that you could go to school, maybe even college, get a job, raise a family here, have a life. Nothing makes them happier than when they see this dream begin to come true.

“If only I had your opportunities,” my mother used to say to me.

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THE FARMS ARE FLOATING

During the weeks of storms afflicting this part of the country, I wrote about fear and apprehension of disasters waiting to happen. I was wrong; you can depend on life for added perspective. For some, disaster is already happening.

Jimena Pareja, a whirlwind of activity, took 9 days of vacation, which is a lot for her, and upon her return she came over with husband Byron for our good coffee, store-bought marble coffee cake, and Henry throwing his toys all around and even high up across the table. Between tosses of a stuffed snake and a disemboweled zebra, Jimena told me something I should have seen coming: Immigrant families—and especially those who live here with no legal status—aren’t working, or working very little, in the farms. Why? Because there are no farms.

“They’re floating,” she told me, and she wasn’t referring to the workers. “The big farms by the Connecticut River are floating. The river flooded, other rivers did, too, and the big farms that employ so many people have lost many crops. They’re not growing, or else, when they pick them, they find rotting vegetables and fruit. The farms have their insurance, but these people have nothing. And this is the time when they must work many hours, the men and the women, because this is when they make money to pay bills from last winter or the bills that will come up in the next winter for rent or utilities. Yesterday, Tuesday, they didn’t work at all because of the storms. Today they are called to work just a few hours, and some not at all.”

She had gone away for 9 days, and upon her return was greeted by hundreds of texts, emails, and voice messages begging for help.

They count on the farms, and the farms count on them. But the storms that sent Aussie to the car’s back seat have destroyed many of the crops they were supposed to cultivate and, finally, pick. Gone. The photo above shows Aussie swimming on farmland.

Many are now trying to get work in restaurants, including fast-food chains, but practically all of them are checking up on social security numbers.

“They tell me that they’re going down to New York to get legal,” Jimena tells me.

If you go down to Roosevelt Ave. in Queens, New York, she explained, the sidewalks are full of people selling social security numbers. Of course, they’re not valid, so what the immigrants are counting on is that no one checks the social security number they submit. But many of the employers now use E-Verify and immediately discover the numbers are fake.

Let me give you a sense of what this has meant for just one family:

Emily (not her real name) gave birth in the hospital, but something went wrong in the delivery. The umbilical cord went round the baby’s neck, and the more Emily pushed, the more the cord tightened till it choked the new baby.

I knew this has happened to others, but I went pale listening to Jimena describe this step by step. In some way, Emily pushing the baby out with all her might tightened the cord more and more. Imagine a mother living with that.

It doesn’t end there. The husband doesn’t have work in the fields now, so there’s no income. The hospital would only release the infant’s body to a funeral house (it’s state law), but the funeral house won’t pick up the tiny body without some payment, so the infant remains in a morgue freezer till they come up with money.

I went to the bank this morning, got almost $1,500 in cash, and gave it to Jimena this afternoon. Tomorrow is the funeral.

I also wrote out a check for $2,400 to send 4 children for the second 3 weeks of summer camp that begin next week. We are prioritizing children who have no parent at home during the day. This left the account with a balance of $1,000. I told Jimena that if Emily’s family needed more, they could have the balance.

we got that low because I hadn’t asked for money for these families since the end of May, when we raised funds to send 10 children for the first 3 weeks of camp.

Jimena reminds me that here, as in so many places, there’s almost no affordable housing. Rents are market-high, and families are now more afraid than ever to host others and squeeze tightly with them because if the landlord checks, they could be evicted.

When we talk about low-income families, do we understand what this could mean in a situation that Emily and her family face? The mother has enough grief to deal with without worrying about getting the funds to bury her baby.

During covid, I knew that various immigrant families here sent money home because people had died of covid in their countries of origin and there was no money to pay the funeral homes to give up the bodies for burial. I heard this time and time again.

“What else?” I ask Jimena in my house this afternoon.

“We’ll need food cards for the last two weeks of August, and of course school supplies again. We haven’t given out food cards in a long time because people were working, this is usually the time for lots of work and making and saving money. The schools provide free breakfast and lunch every single day to the children, but not the last two weeks of August before they reopen for the fall, there’s no government funding for that. So we’ll need to give them the cards for those two week”s.

