A HAWK FLIES

“Mom, how are you?”

My sister texted that my mother is having a hard time. Israel is going into a strict 3-week lockdown for the Jewish holidays. There is arguing and fighting on TV, much confusion. No synagogue for my mother this year, no hearing the shofar.

”She thinks that somebody’s trying to kill her,” my sister explained.

I called her.

“Don’t worry about me, Chavale,” my mother says, “we have a plan.”

“What plan is that, mom?”

“We’re going to do something very big to beat this. Very, very big.”

“Beat what, mom?”

“You know,” she says vaguely, “this. What is going on.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“I can’t tell you, Chavale, it’s a secret. But listen, do you have a television? Watch the news tomorrow and you’ll hear all about it.”

“Who’s planning this, mom?”

“Two friends and me. But I can’t say anything now, you’ll know tomorrow because you’ll hear it on the news.”

In the middle of dementia, my mother is still the eternal hero. There are enemies everywhere but she will beat them, she will serve on the front lines of the coming war. She tells me this often. It’s how she copes with hardship and the loss of her mind.

How do you cope with it? How do you cope with loss of your mind and your body? Of someone you love?

My friend, Fleet Maull, lost his only child, a 42-year-old son found in bed by his mother in Peru, probably from complications coming out of epileptic attacks that began after a horrific beating he suffered years ago. There’s something about losing a child that catches me around the throat so hard I can hardly breathe. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: the phone call out of nowhere, the news out of nowhere. The absolute, irredeemable fact of loss.

I come across people whose relentless caution with covid seems to me to border on the extreme. Put gloves on all the time, don’t stop at a rest stop but pee and shit in the woods (a mask, sanitizer, and gloves aren’t good enough), take a covid test before venturing anywhere (though I come from an area that has seen 0 covid infections in August and 1 in July).

Everyone has a right to their own guidelines, as I have a right to agree to those terms or not, but at times I wonder what control we’re trying to exert here. There’s a difference between taking precautions and trying to practically guarantee that nothing bad will happen.

“Americans haven’t learned that life carries risks,” an African woman told me.

Risks and loss for everybody, not just our poor cousins in Third World countries or the hundreds of employees who died from covid infection because they worked in unsafe conditions in slaughterhouses so that we could have our supply of meat. Exposure is everywhere, you can’t avoid it.

I take the usual precautions, but I don’t wish to fight exposure. My life isn’t any more important than anyone else’s. It’s true, I don’t work in a slaughterhouse and I’m not about to lose my home, at least not in the near run. But I will be part of a group holding an in-person service for Fleet’s son on Saturday morning. We will maintain distance and wear masks, all the usual covid-related accessories will be there, but I need to show up in person. I need to see him face-to-face and see his grief, and be seen by him, in my deep, deep sorrow, face-to-face. I want to expose my broken heart to him, and while there will be opportunities to do that on Zoom, sometimes we just need to do it in person.

I wanted to be exposed in flight and airports in order to see my mother still alive because I don’t know when she’ll go. If she goes soon, I won’t be able to attend her funeral or the Shiva. The brave, demented woman continues to imagine herself at the head of an army, taking care of her family, taking care of Jews everywhere, taking care of the world. Even with a clear mind she would wish to be exposed, to share in the risks of being human.

We love and we lose. The risks of being human are everywhere.

I often think of love, of finding someone who wishes to deeply connect, to share a life with a man once again. At the same time, a voice tells me inside: You know, we humans are pretty small when it comes right down to it. We’re small creatures with enormous needs for this and for this and for this and for this, hungry ghosts everywhere. By all means, find love if you can, but don’t forget, you’re not that big. Ours is not the tape measure by which to measure the world, by which to measure how much I give and how much I receive by tiny teaspoonfuls.

So much gives me life that I’ll never repay it in a thousand lifetimes.

How do I repay the gently sloping oak behind the Kwan-Yin in the back yard? We would be nowhere without the green universe that none of us created. How do I repay the hawk that several days in a row has flown low across the windshield of my car as I drove down the road above my house? I must remember to tell this to my Indian friends, I think, and immediately recall that 4 days ago we heard from Renee Iron Hawk that her grandson, whom she is raising, had a fire accident and now lies in a burn unit bed in a Sacramento hospital with burns on 92% of his body (you can support Magnus’s recovery by going here).

Renee took precautions, and still this happened. She knows it, and sounds stoic on the phone. It’s the risks of being human.

Just do your work, I tell myself. Not in some huge way—my work doesn’t have such proportions, nor do my mistakes. I’m not heroic like my mother. Just be ready, I tell myself each morning, and take care. A hawk will guide you on your way.

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I’M YOUR ASSISTANT

Jimena continues to amaze. She works in the schools from morning to evening, focusing on the Latino immigrant community from 3:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon, and then goes to the offices of Catholic Charities to tutor teens in algebra and younger kids with remedial reading and arithmetic (“Whatever they  need!”) from 6:00 to 9:00 four evenings a week.

“At 5:30 on Friday I collapse,” she tells me. “I won’t work on weekends. Weekends are for my family.”

