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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DECLARATION OF WAR

“Hey, Aussie, how are you going to celebrate the Fourth?”

“I’m going to war.”

“To war with whom, Auss?”

“With Canada, of course.”

“Canada? Canada is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from us, Aussie. Why?”

“Because of the smoke they’ve been sending us all this time. It’s their sneaky way of weakening us, making us all blind wimps.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

“Going to war with China over covid was even stupider.”

“Which is why we didn’t do it, Auss.”

“But this is far worse than covid. This affects me! Here, put this on the blog.”

“What are you giving me, Aussie?”

Aussie’s Declaration of War on Canada. I created it between coughs last night: To All Those Who Love This Country. Are you coughing more than ever? Trouble breathing? Pawing around your eyes only it’s not a tick? Sleeping more than 20 hours a day? Are you getting more and more anxious even though you’re taking meds and sleep on an anti-anxiety bed? Worst of all, have you lost your appetite? This July Fourth, be a patriot. Grab your false teeth and march on Canada. Their fires are making us blind, crazy, and infertile.”

“Aussie, you were spayed, that’s why you have no pups.”

“Their fires discombobulate and confuse us. The sky is always white and hazy, I can’t see any mountains.”

“That’s probably because we don’t have mountains in the Pioneer Valley, Auss.”

“It’s enough to get completely disoriented. When I start thinking that Henry’s hot you know, you just know, that something’s wrong.”

“You may have a point there, Aussie.”

“Me, hot for a chihuahua! It’s the fire in my brain. Of course, if Henry came up to Canada and we threw him into the fire you know what we’d get, right?”

“A hot dog, Aussie. Terrible.”

“Hee! Hee! Hee! Canadian fires are destroying our way of life.”

“How?”

“Nobody’s working hard anymore.”

“It’s summer, almost the Fourth of July.”

“Everybody’s complaining.”

“That is our way of life, Aussie.”

“I had to go to the hospital twice.”

“Because of porcupines, Aussie, not because of Canada. Going after a porcupine is a pretty dumb thing to do.”

“That’s only because of the smoke. It’s killing my brain!”

“Aussie, we can’t declare war so easily on another country.”

“Why not? It’s the American way. Think of all the tanks, cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, and military jets that are just sitting there, not getting used, rusting away. F-15 bombers, F-25 bombers, F-12,375 bombers—all turning into junk. You know what they say: Move it or lose it. I say we move it to Canada and teach them a lesson.”

“What lesson is that, Aussie? Fight climate change?”

“Of course not.”

“Take the gas guzzlers off the road? Switch to solar and wind? Turn off the air-conditioners? I don’t think we can lecture anyone about that.”

“The lesson should be: Careful how you light a match. And if you have to barbecue in the woods, invite me.”

“They say it’s the weather. Lots of lightning strikes in hot weather, and everything burns. Warmer than usual temperatures punctuated by severe storms. Aussie, you know what I learn from the smoke coming from Canada? That we’re all interdependent. Someone cooks short ribs in Newfoundland and we get the smoke.”

“Why couldn’t we get the short ribs?”

“Now where are you going, Auss?”

“To the basement. Fetching my camo jacket from hunting season. That way I can go undercover.”

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MUMBLING BUDDHA

“I have to blog,” I tell my sister on the phone, by way of farewell.

“What about?”

“No idea. Maybe a conversation with Aussie about why she’s going to fight Canada (it’s the smoke), or maybe an exploration of whether she’s on the autism spectrum. But I don’t feel like doing any of those.”

“What do you feel like doing?”

“Mumbling.”

“Mumbling?”

“When things are going on but you can’t see them clearly, you mumble.”

I have no ulterior purpose for writing the posts in my blog except that they give me the excuse to go deep inside and see what’s there. I’ve done way too much harm in my life because I didn’t make the effort.

But often when I do, no understanding emerges, just a mess of contradictory feelings, words, and images that show up but don’t loiter. The writer’s job isn’t necessarily to make sense of them; it’s not even to craft a story out of them (though I often try). In fact, I don’t really know what the writer’s job is. What I do know is what’s needed, and that’s to sort out the different impressions, write some down, and let those that wish, grow.

