THE AFTERNOON MIRACLE

Henry stands high up (high for him), front legs up against my hip and hind legs on the floor. It’s that time of the day when he wants attention, and my consciousness goes: Not now, Henry, need to write a post, need to catch the moment, leave me alone.

The moment always seems to offer so many options:

Start writing

Check news

Check phone

Don’t forget the soup you were going to make.

Pay attention to Henry.

Over the past few years, maybe since Bernie died, I choose to give the dogs attention when they ask for it. Aussie is far more subtle about it. I look down from the computer and there she is, standing quietly at my side, maybe an abbreviated whine. She’s easier to ignore than Henry, who wants me to pick him up and let him settle on my lap. While Henry paws me insistently, Aussie stands there, a silent invitation to stop what I’m doing and stroke her softly, give her tenderness—give me tenderness, too. In stroking Aussie, I stroke me as well.

“Look at me,” Sarah Manguso wrote, “dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”

I think my time is so important! Meeting in the morning and at noon, private study tomorrow morning, finish this and that at home, walk dogs, meet Jimena later today and bring cash for  Julia’s rent. Julia had to stop working because her son has pulmonary problems no one has diagnosed yet and lost 47 pounds in less than a month. She has to bring him all the way to a Worcester hospital because that’s the only hospital that will work with their lack of medical insurance.

But tell me, are moments like these, filled to capacity, all that time is about?

November is no great shakes in New England. Once we move the clock back the afternoons turn into evenings awfully early, and the perpetual daytime clouds make them feel even earlier. The sun is receding from us and barely manages a weak shine. The lights go on early, the heat, too.

Something in all that gray beckons, time to walk out and greet Kwan-yin, who’s getting ripped up by rodents more and more every day. She’s about to lose an elbow, which may mean she’ll lose her arm. Luckily, she doesn’t seem upset about it. Further down the path is the half-eaten body of a rabbit. A fox, my housemate opined. Luckily, not the rabbit with the white dot on its forehead that she saved from death and nursed back to health a few months ago, but still, a young adult rabbit.

Kwan-yin doesn’t seem upset about that, either, just smiles her smile of eternity, reminding me of bigness all around.

My problem with checking out the news nowadays is that everything feels so small. Republican this, Democrat that, covid’s continuing grin, climate climate climate. On the one side there’s a danger of getting so upset you think life is coming to an end. The other side is that you get beyond it all, lost in eternity. The more we fight, the smaller the fight starts feeling. In the midst of passion and pandemic, we sense there’s a whole other scale to things we won’t find in the newspapers.

I look at the news—Is Trump  coming back? Are the Democrats in such trouble?—and think to myself: This can’t be all of it. This can’t be what I need to pay attention to. Even wildfires in Colorado and the shortcomings of the global meeting in Glasgow on climate change—it can’t be all there is. And that’s the other danger, taking not one step back but a mile. The Buddha did say it’s all delusion, didn’t he?

Or else feeling anxious and overwhelmed. I read that these are more rampant than covid right now. But I sometimes wonder if anxiety and overwhelm haven’t become the choices of the day, the daily specials on the menu, exempting us in some way from staying engaged and conscious.

Comes this early hour of twilight and I pick up Henry and put him on my lap. He won’t let me type on the computer, he wants those hands on his body that shivers with excitement, hungry for tenderness.

His isn’t Aussie’s thick, soft hair; his is short and bristly, not that pleasurable to stroke. But in seconds his eyelids close, the mouth relaxes, he gets heavier on my lap, fully, fully here. And he takes me here with him, and that’s the real miracle of the afternoon. Not the small signposts of busyness, the emails viewed and the to-dos checked off, just a little dog absorbing tenderness with every ounce of his being. Henry’s gift to me.

At some point I say: “Enough, Henry, gotta get dressed and leave,” pivoting away from the desk so that he could more easily jump down on the floor. How does he deal with his disappointment? What many males do if they only could, licking his penis a few times.

I could write about preparing a retreat, giving talks, teaching, next year’s plans for the Zen Peacemaker Order. I can write about the books I read, the sutras I study, the deep thoughts I think, plans with Jimena for what immigrant families will need in December when I’ll be mostly gone, and yes, even the back ache that has plagued me over the past few weeks: How busy and important I am!

Not really.

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

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

SUPPORT FOR GETTING LOST

 

“One day, Eve, Aussie, and Henry went into the forest and got lost. Eve thought she was heading towards a lake, but the forest went on and on and she couldn’t find the lake.”

“Was it hidden by a witch?”

“No, they were just lost.”

“So what happened?”