It’s late afternoon and pouring down buckets. The plants need every bit of it, but not the crowd of women and kids waiting below. Jimena and I stand on one of two steps under a small marquee, and today of all days a crowd has arrived for food cards. Everyone is careful, only one approaches at a time. The others stand outside patiently in the downpour, some with small children, some with umbrellas. Nobody seems to mind one bit. Unreserved gratitude everywhere.

“Espere!” Jimena yells to the first woman and runs to get something from her car. When the next person arrives she does it again, and by that time I’m running with her to empty her car trunk of many white plastic bags that she is giving out to parents, one by one. I peer inside. Each bag contains a Dell Chromebook.

Schools are opening up remotely, and the families need their computer notebooks. Perhaps in mid-October they’ll go into a hybrid learning situation, with half the students coming in for two days a week and the other half the other two days.

I should have taken a picture of the 15 plastic bags with Chromes (she’ll give out more from her home the next day), but I didn’t think of it till just a few were left. The reason is that when I realized what was in the bags, I felt a surge of pride and appreciation. Of what? Of this country that provides Dell Chromebooks to immigrant children who need it—including children in undocumented families.

I know the horror stories from the border: family separations, children in prison-like conditions, illness, even death. But I’ll take the good news with the bad anytime, and the good news is that here, families are getting help. They’re getting care for the kids. The school district hires a speedster like Jimena. Comcast agrees to provide Wifi at $10 a month for the first 6 months.

A while ago I talked with an old friend who moved to Mexico.  A photographer, she drove through adjoining villages to take photos of the old people living there. “It’s hard to believe the poverty,” she said on the phone. “They’re practically starving. The young people all leave to the States because there’s nothing for them here, absolutely nothing.”

So yes, I hear from Jimena that Moise needs money to pay down the electricity bill and Manuela can’t work anymore because she’s giving birth any day now, and somehow—through us, through people reaching back into their purses again and again—we and they get it together. Yesterday the president of Green River Zen brought me a letter she had to sign and added two $100 bills in the letter. “For the families,” she said.

This life-giving generosity should never be taken for granted; it should be made visible, marked, shouted from the rooftops.

“I’m your assistant,” I tell Jimena as we rush out into the  rain to bring more bags from the car. I give out food cards and the few remaining crosses that I brought from Jerusalem as she gives out the Chromebooks and has folks sign for them.

And there are further implications, as a famous Zen master wrote. In some families there are 4-5 kids sitting in different corners of a room over their Chromebooks doing different classes. They need over-the-ear headphones. l do some online comparison shopping  (ordinarily I’m a terrible shopper, but I may have to get better at it), found that Best Buy was selling the Insignia headphones she needed for half the price of the others, and ordered 15 of them for a total of $440 because I was afraid they’d run out. I think they’re coming in tomorrow, so maybe on Thursday it’ll be Jimena’s assistant bearing gifts in white plastic bags, of which she doesn’t have many in the house.

Many don’t know how to use the notebooks without a mouse; they don’t know how to log in or choose passwords, so they come over to Jimena’s house and she shows them what to do.

“I need $400,” she tells me in the middle of handing out Chromebooks, “can you help?”

A family is being kicked out of their home. Apartments even here, in this low-income town, rent out for $900, so families crowd in together because no one family can afford that rent. Sure enough, the landlord told one family to get out. Each time they change homes they need to come up with first month’s and last month’s rent, and security.

“I think the Interfaith Council will give me some, and the church up the hill will give me some,” she says. “Could you do $400?”

“Yes,” I say on behalf of all of us. “We’re your assistants, Jimena.”

She laughs. “They’ll also need furniture because they have nothing. I already found them a couch, here, take a look,” and out she takes one of her phones to show me a photo of the couch that someone is donating. Jimena has several phones for the various entities she works for, not to mention her private life. When one rings she goes from one to another till she finds the right one.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I tell her. Someone is renting a room in my home and is ready to give away a queen-size bed and two cabinets. Trying to keep up with Jimena is like  racing a whirlwind.

I’ve often thought of bringing in one of the families into my own home. But I live in a rural area, not in a town, only accessible by car and without the neighbors and family they rely on so much.

I don’t work on weekends.

But I happen to know she does because she put me to work this past weekend, sending me a wish list of things the kids need: everything from computer-carrying backpacks to computer mice to calculators to cheaper crayons and paper.

We’re both amateurs at this. “I need quantities,” I write her back, “and please be more specific.” I figure I won’t hear from her till Monday at the earliest.

Four hours later I get a list with quantities and specific details. So I order the headphones and start working on an Amazon wish list.

Do I worry we won’t get what we need? “You have such a mind of impoverishment,” Bernie used to say, shaking his head.

“Oh, and by the way, Byron sent soup,” Jimena says. Byron  is her husband, a great cook.

“Sent who?”

“Sent you. He makes great chicken soup and he did this especially for you. I have some in the car, I’ll get it.”

“I’ll get it, I’m your assistant,” I tell her. “Please thank him for me. By the way, is Byron Jewish?”

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ZEN PEACEMAKER POOCHES?