It’s a little like gardening, which I don’t do much of. Some calla lilies bloom right now, some don’t. Some poppies were damaged by the storms we’ve had this past week, others recover. It all depends on the circumstances and conditions, including genetics, sunlight, and rabbits nibbling away at stems (before Aussie can nibble away at them).

What’s needed is burrowing, the writer’s version of going deep into the trenches.  Scratch, putter, dig, move things around but try not to uproot, see if anything wants to flower.

Some days things flower quickly. The fingers type nimbly, almost thoughtlessly, and I feel satisfied. A little like preparing a dharma talk that doesn’t require much time, that’s focused and clear, no mumbling around. And sometimes, many times in fact, I mumble. I fidget. I look out the window 100 times an hour. Fidgeting, mumbling Buddha.

My friend Violet Catches, of Cheyenne River Reservation and a woman I greatly admire, lost her daughter to liver and kidney disease. She posted about it a couple of days ago and today we connected by phone. She told me she was sitting in her daughter’s apartment in Pierre, South Dakota. They had till the end of today to empty the apartment and she was looking around her, contemplating what needed to be packed and how to move everything out and into storage by nighttime. After that they’ll go for the memorial to Pine Ridge, 3 hours away. She’ll need to make three such trips in several days to accommodate the entire family.

What do you need, I ask her. Money’s always needed. What else? What else is needed by a woman seated in the apartment of her newly dead daughter, contemplating the things that belonged to her, the colors she liked, some dishes? We both end up mumbling.

Before that I was taking a few ticks off my body. I mean that literally as well as figuratively. Literally, because I’d walked with Aussie in the morning and we’re still at the height of the tick season, no way to avoid them walking in the woods, so even as I got to work my hand would reach up to my neck to find something that had crawled down there from my hair and scalp. I don’t freak out from ticks despite my bout with anaplasmosis last summer.

Figuratively, because of bad news by email. The Supreme Court’s decision invalidating Biden’s student debt relief (they obviously didn’t read my post from yesterday about the ridiculous cost of higher education). Yes, I know that those kinds of ticks can also produce serious illness, but they’re nothing like the stillness I hear on the phone talking to Violet, punctuated by a sob or two.

This is our life, the length of our days, day and night we meditate upon it.

And finally, re-reading an article my brother sent me yesterday. He wrote: “It’s 75 years today since the day of the battle of Be’erot Yitzhak.”

What is Be-erot Yitzhak? It’s a kibbutz in Israel where I was born. My parents, right off the Holocaust boat, became members of a kibbutz in Israel’s south, the Negev, less than a mile from Gaza. 75 years ago, they faced an Egyptian army that had 10 times as many soldiers as they were, with planes, tanks, and artillery that they didn’t have. The colonel in charge of the Egyptian attackers on the kibbutz was Gamal Abdul-Nasser, who would become prime minister of Egypt.

The small group was pounded, bombed, bombarded and shelled for an entire day, and survived. One-third of the kibbutz members were killed, men and women. The kibbutz itself was destroyed. What’s left is the water tower pockmarked by bullets, made useless except as a memorial. But the Egyptian soldiers withdrew, and that battle safeguarded the Negev for Israel.

“Given what you were facing, why didn’t you leave?” my niece asked my father when she went down there with him.

“Where could we go?” he replied. “We had nowhere else to go.”

What courage they showed, I think to myself. Now there are Palestinians who also show courage in the face of vastly superior numbers. I’m conscious of both at the same time, as if 75 years never passed. How can I express this?

I mumble.

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WE JUST CAN’T AFFORD IT

The news finally came down. The big court has made race-based affirmative action in universities no longer legal. Even if you were sleeping or doing other work, the news was trumpeted via email, Twitter, reactions on Facebook, and the small summer air currents we enjoyed today. Luckily, not the birds yet, though I expect an angry Blue Jay outside to broadcast it shrilly any moment.

