INTERTWINED LIVES

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“I’m looking for Brutus. I know he’s here somewhere because this is where Lori released him.”

“Brutus the Bunny? Come on, Aussie, let him have his life.”

“Am I a hunter? Is he prey? Our lives are intertwined!”

A day after Lori released Brutus into the wild, Aussie sniffed him out in front of the house. Lori beamed. Maybe she had a hope that he’d hang around the house, lots of greens around here. She also left small mounds of hay for him to munch on. But that night the rains returned. Two days later they returned again, and we haven’t seen him since.

Anything could have happened. He could have moved away. He could have been caught by a predator. For a while, the sparkle left Lori’s eyes. Who wants to save a tiny bunny, nourish it and give it life, carefully monitor its growth and size, release it back to the wild when you think it’s ready, and then wonder if it ever weathered the weather? Or weathered life?

I returned to the Farm the other day and walked down the road on top of the hill. Weddings are conducted there each weekend, and this particular walkway is lined on both sides by trees. You enter through a sunny arch and walk towards the other end where there’s another sunny arch, and in between lots of shade. That’s true of so much, not just marriage. Light and shadow constantly playing with us.

My Aunt Tzippi was really my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister. Both grew up in a Russian shtetl poorer than church mice. So poor, in fact, that the boys left home under the guise of going off to study Torah, but actually to enable the remaining family to eat. The girls, of course, had to marry, but there was no dowry for any of them.

I only met my Aunt Tzippi, short for Tzipora (which means bird), when she was old, living in Montreal and occasionally visiting us down in New York. She was elegant even then, with a refinement I didn’t see anywhere else in my father’s family.  She was also a natural raconteur and I a natural listener.

“I was considered quite a beauty when I was young,” she told me. “I fell in love with a young man. He didn’t have money but we loved each other very, very much. Your great-uncle, on the other hand, was a coarse and ignorant man, but he was rich; he came from the richest family in the district. They had fields of wheat, orchards, grapevines, servants, everything a person could want. I didn’t love him. He asked my father for my hand and promised not only that he would take care of me, but that he would take care of the entire family.”

“And?”

“It was impossible to say no. I didn’t care about the things he offered me, but I had my sisters to consider, and my parents. Who would marry my sisters without a dowry? I tried to talk to my father, but he shook his head. Here was a chance of a lifetime for our family, he said. All it took was for me to marry a man I didn’t love and never see again the one I did.”

She married the man who would be my great-uncle. She not only had two children, but she also used that time to educate herself. She studied German poetry and music, learned how to set a resplendent table, ordered Limoges china and Flemish lace. When I talked to her many years later she’d quote long Goethe poems in German—none of which she learned at her father’s home. Her gestures were graceful, as though her fingers had only touched silk.

That ended when the Nazis entered Russia and they were quickly exiled. Due to his connections, her husband got advance notice, sold property and converted it into diamonds, and had her sew the diamonds into the hem of the clothes they wore. At the border they were caught and the diamonds confiscated.

Eventually they made it to France, and after the war she recalled selling hot, wet towels on the street outside the Paris Opera for audiences coming out on a cold night in order to support her family. Eventually they made it to Montreal. Her husband, crushed by his losses, could barely get out of bed, but their children prospered and were happy.

“Your family did well,” I remarked to her.

“Yes, my dear,” she said, looking at slender hands that once wore gold and rubies, but now had become thin and crinkled like paper-mache. “But I gave up the only man I ever loved.”

To this day I remember sitting with her in her Montreal living room, a devoted daughter living just a block away, the phone ringing with calls from her doting grandchildren, her blue eyes still hard with anger, regret deeply lining her features. She’d lived through so much, had been so close to death, but what she couldn’t forgive was losing the one chance she had for a man’s love.

 

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CALL OF THE PIGPEN LEDGES

Last Saturday I sat all day with the Green River Zen community, so came Sunday morning, sunlight abounding, I decided to take a hike. Together with Lori, my housemate, Aussie and Henry the canines, we went up the Robert Frost Trail, which goes north from South Hadley up to the Wendell State Forest, some 42 miles.

