THE BUDDHA AND THE DOG

“Aussie, did you hear what Pope Francis said?”

“Who?”

“The head of one of the world’s largest religions, Auss. Some people believe that he speaks for God. He said that one of the problems we have in the world is that people prefer to have pets, like dogs, than to have children.”

“He calls that a problem? How many children does he have?”

“None, as far as I know, Aussie.”

“How many dogs?”

“None, as far as I know.”

“I rest my case.”

“Aussie, that may be what’s meant by renunciation.”

“What’s renunciation?”

“Giving things up. In terms of religion, it means that you give up things like certain foods, clothes, independence, family life, sex, and children to focus on taking care of the poor and the sick, or on spiritual awakening. Pope Francis may have given up the possibility of having children or dogs to get closer to God.”

“Come on! The best way to get close to God is to get a dog.”

“How do you know, Aussie?”

“Easy. After dealing with me every day, you’d go anywhere, ANYWHERE!, even up to God in the sky, to get away.”

“But Aussie, the opposite is also true. You know how much I value concentration and hate distractions?”

“Do I ever!”

“But when you sidle over to me and mewl like you do, Aussie, I stop typing, put the coffee cup down, and I pet you. And when Henry comes over and gets up on his hind legs and taps my knee with one of his front paws—”

“He loves ordering you around!”

“–I stop everything, pick him up, and put him on my lap. Even in the middle of meetings. Henry regularly attends at our weekly Zen Peacemaker Order meeting.”

“He’s a waste of valuable time!”

“He’s not, Aussie, and that’s the point. The poet, Mary Oliver, said: Joy is not made to be a crumb.

(Sigh) “I love crumbs.”

“Aussie, I don’t want just crumbs of joy in my life, I want lots of joy! Lots of delight, cheer, and happiness!”

“I thought you were a Buddhist!”

“It’s easy for me to get lost in work and Zooms and meetings and blogs; the whole day and week can go by like that. Instead, I’ve learned to stop everything when Henry taps me on the knee, pick him up, sit him down on my lap, and cuddle with him. The minutes I spend doing that are full of joy. There’s something about seeing his big eyes up close—”

“Mine are much prettier.”

“—feeling his fur—”

“You call that fur?”

“—and feeling the heart beating powerfully in that small, 16-pound body that makes me plain happy. He sits on my lap like a prince on the throne receiving adoring strokes and attention, like it’s all coming to him, as if that’s what life is really about. And that simple act of holding him on my lap and stroking him makes me happy, Aussie.”

“Let me ask you something: When the Buddha sat under the tree and meditated, did he have a dog on his lap?”

“Not that I’ve heard. Unless Mara, the Lord of Delusion, brought him one.  The sutras say that Mara brought him his beautiful daughters to distract him, but also an army of monsters and demons.”

“Then he must have brought Henry. And was the Buddha distracted?”

“He was not.”

“Did he hold him and kiss him and tell him what a sweetie he was? Vomit! Vomit! Vomit!”

“I don’t care, Aussie. Like Mary Oliver said, I don’t want a crumb of joy here and a crumb of joy there, I want the whole shebang.”

“And you call yourself a Buddhist!”

“When you and Henry come over and interrupt some work I do that barely reaches the bar of insignificance in the long run of things, I want to grab those minutes of feeling those soft hairs under my hand, seeing a few specks of gray on your dark fur—”

“Gray! Where? Where?”

“—and feeling Henry’s small body shake and quiver with pleasure as my fingers graze down his back. That’s pleasure! That’s gladness! That’s joy!”

“Maybe, but that’s no way to get enlightened.”

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

MUNDANE TASKS OF LIFE

In the past few years, I’ve found myself repeating this refrain to myself again and again: I want to keep on working, keep on doing. I don’t want my days to be consumed by the Mundane Tasks of Life.

But the other day, right at this hour of a cold January twilight, a question occurred to me: So what’s wrong with spending your days on the Mundane Tasks of Life?

I’ve said it before: I’m a slow learner.

What are these tasks? Here’s one day’s worth: Get up in the morning, wash up, meditate, light incense, feed Aussie, study, exercise, eat breakfast, make food plans for company tomorrow and compose shopping list, make the bed, weekly laundry, long talk with my brother re family matters, walk Aussie and Henry, fill up birdfeeders, empty dehumidifier in basement, water flowers, prepare and eat dinner (except on some Wednesday evenings when Byron, Jimena’s husband, cooks dinner for me when I come to meet with them and immigrant families).

But in my mind, what counts as work today? Weekly meeting of Zen Peacemaker Order committee and related emails, Zoom with student, prepare cash and food cards for immigrant families, meet with Jimena and parents in evening, write this blog post. At the end of the day I’ll shake my head: This is how you spent your day? That’s all you did?

Somehow, I don’t include the Mundane Tasks of Life in my list, though there are many of them day after day. If anything, I fantasize about someone sharing those Mundane Tasks of Life, or better yet, taking them off my hands completely.

Not about to happen.