I had $5,000 in the immigrant account this morning and 80% of that is gone by late afternoon.

I spent a few minutes feeling silly about our fears of storms and the smokiness in the air from Canadian wildfires (I have asthma). Then I got to work.

We must rebuild the immigrant account. Luckily, Jimena has other sources of funding here, including the local interfaith clergy council and even Big Brothers Big Sisters, that supply Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for everyone for free. The farmers themselves usually help by hiring anyone, no questions asked, and supplying some kind of medical insurance. But not this summer.

Please help them. When you lose a new baby, the last thing you need is to worry about money and not losing your home. We also just paid up a month of fees for immigration lawyers to benefit Mateo and his family, whose journey from Honduras I wrote extensively about. Their daughter just celebrated her 6th birthday and, remembering her first comment when she and her father landed in Boston—“Will we sleep on a bed?” after 9 months of sleeping on the ground—I bought her two gifts, including a big, warm, embraceable Teddy Bear. Her parents got much-needed cash for their legal fees. Some of this I do from personal funds.

Please help these families. Please help their children. We know that climate change affects everyone already, but some more directly than others. If the farms are “floating,” as Jimena put it, there is no work. Please donate to these families by using the button below: Donate to Immigrant families. 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.

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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.

STORMS AND FEAR

Storms continue.

Everyone says it’s not like Vermont, but it’s pretty bad here. We had another humongous storm yesterday early morning, including a thunderclap that caused me to scurry under the blanket. But it’s the rain that’s stunning. Thunderstorms usually imply downpours, but what we have now dwarfs the past.

For the first time, I start imagining this Valley as a disaster area. Not just Montpellier, Vermont, not just Oklahoma or Kansas after tornadoes (we did get a tornado watch for the day), not just the Caribbean in hurricane season or Indian villages in monsoon season, but right here, the Pioneer Valley, USA. No deaths yet that I’m aware of, but farmers are losing their crops for the season and homes are getting flooded, streets rutted and driveways cracked.

We’re of course lucky. Neighbors help each other bigtime. The barn of J&J Farms, which grows the best corn and whose farm stand I visit weekly in the summer, burned to the ground after a direct lightning hit. A GoFundMe was begun for them with a goal of $55,000, and last time I checked it was well over $75,000.

But nature is more powerful than GoFundMe. The above photo shows the Sawmill River, which runs well under the house, as it tumbles down its rocky dam. It’s right next to a beautiful old, red farmhouse belonging to two artists, and I’ve never seen it even come close to flooding the road (which goes to my home) or the farmhouse. The water has practically reached the road and could well go over soon.

Our annual zendo party, scheduled for yesterday, had to be rescheduled. Driving around the area in late morning, when the rains faded a bit, I saw more roads closed due to streams overrunning their banks. A friend called, highly upset, to ask me if we were okay and were we by any river.

“I’m terrified,” she told me.

We’re way above the river, I told her, no need to fear.

Is there really no need to fear? I wrote about Aussie’s safe place in the back seat of my car inside the garage. I’d opened the car door last night, along with the windows, and this morning found her there, snug, dry, and fairly calm. I’m so happy that she and I managed to identify this place of safety for her. And still, what about me? How much fear do I even let myself acknowledge in my life?

We often say that Zen takes away all fear. At the same time, most American Zen practitioners are middle-class; in fact, we like to joke that Zen is the Upper Middle Way. We have our homes, our cars, a refrigerator full of food, well water (and the water table is now so high!), excellent emergency services, firemen, police, and an ambulance that will arrive in a heartbeat. We should feel so secure, shouldn’t we?

But my friend, who has all those prerogatives, said she’s terrified.

Talking with my sister yesterday about Israel and Palestine, I reminded her of the saying that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

She replied, in paraphrase: Yes, I’m aware of that, but hearing that from you makes me uneasy. Don’t ever forget that you live in a relatively safe place. You don’t lock your car as a rule; you don’t even lock your doors at night. I lock my door 24/7 whether I’m indoors or out. There were many times when I was afraid to walk the dog and be out on the street at night. The Palestinians are afraid of the Israeli army and the settlers, the settlers are afraid of shootings by the Palestinians, everybody’s afraid here. You live in a very different place from us.