“Of all times, why are you taking me on a ride now? We had all morning and you didn’t make a move.”

“I have the time now, Aussie.”

“You know what I just left back home? Emma’s frying up bacon!”

“I’m taking you to the Farmers Co-op, Aussie, where I get your dog supplies. I’m getting you your food, your treats, all kinds of wonderful things.”

“You took me away from bacon for the Farmers Co-op? You want to compare dry kibble—”

“It’s premium, Aussie!”

“—and rawhide—”

“Buffalo?”

“—with bacon frying on the oven? Do humans have a nose?”

“Don’t worry, Auss, she’ll leave you some of the bacon fat.”

“And what about the pan? How is it going to get clean if I don’t lick it up? Speaking of which, do I get paid for all this housework, for licking dishes clean before they go into the dishwasher? I do not!”

“What’s gotten into you today, Aussie? You’ve been complaining nonstop.”

“I do so much in this house and get no credit! I work and work and work, and nothing ever changes!”

“Things change all the time, Aussie. Take a look at the Washington Redskins.”

“Is that a new kind of dog treat?”

“It’s a football team from Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, that for years called itself a name that insulted Native Americans, the original people who lived here. Year after year, at the end of another losing season, I’d send them an email: Change the name! And guess what?”

“What?”

“They finally changed their name, Aussie! After swearing up and down they’ll never do it, they did. See? Things change after all.”

“What do they call themselves now?”

“The Washington Football Team, at least till they come up with a new name. You know, something inspiring. This is American football, Auss. They’re probably looking for something that sounds courageous, warrior-like, and tough.”

“What about the Washington Dogs?”

“Not sure about that, Auss.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Not all dogs are courageous or warrior-like. Harry was. Remember when the big bear came to the fence? You politely withdrew, but Harry ran right up to him barking like crazy, protecting the house. He went nose to nose with the biggest bear I ever saw. Harry was brave, Aussie.”

“Harry was a dummy. What about Washington Bitches?”

“You know, Auss, naming things can be tough. You should have seen what happened here when they wanted to change the local sports teams’ name from Turners Falls Indians to something less controversial. They went through a whole process, held a referendum, listened to everybody, but what an uproar that caused—right here, in progressive Massachusetts!”

“I don’t get it. What’s in a name?”

“That’s a famous question, Aussie. There’s a lot in a name. We get courage from names. We get inspiration, dedication, physical and mental toughness.”

“I think you should call your Zen group Green River Zen Aussies.”

“I don’t think they’ll approve the name change, Auss.”

“Zen Peacemaker Pooches? I like the sound of that. Do you think they’ll be offended?”

“Some Zen Peacemakers may be offended.”

“I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about the pooches. Indians don’t want to be used in a name, why should pooches? I know! Zen Peacemaker Trumps! It’s flamboyant, it’s charismatic, and it’s flashy. And he won’t mind at all, he loves having his name out there.”

“I’ll propose it to the board, Auss.”

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GREG BECHLE’S PRAYER

A friend emailed for ideas regarding a memorial service, and as I looked up different files I came upon this prayer:

As I light this incense

I offer this prayer

to you Kanzeon.

Please protect me from internal demons

and bad situations.

Sure the world is a mess,

just help me not to worry.

Just do what I can do to help,

and to realize my capacities and limitations.

Kanzeon is Kwan-Yin, the goddess of compassion. The man who recited this prayer every day in the years before his death was Greg Shindo Bechle. I wrote about Greg in The Book of Householder Koans, namely, that he had struggled for decades with PTSD after being stabbed with a 9” knife when he was 16. 35 years later, when meditation practice and psychiatric treatment had finally begun to stop the horrific flashbacks he suffered from, he was told by his doctor that he had terminal cancer and would die within the year.

After his death I was shown his prayer, and we incorporated it into the memorial service for him.

Today I came across it again, and realized how many people I have met over my life who have been my teachers. Of course, Bernie immediately comes to mind. When he and I got together a good friend asked me: “So what’s it like, living with a Zen master?”

I didn’t know how to answer that—we were arduously working things out like other couples, and we’d continue to do that till the end—so I shrugged and said: “He’s my husband.”

But over the years I understood. There wasn’t a meal or coffee that we shared that a certain part of me didn’t watch and listen to him, not a private time seeing a movie that my eyes didn’t veer to the periphery not to lose sight of him. There was a special layer of alertness there that I don’t think I gave others, perhaps I should have; still, I stayed attentive to him over many years.

When he died, he didn’t leave a small emptiness, rather a vast emptiness. And as time goes on, the hollow sense of that emptiness is fading and the vast part of it takes over. I don’t know how else to put it.

I got an email from the new president of Greyston Foundation, Joe Kenner, asking me how I could put Bernie’s motivation for starting Greyston in just a few words, and one way of saying that is vast emptiness. But I won’t use that term, I’ll probably use One Body instead.

Only it’s not Bernie I wish to write about, it’s people like Greg who sat together with us for a short time and then died, leaving me this gorgeous small prayer. It’s people who dribble-drabbled to Greyston as we built and developed it, curious about this phenomenon of sitting in the early morning and getting up to work with folks from all walks of life for the rest of the day, including those without homes or work.