Slowly I’m realizing that there wouldn’t be life without the Mundane Tasks of Life. There wouldn’t be life without shopping for and cooking meals, washing clothes, sweeping the floors, or feeding and walking dogs. At least, not life as I know it.

I know people whose list of the Mundane Tasks of Life is much shorter than mine. They don’t live in a big house, they don’t have dogs, they don’t have friends, associates, or even family members they love to catch up with for longer than 10 minutes, they don’t have birdfeeders or plants or malfunctioning basement water pipes (the plumber arrives on Friday), they don’t bother with a yard or a garden.

Theirs is a simpler life than mine, they have more time on their hands, and often I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t live like that, too.

But right now I have deep personal connections and loving friendships, keep on studying, keep on teaching, keep on organizing, keep on talking with animals and trees while on walks in the forest. So many books to read! So many sutras to study! So many hours of zazen for which to get up each morning (just signed up for the 108 consecutive days of meditation that Green River has been doing every winter over many years). And yes, so many Mundane Tasks of Life.

One evening I made myself a feta cheese omelet, toasted some bread, added a salad, poured myself a glass of wine because it was a weekend evening, and it hit me: This is life. Life is made up of tasks, the tasks of living.

What outside of these Mundane Tasks of Life is more important? The cutlery and napkins on the dining table ask for relationship just like my sister and brother. The laundry machine asks for attentive care as I load it, keeping it in balance so that it doesn’t pound on the floor, no different from the dogs or the post office lady at the door. These are fields of Buddha activity.

There’s a joke about a man who must get to an office meeting by a certain time only he can’t find parking. He goes round and round the building, round and round the block, no luck. He prays to God: “Please God, find me a parking place, otherwise I’m in trouble.” He goes around the block again and there, right in front of the door, a parking place has opened. He sidles into it and says: “Never mind, God, did it myself.”

Not quite sure why I bring this up now, except to point out that if something feels mundane, it’s because I’ve made it so. I’ve categorized things as important and not, spiritual and not, real work and not. In doing so, I’ve taken something far more mysterious, far more subtle, far more gorgeous and baffling out of the equation.

What I’m also discovering is that when I appreciate my Mundale Tasks of Life, I also appreciate others’ Mundane Tasks of Life. I visited with Jimena this evening, bringing rent money for a family whose father worked in construction, fell off the ladder and broke his leg. And food cards. Ordinarily I’d be in a hurry to leave when all this is done and folks have left, but this time we sat on her freezing porch sipping hot tea to keep warm and talking about omicron and testing in the local schools. Then we talked about her boys playing basketball.

“Oh my God, Eve,” she says, “my Mario played his first game on Monday. You should see all his fans crying his name: Mario! Mario! Here, let me show you.” Out comes one of three cell phones Jimena uses to show me a photo of four pretty girls holding up a sign with his name.

“You’re in trouble now,” I tell her.

“He’s still in Middle School,” she objects vehemently. “He knows that school is the only thing that matters.” Jimena has pounded that lesson into her boys since the day they were born. Nothing, but nothing, is supposed to distract them from school. She must be Jewish somewhere.

“Forget it,” I tell her. “These are beautiful girls; it’s just a matter of time.”

She grins proudly and sighs at the same time. “No, no, no, no,” she says. “Not now.”

“You mean, not ever, don’t you?”

We both laugh. Simple, ordinary life. Take the son to basketball practice, bring him home. Byron cooks dinner, which Jimena won’t eat till she’s done working at 9:00 pm. That’s when she’ll also remind Mario that only school matters, not girls, not even basketball practice.

We sip our tea, we laugh, I gather my pocketbook, soon I’ll leave. Life is so mundane we barely notice it.

Please help me support our immigrant community. I was told that the link supplied on Monday for immigrant families was dead; I hope it’s live this evening, someone’s working on tis. If not, you can use the link for blog donations and add the words: for food cards. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Donate to My Blog               Donate to Immigrant Families

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

WAITING

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope this new year brings us all a healthy body, a glad heart, and days full-filled rather than filled.

What do I wish myself? Patience. A particular kind of patience, the kind that knows that waiting is its own goal and possesses its own sacredness.

I’ve always hated waiting. I would look at my watch, feel my breaths getting shallower, visualize what I could be doing right this minute and how time was slipping by with NO NOTICEABLE RESULTS.

On Wednesday evening I’ll meet with Jimena once again at the front porch of her home to give out food cards. The office where she works has shut down due to surging numbers of omicron, so we’re back in her uninsulated front porch and I’ll have to really dress warm. Just in case I get too whiny about it, young mothers come with their small children snug and warm in heavy coats and jackets while they, the young mothers, wear sneakers rather than boots, thin pants that reveal bare ankles uncovered by socks, and jackets? Sometimes.

“Aren’t you cold?” I say, teeth chattering. They shrug jauntily, as if the weather is the last thing they have to worry about.

If they don’t come on time, as often happens, the waiting begins: I chat with Jimena, catch up on how people are doing, the kids, the schools, who’s been to the hospital and who is finally well (I heard Hilaria was doing much better and will get more details on Wednesday). Get the inside scoop on how people are making it through winter  when the farms are closed, when the utility bills are unpaid and the money they put aside in summer quickly diminishes and then disappears. Even as I write this I am waiting for a response from Jimena about someone needing desperate help for rent.