“They went round and round in circles but Eve couldn’t find her way out. She was tired and hungry, she wanted to go home.”

“Did she meet a wolf?”

“No.”

“A demon?”

“No.”

“What’s the good of getting lost if you don’t meet a wolf or a demon? An angel maybe?”

“Not that, either.”

“Then big deal.”

I didn’t meet up with a wolf, a demon, an angel, or a spirit—or the lake, for that matter. But you know what? I was happy to discover that I could still get lost. I’m not a complete know-it-all yet, life isn’t a case of been-there-done-that.

I was tired after trudging around in circles for a couple of hours, listening for sounds of human activity (leaf-blowing everywhere except in the deep, dark forest), watching for landmarks that I’d pass again and again, reflecting the circular nature of getting lost. I couldn’t find my way, couldn’t find my bearings—this by a woman who walks in woods and forest several times a week.

There was plenty of time to remember my former great sense of direction. Whenever we got lost in the car over the years, Bernie would say “Left!” and I would say “Right!”, Bernie would do as I suggested, and when we arrived at our destination he’d shake his head and mutter, “You’ve got some sense of direction!”

No longer. It’s gone along with names, people’s birthdays, and most important, instructions memorized long ago on how to fix the coffee machine. This time I was reduced to squinting up to see the sun behind the clouds, trying to figure out where was south. Finally, I leaned back against a tree drooping with heavy yellow leaves and gave myself permission to be lost. Feel lost.

Do your days get monotonous, one replicating another replicating another? Do you feel like you always know what you’re doing—and it gets mechanical as anything, set in your routine and schedule, one item following the next, one meal following the next? Do you think the way to fix that is to fly to Florida for vacation?

Try getting lost. Not just in the forest, also in your mind. Let it go blank. Let it stop looking for familiar teachings and ideas, the usual blah blah blah landmarks. Put down those spiritual books. Those of us who strive for clarity—it’s not a bad thing to get confused every once in a while.

As I walked round and round I heard a big whooo! I looked up and saw a large crow flying back and forth above me. The whooo! was the sound of its large wings flapping high up in the air. Instantly I thought about Native Americans. Is the crow a sign? Is it telling me where to go? But it’s not a hawk, not an eagle, it’s a crow. Does crow stand for anything?

I started laughing: You’d do anything, look at any culture, read any book, practice any religion, to avoid the sense of being lost. But without being lost, how will you find your way?

I talked to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while.

“What’s new?” he asks.

“I’m practicing being lost.”

“I get lost naturally,” he says.

“I have to practice,” I tell him. Because I so much want to know.

Here are some other practices associated with being lost:

Being uncomfortable. (Feel in your belly!)

Being uncertain. (Ditto!)

Confusion about life and dharma. (Huh?)

Not making head or tail of my writing anymore. (I don’t know what the f— I’m doing!)

These are all challenging practices, I recommend them highly. Lucky for me,  getting lost is getting easier day by day.

“I’ll meet you in 10 minutes,” my mom says to me first thing every time I call her.

“You can’t, mom, I’m in America.”

“What are you doing in America?”

“I live here, mom.”

“Oh,” she says. “You’re not in a hotel? I can come to a hotel.”

“I’m not in a hotel, mom.”

“Are you sure you’re not lost?”

“Actually, I’m not sure about that, mom.”

“Okay, let’s meet in 10 minutes.”

Should I run a contest on what to call this blog? Dispatches from Dead Ends? Dispatches from Absentia? Dispatches from Going Off-Course? What kind of stability is there in falling between the cracks? Stlll, I trust that fall. I trust getting lost.

However you wish to call this blog, please consider supporting it. I haven’t made such an official “ask” in a long time; usually, it’s for support for the local immigrant community (mostly undocumented families), which goes for cash assistance and food cards. In fact, I will soon post a Christmas Amazon list of toys and games for immigrant children; I’ll probably get it Wednesday evening when I see Jimena.

This time I ask on behalf of myself. This blog supports these families; it also supports me. It’s free to everyone even as it costs me to maintain the website and blog. I appreciate being part of this web of give-and-take, but I need help to keep writing, posting, sharing, push buttons, look over the edge again and again and share a vastness I occasionally see.

I’m especially grateful to those of you who make monthly gifts, but all donations, big and small, are deeply appreciated. May we all fly in the wind like the leaves outside. Never mind the altitude, just keep on flying.

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Thank you.
 

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WHY I THINK I SHOULD TRY POETRY

Sometimes I think I should try to write poetry.

Because if I don’t I can’t explain how hard it is to live

While a mourning dove limps on one leg along the road,

Or maybe wingless, waiting for a predator,

Or my dog, or a car on its way to Whole Foods.