It’s the people we met at many retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau who came from the Balkans, Palestine, Rwanda, Pakistan, and Syria. It’s people I’ll see later today for food cards (assuming the big thunderstorms permit it). THEY GIVE MORE THAN THEY TAKE.

“I pray all the time,” a woman told me. She has two children at home and supports them on a midnight factory shift till the factory closes. I don’t think she meant that she’s constantly asking God for help, she probably does, but I knew from her words that it was far more than that, an acknowledgment that there was something far bigger in her life than poverty and worry, something beneficent and connecting, the most alive thing of all.

I have received so much from them, as I have from fellow travelers, those of us on this path of spiritual engagement, who know that meditation isn’t just something you do on a cushion but continues through your every movement. Meditation does you, you don’t do it. This life of purpose we share is the great gift of my life, Bernie’s great gift to me and many others.

Last winter I read a book, another gift given me by Abundance, by a European Zen teacher on how he saw the coming climate crisis. There was no doubt about it, it was going to be catastrophic. He talked of the garden in back of his center in Sweden and said he’d like to think that future generations will have that garden to come to, sit in, and get sustenance from as they face these big challenges.

I thought then to myself that I, too, wish to leave something for the future generations. I have no children, I certainly don’t have money. I don’t even garden.

And that’s when I remembered the Zen Peacemaker Order that Bernie always tried to get off the ground, an order of people living a vow-driven life to act on behalf of our entire planet and all its inhabitants. People who sit first thing in the morning to experience once again that vast emptiness that births everything, and then get up from their chair or cushion and work in the world as agents of that great emptiness. It does them, they don’t do it. They’re the best people I’ve ever met, but even for the short while that they and I exist, we’re not doing really anything, it does it all.

So a wonderful group of teachers and senior practitioners is creating that Order as I write this. Earlier today I spoke to Jorge Koho Mello, a teacher in Switzerland . He will represent Europe in our discussions. He said: “Zen has to change some of its forms and we are the generation that, through Bernie, are the bridge to what future generations will do.”

Yes, I thought, but we must also be a bridge to a future when people will be broken and angry, disillusioned and afraid, Perhaps when rivalry over depleted resources and ecosystems will threaten us all. Some say we’re there already, or close to it. And indeed, I won’t lie to you, there have been times when I’ve closed my eyes and thought: It’s good I’m 70 and won’t live to see all this. But no, a Zen Peacemaker Order is a far better alternative.

This Order for people who seek fellowship for a meditation-based active life may be a gift and maybe not. I try not to exaggerate my importance in any of this, I’m a creature of small steps. And I’m reassured by Greg’s prayer of so many years ago:

Sure the world is a mess,

just help me not to worry.

Just do what I can do to help,

and to realize my capacities and limitations.

We’re doing something new. Below are now two Donate buttons, one for immigrant families and one for my blog. Each is tied to a different PayPal account and to separate bank accounts, for greater transparency–and to ease my bookkeeping. It’s taken a while and I hope they work; we’ll find out soon enough and make whatever adjustments are needed. Please follow your heart, and if you prefer to do this by check, send it to me: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write For food cards on the memo line.

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NO GOODBYE

Marie (not her real name) leaves without saying goodbye.

She rented a room here and lived in this house for 6 months, and told me she was leaving in early September when I returned from Israel. This morning she packed her bags into her car with her boyfriend’s help. I am in my office doing early-morning tasks, and when I go upstairs she’s gone. There’s the bed, the lounge chair, the side table, the dresser, my furniture, and nothing else.

I look around, shocked. She didn’t say goodbye, I thought to myself. I was looking forward to wishing her well, to congratulating her on the next steps she was taking in her life, moving to live in a different state. Life is so exciting when you’re in your early 20s. How could she not pause to say goodbye?

My mind hurries to cover up the rawness: Abstraction 1: She’s young, what can you expect? Abstraction 2: You were good neighbors but you weren’t close, what’s the big deal?

But I was here, I remonstrate with my mind. Where is the interaction, the human acknowledgment?

I think back to times I didn’t say goodbye, too. Skipped town, went on my way, and didn’t acknowledge the people I’d met at that specific event, on that specific evening, didn’t acknowledge that for just a few hours or even minutes we’d talked, exchanged looks and feelings, shared a ripe moment together.

Bernie was a little like that. We’d be having dinner and I would tell him about events of the day or difficulties I was having. He’d listen, say nothing or else change the subject, and I’d expostulate: “Wait a minute. I was just sharing something with you. Why don’t you say something back?”

After he died, for a long time all I could think of were the missed opportunities to listen to him, have a good back-and-forth. I was happy for the many days over the three years of his stroke when he’d sit up in bed at 10 in the morning and I’d join him, ask him about his night (they were not easy) and what the plans were for the day. We’d talk about the weather, whether he’d try to walk outdoors or not, what virtual meetings he had. Not that he had much to say. He almost never talked about pain or discomfort, I had to wheedle those details out of him like coaxing honey out of a bottle.