At some point we stop  talking and waiting commences. I think about the passing evening hours, how I have to get home to finish some things that still need work, curl my freezing toes inside my boots, take a breath or two, and still get impatient.

Here’s what I’ve learned only recently: Waiting is its own spiritual practice. Waiting is sacred. Waiting implies that I’m open to the possibility that nothing will happen according to my timeframes, my deadlines. It may feel passive, but it’s not. I’m holding the space for something to happen, knowing that it may and may not, and that assuming it happens it won’t do so punctually. It won’t happen on my time. In fact, it won’t happen on time at all because I don’t even know what that means anymore.

When we used to work in the Middle East I was always moved by both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. Majorities had moved in the opposite direction, bombings and bloodshed continued, and at times I’d see a small group of people bearing banners at intersections and getting cursed out by passing drivers. They were waiting. Not passively at all, but waiting nevertheless, holding the space for the change that would come.

There are so many things I wish would happen on time:

I want people to pick up food cards for their families on time each Wednesday;

I want them to speak English way better than they do. It’s not easy for me to stand on the margins and hear them chattering away with Jimena in Spanish while I struggle to follow with my barely basic Spanish. In general, being on the margin of activity rather than in its center is an important practice of waiting for me.

I want their children to finish school with honors and go to college, fulfill the American dream. It happens sometimes—I’ve written about it—but certainly not always. The kids are kids, they’ve been at home a lot, isolated from teachers and educators, with parents barely able to help them with computers and lessons. I want things to change and take root quickly, want to be able to share with you stories of great success. It doesn’t happen quickly so I have to wait.

I learned about waiting after Bernie died. I couldn’t understand this persistent grief and confusion, a misplaced sense of identity. One year passed, another year passed. “Something’s wrong here,” I told friends. I was doing grief too slowly. They said: “You have to wait.”

I think of my impatience with students and remember Bernie. He wanted so much to happen. It didn’t, and he was fine with that. As I get closer to his age I deeply appreciate the vast store of patience he had with his own students, and certainly with his wife.

I’d like this world to embrace differences of all kinds faster, to honor the species we share the earth with and take care of everyone. To act on what we already know. That’s certainly not happening on my time, according to my watch. I too, am to blame here. I don’t have the funds to switch to solar energy for my home (will have to cut down too many trees) and drive more than I absolutely have to. But if all that changed, I’d still have to wait.

Even the card above, expressing Emily’s gratitude for Christmas gifts that she and 81 of her friends received from you, reminds me of the practice of waiting. For what? So that Emily could spell Holodays as holidays? The universe has its own designs, its own misspelled words. How pretentious to think I know what those are! I have had the misfortune of rushing to get something done, stepping on toes, speeding through intersections, creating stress, hurt, and confusion. I couldn’t stand to be inactive; I couldn’t stand to wait.

Finally, finally, I’m learning.

I haven’t asked for help for immigrant families since before Thanksgiving. Winter is upon us—today only made it to the 20s and felt way colder than that—and for some families that will mean harsh choices with regard to food, heat, and utilities. If you could provide some help here, together we might be able to prolong the holodays a little longer. Thank you.

Donate to My Blog               Donate to Immigrant Families

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

CAN I GO DARK?

“Aussie, do you know what’s your deepest heart’s desire?”

“Easy. Triple Flavor Chicken, Duck, and Chicken Liver Kabobs.”

“That’s it, Auss? That’s your deepest heart’s desire?”

“Well, maybe not. Gotta think.”

“How about joy for the coming year? Peace on earth?”

“Nah, Beef Burger with Bison Strips. I’d go for Triple Flavor Beef, Pork, and Chicken Twists but I don’t eat pork.”

Aussie and I talked about this after walking in the fog. Bare winter trees on either side of us while the air serves to conceal rather than reveal. We don’t see other people or dogs till they’re practically upon us.

This is a change for me. I’m blessed with a sharp, discriminating mind, the kind that likes to see and say what’s what, what feels real and what nebulous, the kind that likes precision and definition instead of feeling one’s way through things.

I talked to a friend yesterday about an unpleasant conversation I had with a student, and he laughed. “You like things to be sharp and clear. My guess is that when you’re confronted by someone or a situation that’s not that way, you run for the hills.”

He was right, I thought, grateful for his diagnosis. I’ve always liked things to be clear and transparent. “Precision is a spiritual practice,” my brother used to say. No patience for vagueness or ambivalence, for words that don’t mean anything. Sometimes for all words.

But now I feel the need to go into the fog. Or perhaps into the earth. In my last post I wrote that I suddenly stopped doing a morning service to Kwan-yin and instead just plant a stick of incense on the (now) wet ground, nothing more. If this was a koan, I’d say that I’m that incense stick wishing to be planted deep in the earth even as a small part of me burns off.

My friend also reminded me of a quote by Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “The most important thing is to find what’s the most important thing.”