How hard it is to drink the morning’s Italian coffee

While migrants struggle in tents colored mud

Or in boats crossing the Mediterranean

Which I love to swim when I’m in Tel-Aviv.

Or the chipmunk on top of piles of yellow leaves

Where Aussie left it, still breathing,

Caught while gathering food for winter.

I can’t do it in prose. The mind rules in prose, and will immediately philosophize, or remind me what the Buddha said, or what Bernie said, and bring things down to size. It will work the unworkable, open up books or Google, or just meander me down some mental path that feels new and unexplored but ends up in abstraction.

It whispers Buddhist instructions: Live every moment, inhale and exhale. Be the One Body that inhales and exhales.

But Aussie has seized up a snake just beneath the fence—I didn’t think they’d be out so late this autumn—one end sticking out of each corner of her mouth, and when I yell at her, leaves it gently on the ground after shaking it. I walk over and watch it try to coil, and try again, and try again.

The mind can’t abide questions, so it answers, and answers, and answers.

In Maui long ago I sat on the beach sipping Mai Tais through a straw while fishermen checked the lines they’d left all night and pulled in mahi and ono under the friendly island sun. The fish leaped high over the waves, showering loops of aquamarine raindrops from their pink fins, as slowly slowly they got pulled in to the yellow sand.

Please don’t call this life and death. why Maybe you’ll note how the fruity flavor in your mouth turns sour, how busily you start making excuses, but it don’t change a thing. Some lounge in beaches, some drown.

In such a universe, can I be anything other than a guest? Can I tell the host how to set the table, that the chair wobbles under me, and that I don’t eat eggplant?

In poetry is where the basic impossibility of things comes out.

The fewer the lines, the bigger the spaces.

And they hold, and hold, and hold.

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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JUST LYING THERE

“Aussie, guess what level I’ve reached in my word game?”

“What game?”

“The one I do when I get into bed every night, just before I get my book out.”

“Two?”

“2,643. My sister is more like 50,000. And guess what level of brilliance they’ve assigned me, Aussie?”

“Depends. Do they use fractions?”

“104,282. My sister, of course, is in the millions.”

“How much do you pay them?”

“Not a cent, Auss. Of course, they ask for payment to eliminate ads—“

“What’s ads?”

“—or for bees.”

“Bees? Like zzzzzz?”

“Bees give you letters for free, Aussie. But I  never pay one penny, not even for Star Rush.”

“What’s Star Rush?”

“Star Rush is when you finish a game in less than 3 minutes. For each game you finish in less than 3 minutes you get a star, and you keep getting them till you can’t finish a game in less than 3 minutes, and then they ask you if you’d like to pay to keep all the stars.”

“What happens if you don’t pay?”

“You lose your stars, Auss.”

“Let me get something straight. Is this how you relax?”

“Yeah. How do you relax, Aussie?”

“I just lie there.”

“I see you doing that a lot and I always feel sorry for you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re just lying there, Auss. I wonder if you’re bored, if you want another walk—”

“I always want another walk.”

“I wish I could talk to you about books, Aussie, or about Zen practice. Do you want to meditate together?”

“Hell, no.”

“When you just lie there you look like life is passing you by.”

“It is passing me by, and good riddance. I’m not racing anybody here. Days want to rush by? Let them, I’m staying put. You know why? Because I’m content. I have my walks, I have my food, I have my home, most of all I have my favorite human, Leeann—”

“You don’t have to remind me, Aussie.”

“I’m content. I’m not bored.”

“You don’t look very energetic, Auss.”.

Lying there is how I relax. Lying there is how I’m happy.”

“But you’re so quiet—”

“What am I supposed to do, wag my tail from morning till night? Run up and down the fence barking like a maniac? I’m content, human. Get over it.”

I thought about what being content means. It’s being content with things as they are. Not fussing, not pushing and pulling, not manipulating, reshaping, all the little actions I take and confuse with being alive. Contentment doesn’t need any of that. It has a tender energy of its own, more quiescent, a soft glow like the moon rather than the radiant sun. Nothing to do, nothing to prove. I have what I need.

What a powerful statement that is! How many people in this world can claim that they have what they need? Instead, we clamber up Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs like amateur mountaineers, thinking up more and more needs—job satisfaction, loving relationships, not-to-be-missed events, a sense of relevance and meaning, the list goes on and on. Most of it is to remind ourselves that we’re alive, that we’re important, that our existence is a big deal–if not to the universe, at least to the dog.

“Would you go lie down?”