There’s the decision, and there are the reactions. There’s Donald Trump insisting that this will make our country great again. Joe Biden has taken a different approach; it feels as though, at least in the media, everyone’s priming their verbal weapons.

Me? I’m thinking of the general high anxiety surrounding attendance at college all around. To put it bluntly, most people can’t afford it.

I went to Queens College in New York when all branches of the City University of New York were free to New York residents—and were very good to boot. This was followed several years later by 2 years in Columbia University’s Teachers College, which offered need-based scholarships almost exclusively to people of color. I had no problem with that even as it took me 12 years to pay down the loan I took out. Many of us accepted this paradigm back then.

But in those years, my monthly payments totaled $500 per year, lasting a dozen years. School loans now are on another planet because the size of tuition approaches the size of Jupiter, and people carry that burden for many more years regardless of how much money they make or whether they even have a job.

I’ve been following research concerning the surge in tuition (teaching staff’s salaries haven’t gone up that much, a lot goes to huge pay increases to top administrative staff as well as the building of new facilities). Why does tuition relentlessly go up even when other things don’t? Because demand continues regardless of the cost. In other words, families are ready to pay these fees regardless of how prohibitive they are. As least, they were till the pandemic.

But not everybody. I meet people all around me who don’t go to college because they can’t afford it. Some go to tech schools where they learn hands-on skills and get apprenticing opportunities. Others do a couple of courses in community colleges, but looking down the road at the financial burden that lies ahead, they decide to forego the rest.

In doing that, they forego opportunities for better-paying jobs and for housing (rents here are very high). When you’ve only finished high school, you may get a decent job to start but you won’t get promoted or become a supervisor. Your salary will remain low, and as younger people enter the job market, they will be favored over you. Many couples choose not to have children, or not to have more than 1-2, because they say they simply can’t afford it. They can’t afford the college tuition.

Race-based affirmative action in universities had its heyday for half a century; at that time, it seemed to be the right thing to do. Resentment started back then, too, but has surged with the surge in tuition. It seems to me that a more accurate target for these feelings is the sky-high tuition our university system fosters, loading people with so much debt, including for their parents who take some of that on and find themselves working well into their 70s to pay it off.

Ironically, the wealthy Ivy League colleges have enough money to provide substantial scholarships, but the state, city, and private universities do not, so if you can’t get into the former you have few or no options.

For me, the big issue isn’t race-based affirmative action programs for schools, it’s the system itself. I asked Chat GPT how much it costs for a year of study at Oxford University in England, one of the oldest, most premier universities in the West. It answered that for 2022, and with some variances according to the specific college and program studied, British and EU students pay 9,500 British pounds, or $12,000 annually. Huh?

I get the sense that once again, the well-to-do are favored, leaving poor whites and people of color to fight over the crumbs. We write angry columns and vote this way or that, but what we’re fighting over is crumbs. That, too, is how the system works.

If we are to have any kind of affirmative-action programs in schools, I would like to see something that relates to income. The current vast income gap can’t go on much longer. Give a much bigger break to those who come from low-income families and have to work harder than their richer peers to get to college. I believe that will have implications for minority groups as well.

Yesterday I had lunch with a young woman from the Rez working on a Ph.D. in linguistics as part of her effort to restore native languages. She talked of how few of the department faculty, in a university famed for its progressive values, are people of color or show much sensitivity to native origins. Instead, she struggles against the perception that she doesn’t really belong because she doesn’t have the academic background others have (she couldn’t afford that early course work).

In college, I remember meeting peers who came from a very different economic level. They not just had more money, they knew how to navigate their way better, were aware of options I never dreamed of, had more confidence in speaking up in class and consulting with professors than I did.

In this country, the class you come from can make all the difference.

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AUSSIE IN JAIL

“Aussie, what are you doing in the Franklin County Animal Shelter?”

“I was picked up by the police on a morals charge.”

“You mean soliciting, Auss? Sex for hire?”