It’s so easy to be distracted by the small, daily tasks of existence: shopping for and cooking three meals a day, dog walking, emails, news, folding laundry, telephone calls, brushing and feeding Aussie, picking up something at the store, filling up the car with gas, sweeping the kitchen, emptying the dehumidifier in the basement. Those daily tasks could define the rest of my life if I let them, and my conditioning to be a good girl and complete the tasks on the list doesn’t help much here.

And there are other things to do with teaching, with the Zen Peacemaker Order, and even with this blog. Last night Jimena and Byron took me out for dinner as a belated birthday gift. They were thrilled with the 82 Christmas gifts we managed to give out to children of immigrant families and we talked about the immigrant community now, at this time of omicron. But even those efforts, valuable as they are, can be a distraction. They’re from 2021, somewhat from habit and old inspiration.

What’s the most important thing going into 2022? Where lies my passion for something bigger than me? I feel I know well the part of the incense stick whose smell wafts up with the wind, explores bare branches and crows, hovering over muddy paths and the head of Kwan-yin. That visible part of the world is familiar. I struggle with the part that’s buried underground. I struggle with the invitation to go dark.

This is the time for it. The gray darkness goes on for many hours in the day; rare have been the mornings I opened my eyes to see blue skies this winter.  I used to groan when I saw that first thing in the morning, but now I appreciate it. The universe is beckoning to me, saying: See? I even robbed the light from the earth so that you could more easily make the journey to the underworld.

I think of those who buy special lamps at this time of year, anything, anything for light. I get Facebook messages: Don’t despair, the light will come back. I’ll tell you honestly: Who needs it right now? The universe operates so much for our benefit, and if it gives us the dark freely, no charge, why not go there? It’s calling out to us to lie in the deep earth, rid ourselves of the things we commonly know and do, and listen.

As I wrote last time, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion left Jesus in the dark at the very end. In this change of year, over the next weeks and months of shadow, can I leave myself there, too? Can I stop worrying about return of the light, about resurrection, about a new inspiration firing off a splurge of fresh energy. For now, can I go dark?

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

MID-WINTER

Henry is not well.

Yes, I know he’s a Chihuahua, a foreigner, and Aussie says she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But in truth she likes his company on walks. Lately he hasn’t come with us, he shakes and shivers on his paws, and it’s not from the cold. When he does come, he can’t run around like her, chasing after animals, pursuing smells. Instead, he stays with me and whines sadly, waiting for her to rejoin us.

We don’t know what it is. For a long time, the diagnosis was kidney trouble and Henry’s been on a special diet. Now they’re looking at his back. He’s in pain and doesn’t eat much.

But today he played all morning and afternoon with Croc, his green stuffed crocodile, and Pinky the elephant. Even now, as I try to focus on the computer screen, he tosses his small green turtle onto my lap with a soft snarl and waits for me to throw it so that he could fetch. Or else he sits by the glass door of the office and stares out at the squirrels trying to hijack the birdseed.

In Thanksgiving we took out the birdfeeders. Three out of four seasons I don’t feed birds, but comes winter, the ground freezing solid, I fill up five birdfeeders with sunflower seeds (I buy 40-pound bags of them) and up they go, consumed in no more than two days. The squirrels monopolize one for sure and attempt to get at the others, with varying degrees of success. This brings new activity to the back yard and Aussie and Henry dash out the dog door a dozen times a day, on the hunt for marauding squirrels.

Some people try to get squirrel-proof feeders; I don’t. Comes the cold, dark winter, I want to take care of people and animals, including me. Want to tend to the universe. Come April, trees grow new leaves, plants leap up from the ground like Marines and flowers straggle up shyly from the underworld. Life seems to do just fine without help from me. But in winter things seem more fragile, more tender. They need to be tended to, like Henry.

Given all this, imagine my surprise when this morning I found myself reluctant to go out to Kwan-yin in the back and do service with incense, imploring her for compassion on behalf of people who’re ill or need help. I thought: Enough, enough. I did put on my boots, went out and left a stick of incense in the soil, a tiny offering to this great sustaining earth.

But I was puzzled that I didn’t wish to do what I’ve done for years. Was it just one morning’s impulse, or is something else coming up? And why now, at the very time that calls for more giving, more tenderness?

I remember seeing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music some 30 years ago, directed by Jonathan Miller, one of England’s great theater directors. I traveled down from Yonkers with a friend. I’d never seen the Passion before, didn’t even know the music.

Of course, I knew the story of that Last Supper, the betrayal of Jesus, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Roman soldiers coming to get him, sentenced by Pilate to a terrible death, the crucifixion at Golgotha. And, of course, the resurrection would occur at the end. At least, that’s what I thought.

But St. Matthew’s Passion had no resurrection at the end. It showed the entire story through his death and ended with the body being taken down and the tomb sealed.

There was applause, followed by people getting up from their seats to leave the theater. I sat there alone, waiting for the resurrection. Finally, the friend with whom I’d driven down, who sat in a distant seat, came to pick me up, wondering why I hadn’t met her in the lobby as we’d planned.

“What about the resurrection?” I asked her. She was Christian and a musician. If anyone would know, she would.