When she said that I remembered how I scramble under the blanket when big storms come, or else go into the downstairs bathroom where there are no windows. Even when there’s nothing to fear, I’m still afraid. People are curious to know what trauma happened to me that accounts for this, they have suggestions for what I can do. None of that has really helped me.

Why am I afraid when there’s nothing to fear?

I think of my mother’s bravado, her toughness, her certainty that she would always know what to do in any situation. I see more and more how underlying much of that was tremendous fear.  As a teen she was assaulted by a man wielding a knife in Bratislava. Her story was that she had managed to throw him down to the ground, grabbed his knife, and put it to his throat. It was hard for me to believe that, given how thin and small-boned she and the rest of her family were.

What really happened? What does it take to admit that under the bluff and bluster there is deep fear?

I think of the people referred to as the MAGA crowd, with their eternal fervor for the swaggering Donald Trump and his boasts of “owning the Libs.” I think it’s an ugly phrase even as they cheer it like crazy. What’s behind all that bombast? Not Donald’s, I think he’s a sick man, but those who love him? Those who, according to surveys, have served in the army, are less educated, and more church-going. Are they afraid of what’s happening in this country? Afraid to be ignored, left behind? Afraid they won’t recognize this country anymore?

Fear is fear, my sister said. You can bring all the explanations you want, but fear is still fear.

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STORMY WEATHER

I go into the garage, which is lit, approach the car, and peer inside.

“Are you okay?” I ask Aussie. It’s 11 o’clock at night and Aussie has been on the back seat of the car since 8 pm. She doesn’t thump her tail, but she seems calm. Outside it’s thundering, lightning and raining big time.

The back seat of my 12-year-old Prius is Aussie’s safe place. When storms begin, I go to the garage on the other side of the kitchen door and open the back door of the car. She jumps in and stays there.  I leave the door open so that whenever she feels ready, she can jump out of the car and return inside the house through the dog door.

We seem to be drowning here in Massachusetts since the summer solstice. In 21 years of living here, I don’t remember such a stormy summer. The Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers have flooded. With the windows open upstairs, you can hear the smaller Sawmill River below our house gushing more fiercely than it does in April, when the snows melt. I love the sound of it, like I love the sound of rain, but their comforting commotion is now drowned out by thunder and downpours that turn the earth into mud and crops and flowers into mush. So far, the roots of the trees have held on, but branches are often on the road.

Last night, Aussie was in her safe place from 8 pm on. When I went to bed Henry joined me (he’s almost always with my housemate, Lori, during the night), his small body shaking and shivering. The thunder was deafening, matched only by the waterfall from the skies. He continued to tremble violently half the night, scratching at my arm till I opened up the blanket and let him snuggle underneath.

This morning I went down at 6:30 to find Aussie back in my office. I had breakfast out, and when I returned, she was nowhere. Oh no, I thought, did she go through the fence and up to the road again, frantic? There had been rain and a few rumblings. I found her inside my car in the garage, door closed. She, at 55 pounds, had jumped through the open window to get to her safe spot on the back seat.

A safe place. Where is mine?

Last night I put the fan on and dove under the blanket when the storm hit. It went on and on for several hours; Lori said it was a hell of a light show. I don’t watch. I’ve never felt safe during thunderstorms. I think to myself that the great biblical flood, when Noah built his ark, may have started this way, with rain and even more rain and even more rain. Everybody assumed it would stop. It had to stop, didn’t it? But it didn’t. Only the forward-thinking Noah managed to safeguard his family and all species with his ark.

How forward-thinking are we? The effects of climate change are here way earlier than even the wariest of scientists had anticipated, and we call it storms, we call it fires, we call it record-breaking heat. It’s all those things, and lots, lots more.

I’m sure Noah’s neighbors, once they realized the extent of the deluge, begged him to let them board his ark. Looking at all the animals, insects, and birds that were boarding, they must have said: “But we’re family, aren’t we? We’re your neighbors and friends. We’re human beings, like you. Do they count more than we do?”