“You know, Auss, after Bernie turned 70 he started taking things easy. I’d walk into the bedroom and see him lying in bed, glancing at his laptop, occasionally at the TV. I’d say: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing,’ he’d say. ‘Don’t you want to do something?’ I’d ask him. ‘Like what?’ he’d say. ‘Write another book? Come up with a Fourth Tenet?’ ‘Nah,’ he’d say. ‘I’m happy.’”

“Was he bored? Was he depressed? Was he lazy? No, he was just happy. Just content.”

“Aussie, the German translation of The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments that I did with Egyoku Nakao has come out (the link is to Amazon but you could get it in independent bookstores as well). Should I ask folks to buy it for the holidays?”

“In German?”

“Or in English. Or in Portuguese. It would make for a nice gift, Auss.”

“Will it fund any treats?”

“A few. But since you’re so content with things as they are, Auss—”

“BUY THE BOOK! BUY THE BOOK! BUY THE BOOK!”

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

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

RETHINKING SIGNS

“What do we need for Wednesday?” I text Jimena.

Wednesday is the day we meet to discuss the needs of the local immigrant community, when men and women come to pick up food cards and when I usually give her cash to help specific families with rent, utilities, medical bills, burial costs, and other needs. Maybe this coming Wednesday we’ll talk about a list of Christmas gifts for the children, as we did last year. We used to meet on a street corner, but now visit together  with other men and women in her front porch. It will be dark now so she’ll bring in some light, and when it gets very cold, heat. I’ll know to dress warm.

“Just food cards,” she texted back this morning without specifying cash. I don’t mind, I try to keep a cash balance in the account. I’ll hear a lot more about cash needs as the winter progresses and the farms shut down. Meantime, local churches donate turkeys and Thanksgiving meals for the upcoming holiday. I’m happy to let them do their thing, knowing what’s ahead for the winter.

I walked the dogs on our road slowly this morning and noticed the sign that we’ve had by our driveway for four years. That’s when ICE began making raids on illegal immigrants here. Telephones would ring, word would spread fast, and people stayed home, afraid to go to work, take their children to school, or shop for food. Stories proliferated of men and women going to the store for something, getting caught in the dragnet and not coming home. Some still not home, even now.

That’s when signs like these proliferated in our area; I can’t recall how we got this one, I assume I bought it. Not much different from Black Lives Matter signs that also dot our streets.

Now other signs have come up. Three houses away a sign was erected honoring Jesus Christ as our savior. Some signs say America the Beautiful, which I, living where I am, have no issue with only I’m told they stand for a message I may not agree with.

Am I participating in a partisan battle here, I wondered, contemplating the sign? Four years ago, I saw it as one way of  countering Donald Trump’s harangues of hate and bias. And now?

A friend and strong participant in a politically active local group told me that the group wished to persuade the local town council to adopt a declaration indicating that the town sits on land stolen by European settlers from a native tribe many years ago. “But we withdrew our proposal,” he said.

“Why?”

“We asked local people who identify as Native Americans what they thought about it, and they didn’t want it.”

This was news to me. I can’t get onto a Zoom workshop or class lately without participants identifying where they live by the name of the tribe that once owned that land.

“What did they want?” I asked.

“Relationship,” he said.

After the murder of George Floyd, practically every group I knew made sure to insert a paragraph in their website, preferably on the home page, testifying to how they don’t discriminate against anyone. If words mattered that much, this country would be free of racism by the weekend. Relationship? That’s another thing entirely.

I stared at my sign for a long time. I hadn’t actually done anything till early April of 2020, when the pandemic pushed me to help families who had no money for food on the table. I started learning Spanish, wanted to talk with them. That was three years after putting up the sign.

Words have an effect, but they’re so easy to say, so easy to buy a sign, plant it in the yard, and feel good about yourself. Did even one immigrant family care whether or not I put up that sign? Did it help in any real way, or was it just a declaration of my feelings on the subject, which, as we all know, is crucial to the universe’s existence? And when others counteract with their signs, their bumper stickers and flags, what has this display of one-upmanship done other than reinforce our concerns of deep partisan divide, of us vs. them?

I need to reflect about this.

At the same time, I have some strong feelings about religious signs. I wish they’d go away. I can’t help the trepidation; it may come from my Jewish upbringing, and specifically the acknowledged fact of how much Church-sponsored antisemitism contributed to the Holocaust. I feel better when people keep God to themselves.

When daylight ends early and the long nights begin, a neighbor down the road has lit up a large crucifix in red lights by his barn. It’s visible from far away, just as one enters my town from the south. I never feel welcomed by it. Instead, its size and red bulbs are for me an assertion rather than an invitation, a statement about the right path, the right religion, the right God.