“There is no resurrection in St. Matthew’s Passion,” was the response.

I couldn’t believe it. The next day I bought the CD and listened carefully, following the English translation in the accompanying Notes. And no, there was no resurrection. No triumph in the end, no victory of good over evil, day over night, gladness over despair. The Israelites didn’t win it over the Egyptians

What there was, was tenderness.

Maybe that’s part of this winter for me, or the winter of my life. When you’re younger you want to win. You want your values to triumph, mercy and compassion to cross the finish line. The world may falter, but the resurrection is inevitable.

Maybe. There’s a lot to say for waiting things out. No prayer for a particular outcome, just breathing in and out together with the rest of the world.

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

CAN DAHLIAS GET THE CORONA?

“Can dahlias get the corona?”

When I’m in Israel I usually buy flowers for family on Friday afternoons. Buying flowers for the Sabbath is a widespread custom and vendors sprout up on almost every street corner, surrounded by large buckets holding flower bouquets.

On the last Friday of my sojourn in Israel I found a bouquet of red dahlias. Swapna, my mother’s Indian caregiver, inserted them into a vase containing last week’s white flowers and set the on the coffee table. About 50 times that week my mother would say: “Look at those flowers!”

“They’re dahlias, mom,” I tell her. “Do you know how often I’ve tried to raise dahlias back home? I succeeded for one or two summers and failed ever since because we don’t have enough sunlight around the house, too many trees.”

She listens and nods but has a hard time fathoming any of this since she doesn’t understand where I live and what has this to do with her flowers. Five minutes later she says: “Look at those flowers!” And finally, to my surprise: “Can dahlias get the corona?”

“I don’t know, mom. Different animals have gotten it, but I don’t know about flowers.”

“You have to be so careful nowadays,” she says, and I don’t know if she’s talking to me or to the flowers.

Earlier that same day we got an urgent call from Saint Swapna. “Mother won’t come inside. She stand outside and won’t come in, she says this is not her home.”

My sister gets on the phone. “Mom, it’s very cold and rainy, go inside with Swapna.”

“No, no, it’s not my home. I don’t go with Swapna, she is evil, I trusted her but now I know never to do that again.”

“Mom, listen to me.”

But she goes on: “My own children sold me down the river, like Joseph’s brethren sold him to slave merchants who took him to Egypt. My own children! I would have never believed it!”

By then my brother and I have jumped into his car and are on our way to her home. Outside, a cold, wintry rain is pelting the sidewalks, but when we get to her home 20 minutes later she still stands on the sidewalk, refusing to come in.

“The most horrible thing you can do is kidnap a child, or a parent, and separate children from parents, children from their siblings,” she berates us.

My brother urges her indoors while I briefly think of the Trump government separating families at the border. She comes in, wet and cold, and we urge her into her favorite blue chair. She looks confusedly from one wall to another.

“Mom, do you recognize the sofa? You recognize the kitchen? You see the pictures? The photos?”

“Ye-es,” she says shakily, “I recognize them. But,” and she looks around her from one wall to another, “this is not my apartment. This is not my apartment.”

We sat with her for over an hour, and still she couldn’t recognize her home. Finally, Swapna gave her a pill and she went to bed.

The following morning, she woke up with no memory of the preceding day. Instead, she kept on telling me how much she loved her home, with the trees outside and the sunlight shining through the windows, brightening the white, clean floor tiles. Finally, looking at the dahlias, her forehead creased with worry, she asked: “Can dahlias get corona?”

I was in the midst of applying for an exemption permitting me to fly out and return home in the middle of new regulations restricting almost all travel in and out of Israel due to omicron. The radio and newspapers were full of graphs and statistics, interviews with epidemiologists and dire predictions. I had to get an antigen test and fill out both Israeli and US forms, wondered if I’d ever get home.

My mom worried whether dahlias could get the virus. The reach of her concern dwarfed mine by far.

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

GETTING HOME

I’m back home, as the photo above suggests. Dusting of snow last night. Lori and I walked the dogs this Christmas Eve morning, Aussie in high spirits, Henry the Chihuahua shaking and trembling in the chill. Two dogs experiencing the moment so differently.

I had a hard time getting out of Israel. A few days before I was scheduled to leave, the prime minister announced that models indicate a severe surge of the omicron variant three weeks hence, so the government was taking radical measures, one of which was restricting travel in and out of the country. In essence, no one could fly out to a Red country without getting a special exemption.

The US was declared Red 24 hours before my scheduled departure. My sister helped me file an online application for exemption, but no answer came. Later I heard that they got so many applications that their systems crashed.

“I don’t care,” I told her. “I’m going to the airport and getting on that flight.” Last May I hadn’t been able to get home due to the war with Gaza; I was pretty determined.

My brother took me to the airport some four hours early. Once there, I was directed to a special office on another floor that was handing out exemptions and found myself on a line of some 200 people trying to get home, converging on a counter, behind which sat two middle-aged, harried women. Their computers were down and they were doing things manually.