Noah saved the earth by saving all species. It was an all or nothing endeavor, not limited to just us. And he wasn’t even Buddhist.

There will be more storms tonight. Tomorrow night, too, and all day Sunday when we have our annual zendo party. I’ll open the car door for Aussie so that she doesn’t have to jump through an open window and leave a light on in the garage. Henry will tremble violently and will dive under a bed or a blanket. But where is my safe place?

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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.

IT’S NOT NICE

“It’s no secret, is it?” asks Thelonious Monk.

“No, but it’s not nice.”

That was the subtitle of the documentary, Rewind & Play: Not Nice, on the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, which I saw in the early evening yesterday. It was made by the Senegalese director Alain Gomis out of raw footage he found that had been used to produce a 30-minute French film tribute to Monk in 1970. The film shows various scenes and exchanges that had been edited out of the 1970 movie, scenes that have stayed with me.

Like what?

First, Monk’s music and especially his way of attacking the piano keys.

Second, his face. He wore a hat and a suit, sweating profusely. His eyes were half-shut with a bit of red at the bottom rims, and while he himself says very little (he was known to favor silence), those eyes betray different feelings as the footage progresses.

The music is brilliant; it’s the dialogue that has riled people up.

Henri Renaud, his interlocutor and a well-known French jazz pianist in his own right, had become a music company executive by the time he interviewed Monk for the 1970 documentary. He soon asks Monk about his first visit to Paris some 15 years earlier to participate in the Paris Jazz Festival in 1954, and asks if Monk thought his music was too avant-garde for the Paris audience at that time (they had been only lukewarm towards him in the 1950s).

He has to repeat the question a couple of times, including the meaning of the word avant-garde, and when Monk finally answers, he says that he had been promoted as the star of the festival but had gotten paid the least and was unable to bring his musicians with him.

Twice he says this, and twice Renaud turns to the director and tells him in French to erase the exchange.

Monk almost walks away, but Renaud cajoles him back to the piano, at which point Monk asks: “It’s no secret, is it?”

Renaud says, “No, but it’s not nice.”

“It’s not nice?” Monk repeats with a whisper of a smile.

This exchange is highlighted often by those who saw the film as another example of: racism first and foremost, how a white Frenchman talks down to a brilliant Black artist. But also, as highlighting how documentaries are “cleaned up” and edited to meet certain specifications that are paternal and condescending, unable and/or not wishing to do justice to a complex, out-of-the-box musician like Monk. While Renaud is acting as an interviewer, careful with his posture as he leans over the piano friendly-like and mouthes banalities, it’s the quiet, brilliant Monk who seems authentic and real.

At the same time, the film last night was introduced by Tom Reney, host of the local Valley station Jazz a la Mode. He presented a slightly different picture, indicating that Monk’s invite to perform in 1954 had been almost an after-thought for he wasn’t well-known outside of the US at the time. In fact, the invitation was made so late that the program list had already gone to print without his name appearing there and the French audience was very cool towards him. Given all that, Reney said, it was reasonable that he would be paid less than the other, better-known musicians.

Genius follows its own compass, located somewhere between Monk’s fingers on the piano keys and some indefinable inner soul or dimension. Thelonious Monk spoke very little, letting his music respond instead. In comparison, it’s easy to see his white French interlocutor trying to find the key to this enigmatic human being, trying to make him simpler and more coherent, more conforming to expectations, as the villain of the French, white, musical/documentary establishment. He is glib and reassuring while Monk is sweaty, somewhat puzzled, eager to get to the music and leave (he was to play his final concert in Paris that evening).

Driving home, I thought about how challenging it is to communicate across different languages (Monk spoke English—and barely that, while Renaud translated back and forth between English and French) and different cultures. A genuine connection between two human beings is hard enough; now add more barriers and you could arrive at a dead end. One is silent, listening hard, trying to understand what’s going on in French around him (he plays music while cameras and mics are moved all around him). The other has his own image of what the film should look like and asks vacuous questions that would elicit vacuous answers from almost anyone other than Monk, who knew how to answer vacuous questions like I know how to manage the James Webb Telescope.