I’m a great admirer of Christ, but I can’t help wondering what he’d think of all these signs that say that nothing is possible without him. A friend who many years ago founded perhaps the first American interfaith organization garnering religious support for the environment told me this story:

He’d worked for years to enroll leaders of the Christian evangelical movement in efforts to redefine our relationship to the earth and its creatures. Finally, he succeeded in getting the heads of that movement to the table. He made his presentation, there was a break, and in the break one of those well-known leaders took him aside and said: “Paul, that’s all very impressive, but I have one question for you: Do you take Christ as your savior?”

Our relationship with the absolute, or God, goes deep and wide; it’s so easy to fall into idolatry and self-aggrandizement. Again and again, the words that come up for me here are: Be quiet and listen.

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

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

WANTING MORE

A friend called me up on Thursday.

“It’s three years since Bernie died today,” he told me. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. A little glum, but fine.”

“What are you doing? Wasn’t there a meeting of his successors online to pay their respects?”

“There was. I didn’t attend. I was his wife, not just a student. I find it easier not to mix the two.”

“So what are you doing today?” friend asks.

“I lit a long stick of incense for him in the morning. Had a good heart-to-heart with Kwan-yin in the back though it was freezing. Walk the dogs, do some work, and sometime in mid-afternoon will drive out to Stockbridge.”

“What’s in Stockbridge?”

“A date.”

When I hung up I found Aussie staring up at me from where she lay on the futon. “Did you say a date? You’re going out on a date on the evening of the Man’s third memorial?”

“You want me to gather up the wood for suttee, Auss?”

“It’s not too late, only who’ll walk me if you burn up?”

“I didn’t jump into the crematory oven three years ago and I’m not about to now.”

“You’re a selfish, greedy human.”

“Why, Aussie?”

“You humans always want more. You had a rich marriage, you lived and labored day to day with a remarkable teacher, you loved your work, you have a fabulous dog, life doesn’t come much better than that—AND YOU WANT MORE!”

She’s right, I thought to myself. I want more. More of what?

More inhalations and exhalations, for one thing. Bernie used to say that if we knew ahead of time how many times we’d have to inhale and exhale over our lifetime, some of us would give up at birth. I want more of them.

More springs and falls, even as, looking around me at the multitudes of yellow leaves on the ground that my housemate is blowing together, it hits me that this fall could be the last here, the last for me, the last anywhere, how can anyone know?

More walks with dogs. Especially clear today when I couldn’t walk them on account of a pinched nerve in my back. Henry lies in bed alongside me, pawing me repeatedly, wondering why I won’t throw his turtle for him to catch, while Aussie comes up occasionally to check me out. When she’s not yelling at me for something, telling me I’m a yucky human, she’s concerned.

More writing, More blog posts. More stories.

More reflection of light.

And more intimacy. Sharing the hours, telling someone what I did earlier that day, asking him what he did, “Want a cup of coffee?”, “Who’s driving?”, the dance in the kitchen when both are cooking, making those stupid sounds couples make that no one can decipher but them.

More life, more journey. There are two contradictory things that happen when someone you’ve been close to for 35 years dies. On the one hand, he’s part of you. You embody many of his qualities, keep them going even in his absence; you do that with no choice. And on the other hand, you have your own separate journey to continue.

Bernie plunged into life—I saw him do that day after day—and he also plunged into death when it was time. He didn’t hesitate long enough to say goodbye.

“I think you need to hesitate,” says Aussie.

“My pinched nerve causes me to hesitate plenty.”

“Think of all the people who texted and emailed you condolences that day. And what were you doing? Going on a date! Didn’t you feel like an idiot?”

“This morning I went to the zendo for a memorial service for Bernie, Aussie, pinched nerve and all.”

“How was it?”

“Beautiful.”

“THIS LIFE IS TOO COMPLICATED! Now if you could only stay focused on one thing, go in just one direction, you wouldn’t get hurt.”

“What direction is that, Auss?”

“Stay on your own. Stop trying to bridge one life with another. Do the things you always did, that you know how to do. Stop with trying something new, you’re no Huck Finn.”

If I don’t do something new, I’ll die.

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

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

DROP IT!

“I recently remembered something about my mother, Aussie.”

“Who cares what you remember?”

“Listen to this: You know how some Holocaust survivors never talked about what happened to them? My mother was the opposite, she couldn’t stop telling the same stories hundreds and hundreds of times. Once, many years ago, I picked her up in my car when she returned from visiting friends in New York and she told me how she had kept her friends up half the night telling them stories from those years. She went on and on, describing how moved and impressed they were, and I thought to myself: How sad that my mother feels compelled to tell these stories, as if no one will care about her without them. So, you know what I did, Aussie?”