We catch the trail close to home. It starts with a steep climb up a hill’s edge, but then levels into woodland of slope and valley. Maintaining a fairly brisk pace, we pause only to look for the red markers, admire the multi-colored mushrooms, examine the large wet stones we used to cross happy streams, and give small snacks to the dogs whenever they come back from their carefree meanderings.

We arrived at Pigpen Ledges almost 2 miles in, tall, ancient rocks enclosing a wide area. The red markers pointed us towards rocks that climbed up in a jumble.

Lori shook her head. “I don’t know if you or the dogs could make it,” she said. She did the climb herself, while I tried to raise my left leg high enough to catch some kind of foothold, with no success. The dogs leaped up on their back legs, then settled back down and whimpered. They couldn’t make it up, either.

I walked along the bottom perimeter, trying to find another way up. Suddenly I looked up: “Aussie!” She’d climbed up and was looking down at me, tail wagging gleefully. “How did you get up there?”

The next one to look down on me was Henry, the little chihuahua, and I groaned. Then I vowed: If Henry could make it up there, I could, too.

Sure enough, there was a sharp rise on the other side that founds its way up through large cracks in the rocks. You had to squeeze tight between boulders and climb through dark holes and then out into the light. This time the rains helped out; the rocks were dangerously wet but the ground was just muddy enough for my feet to sink in a little better, giving me more stability on the steep ascent.

I made it to the top and joined the others on a ledge looking down. I have arthritis in one knee and am hardly as fit as I once was, yet the big ledges called out to me. No way I was going home without giving it a try.

Much of my life I’ve responded to calls: to practice, to work, to write, to love. At certain times these seemed irrational to many, and still I followed them. When people ask me why I continue to live in the house I lived in with Bernie rather than move somewhere else, I tell them it’s not out of attachment to a past but because I feel no call to go elsewhere.

Most of the times that I’ve moved—and those have been many—I moved to follow a call, not just because someplace else was nicer or even more convenient. The Zen Community of New York called me to come to Yonkers, the Zen Peacemakers called me to go to California, New Mexico, Massachusetts. Woodstock called me a long time ago because I wanted to try living in the country, and Manhattan called me because, well, it was Manhattan.

Now there is no call, just practicality (Live somewhere smaller and simpler without a housemate!), and so far I haven’t responded.

I talked with a good friend this morning. Life is good, I told him. There are old, ongoing projects I wish to bring to completion. It will take a couple more years, but somewhere out there I could see an ending, somewhere out there I could see more space. What I’m missing are new callings, I told him, like the call of the Pigpen Ledges. I miss new passions, new stirrings of the heart.

It’s like the difference between an inhale and an exhale, he said.

Following this metaphor, I miss the inhales, letting in some fresh oxygen, a new scent that intrigues the senses, challenges my mind, and excites the heart. Something new, something I haven’t done before, that will call on whatever skills and experience I have and demand I create something out of them. Activating the Zen Peacemaker Order in this country, which I began to do after Bernie died, is such an inhale.

But the rest feels like a long exhale. Making sure that things are in place, publishing what I’ve written, bringing things to fruition—a long, long exhale. Exhales are good, in fact I’ve always favored them over inhales. My meditations are often grounded in long, drawn-out exhales, which create a sense of vast space. Exhales permit me to pay more attention, examine the new beehive by the corner of the garage, the new beaver dam being created a mile down the road, maple leaves turning west towards the sun and shivering when the rains approach. Exhales are for planning Thanksgiving travel and catching up with friends and family. Exhales are for gratitude, for the miracle that’s the essence of every mundane moment.

But inhales! The intake of breath when I get a new idea, when something opens up on my horizon. An excited  to life, when I challenge my lungs to take in new air, open wide, become full once again. When I don’t worry about my asthma and instead take in lots and lots of new oxygen.

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TO OPEN OR NOT TO OPEN?

Earlier today a group of Zen teachers of the White Plum family, that traces its dharma lineage to Maezumi Roshi, one of the Japanese pioneers who brought Zen to the West, met on Zoom to talk about whether and how to reopen our various centers and groups, what are the ever-changing recommendations, the concerns of students, and the technological feasibility of Zoom and hybrid study/practice.