At first there was a line, but as it lengthened, it widened, too, and soon disintegrated completely. Most passengers were like me, waving American passports and demanding to be allowed to board the plane. There were also a few with other needs—unvaccinated passengers, people with only an Israeli passport wishing to leave the country, etc. They pressed their case and took up lots of time.

As minutes, then hours passed, we became a mob, pressing and pushing against each other, straining to get to the counter. I could feel the pressure against my back, padded by my backpack, could hear one of the women on the phone screaming for help, saying there was a mob out there and where was a representative from the Health Department?

A heavyset Russian man yelled behind me: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THEM? WHAT KIND OF DUMBA—F—S are they!”

At first, I responded mildly. “It’s the first 24 hours after the new rules and they’re clearly unprepared and understaffed.”

“AND WHAT’S WITH THOSE CRAZY HASIDIM?” he shouted. “THEY ALWAYS WANT MORE THAN ANYBODY ELSE!” He was referring to two orthodox young men in their black suits, side curls, and hats, who took a half hour to get their case resolved.

As time passed I, too, got carried away. The United flight was going to leave without me—how dare they? I, too, yelled at the woman behind the counter. I snapped at the slender, young, uniformed man quietly pushing his way ahead of everyone else, explaining that he was taking care of two VIPs, a father and son, who needed special assistance.

I didn’t say “F— THEM!” but I might as well have. Instead, I exploded: “I’m standing here for the last two hours, and they get special assistance!”

I blamed him, blamed the two overwhelmed women doing their best with no functioning computers and no help, facing a crowd that got angrier and more aggressive by the minute. The outrage felt so good! Indignation! Moral injury!

I got to the counter, filled out a form, threw down my passport, the woman copied the form, stamped it, returned it to me, and it took a few minutes to fight my way out of the roiling throng.

Had another angry exchange with the United ticket agent who wouldn’t accept the form (“Their computers are down; this is the best they can do!” I had to repeat repeatedly even as she insisted otherwise), and finally found myself in a narrow Economy window seat of the plane, ready to take off. In the peak of the Christmas holiday season, when planes to and from Israel are full of tourists and Christian pilgrims, the flight was ¾ empty.

And felt ashamed. Wished I’d been more patient, more gracious, more grateful to the two women doing their best. Wished I’d had an Order of Disorder clown nose on, bringing levity and smiles to the angry crowd. I thought: Now I know what it’s like to be part of a mob. Not a lynching mob, but livid and abusive.

I don’t describe this out of guilt. This is hardly my only episode of outrage and indignation; I’ve had a number of these in my life. If I’d thought it was behind me, I found out it wasn’t, but that discovery wasn’t much of a surprise.

We get caught in the net of gain and loss; we fight tooth and nail, but loss is as much part of life as everything else. In the end I will lose a lot more than a flight home. I’ll probably lose my mom just as I lost Bernie, I may well lose other family members and friends, the use of parts of my body, the energy I treasured, finally this life form. Do I really want to be outraged every time that happens?

“Aussie lay on your bed the days you were gone,” Lori told me. “She wanted to be with your smell.”

The smell probably faded after some days, and still she lay there. She didn’t kick and scream, didn’t yell that life isn’t fair and curse the universe. She lay there till Lori called her for a walk or food, and then, tail wagging, she’d go downstairs.

She’s better at impermanence than I am.

I had a dream last night, jetlag and all. I dreamt that I met Donald Trump and we became friends. He made thoughtful comments and listened; he’d become humble. I brought him to a group I was working with—Latino immigrants? Families with no homes? The dream wasn’t specific about that—and he listened to them and made simple, practical suggestions. He cared.

It’s the night of Christmas Eve now. I wish us all more patience this coming year, a larger compassion, a wider door to our own beating heart.

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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

Mom

“Wow, Jerusalem!”

That’s what people say when I tell them where I’m flying to. I have a mother, brother, and sister here and I have been flying to Jerusalem twice a year for some 20 years now. The coronavirus crimped that somewhat, but on the other hand, when Zen Peacemakers was involved in the Middle East, it was common for me to fly here a lot more frequently, though not to be with family. I taught all kinds of things then.

Now when I get here, famlly’s almost all I do. I don’t go to theater or to hear music, I take little advantage of being in a big city. I see few friends and do little gift shopping in the Old City. At times find myself in a mall where I buy a white turtleneck for my mother and a turquoise sweater for myself against the cold. I go out to lots of restaurants and cafes. We’re Jewish; meetings involve food and good coffee.

I rarely visit the Wailing Wall and am not allowed onto the Temple Mount or Al Aqsa Mosque, only open to Muslims. When given the chance, I still love to drive out into the desert and hike up and down canyons or take walks in nature around the city, but that hasn’t happened lately.

Family is a big deal here. As I write this, I can hear my sister teaching English on the phone to a client and saying happily: “Oh, he arrived yesterday? How exciting!” Who arrived? Maybe the woman’s son, maybe a brother. My sister is not just teaching her the word exciting; she’s resonating with it. People here have relatives all over the world and there’s great joy when they come together.