“Something stupid, probably.”

“I told her: “Mom, you don’t have to tell those stories to your friends, they like you for who you are right now.’’”

“No no no no!”

“Exactly, Aussie. She said nothing to me right then, but about half a year later she exploded at me one day: ‘Do you remember what you said to me that day about telling my stories to Sylvia and her husband? Is that how little you think of me!’ At first I had no idea what she was talking about, so she reminded me: ‘You told me not to share my stories. Is that how little you think of me?’ I tried to explain that it was quite the opposite, that I thought she didn’t need to tell those stories, but she couldn’t listen, Aussie, she felt so hurt. I realized that the lens of her activities in the Holocaust were the lens of choice for the rest of her life. She wanted folks to see her not as some passive victim but as an active, strong, heroic woman.”

“Didn’t she know she should drop all that?”

“All what, Aussie?”

“All those ideas, the stories, the images, the judgments. Who cares?”

“She cared, Aussie. I guess I care, too.”

“I thought Zen was all about dropping body and mind. I can’t drop my gorgeous body, but mind? Easy-peasy! Just drop the self!”

“Listen to me, Aussie. Lewis Hyde wrote a book called Treatise on Forgetting—”

“Treatise on what?”

“Very funny. In it he said that forgetting is very important—”

“See!”

“If we don’t forget things our systems can’t wake up fresh and receptive to life.”

“Every day a new day!”

“A lot of that forgetting goes on when we sleep, Auss.”

“That’s why I’m so good at forgetting—I sleep great!”

“But he also added that you can’t forget what you won’t remember. You see, Aussie, there is such a thing as natural forgetting. What books I read last year, when was the last time it rained, what we ate last Thanksgiving—”

“I never forget that!”

“These things slough off of us, we don’t attach to them one way or another, so the forgetting is organic, practically effortless. That’s very different when we try to forget painful things, like abuse when you were a child, losing a parent, things like that.”

“You know what Bernie said: Fuggedaboudit!”

“It’s hard, Aussie. And the same for society. We have old things like racism, stealing land from indigenous nations, fear of people who look different or practice other religions than we do. People want to forget all that—”

“Drop it!”

“—They say: Haven’t we done enough? But we can’t forget them until we remember, really remember. That may mean changing the stories we teach about our history, it may mean atonement, it may mean formal apologies or reparations—al these are forms of remembrance.”

“You’ll never get enlightened if you keep on remembering!”

“When we truly remember, when things are so familiar to us they’re almost parts of our own bodies, then in a natural way they slough off and we forget. But if we try to forget prematurely, Aussie, they’ll stick around, consciously or unconsciously.”

“You’ll never awaken this way, kiddo. Enough already!”

“Sometimes I feel that way, too, Aussie. I want to forget everything, make things as simple as can be.”

“Just be here now.”

“The Zen Peacemakers have their annual retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau this week—”

“Not again? Those events are old! Can’t we just drop the whole thing? Drop it, drop it, drop it!”

“The effects of slavery are still with us, Aussie.”

“Drop it!”

“Our treatment of nations who lived here—”

“Drop it!”

“Abuse of a child—”

“Drop it!”

“Missing Bernie on the third anniversary of his death—”

“Drop it!”

“Plans for a rib steak dinner—”

“When? When? When?”

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INTIMACY IS NOT BRAIN-TO-BRAIN

Last August we did our annual summer sesshin, or Zen retreat.

Like many Buddhist sanghas, we wondered whether we could finally do this in-person. Covid had been low in numbers here but the Delta variant was ticking up in other parts of the country. With stubborn hope, I created a schedule for an in-person retreat. Within 36 hours the local numbers zoomed up and towns passed mask mandates, or at least, mask recommendations. I changed the schedule to accommodate a hybrid retreat, incorporating both in-person and Zoom attendees, and then changed it again when it became clear that we couldn’t do in-person at all, just Zoom.

Sometime in the middle of all that, I heard a voice in my head: “This is your last sesshin.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I told the voice.

“Okay, maybe not the last sesshin,” the voice said, beginning to sound a little like Aussie. “But how many more of these do you plan on doing? How many more schedules, face-to-face meetings, classes, talks?”

We did the retreat, I let a few weeks pass by, and I knew. It was time to let go and let others take over.

I’m not backing out of Green River Zen completely, I’m simply letting the seniors of the group take over the leadership. I’m asking them to make decisions and take responsibility, and I will respond to their teaching requests if and as they come in.