“No, cowardice. You drove out to Hyannis to gallivant with a friend and here it poured and thundered. Naturally, I ran.”

“You poor thing.”

“They found me half a mile away trying to hitchhike and they picked me up. I thought they’d bring me home. Instead, they took me to jail.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Of course, it’s terrible. What kind of no-good Commie cops are they? They put me in a cell—isolation, no less. An 11-month-old pup was whinnying all night in the next cell. A skinny Dobie showed me his teeth, probably a user, and Bertha the Pug licked her lips every time she looked at me. How are you supposed to sleep?”

“At least you weren’t out in the monsoon and thunder and lightning, Aussie. I worried all night about that.”

“I didn’t sleep a wink. In the morning they came in and fed me some chicken/rice kibble. I told them I’m organic and non-gluten, but did they care? You know I can’t stand bland food! I asked for some hot sauce, but they said they didn’t carry any. Worcestershire? Thai sauce with coconut milk and lime? Nada. I hate jails like that!”

“But at least you didn’t spend all night outdoors, Auss.”

“I wanted a lift home. Instead, they put me behind bars.”

“I think that’s because you didn’t have your collar on, so they had no idea where home was. I slept downstairs in my office so that I’d hear you if you came in. We left all the doors open and lights on.”

“Who needs lights?”

“Last night, when I came in and heard you were gone, I went everywhere to look for you. Yelled your name out through both car windows. Looked under the shed, under the gazebo, yelled down the dark slope across the Sawmill River. Put up a notice on the internet’s local bulletin board and knocked on neighbors’ doors. By the way, regards from Peter whose barn you love to visit.”

(Sigh) “I love Peter. He may be Black, but I can tell that deep in his heart, he’s MAGA.”

“A lovely woman who works in a vet’s office called me after seeing my notice and gave me some great tips on how to look for dogs who freak out during storms. She suggested I look under sheds and decks, inside barns and open garages, anywhere a dog may go to find shelter. She also said that when dogs get really panicked, they can’t find their way home, sometimes won’t even respond to their human’s voice.”

“So how did you find me?”

“A call came in that you were at the Franklin County Jail House—sorry, I mean the Animal Shelter. Oh Aussie, when I saw you there my heart just melted. Suddenly I got what was the most important thing in the world.”

“Liver?”

“Love, Aussie. Open your heart, admit how much you need others, see them, hear them, feel your heart breaking.”

“I hate sentimental humans.”

“Aussie, I’m glad I was reminded of it this way. I’ve been reminded in other ways, through death or illness. This is much better. Even if they did pick you up on a morals charge.”

“That was bullshit. I know the real reason they picked me up and put me in jail. They were going after the head of the Proud Pooches. First Trump, then Eastman, now me. They start with the lightweights, exercise their muscles, and then come after me.”

“Aussie, you’re being paranoid.”

“They’re sending cops, lightning, thunder, and Noah’s Flood 2.0 after me, and I’m paranoid?”

“Aussie, love is more important than anything else. Coming home in the storm to find you gone broke my heart. And when I heard that the shelter had you, and that you didn’t have to be outdoors that night, I was so relieved. “

“By the way, since I didn’t have my collar with my name and phone number on it, how did they locate you?”

“You have a microchip under your skin, Auss.”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

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WHAT I MISSED YESTERDAY

Early yesterday morning I looked at the news. Readers were told that the head of Russia’s Wagner Group was marching on Moscow after taking over a Russian military base in the south. Updates were pouring in every 5 minutes. I stopped, turned off the computer, and went to the zendo to sit.

It was our monthly day of sitting at Green River Zen Center, the last Saturday of every month. Just a few of us; it’s June, the month for everything but sitting, it seems. I didn’t mind; fewer personal encounters with participants mean that I can meditate that much longer. Sitting in that beautiful hall with others, I am aware that while I am the teacher, everyone there helps me unself all the time. Their sitting practice made mine possible, their exhales created my inhales, I am never on my own.