“Why don’t you tell me?” I’d say.

He’d shrug with his one unstroked shoulder. “What for?”

“I want to know!” You’re my husband, I care about you, I want to know. Don’t go into your shell just yet!

When do people start becoming abstractions to us? We nod hello without even seeing them, say good morning or goodbye with no eye contact. We may have lived in their home, exchanged pleasantries in the morning, asked about using the milk or butter, but when it’s time to leave we go without saying a word, as though their time with us was inconsequential, didn’t affect or change us in any way.

On Sunday I hosted a potluck gathering for members of Green River Zen Center. I baked some chicken (I don’t have a grill) and made a potato salad, and they did everything else. It was in the back yard, which is big enough to give everyone plenty of room for distance. We laid out the dishes on 2 tables and put out clusters of chairs and tables with plenty of distance in between.

Not everybody would come, but I had to see folks from the chin down. I had to see their shapes, how we changed, who grew taller, who grew more horizontal (moi!), who grew leaner. Who slumps when he walks, who is freer with her arms, what does their body look like, WHAT COLORS ARE THEY WEARING! What music are their arms playing, their legs, their necks and shoulders? How do they occupy the space they’re in?

Sensei and musician extraordinaire John Sprague played music right next to our Kwan-Yin, Aussie played with her friend, Joe, and the sun slowly set behind the trees.

That adventure worked out so well I decided to be really brazen and went to the movies last night. I purposely decided on a movie that wouldn’t bring in the  throngs, like Tenet, that had just opened, and saw David Copperfield instead. It was well done, there were a couple of scenes where I laughed out loud. Dickens, you son of a gun, I thought to myself.

And remembered  several days in London with Bernie for a big meeting, and one of those days we spent sightseeing with Peter Matthiessen, who was in London for his own purposes. We visited Westminster Abbey where Dickens was interred.

“A genius,” Peter says in his gravelly, lowest-I-ever-heard voice.

“Hmm!” I snort. “And where is George Eliot? Dickens left his family for an 18 year-old actress and they never hesitated to bury him here. They wouldn’t bury George Eliot in Westminster because she lived her entire life with George Lewes, whose wife wouldn’t divorce him because she was Catholic.”

“But he was Dickens,” mutters Peter.

“But she was George Eliot,” say I.

He snorts back.

Last night I loved Dickens all over again. But here’s the thing. I’d gone to the movies to be with people. I was the first to arrive and found a seat next to the wall, to be as safe as possible. And I ended up as safe as could be because no one else came. I watched the movie completely alone, the only one in the theater.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL

On Thursday I met Jimena and together we handed out more food cards and wooden crosses.

“Es Catolica?” asks Jimena of the people who come. Most nod, so I take a wooden cross and put it into the envelope with the $50 food card while Jimena cracks: “One is for your stomach and one is for your soul.”

In addition to $750 in food cards she asked for $300 in cash, $200 of which will be sent down to Honduras to pay for the cremation of the parents of a woman who lives up here, both of whom died of covid. The crematorium won’t release their ashes until they get $500 in cremation costs, otherwise the family won’t get the ashes back.

This isn’t just happening far away. A friend sent an article from The New Yorker about Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor helping undocumented families in New York City. Over half a million of them work at all kinds of jobs in the Big Apple, and Covid hit them hard because of the exposure of their jobs and their density in apartments. Four of them often squeeze into one small room. There were horror stories of folks being told that without money, their brothers’ bodies will be thrown into a pauper’s grave. People literally starved in their apartments, or else were turned back from hospitals because of lack of insurance, and even kept corpses of family members or friends in the apartment for several days because they had no idea where to bring them.

I don’t think we have that here. On the street corner where we sit, I see humble, tired, but cheerful faces, grateful to get both their stomach and soul saved together.

Aussie has become a good-will ambassador. I take her out of the car, leashed, and keep her with me when people come, but she greets everyone, licking those who approach, winning them over. With the exception of one little girl who’s afraid of dogs, she’s a hit with the kids while I’m busy converting folks to Catholicism with the wooden crosses I brought from Jerusalem. “Es Catolica?”

Driving home afterwards, I remembered something that happened when I was growing up in my orthodox Jewish home just a few years after we came to this country.

My mother had given birth to my brother, and for about a year we must have had some money (that ended later) so my parents hired a black woman from Alabama to live with us and help out with the baby. Her name was Annette, young and very pretty, with sad eyes. She got a Ph.D. learning program in kosher cooking from my mom, who told her sternly never—but never—to cook ham or bacon in the kitchen.

Since the killing of George Floyd, we’ve had lots of conversations in the Zendo around the racism that people absorbed as part of their upbringing. I don’t relate to it much because my parents knew nothing about African Americans or Latinos. For my Holocaust survivor parents, there was just one thing that mattered: Is the person Jewish, and therefore safe to be around, or is he not? They stuck fiercely to their East European orthodox Jewish ways and inculcated me with terrors of churches, nuns, and priests.