I leave more than leadership in their hands. The pandemic brought Zoom, and while some teachers love it, appreciate the opening for others to  come from a distance, love the possibilities of long-distance sanghas, I don’t. I don’t reject those things, just feel they’re not for me.

I was very lucky, able to study, work, and practice with my Zen teacher on almost a daily basis–and this was before I married him. Due to our work in Greyston and the Zen Peacemakers, I saw Bernie Glassman almost every day. We always talked about work, but it was never just work, ever. A million things happened all the time, moving us, rushing us, worrying us, pushing our buttons, but he always reflected a light that never failed me.

I had my disappointments; if you practice long enough, disappointments arise. Nobody’s a saint, and that, in itself is an important teaching. But to this very day, I’m aware that I spent lots of time with a remarkable teacher, something I didn’t deserve and often didn’t appreciate.

Talking to people from the neck up feels different to me. We share good talks, have fun, even hang out a bit. In the middle of isolation, Zoom is crucial. But real intimacy isn’t brain-to-brain, it’s something else entirely. There’s a koan that says: Save a ghost. Sometimes, on Zoom, I feel like one ghost talking to another ghost.

Zoom is a new skillful means that I don’t know how to use, have had no training in, and feel uncomfortable depending on. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that it’s not for me.

Last Saturday we did our first in-person retreat day. The big, beautiful space of Windhorse Hill Retreat Center didn’t feel empty at all with a small group sitting there, but rather full of Buddhas from the beginning of time, sitting when we sat, eating when we ate, walking when we walked. Outside it rained buckets. It was wonderful.

What will you do starting January, people ask.

There’s plenty of work. I hope to continue to do some local teaching and I wish to do more with the Zen Peacemakers. I will continue this blog, continue to tell the stories and get help for immigrant families. Earlier today I finally brought in the house plants from the back yard, where they spend summer and early fall, which reminded me that farms will soon shut down, their income vastly reduced, and the calls will come in about utility bills and rent unpaid. I’m not laying that down.

“And what else?” asks the voice.

And what else? There’s the rub. I want more space and time, but for what? I’m letting go of the old and familiar, the things I  know and love to do, to make room—for what? That’s the hard one, letting go of the old and opening to the unknown and unexpected.

You learn at every age, not just when you’re a child or in school. There is no loss that doesn’t cause reflection and some insight, no autumn that doesn’t provoke an act of creativity. When I think a gate clicks shut, I find it’s an illusion because something far, far bigger opens up.

I took the dogs to a nearby pond for our morning walk, only to find that the usual crossing, consisting of rocks sticking out of the water, was flooded due to the recent rains, white water rushing over the rocks. Henry hesitated, looked up at me.

“We can do this,” I told him. “I have my water boots on.”

Aussie crossed first, then Henry crossed, and finally I crossed.

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SUNSET

“Aussie, Ruby died.”

“Who?”

“Ruby, your friend the German shepherd, who lives with the horses down the road.”

“Not my friend.”

“Aussie, I know your first interaction with Ruby three years ago wasn’t great—”

“She went for my throat the first time I met her.”

“She did not!”

“There I am, at the tender age of one, new to the neighborhood, transported in chains from Texas—”

“You mean in a crate, Aussie, inside a truck—“

“and taken into a house where the man walks funny and the woman runs around like crazy—”

“Those weren’t easy times, Auss—”

“and we go out to meet the neighbors, and a big German shepherd approaches us on the road. What do I do? Show her my best Southern manners: Wag my tail, wag my butt, almost fall over from wiggling my entire body trying to show I’m one of the gals, just want to get along, nice and friendly,  and what does she do? She lunges at me and—Where are you going?”

“I have to look out west, Aussie. See how the sun is shining on those yellow leaves just before it sets?”

“Ruby tried to eat me alive!”

“She did not, Auss. She raised her head high over your back, trying to show you who’s boss, but you growled, she growled, and then the two of you fought. That’s on you, Aussie. Every time you run into a more dominating dog you fight instead of backing off.”

“What am I, a Buddhist?”

“Say what?”

“Why are you going out the door again? It’s freezing out there!”

“Aussie, the last of the sun rays are hitting the orange tops of the trees there. The last moments of a sunset here are glorious!”

“What did Ruby die of?”

“Lung cancer, Aussie. I didn’t know dogs got lung cancer.”

“Did she smoke much?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“High blood pressure?”

“Aussie, I don’t think any of those things are connected to canine lung cancer. In general, life’s way bigger than we are. We think that a good diet, exercise, lack of stress—”

“Ha!”

“–will make things okay, but they don’t always.”

“There had to be something to explain it! Maybe her human smoked. You’re off again?”