When you sit with someone else or with a group, the air seems to quiver with more vitality, something new comes alive, maybe one enormous awareness we all share. You can’t mistake the energy. We came in listening to the pounding rain and left before evening, walking over splashes of sun in the parking area, the sky blue even as it was thick with clouds.

Maybe due to the morning headlines, I suddenly remembered the summer of 1991. I went to do a 3-month Zen intensive at the Zen Mountain Center, close to Idyllwild in California. No rain, no humidity, 5 of us sharing a room, rattlesnakes just off (and sometimes on) the paths, a schedule that began with wake-up at 3:45 am and ended at 9:30 at night. This went on for 4-5 days, followed by a day off to do laundry, followed by another 4-5 days, etc. It was heaven.

No one had personal computers, no one had cell phones. We knew nothing about the world.

One day one of the retreat leaders made an announcement: “As we sit now, tanks have surrounded the Russian parliament building staging a coup against Boris Yeltsin. Masses of Russian people have come out to protest the coup. We have no idea what will happen.”

That was all the news we got. We went right back into meditation again. I’m not sure they ever told us how it was resolved; I didn’t know that the Russian people had managed to beat back the coup till I returned to New York.

I’d taken a big step backwards and didn’t feel I’d lost a thing.

Lots of other things probably happened all around the world in the summer of 1991, but we were at the very beginning of the information age so most of us, including those who weren’t on a Zen retreat, didn’t know about them.

On certain days I can be a news fiend, checking the papers every 3-4 hours. Not yesterday. When I came home Lori had fed and walked the dogs and a breeze was rustling the lilac bushes outside my office window. Hummingbirds had finished their sweet liquid diet and today I will refill the feeders. The last peony had gone in the morning storm but now we have poppies, foxglove and coralbells.

A lot happened during the day, not just in Russia—and I didn’t know.

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A NEW RELATIONSHIP

Photo by Rami Efal

People ask me if I’d like to meet another man and start a new relationship. They ask this hesitantly, gingerly, as if maybe they shouldn’t bring it up. The first thing I have to do is assure them that this is not a delicate topic, they’re not going to see a horrified look on my face as if they’re suggesting something unimaginable. No, I tell them, imagine it by all means–and then let me know if you know someone I should meet.

I did try to meet someone in the modern way, online. Puny gleanings for the energy (and quarterly membership fees) it took. A few nice men, usually far away, and unless you fall massively in love, neither the other person nor you are often ready to get into a car and drive and drive just for a spontaneous cup of coffee or even dinner, the little steps that are often part of any courtship. I met an interesting man locally, but in today’s parlance, he was just not that into me.

Ironically enough, it was during the first few years after Bernie’s death that I felt the greatest urgency to meet someone new. I’m still not clear what fueled that. On the one hand, I was still grieving, processing lots of impressions and memories, and on the other I was trying to build a new future. Little sensitivity given to the present.

And then I did one of my periodic historical clean-ups, as I call them, going through many items Bernie and I had, and found a photograph of him and me in the garage of our home. I’ve shown this before on my blog, maybe wrote about it. It was taken on the day they took the ramp away from our garage because Bernie was now able to take steps from the car rather than needing a wheelchair, which also meant that he could come up the stairs and sleep in our bedroom instead of downstairs in the makeshift bedroom in his office.

He still walked tenderly and carefully, no sensation in his right foot at all (it would never come back)—but he walked. It sounds like a small thing, but anyone who’s been through this can tell you that when someone passes that milestone, you want to throw a birthday party to end all birthday parties. So, after the ramp was taken out Rami Efal took this photo of us both by the back steps to the kitchen, looking ecstatic. Looking triumphant.

I’d always thought our relationship would have an Act 2. Act 1 was mostly about Zen Peacemakers: bearing witness retreats, the move to California and then Massachusetts, my beginning to teach, Bernie changing his teaching, building a new headquarters up here, giving up on a new headquarters, talking every minute of the day (it seemed) about how to make things work.