We had a small piano in the living room which I, a Jewish girl blossoming into bourgeoishood, was learning to play with the help of a song book. I easily played one song after another, turning the pages, till I came to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

I stared at it. It was identified as Christmas Carol; I had no idea what Carol was except that it was a girl’s name. But I knew what Christmas was, and I knew it wasn’t my holiday.

I started playing it softly to myself and immediately fell in love with the melody, especially the haunting part in the beginning. Soon I even hummed the words quietly to myself, figuring that my mother, in the kitchen, would have no idea that this was a Christian song as long as I sang the words low:

“Hark the herald angels sing,

Glory to the newborn king.

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled.”

I excused the sin of playing this by remembering that it was written by Felix Mendelsohn, whose grandfather was a famous Jewish rabbi. Too bad his parents had converted to Protestantism.

Everything was good till I reached the words “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Big problem. I was sure that if I sang those words aloud a bolt of lightning would come out of the sky and strike me dead. So I’d sing the other words softly each time I played the song, and when I reached “Christ is born in Bethlehem” I’d go silent, leaving a blank, then pick up the volume again.

I know, I know, it’s hard to understand, but that’s how I was taught, warned off Christmas toys and cards, unable to say “Merry Christmas” to the milkman, and if someone wished me “Merry Christmas” I’d pretend I didn’t hear it or else mumble something back. I had learned very well how to be afraid of the Goyish world.

In the meantime, I grew close to Annette. She had a boyfriend whom she would see on Sundays, when she had off, and I liked to ask her about him and see what clothes and make-up she wore.

One day, during the Christmas season, she sits next to me on the piano bench and says: “Eva, play Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

I freeze.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t play it,” I say glumly.

“Come on, it’s my favorite Christmas carol. We sang it at church all the time back home,” says she.

Now I’m really nervous. How could I, a good Jewish girl, play something that they sang in church? Support Christianity! What would God say?

“I can’t play that song.” How can I explain to her that it would be a travesty, a betrayal of Judaism of the worst kind, a betrayal of my parents, their parents who were killed, their parents and their parents, etc.,  and that I would be horribly punished for it?

“Come on, Eva, I’ve heard you play it,” she says. ”I know you can play it.”

I feel terrible. I like Annette a lot, I know she’s homesick, can see it in her sad eyes, and here is something I can do to help her.

“I can’t play that,” I mewl, “I can’t play that.”

Finally, she left the piano bench and I never played Hark! The Herald Angels Sing again.

But I did on Thursday evening driving home from meeting with the families, I sang it to Aussie in the back seat. And I thought of what God would say if I did one day appear in front of Her just as I had anticipated back when I was 10.

“So what did you do with your life, Eve?”

“Well, I went from being a scared Jewish girl who wouldn’t play a Christmas carol to someone I liked who asked to hear it to becoming a Zen Buddhist teacher and am now proselytizing for the Catholics.”

God: “That’s good.”

Please support the purchase of food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.

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SEVEN

On Tuesday, a gorgeous day, I went to vote in the state primary.

I voted in the local fire station, as usual. It’s easy, you don’t have to stand in long lines they have in big cities, and I enjoyed voting in person instead of by mail. Driving off, I was filled with appreciation for this process of voting for a Senator and Congressman, both of whom fiercely challenged by younger candidates.

I thought: There is so much here we take for granted—a primary election and interesting candidates with different and not-so-different visions for the Commonwealth (a fancy way of referring to Massachusetts). Nobody looking over our shoulder, nobody meddling with the machines, just the kind, gentle people at the voting locations asking for the district, the street name, the number, your name, etc. I remember gratefully how helpful they were when Bernie voted in 2016.

Now there are all kinds of brouhahas about what will happen in November: Will the system break down, will the Russians (or Chinese) take over, will the mail deliver the mail, will the man in the White House live with the results (will we?). But none of this was on my mind Tuesday, walking out of the station house to the car with a deep sense of contentment and even love.

I then took Aussie to our classic walk in the forest above the Montague Farm, where Bernie and I once lived. I’ve been doing that walk for 18 years, with two generations of dogs, but Aussie and I hadn’t been there for a month.. Since I know the hidden paths so well, this particular walk feels like a prayer. My feet know where they’re going without any direction from me. Aussie knows, too, knows she can go off somewhere and find me further on.

Aussie’s changed so much since Harry left. She and I are now the pack, not she and Harry. No more two wild dogs running away and coming back when they feel like it. She goes up the path and looks back, checking in on me. She knows we’re a team.

And in the middle of my contentment, I could hear the words echoing in my head: “Why the fuck you’all shoot him? Why the fuck you’all shoot him that many times?” A witness to the shooting of Jacob Blake shouted that at the policemen, especially the one who shot Blake seven times. Seven times! The number has not stopped ricocheting inside my head like a volleyball since that day. Seven times!

Every time it comes up I ask myself why. I could understand once or twice, the man turned away, ignored the cops, there was talk of a knife somewhere (though a knife is not a gun), he went into the car. Once or twice would be beyond excess, but in that case, what do you say about seven times!

Words come up: Anxiety? Fear? Hate? A sudden wave of power and its accompanying energy?