Those who advocated for hybrid technology, i.e., doing things both in person at the center and also through Zoom, described all those who’d be helped in this way. Maybe they’re unvaccinated; maybe they live or travel out of town; maybe they’re frail and don’t travel easily, or have families, or generally have many things on their life plates, including a great love of the dharma.

I am considered a second-generation American Zen teacher, and well remember my upbringing. I was a fanatic, I loved Zen training, I especially loved the engaged Buddhist training that had us start a bakery or build homes for families with no homes or an AIDS center. I saw my teacher practically every day (before I married him!) because we all worked together and considered that a great way to study; he at times told me it was the best way to train.

But earlier today we talked about reaching out to people who can’t do that. The next wave of American practitioners don’t love the dharma any less but wish to honor other commitments as well, like marriage, family, and career, taking care of young children and elderly parents. We saw messages from people saying that Zoom was a lifesaver for them because they couldn’t drive or fly or show up for expensive retreats.

We talked about why people refuse to vaccinate. Some are anti-vaxxers, but some are also “conscientious objectors” who feel they have good medical reasons not to get the coronavirus vaccine, while some have specific conditions that their doctors have advised them to watch out for.

I detected in myself an old intolerance for those who didn’t practice like me, who didn’t put the dharma front and center in their lives, who weren’t ready to sacrifice a lot for this beautiful practice. Back when we trained, the dharma was still a newly planted exotic plant from the East, fragile and still uncertain in American soil, and those of us lucky enough to encounter it desired passionately for it to take solid root, flower, and never disappear.

It has taken root and flowered, so now the big question is: How does this practice serve as many different people as possible? How does it serve vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, people of different religious traditions (so many of whom do meditation), cultures and ethnic backgrounds? What happens to our common language? How does the practice help me love the world in all its flavors and intricacies?

In exploring the question of whether to open up and how, I looked into what the local churches were doing, too, and found that at least two had a somewhat different protocol. They had decided not to ask their parishioners about whether they vaccinated or not, and certainly not why.

At first that made sense to me as part of our overall concern with privacy. But I realize now that when we shut the window down on that discussion, we are losing an opportunity to listen and learn from approaches to covid different from ours. It’s a little analogous to those who insist they are colorblind and don’t notice (or wish to notice) the skin color of the person they meet or the cultural differences. It’s their way of pursuing equality.

Equality can’t be blind to differences, equality is part and parcel of being different. If I don’t recognize the other person as different from me, with a different history, path, and way of life, then I’m not progressive, I’m blind. I condition my acceptance of people on blindness to what makes them specifically different from me. That’s somewhat narrow, and also not a lot of fun.

So, I plan to follow CDC guidelines even as these change (overall, I think they’re highly conservative). But I’m also interested in the stories of those who won’t vaccinate, their motivations and apprehensions, and I want them to know mine. I don’t want to hide our differences behind privacy protocols, but rather create a space where we could listen to each other.

 

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A NEW AMERICAN BREED

Colors of Summer

The other day I took Aussie and Henry for our daily walk in a nearby park. It was a hot morning, mosquitoes and gnats feasting on the three of us, and as we walked back we saw a man in the distance with two small dogs. Though he took a path that ran parallel to ours but was further up, I attached the leashes around Aussie and Henry, who’d begun to bark. Henry barks from sheer excitement, Aussie stays quiet and watchful.

“My dogs are friendly,” I shouted out to the man, as I do whenever I see dogs in the neighborhood. We could see each other clearly, Henry barking away.

“That’s all right, I don’t got no problem with dogs,” the man shouted  back. “Now people, that’s another thing.”

“Maybe we should leash the people rather than the dogs,” I shouted back good-naturedly.

“Good idea,” he shouted back, “especially y’all Democrats!”

He added a few other adjectives and some mumblings, and then was out of earshot.

“Wow,” I said aloud as I released both dogs. “Wow.”

You think you’re having a friendly chat, brought together by canines. But he’s having a whole other conversation, not with you but with some new genus called Democrats, a new breed of mammals in the family Americanus of which you didn’t know you were a member. I’m a registered Democrat, true enough, but to him I was a whole other specie which he’d like to see put on the Endangered list.

I like to laugh at silly things, but I didn’t laugh much driving home.