Act 2, I thought, would consist of a more personal life, a more private life in which we’d pay more attention to each other, own and explore our couplehood deeper, enjoy getting older together with less distraction.

Instead, Bernie had a big stroke on January 11, 2016, 11 days after I began a year’s sabbatical from teaching. Just one side of his body functioned. It changed everything. Work was no longer the big theme, coping was. And while he triumphed over the ramp and the steps and the wheelchair, crashes happened, too. A year later he was still working hard for snail’s pace progress; he had to exercise a lot just to retain some mobility.

When he died, he died suddenly. No chance to say goodbye. Certainly, no chance for an Act 2.

I looked at the photo for a long time and put it on the main altar in the living room. I see it every day. As soon as I did that, I lost all sense of urgency about meeting someone. I dropped out of the online dating site and left the whole thing up in the air, as if I’d come to terms and no longer felt the need to stay in a dark room endlessly retrieving and processing memories. We’d had our life, it had been very, very good, and there was no need to look elsewhere for something to make up the loss. Loss was an endemic part of having.

Still, I’d like to meet someone new. In our family there was no good model for couplehood, it took years of on-the-job practice and training, and I wish I could put what I learned to use. The writer Iris Murdoch wrote: “The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.“

More briefly, she wrote: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” If I have needs, wants, dreams, things I care about, the other person does, too. The other person is as real as I am. In Zen terms that may mean not real at all, and if so, we’re all equally unreal. Loving someone else means growing and expanding my capacity to imagine a being in all his fullness other than me—and, at the same time, completely different from me.

It took me many years to make that turn, and even after Bernie’s leaving, I’d like to keep on making that turn all the time.

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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.

NOW WHAT?

I‘m 6 months past 73 and folks around me are often sick. There are major and minor illnesses. There are major losses, like death, and less major losses: hair, flexibility, resilience, energy. Less sex.

I have been basically very healthy. “How are you doing?” someone might ask after detailing his/her difficulties and challenges, and I say: “I’m very well.” I counter my friend’s litany of illnesses with three simple words: “I’m very well.” I don’t take my health for granted, feel very grateful for these beautiful days of my life, but the experiences of others have an impact on me.

The photos above and below are the last I took in Chatham, Cape Cod, where we stayed for a week. When we first arrived, none of the peonies were open at all. The next day one opened. The day after that, another opened, and then, little by little, a few others opened. Not all, as you can see.

As the days went by, I noticed that a few had begun to droop before they’d opened. The petals of another turned brown right away, while another just seemed to stay young and gradually open the entire week we were there, not showing the slightest hint of a droop. All kinds of other things happened in the meantime: a gentle rain on our third day there followed by a crashing thunderstorm the night before we left, sunlight, clouds, gentle ocean breezes and very brisk winds. Karma happened, and each peony responded differently according to its genetics and where it grew in the garden. Some were gone before others, some died before they seemed to live, some seemed primed to live forever (which they won’t).

It was the most gorgeous week for peonies.

Consider us humans, as Aussie calls us. Some of us are sicker than others, some healthier, some younger and some older. We have different genes and face different life events, interacting with them differently from others. We get gentler, angrier, sweeter, frustrated, resigned, more tired, more energized.

“What are you doing now work-wise?” I ask an old friend.

“I’m completing things. You?”

“I’m starting things,” I reply.

There’s no unanimity anywhere, just like there’s no unanimity among the peonies.

But peonies are beautiful.

Human beings are beautiful.

Today, Juneteenth, based on an order freeing enslaved people in Galveston, Texas in 1865, we celebrate emancipation and freedom. I have no way to fathom slavery and its transition into freedom by decree. But this morning, after lighting incense to honor the day, I remembered my mother’s release from the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

“How did that happen?” I asked her when I was a young girl.

She shrugged. “The Russians came.”

“But what was that like?” Didn’t they celebrate? Didn’t they eat as much as they could after near-starvation? Didn’t they dance? Weren’t they happy they’d survived?