The airport is closed to outsiders now due to the virus, but ordinarily, landing in Israel means getting your luggage and emerging into a crowd waving balloons and flowers and children rushing by you to hug grandparents, or else a couple locked in a passionate embrace, oblivious to everyone else around them.

The joke about flying to Israel Christmas time is this: The plane lands and is rolling on the runway towards the gate when the pilot makes the following announcement: “For those of you on your feet—Happy Hanukah. For those of you in your seats—Merry Christmas.”

It’s understood that those people standing in the aisles before the plane docks, heading towards the exit, breaking every rule they can on their rush out of the plane to see their loved ones, are Israelis. The ones still sitting lawfully, waiting for the plane to be at the gate and the Fasten Seatbelts sign to go off, are Christian pilgrims.

So how do I spend these shortest days of the year here? Bearing witness to the simplest things:

A cup of morning espresso with one of my brother-in-law’s fabulous cookies (he’s a topnotch baker);

shopping with my sister at her favorite dog supply store and marveling at the price of dog treats;

stopping at night for a good hot chocolate on the way home from seeing my mother;

walking Molly down narrow alleys and yes, picking up dog poop because this is a city after all, not the woods where I live;

talking to my brother about family matters in a loud, packed restaurant where every ten minutes the waiters hold a raucous celebration of a customer’s birthday with loud Eastern music, big whipped cream-topped brownies and colorful sombreros (the mix of Western and Middle Eastern cultures here is a hoot);

smelling the breads in my sister’s favorite bread store;

watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind with her (You never saw it? I don’t care about X-Files, how could you not see this?).

They’re present to me, and I’m present to them. Last night I sat back on a Barcalounger and took in the white roses on the table, the warmth of the gas stone, the hot soup ladled into bowls, and let myself completely inhale that sense of safety and comfort, of being cared for, of being with family.

For many years it wasn’t this way, and I leaned early on to take care of myself, become self-reliant, do without when necessary. It firmed up my backbone and made me strong and independent. I appreciate all those things. At the same time, I’m grateful that at a later age I was given the chance to rediscover family and to surrender to connection and relationship that for so many years I found suspect.

What do I go back to tonight? The companionship of a housemate, Henry the chihuahua up on his back legs meerkat-like, barking nonstop, while Aussie mewls a happy welcome, friends reaching out from a distance..

And also, aloneness. If I’m not careful, fear can blanket me. Instead, I will go to meet it, befriend aloneness, make it a dear companion. Feel safe and comfortable with it, as I do now just hours before leaving.

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TENDERNESS

Fr. Greg Boyle and Bernie. Photo by Rami Efal

“Your past is like your ass—behind you.”

I read those words in Fr. Gregory Boyle’s recent book, The Whole Language, describing his experiences with homies, gang members in Los Angeles. It’s my first time reading a book on Kindle.

I met G, as they call him, some 4 years ago when Bernie and I visited his office in Homeboy Industries.

I’m particularly struck by Boyle’s insistence that every single person who comes through their doors is beloved by God regardless of what he’s done or what violence she’s perpetrated. He talks of unconditional love that God has for all humans regardless of our judgment of them, and Boyle’s desire to show the same to all the homies.

This is in firm opposition to the widespread perception of God as some critical, angry being whom we must fear, before whom we must tremble, and whose favor is conditioned on the kind of people we are.

Instead of going around in fear, as so many people do, fear of their inadequacies and shortcomings, fear that they’re not loved by God, we need to live happy and confident in God’s love for us. If we feel fear, this is what we’ll project onto everything and everyone else. If we feel love, we will project that onto the rest of the world.

Tenderness is the word he invokes most of all, the tenderness that lurks under the fear, the tenderness that comes with acceptance and self-acceptance.

I feel that in this trip I’ve been surrounded by acts of tenderness. Right now, 70 mph winds are blasting rain at our windows, but I sit by a gas stove under a wool blanket and Molly, my sister’s Alsatian Shepherd, leans her head against my chair.

My sister drives me in the middle of the storm towards Beit Jallah so that I could meet with Sami Awad, my Palestinian peace activist friend. The previous night she was warned by neighbors not to drive there, it’s the West Bank, too dangerous, etc. Instead, she drives me down a beautiful road ringed by climbing slopes of olive trees bending in the winds. She’s going to get me there regardless of fears and warnings. We share 30 minutes of tenderness between two sisters who don’t get to see each other very often.

Only Sami isn’t there and after waiting a while we head back home. “Eve,” he finally calls, “I was in a car accident in Bethlehem on the way to you.”

“What happened? Did you get hurt?”

He’s fine, car’s fine, and he’s just worried that he missed me and won’t see me again for a while. I pause, take it in. Sami just turned 50, I just turned 72, he could be my son. Anther surge of tenderness.

I think of Lori back home, taking care of dogs and house while I’m gone.

I recall the shopkeepers in the Old City. I went shopping down an alley usually filled with stores, but one side of the alley was empty because tourists can’t come in. Now is usually the time of Christmas pilgrims, a big source of revenue for shops in the Old City, but no one can come in due to fears around omicron. And one shopkeeper in particular, an old man limping badly as he shows me magnificent robes, jackets, and vests made by hand by Bedouins down south.