“Aussie, this is the very last moments now. See that tall tree back there, it looks like it’s on fire! The fall here is unbelievable even now, almost November. We’re so lucky to have it! You never know, Aussie, this may be my last fall. It may be your last fall. No one knows anything.”

“It sure was Ruby’s last fall.”

“Aussie, Ruby was a good dog. She protected the horses, she protected the house—”

“She almost ate me!”

“–she did her job, Aussie. I’d like the same to be said about me when I go.”

“She must have done something wrong if she died so young.”

“She probably didn’t do anything wrong, Aussie. Life and death are still one big mystery. We don’t know much about it.”

“We have to! We have to learn all the causes and conditions, the whys and wherefores, the beginnings and the ends, the rights and the wrongs—Would you stop going out the door? I’m losing my train of thought.”

“Aussie, can we just look at the sunset?”

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A TREE-LINED STREET

“I was born on a tree-lined street in a Jersey suburb. I have been secure and safe all my life.”

A friend who’d been one of NBC TV News’ first female international correspondents told me this a long time ago in New York City. She was ending that career to become a mother and we were searching for what we had in common (we met at a writing workshop). I told her that I was born in an Israeli kibbutz that was the reincarnated version of a kibbutz bombarded to smithereens in the Israeli War of Independence, where my parents had fought just a year earlier.

Since then, growing up here, going to school, gaining skills and some confidence, I’ve become part of an educated middle class living in rural Massachusetts, a good life that resulted a tiny bit from my own efforts and to a much greater degree from events I had little or nothing to do with.

There are many of us, I think, trying to work out how we, living a fairly secure and safe life on tree-lined streets (in my case, more in the middle of a forest), can be mensches in the deepest sense of the word.

Last week I stayed in a house half a mile from the DC border, and last Friday morning I dawdled on the street corner after waving to a young boy who boarded a school bus. A basketball hoop hovered on one side, and I thought of my friend who’d grown up on a tree-lined street, much as this young boy did, much as I do now. Suddenly, I felt the urge to go to Capitol Hill. I’d been there on a few occasions, but not in a long, long time, and certainly not since January 6 when marauders had taken it over, sending Senators and Representatives into hiding.

I took the Metro to Union Station and walked from there to the Capitol. Not to think too much or figure things out. In the past few years, I’ve read enough analyses of modern America and its cultural, racial, educational, religious, and economic divides, and I didn’t feel any wiser. I think at the very time I was there the Congressional hearing looking into the events of January 6 was taking place.

Frankly, I think that all the hearings and Congressional inquiries around this are a waste of time. Those who understood the gravity of what happened don’t need those investigations; those that don’t won’t change their minds as a result. The details that emerge may be important to historians, but it’s used as political theater for which I have no patience.

Now is what counts for me, questions like Who are we? What do we need to remember? What do we need to forge?. All I wanted was to walk up the broad avenue that leads to the Capitol, feel ground under my feet, maybe pick up the resonance of those many feet back on January 6, and the many more before them.

This was a sought-after land when my parents came here in 1957. I grew up highly sensitized to what happened in Europe in the 1940s but oblivious to what others suffered and endured right here. The slow expansion of consciousness began with my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and started me, stupid student that I am, on a slow journey of bearing witness.

I won’t fool you, sometimes it just tires me out. I feel like: Can’t I stand on one thing? Just one thing? As a Zen practitioner, I have a small sense of what that one thing is, but I’m not much different from anyone else, I’d like to find that little slip of ground that’s solidly mine, no more pushing of boundaries, no more and this and this and this. Enough change.

It was a gorgeous day, there should have been thousands of people walking those steps. There were none. Fences barred the entry up front. A tourist entrance in back of the Capitol was shut down. The place looked deserted except for a group of some 50 people, mostly American Cambodians, protesting under a nearby tree against Chinese presence in Cambodia, women carrying posters of children and brothers in prison.

I walked from one end of the Capitol to the other slowly, like a pilgrimage. There wasn’t much nostalgia. This enormous building stands for many years of nitty-gritty give-and-take and tough-edged compromises, the brutal pruning needed to govern a diverse nation. What goes on inside is certainly not as pretty as the outside.

As I write this the Democrats have yet to come together on a promised infrastructure bill. They get little sympathy from me. If you control the White House, Senate and House and can’t pass a critical bill, you obviously can’t govern and probably shouldn’t be there.

That day I walked back and forth, alone and quiet in the warm light, footstep after footstep in resonance of millions. Then I walked back to Union Station and got on a train. I’d need an early start the next morning to get home in one piece. That’s what I wanted to do, get finally home in one piece.

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

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