Inside, I couldn’t muster the outrage that other reviewers expressed. If Renaud was unable to step out of his comfort zone to connect with Monk, how much do I make the effort? And when I do, how successful am I?

On Saturday, the 6-year-old daughter of Mateo and Sofia, the family that made the long trek from Honduras of whom I wrote earlier, will have a birthday party to which I was invited, and I will bring her a couple of gifts. But I won’t be speaking Spanish. Her parents barely speak English. Everyone else there will be family. I am naturally not the most social of creatures. How will I feel surrounded by a language I don’t speak, an outsider who won’t know the family stories and jokes, or any of the other guests? What will I resort to in order to make some kind of connection?

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I’M BUDDHIST, NOT AUTISTIC

Aussie hiding in a pool

“Aussie, I think you’re on the spectrum.”

“Of course. All the way to the right.”

“I don’t mean the political spectrum, Auss. I mean the autism spectrum.”

“Of course. I’m a car ride fanatic.”

“No, no, no, Aussie. If you’re on the spectrum you may be suffering from certain behavioral patterns that are neuro-diverse.”

“Huh?”

“I know, autism is getting harder and harder to define, especially because it shows up in so many different ways. In your case, you’re not the most emotionally expressive canine in the world. Remember when I got you out of the shelter the other day after the big storm, when you ran and the police picked you up?”

“You mean, the jail.”

“Whatever. You were happy to see me, but not that happy.”

“It’s the Middle Way. I’m Buddhist, not autistic.”

“You didn’t run around in circles of joy, you didn’t jump on me or lick my face.”

“Did Bernie do any of those things?”

“Not much. You often don’t communicate.”

“You mean, when you call me to come and I don’t come? When my favorite human in the entire world, my dogwalker Leeann, calls me, I always come. Do you think I leave my autism behind when I go to her?”

“Your range of interests is very narrow.”

“Food and Trump. Also, deporting Henry. Who needs anything more to give life meaning?”

“You do repetitive, meaningless tasks.”

“Chasing rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, and breaking out of the fence. Repetitive, yes. Meaningless, no.”

“You’re glad to see people, but then you just go to your spot and stay there. No social interaction.”

“Call it the Eastern touch. 25% of me is Shar-pei. What is it with you humans?”

“What do you mean, Aussie?”

“You create something you call normal, and everything that’s slightly different is crazy.”

“Not crazy, Auss, just—”

“Not normal, neurodiverse, who cares? You give everything names and labels, spectrums and ranges, ratings and numbers. You break down everything more and more and more till, in the end, very few normal humans are left. For example, are you normal?”

“Ummm—”

“You wake up every morning a little depressed, right?”

“Yeah, but not so—”

“You shower every morning. That’s obsessive-compulsive.”

“Hold on a moment, Aussie.”

“You work every day, including weekends.”

“I like to exercise my writing chops daily.”

“That’s manic. But you’re also manic-depressive because at times you just sit there without doing anything.”

“That’s called meditation, Aussie.”

“I’m describing what I see while you give them names. You like to stack up empty Ben & Jerry’s ice cream pint containers.”

“I love ice cream!”

“Some would call that addiction. You light incense in front of a wooden woman and talk to her every morning. That’s delusional.”

“I like invoking Kwan-yin. As for talking to a wooden woman, I also talk to you, Aussie, and you’re a dog.”

“You can’t think of half the words you want to say. You could use help with language development.”

“I need help with my memory! Getting old is not an illness, Aussie.”

“You humans will make it an illness any day now. Not feeling up to running 5 miles a day? Working till you drop? Not feeling like cooking that huge Thanksgiving meal for the 55th time? Clearly something’s wrong with you. Go see a doctor, quick!”

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MOWING THE GRASS

Around 1972 I went to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest place in the Jewish tradition. In the five years since Israel had conquered East Jerusalem, including the Old City, archeologists had conducted excavations around the area and developed a center that included a tour of the subterranean layers beneath the Western Wall and its environs.

I participated in one of the tours, led by an enthusiastic guide who took us below. By now I have only a hazy memory of what we saw, except for one exchange that I remember vividly.