“The steps were wet,” he says, “and I fell hard on my knee.” But he insists on bringing us the best Turkish coffee I’ve drunk in years, limping up and down the steps of his shop.

For him, too, there’s tenderness.

Doing simple things with my sister: Picking up an electric heater for her room because of the cold, buying meds for my mother and treats for Molly, checking up on my brother-in-law and his bad cold. No theater, no music, nothing terribly exciting in this fascinating city, just small stations that dot our daily journeys, each filled with tenderness.

And of course, conversations with my mother:

“Mom, do you think you’ll get into paradise after you die?”

“It depends. I want to see a list of who’s there.”

“Why, mom?”

“I want to be with people who laugh,” she answers. And then says: “I’m glad you’re not too old, Chavale.”

“Why’s that, mom?”

“I don’t want you to get so old that we can’t talk together anymore,” she tells me, aged 93, with ongoing dementia.

We laugh aloud for a long time, but under the laughter, a wide seam of tenderness.

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SWIMMING IN FULL-DRESS AND HIJAB

In my last post I talked about going to the Dead Sea for two days, and on the way there visiting my niece in a West Bank settlement. A well-off settlement, with schools, parks, and lookout points overseeing the desert. A year or so ago I attended a birthday party there with nieces and nephews and their children. We sat outdoors on a green slope overlooking a basketball court and, behind that, the desert.

Everyone was happy; no one seemed conscious of the fact that for much of the world, this is considered occupied land.

In America we also live on occupied land, but generations later, after waves of voluntary immigration from Europe and Asia and coerced ship journeys bringing Africans for the purpose of enslavement, who, other than Native Americans, considers the US occupied territory?

This is what Israeli strategists banked on: Let’s make the West Bank economically attractive for young families, they’ll settle there, their children will be born there, their children, etc., and we won’t have to worry about two states any longer.

By now I say they succeeded. But succeeded in what?

For several years I refused to go into settlements in the West Bank. Years ago, I told the same niece I visited on Tuesday that I couldn’t come there, it went against my sense of right and wrong, my hopes for a just peace in this land. Jews needed a home, I thought, but not this way. I imagined the Israeli strategists congratulating themselves on once again outsmarting the opposition, planning well ahead, sitting back, and watching their plans move forward unimpeded.

But whether it’s my sharp values or strategists’ plans, they seem to get upended by life unspooling day after day.

I spent two days in a hotel in the Dead Sea, a place that, what with the heat and salinity, causes you to slow down, even come to a standstill (or sits till) and do nothing. Here I am, closer to the center of the earth than any other place on the earth’s surface, closer to the heart. And the heart surprises.

Bernie and I brought different people to the Dead Sea, in addition to my mother. They included Peter and Maria Matthiessen, they included our Zen familiars Junyu and Tamiko Kuroda, as well as Bernie’s cousin George Plafker, Penrose Medal-winning geologist who related much about the enormously long rift under the Sea even as we drove alongside it. On occasion I’d see Israeli Arab families in the hotels as well, but very few.

This time, busloads of Arab women came down and stayed at our hotel. We encountered them everywhere—the lobby, the dining room, the Dead Sea Mall—and on the beach. One evening, going back to the room after dinner, I heard Happy Birthday sung in heavily accented English. I peeked into the club. Around one table sat a large group of older religious Jewish women, hair covered under hats. Next to them was an even bigger group of Israeli Arab women singing loudly in English, accompanied by a stringed oud.

We encountered them in the indoors pool of heavy Dead Sea salt water in the hotel’s spa. They went into that oily, warm water wearing black pants or leggings under long blouses or tunics, hair enclosed in a hijab. This is how they also went into the Dead Sea outside, joined by young Jewish women in bikinis. I was in the pool and noticed that a few had entered the adjacent jacuzzi, which already contained Jewish Israeli women.

“Where are you from?” one Jewish woman asked.

“Acre,” replied the Arab woman, in Hebrew.

“All the way up there in the north!”

And then they chatted. First, about their children, how many, who’s married, who has grandchildren. They compared notes about the Dead Sea, how often they go down there, for what event, who has elderly parents, who teaches school.

I watched how easily they spoke with one another. When two peoples live in such close proximity to one another, the mix  begins: language, music, culture, values. Israel prides itself on being part of the advanced West, but to my eyes, looking at things from street level, it doesn’t feel anything like the US or Europe, it’s too noisy, too clannish, too young, unruly, and passionate. It reminds me of nothing but itself, on the coast of the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic, just south of Mesopotamia where so much began.

You can plan from the outside, like the Oslo political accords, or like the Israeli strategists who drew maps, developed towns, allocated populations. Even now I know Palestinians are closed up in the West Bank and Gaza, unable to come to areas like the Dead Sea and interact with their Israeli counterparts.

But there in the Dead Sea, where you don’t run and don’t splash, where you slowly melt into mountains populated by mystics millennia ago, where great forces do their work under sediments of salt and soil and mock your efforts and manipulation, one learns humility and patience.

Big mounds of salt on rim and at bottom of Dead Sea

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