And then he was handcuffed to the hospital bed? Paralysis from the waist down wasn’t enough, he had to be handcuffed to the bed? Something else then comes up inside: Ignorance. Tone-deafness. Or even their own kind of paralysis in the face of protests and demonstrations.

I can’t get into police-hating, or the Defund the Police message. From everything I heard, many low-income communities of people of color want more police, not less. They also want smarter police. But none?

For me, the police reflect society. We all have some responsibility for the shooting of Jacob Blake. At the same time, they have the guns.

.And still, I happily voted.

It’s easy to shoot down what we have in this country. I am aware that its protections, and specifically the right to vote, are extended very unequally. Too many people are barred from voting because of previous offenses or are obstructed in the process.

Yesterday I read about how our electoral system and the composition of the Senate favor rural states with lower populations than urban areas, which are not just more numerous but also far more diverse, with the result that the impact of the vote of white urban voters is lower than that of their rural counterparts, and the impact of the vote of African-Americans is even lower, and that of Latinos lower than that. And that’s before we take gerrymandering into account.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I mutter to myself as I walk. It’s important to keep on going, keep on fighting, demand parity, transparency, and justice. But if we keep on reciting the mantra it’s all corrupt, all corrupt, all corrupt, we get cynical, instability arises, and finally destructiveness. We get deflated and no longer wish to fight for what we think is worth fighting for. When I appreciate the beauty of what I have, I find it only natural to want to share it with others. If I think it’s all a nasty hoax, it weakens my resolve.

So I took a deep breath and heard a voice inside: “There’s something here worth saving.” And then the old words again: Seven times! Seven times!

At this point, bearing witness is all I can do. I can’t shut my ears to anybody. There’s a lot to say here, including about the locals who vote for Trump. People don’t understand what happened here, why the economy is so segmented, why it’s so, so hard to stay ahead of the game, never mind advance, never mind have a better life than your parents did.

For now all I’ll say is that I was horrified that the Democratic House and Republican Senate left for summer vacation without hashing out a bill to help the unemployed, small businesses, and local governments. Each side blamed the other—but Democrats and Republicans both adjourned for the summer and left so many in the lurch!

Later today I’ll visit with immigrant families and will hear of much tougher, heart-wrenching stories from their lives. In response to my message to Jimena about meeting later today, she wrote back: “$750 for food cards and $300 cash, $100 to pay gas bill for Norma (not her real name) and $200 for Maria (not her real name).” But I can’t miss it: They envy us. They came here to be like us. They’ll fight for this dream long after others give up.

Cynicism is a privilege of those who have money; it’s not for those that don’t.

Please support the purchase of food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses. You can do that by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.

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MAKE DOGS GREAT AGAIN!

“You know, Aussie, I think you love older male dogs.”

“I do! I do!”

“I’ve watched you with border collie Joe, who’s 11 and pretty over the hill. I’ve watched you with golden retriever Raleigh, who’s 9, heavy, and can’t run.”

“I love Raleigh!”

“Why, Aussie? You can hear their bones creak when they move.”

“Older dogs know so much, they’ve lived so much, they can show me so much.”

“You prance around them showing them your butt, roll your eyes, and lick their lips, Aussie. Uggh!”

“They’re wise, they’re experienced, they can teach me things a dog my age will never know.”

“What about older females, Auss?”

“Ah, forget them.”

“You were an older female to Harry.”

“What choice did I have, Boss? Harry was young! He needed to be trained.”

“And you were the one who trained him, Aussie, he learned so much from you. You were Harry’s wise older female. Do you remember what shape he was in when we brought him home? He wasn’t housetrained, barely used to people or other dogs.”

“He was a mess, Boss. Never did understand how you brought him home.”

“Well, now his new family keeps telling me how civilized he is.”

“Hard to believe.”

“I know, Aussie, but he’s doing great. And he’s no longer afraid of the cat.”

“Harry was afraid of a cat?”

“The cat attacked him when they first took him home, Aussie.”

“I trained that dog and he’s afraid of a cat? I’m ashamed of him, Boss. I’m ashamed of Harry. It goes against nature!”

“Don’t be silly, Auss.”

“Boss, it’s time to make dogs great again.”

“Don’t even go there, Aussie.”

“We’re the superior ones, everybody knows that. We go after cats, they never go after us. We bully them, chase them, and generally make their lives miserable. When it starts being the other way around, you know something is very wrong with the world. Just watch, Donald Trump will make dogs great again.”

“Trump? The only recent president without a dog in the White House? The man who couldn’t care less about animals or nature unless oil is hiding underneath?”

“He loves birds, Boss. He tweets with them every morning. Do you do that?”

“I expect the birds to go dumb any minute from shame, Auss. Besides, who said that dogs always go after cats? Things change.”

“That’s another thing. There’s too much change going on, Boss. The world was a lot better when nothing changed.”

“Name one thing that doesn’t change, Aussie.”

“Males are different from females.”

“Only in some respects, Aussie.”

“Stinky buffalo treats are way better than chicken or beef treats—and a lot better than cheese.”

“Depends.”

“Raleigh and Joe are hot, Harry not.”

“There, at least, I agree with you. At least with regards to Harry.”