The tour ended at a small seating area, like a miniature theater, which included a diorama of how the place above us must have looked before the Jewish Diaspora two millennia ago, when the people of Israel would make regular pilgrimages to the Temple Mount. (This tour took place over 50 years ago; it’s probably changed and been enlarged since then.) The guide pointed out various elements in the diorama, which had been constructed based on archeological findings:

“The archeologists dug and found remnants of the various Muslim cultures that had lived here before. They dug underneath those and found remnants of the various Christians over the ages who’d lived here. But then they dug even further, and here it is, remnants of what the city must have looked like when the Jews were here. This diorama is constructed based on those findings,” he finished triumphantly.

Around me, everyone smiled happily. I raised my hand. “Did the archeologists dig under that, too?” I asked.

The guide gave a quick shake of his head. “They didn’t dig further.” His tone conveyed Why would they?

But of course, there were people in Israel before it became Israel, people who occupied Canaan, as it was then known, and were mostly swept away by the Israeli tribes who took over the land in fulfillment of God’s promise that this land would be theirs. This Biblical promise, reflected in the yearning to return to the Promised Land, is repeated throughout Jewish literature, liturgy, and religion. Add to it the bloodshed and persecution of Jews over millennia, and the Zionist dream of Israel as the Jewish homeland became the pulsing heartbeat of a nation.

Which is all a beautiful thing—and there were people there before they conquered the land in Biblical times, as there are people now who have lived there for hundreds of years. But 50 years ago, archeologists weren’t digging any further to see what lay under the Israeli ruins. Finding artifacts of people who had lived there earlier—and who are explicitly described in the Old Testament—adds too much nuance, too much subtlety and shadow. Too complicated.

It reminds me of how many Americans think that this country is defined by the first European settlers who came—white, Christian, and European. People who were fleeing religious persecution, they proclaim. Certainly, a very worthwhile reason to come here—and there were people who lived here before, those we call Native Americans, who were not white, not Christian, not European. We don’t like to dig that far because it gets too complicated.

A friend asked me what I thought of the Israeli attack on the Palestinian city of Jenin this past week, when soldiers, helicopter gunships and armored vehicles went in. They stayed for two days, killed people, destroyed homes, and found guns before withdrawing. They’ll be back, as will the Palestinians wanting to take revenge and remind the Israelis, who don’t like to dig deeply enough, that they’re on the land, too.

Almost every time such an event happens, my sister, who lives in Jerusalem, tells me this (in paraphrase): We cry about Israelis killed in the West Bank and missiles coming in from Gaza, but the truth is that we’ve gotten used to it and, consciously or unconsciously, we are ready to pay the price in order to leave things as they are. Our government has no intention of taking serious steps towards peace, no interest in a two-state solution, no taking risks and initiatives that will change the situation over the long-run. It’s become our way of life. We will rule over or dominate them. Every once in a while, they kill a few of us, we go back and kill a lot more of them, and this is repeated nonstop.

Only recently I heard the phrase mowing the grass, referring to this pattern of keeping the Palestinians short, compliant, and quiet, like the pretty grass in your backyard, and going in to fight limited battles to get rid of the weeds, meaning those they refer to as terrorists, the people who won’t stay passive and docile. They say that everybody would get along very well if only Palestinians stayed submissive as grass, and the only reason they go in is to kill off the weeds, or terrorists, as they are officially referred to.

This Orwellian phrase gives me the shivers.

We no longer mow the grass around the house. By we I include Lori, my housemate, who used to do all the mowing. In the spring of 2022, I decided to stop mowing our big back yard. That summer we had a drought, so the grass didn’t grow much anyway. But this summer, oh boy! The yard has become a meadow.

Grass is a monocrop, which doesn’t work in the wild and has severe impact on wildlife. When grass grows less dominant, there is more room for wildflowers and much less work to keep up (or down). The bees and grasshoppers like it more, as do the butterflies. Weeds are left to pop up. Somehow, there’s a sense of working with nature, not against it. All manners of life appear that haven’t appeared before.