When I returned home Lori had a sweet, grave expression on her face. “I let Brutus go,” she told me.

“Brutus the Bunny?”

I checked the room that used to be her office in which she’d housed Brutus in Henry’s small crate. I could still smell the grass and hay she’d stacked on the floor once he got less interested in formula and more interested in greens. The smell was all that was left, she’d cleaned up quick, and the room is back to being her office again.

“I was waiting for some good dry weather to release him, and the weather forecast for the next several days is warm and sunny, no sign of rain till Thursday, so I let him go.”

“Where?”

“Out front, away from the dogs. He went under a bush and sat there, munching on grass.”

She looked sad. “Do you feel empty nest syndrome, like he went away to college?“ I teased her. “Lori, you saved that bunny’s life. He was cold and wet and still when you picked him up in your hand.”

“He was in shock from the cold and rain,” she said. “And don’t thank me, thank Aussie who brought him into the house gently in her mouth and put him down on the rug.”

“Fuckin’ ambulance service is what I am,” Aussie mutters. “Have mouth will travel.”

“I’m proud of you, Auss.”

“And did you give me something for all that work? Like a bone maybe? Or, even better, roast lapin?”

Yesterday Lori came back from the outside, eyes sparkling. “We just saw Brutus. Aussie tracked him down. I could see her sniffing in the bushes behind the laundry lines, so I looked closely and there he was, sitting in the underbrush, watching her carefully. As soon as he saw me he ran, crossed over my feet, and rushed out the fence.”

Lori doesn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize animals. Brutus (my name for that teeny creature that was almost dead covering barely half the palm of her hand) is a bunny, still small but growing. She wasn’t keeping him as a pet, she was clear he would return to the wild. But she loved the idea that maybe, just maybe he’d stick around the house, away from the dogs, and she’d glimpse him every once in a while. Check in on him, see how he’s doing.

She’d planned for warm weather, but by 5 pm yesterday the sky darkened, then turned black, the trees blew wildly and rain gushed down everywhere, even leaking into the basement.

This morning we looked around for him; so far, no Brutus.

You bring something from death to life, and let it go. There are no guarantees. What you have is gratitude for a nurturing friendship of several weeks, when you saw him graduate from formula to hay, grass and greens. What you have is moments of connecting with another specie, when you sit on the floor in your office as she did, door closed against the dogs, and Brutus comes out from under the desk and nibbles at the plate of greens you’ve brought in, and at times curls up on the palm of your hand. You both look at each other, he up at you, you down at him, contemplating otherness with curiosity and kindness.

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WE TRUST IN HEAVEN

Long, long ago I had a boyfriend whom I adored. We spent a romantic night together, I was quietly happy, when he turned to me and said: “Why do you always have to be so down?”

I looked at him, bereft.

“You’re not an up person, Eve,” he said. “You’re always thinking about sad things.”

At that moment I was as happy as a woman could be lying in bed with someone she loves, but I must have said something that elicited that reaction. I remember to this day how rejected I felt that moment. In fact, for years I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with me, that my mind could so often wander into realms of devastation and loss.

So, there I was last Saturday, the nicest day we’ve had this entire rainy month. I basked in the sun of Cape Ann on the North Shore, the Atlantic waves low and friendly, the foam laughing, a smile on everybody’s face. When I window-shopped at Rockport the store owners wished me a good day outdoors, promising to join us all outside when the store closed. I don’t think I heard one child cry the entire day, didn’t see chagrin on one parent’s overstrained face. The sun was free of humidity and the constant gray promise of rain. Saturday was free, Saturday was easy, Saturday was a day when I loved the world.

So what did I do? I went up to visit the cemetery that overlooks the beach.

“You did what?” Aussie said.

“I went to the cemetery.”

“Are you crazy? There was the beach just dying for you to go in, and you went to visit dead people?”

“They were dead people from 400 years ago, Auss. It was a real old cemetery.”

“So what? Dead’s dead! If I was there by the beach you wouldn’t catch me dead in a cemetery, not even to pee.”

“I know, Aussie, but it was interesting. The gravestones were so old you couldn’t make out the writing on any of them before 1800. Like this one:

To the memory of Solomon Poole,

Oldest child of Solomon and Polly Poole,

Who died September 27, 1805, aged 1 year 11 months 20 days.