She shrugged again, as if I didn’t understand. “Of course, it was a good thing,” she finally said. “But then what? So many people dead, so much destruction. You’ve lived through so much. Finally you’re free and can leave the camps, but now what?”

It was one of many times when I realized that no matter how many times I listened to my mother, I could never really understand her because I’d never walked in her shoes, just like I never walked in the shoes of the black people in Texas when they heard about the emancipation.

You’re free—so now what? My mother returned home to Bratislava, most of whose Jews had been murdered, to the absence of a father and three siblings. You won’t die today or tomorrow, but life may well be a slow death, lived on the barest of sustenance, on relentless struggle, on unfulfilled dreams. Maybe you can walk farther than ever before, train up to Chicago and get a job in the slaughterhouses. Or like my mother, learn to sew to make a living, then leave Europe for Israel with an orphaned 3-year-old nephew.

One step at a time would have meant something very different to them than what it means now. Now it’s a reminder to stay grounded and mindful. Then they took one step at a time because there was little energy to take more, because there was bewilderment at these new circumstances, a gathering of family remnants, and a sense that this was going to be a long trek.

Today is Juneteenth and the trek continues. Now what?

Finally, a couple of days ago I checked my mailbox after not visiting it for 10 days and, among other things, retrieved an envelope from a man I never met who lives in Santa Barbara, a city with many warm memories for me. For several years he has sent me two checks each month. The larger one is for immigrant families, the smaller one for this blog. I’m so grateful to him for helping people he’s never met.

And while the smaller check is for this blog, I love it. Without this blog I can’t raise funds to send children to camp or to pay rent checks or utilities bills to keep homes warm in winter, get school supplies for the new school year or holiday gifts. The blog takes work and technical supervision. Some of the readers I know and some, like the gentleman in Santa Barbara, I don’t know from Adam. And still the flow continues.

I’m not much of a saver for old age or long-term care; the life this minute, this hour, is what counts. Every new situation that arises is not just a gate for me to explore more of this life, a demand to pay attention, it’s also another of life’s eyes seeing itself through my eyes, my experience. I face the challenge to put that into words every time I sit down to write. In the end, all I do is share the effort by putting useless words together.

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DON’T WAIT FOR THE RED CONVERTIBLE

Thunderstorm weather

We got home late Thursday night from Truro on the Cape. Friday morning, after a meeting, I took Aussie to a nearby conservancy for her morning walk. She sniffed the air above a wide creek and, next thing I knew, she plunged into the water, half-waded, half-swam across, and ran. I was sure she’d sniffed the scent of deer, but it turned out to be only wild turkeys.

Chasing deer is Aussie’s practice. She yip-yip-yips like a coyote (doesn’t do that chasing anything else), ignoring my calls because she’s lost in the thrilling realm of the hunt. She’s found her mission in life, found her life, and that life is inseparable from deer. There’s no deer, no Aussie, just rushing through the water, hopping over the tall grass, run-run-run.

At that point, nothing else exists for her, including me. Including her.

I often think that lucky are those who know what their calling is. Who know what their life is about, are aware of their gifts, and dedicate them to a particular purpose from which they won’t deviate. Life might crack open for them just a little, giving them only one or two slim opportunities on the other side of a river or creek, but they’ll rush through the water like Aussie rushes after deer. In the process they discover more and more what their purpose in life is, who and what they are.

A close friend of mine went to Radcliffe College, then associated with Harvard College when Harvard was only open to men. She herself had a successful career in movies and TV before starting a family, but felt that she’d missed out on the success that seemed within her reach in her early years in Hollywood and New York City.

Once she mentioned to me names of various people she’d met around the Harvard campus who’d become stars in the world of theater and movies. I asked her if she felt disappointed that she hadn’t gotten there, and she said yes. I asked her what she felt made the difference, and she replied:

 “I’d come out of a building and look for a car to get me home. But I had a particular car in mind. It had to be new, red, expensive, and a convertible, and if one didn’t show up right away, I’d wait and wait till it did. The others would come out of a building and also look for a car to get them home. If a broken-down VW came around the corner, they’d take it. If an open-air jeep came along, they’d take it even in the middle of winter. If an old Chevy with torn upholstery came by, they’d take it, all while I would still stand there, waiting for my new red convertible.”