Right now, it’s a long trek through the tall grass towards the Lady of Compassion in back, but I don’t mind it. Perhaps before next summer we’ll have specific designs for what to plant in a meadow. Meantime, it’s perfectly okay that the backyard no longer looks like a manicured English garden. We have lots more variety, lots more flowers, crawlers and winged creatures, lots more life.

And we also have grass.

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WRITER’S BLOCK

Many years ago, when I wrote fiction daily, I often encountered the dreaded writer’s block.

Writer’s block reminds me of how the washing machine in our house is currently not working: I push the button, there’s a rush of water, then a trickle, and then no water. Try washing your clothes, or Aussie’s car seat covering, with no water.

The plumber arrives next week.

That’s how my writer’s block dysfunctioned. Inspiration would gush in the beginning and I’d happily type away, convinced that finally—finally!—God was speaking through me. Then the words would slow down, eventually coming to a pause. I’d tweak it this way and that (does God tweak?), sometimes change the narrator’s voice, create a new beginning, create an end before much had been written, in short, try various tricks to get me moving again. Even take a day off.

Usually, a new day’s dawn did not bring new inspiration.

I think only other writers can understand the misery of writer’s block. You can’t stand hitting that wall one more time, watching the clock move ver-r-r-ry slowly, welcoming breaking news headlines, the phone call, the bing! notifying you that email or texts have come in. You’ve heard about great writers who always had incomplete manuscripts in their desk drawers when they died? It’s where they went when they didn’t know how to continue on the manuscript before them.

In the second week of May I began what I thought would be a short story. After almost 40 pages, the short story is turning into a long short story, maybe on its way to a novella, maybe on its way to a novel. I have no idea.

And then comes the slowdown. I look out the window at the colorful laundry drying under a hot sun (no storms today). A benign pause (I’ll just take a short walk), a few more. I silently read the words to myself. Now what? Something’s supposed to happen, but what? By whom? From experience, I know that I can edit many times, but that can kill the damn thing. Finally, I look at the screen that remains stubbornly white and admit to myself that I don’t know how to go on.

But I have learned something over the years. The people I’ve created, the characters, they know how to go on. The writer, me, may be the miserable, stuck fool, but they know. I just have to see them clearer, in more detail:

Is the Professor wearing an earring? Why is Jan so skinny? Why does Teddy the Dog hate the narrator? How many rooms does the beach house have? What are the waves like? Why does Frankie like blondes? What book is Gwendolyn sunk in all the time? Is she a vegetarian? Does Delyse walk barefoot?

If Delyse paints her toes and I know what color, that may be the hint that will move me forward. If I watch and listen carefully enough, the characters’ fears begin to surface, also their humor. Part one veil and there’s another, and then another. And finally, I start seeing what they’re blind to, what they’re hiding, their deep well of wishes that threatens to run dry. I start seeing how, despite it all, they’ll go on.

In writing, as in life, I learn to listen rather than impose some pre-ordained turn in the plot, a clever twist, or an ending that fulfills expectations.

Not everyone writes like that. Certain genres, like mysteries or romance novels, take you in all directions and even, if combined with gothic and science fiction, off the planet, but in the end you’ll find out who did it and why love is still the greatest thing since the Big Bang. Once, when I needed money, I wrote a romance novel taking place in the South of France. I also wrote young people’s tales whose endings even the most censorious of parents couldn’t find issue with.

But now it’s the characters that turn the wheel.

My life seems to go this way, too. Rules are rules for a good reason, and we need to break them once in a while. Do I have a vision for how life should be? Ditch it when the first human being comes along. Did I plan a project or a program? It’s fine to start with, but be ready to let it go like a balloon swaying in an air current up to the sky.

And then, just watch, just listen. What else is the wind whispering here? Something is always whispering. Even on the hottest, most stagnant days (like the one we have today), a leaf shakes. No hummingbird or bee there like with flowers, so what’s causing it to tremble like that? Why does it shiver in July? What is this conversation all around me?

I know what the books and newspapers say about humans and the world, I know what I’ll hear in white-wine summer confabs on someone’s deck or backyard. Most of all, I’m aware of my own karmic assumptions and the arrogant certainty that I know what will happen, I know how this story ends.

Throbs and tremors of maple leaves on a hot, still afternoon tell me I don’t.

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