Not so sweet a flower, and must it fade?

“You’re out of your mind. You’re a crazy woman.”

“That’s what an old lover said long ago. But you know, Aussie, people lost their children all the time in those days. There were no antibiotics, little understanding of the importance of clean water and hygiene. Many families lost most of their children, not just a few.”

“There you go again, getting all sad on me.”

“I’m not sad, but I am drawn to things like this, I can’t explain why, Aussie.”

“Just don’t call it intergenerational trauma—puhlease! You wouldn’t have caught The Man going into that cemetery.”

“You wouldn’t have caught the Man on the beach if he couldn’t smoke a cigar. And don’t forget, Aussie, we went to Auschwitz many, many times, which is a gigantic cemetery. Not to mention Murambi and Srebrenica. They always affected him very deeply.”

“That was in Poland, Rwanda, and Bosnia, not Rockport, Cape May, US of A.”

“You’re right, Aussie, sometimes I still tend to go to the dark side.”

“Sometimes?”

“But since Bernie died I’ve gotten lighter, Auss, haven’t you noticed? I’m even happier. Sometimes I’m even funny.”

“Name one time.”

“It’s as if on his way out he looked back, saw my devastated face, and said: Not sure I’ll need it where I’m going, so here, you can have it. And he left me his lightheartedness and humor.”

“His neediest pupil.”

“In that spirit—”

“Here it comes.”

“–I want to ask for help for a particular family that suffered a fire in their house.”

“Why can’t you and I have a conversation without your bringing up people who’re suffering?”

“Aussie, there was a fire on the second floor of a local apartment building from—”

“A barbecue?”

“—someone who smoked in bed and fell asleep. Nobody got hurt, they all got out safely.”

“Could we make that the end of the story?”

“No, Aussie. The firemen came and saved the building, but the water destroyed everything on the first three floors, including everything in one apartment on the ground floor where two families were crowded together. One was here legally, so they could get relief from the landlord and the insurance company, but the other family was illegal, parents with three small children, and they got nothing. They lost everything, Auss—beds, furniture, clothes, cribs, and temporarily their home. Everything was destroyed and not one penny in compensation. I’m bringing some cash to Jimena tomorrow to bring them, but we need more. And food cards for them as well!”

“More, more, more! There’s never an end. And there you go again, being sad.”

“I’m not sad, just noticing how two families live squeezed and crowded in the same apartment, and one gets help and one doesn’t. Helping them is not because I’m sad, helping them is God’s work.”

“Excuse me?”

There was another gravestone in the Rockport cemetery:

Joseph Roe, died May 23, 1817, aged 19 years.

Love and affection here erect the stone.

He was flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.

He was a twin. Like twin brothers, they loved each other.

One still remains, but where is the other?

We trust in heaven.

We trust in heaven—and ask for help.

 

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GONE (JUST FOR WEEKEND)

I’m going away for the weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need to get away, a voice said.

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

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

Like what?

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

I can’t remember.

Go to the ocean.

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

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

Like I said, doing nothing.

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

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

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

I guess I could make some overdue phone calls.

Don’t make overdue phone calls.

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

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

Or nothing can happen.

Which would you prefer?

 

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NOT HAPPENING ON ZOOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much happens on the way to the zendo:

A deer hops across the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This don’t happen on Zoom.

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SAFE! SAFE! SAFE!

Roiling floods in Western Mass.

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

“What do you mean, mom?”

“How did you know where I was?”

“Aren’t you at home?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

I answer in kind. “We’re doing well.”

“Give my love to everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petty, petty, petty was my response.

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

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

 

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WHAT I KNOW ABOUT LOVE

It’s a busy morning.

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

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

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

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

Do you know anything about love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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BRUTUS THE BABY BUNNY

“How’s your patient?” I ask Lori.

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

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

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

“Let’s call him Brutus,” I suggested.

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

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

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

“I’ll never live this down.”

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

“Moi? A role model?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe Biden?”

“Brutus the baby bunny.”

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

“Was Bernie a bad boy?”

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

“Raskolnikov the Borzoi?”

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

“Uggggh!”

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

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

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

“Should’ve ate him.”

 

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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