When you know what you want, when you know what makes you most alive, you’ll take any car that comes along and ride it to the end.

I thought of people who know their calling when I read of the death of Cormac McCarthy. Long ago I read all his early, pre-All the Pretty Horses novels, his later ones, too, including the vivid, brutal and cinematic Blood Meridian. If ever you want to read a book to relieve you of our sanitized visions of westerns, start (and end) the search with this book.

I didn’t love everything. The Road was too implacably nightmarish, other writings too self-indulgent with philosophical musings and longwinded conversations. It didn’t matter, he was a writer to be reckoned with.

McCarthy submitted to few interviews so there was little written about him, but you had the sense that he was a man with a calling that he was going to pursue to the end, carving his entire life around books, rejecting norms, staying true even in the face of early struggle and poverty, when no one bought his books except for critics (and me).

Often, I observe that people like this don’t make for the best husbands or wives, for the best fathers or mothers, and I wonder whether honoring one’s calling requires you to often fail at other things.

Now, after a week’s vacation, I try to find my own focus again. The Cape offered different birds, a million bunnies, a softer mattress, a deck adjoining the bedroom for sitting in the sun and letting the mind wander. Mostly, letting go of the fierce taskmasters called discipline and time. I felt profoundly rested by the end.

It’s changing slowly. Summer has brought out the mountain laurel but also the dark openings between trees that seem to conceal a great deal. I sit and look at the computer screen, but often my eyes wander out the window beyond the screen and to the dark recesses of the woods. Aussie dozes off on the futon behind me. No deer for her on these rainy days.

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VACATION-3

View from the house where we’re staying

“Aussie, we’re going home tomorrow. Wasn’t this week of vacation on the Cape a blast?”

“Yup.”

“What did you like most about it, Auss? The beach?”

“No.”

“The waves?”

“Heaven forbid.”

“The dunes?”

“No.”

“Then what, Aussie?”

“Rabbits.”

“Rabbits? Aussie, we have lots of rabbits back home. What’s so special about these rabbits?”

“They’re tame. They practically come to me begging to be slaughtered.”

“Years ago they had lots more coyotes here, Aussie, which ate the rabbits. They got rid of most of the coyotes, so now the rabbits are running all over the place. They’re not afraid of anybody.”

“Let me tell you, this was no vacation for me. It’s hard to do the work of so many coyotes.”

“Aussie, I think you’re addicted to rabbits.”

“Addiction is what makes life worth living.”

“Addiction, Aussie, limits your freedom.”

“If I was completely free, I’d still choose to chase rabbits. And by the way, you don’t have to feed me.”

“Really? When do you ever forego a meal, Auss?”

“I’ve been eating French food all week. Lapin a la Bourguignonne, Lapin a la Cocotte, Lapin a—”

“Rabbit three times a day? My goodness, Aussie, you truly are addicted.”

“And loving it.”

“Our entire practice is to let go of our addictions. You know, Auss, whenever Bernie would address an audience, he’d introduce himself this way: ‘Hi, I’m Bernie, and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to myself, and I will always be addicted to myself.’ Addiction to the self is relentless.”

“Take my word for it, it’s nothing compared to an addiction to rabbits. Rabbits are all I think about.”

“Don’t.”

“How do I not think about rabbits? How do I not think about the only thing I love about Cape Cod? Rabbits are everywhere: I can see them, I can taste them, I can smell them, I can hear them! How do I not think about rabbits?”

“Aussie, let go of rabbits.”

“I can’t.”

“Take a deep breath, Aussie.”

“Breathed. Still thinking of rabbits.”

“Take another deep breath.”

“Breathed. Still thinking about rabbits.”

“Walk slowly and mindfully, smell the flowers and the grass, enjoy the sunset.”

“Still thinking about rabbits.”

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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.