“I rest my case. Dogs go after cats, not the other way around. Trump will make sure things go back to normal.”

“What’s normal, Aussie?”

“Dogs are greater than cats. Older males are greater than young ones.”

“Aussie, every Sunday I bring you to the dog party in the conservancy so that you could play with other young dogs.”

“They’re too young for me, Boss.”

“You’re three years old, Aussie, you’re young, too.”

“They’re a bunch of hoodlums, Boss. No manners, ignorant about the most basic socialization rules. And they scamper.”

“What’s wrong with scampering, Aussie?”

“I never scamper. I never cavort. I’m a conservative.”

“Harry loved to scamper. Harry loved to cavort. Now he jogs every morning for at least 2 miles, goes off-leash everywhere except in town, and goes on car rides. His family is so happy with him they’re even thinking of getting another dog to be Harry’s companion.”

“Quick, Boss, get me an application.”

 

 

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WOODEN CROSSES

Some 28 years ago I spent a week in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City.

At that time, Coyoacan had its upscale, semi-Bohemian streets, and I stayed with a woman who lived in a modern apartment building with all the amenities. During the days I walked around.  I spent time sitting on a bench at the Plaza Hidalgo and eating ice cream. But most of all, I liked to go into the Iglesia de Juan Bautista, one of the oldest churches in Mexico located in a poorer area.

The Iglesia de Juan Bautista is famous for its beautiful central altar and frescoes, but I preferred the darker side aisles. One of these brought me to a small altar in front of a painting of the Virgin, white and golden-haired. It wasn’t she who drew me, but rather the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene on the other side.

She was without halo and without gold. A simple cloak covered her hair, fell down to her shoulders and over an old, folded skirt. Of the entire figure only the face and hands showed, turned towards the dark aisle and focusing on a low point rather than up at heaven. Her eyes were wide open and dark, the arms beneath the folds of the cloak stretched out, the palms open in supplication. Her garments were those of a peasant woman from biblical times, selling her wares in town or else gathering wheat in the fields, her face tired and crisscrossed by lines.

I used to sit there for hours on an adjacent bench, watched over by her. She was my guardian, not the white, haloed, glorious Virgin with angels flying above her head.

One day I came to my favorite perch, and soon noticed a line had formed close by. It must have been a Sunday. Indian women lined up, their long hair hidden inside kerchiefs, wearing serapes over long cotton skirts, the brown-skinned men in baggy slacks and plain white shirts, holding straw hats in their hands. The line advanced slowly. and I realized from the booth deep in the wall recess that they were lining up for confession.

I watched them, conscious of my clothes, the bag, the sandals. What do you have to confess, I wanted to ask them? That you drank too much, you didn’t have food ready on the table for your husband when he came home from work, that you desired another woman, that you beat your little boy unnecessarily, that that you filched a few dollars from a gringa in a hotel room where you cleaned? That you coveted and scolded and stole, gossiped and mocked and laughed, and forgot God?

Given their hard life, these seemed such little things. Where does anyone’s fault lie?

I remembered this yesterday when I joined Jimena de Pareja and the immigrant families she works with. I showed Jimena the wooden crosses I’d bought in Jerusalem for them, and she cautioned me that not every Latino family goes to church. So much for my generalizing along ethnic/religious lines. I bought this gift for them with my own money. Each time someone came for a food card, she let me know if I should put a small crucifix in the envelope containing the food card. But after an hour, most of the crosses were gone.

Sometimes she asked them to sign a form she has from the schools advising them of the current reopening situation (online distance learning only) and what they need to be aware of. I’m used to sitting aside at that point and trying to follow her Spanish rattle.

I hope that the food cards make the discussion on forms and requirements easier on them; this time the schools are demanding more concrete criteria for participation, not easy on parents who usually work out of the house, as these do. They work on farms (though many are now closing with the onset of fall) and in factories that don’t ask too many questions; no one that I have met works online from home, they don’t have those kinds of jobs.

One woman, Eva (not her real name), looked as if she’d just come back from church. Usually they collect the food cards, chat a little, thank us, and leave to make room for the next person (we can’t afford to meet in a group). But Eva, beautiful in a black and white dress, was tired and settled down near me, all of us in masks. She lives alone with three children and talked at length with Jimena about current school requirements. She doesn’t have WIFI but this can be remedied since Comcast is offering parents a subscription for $10 a month for 6 months.

She fingered the cross fondly, saying she wanted to wear it as a necklace. She has no husband and was just laid off from the farm where she worked because it’s closing for the season. She thinks she can work in a local small factory doing the midnight shift, but the factory will probably close also in about two months, and then she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

I remembered my time in Coyoacan. I also remembered the Widow’s Mite, as described in the Gospel of Mark, when Christ watched rich people give big donations, and then a widow put two small coins in the basket, the cheapest coins available, the equivalent of our pennies, and Christ said that her gift mattered more to God than all the big gifts the wealthy had put in. Eva didn’t give money, she came to receive it. But her heart was open to receiving something else—faith, hope, determination.

As a rule, the parents of these families know that their lives will be of relentless toil, lack, and fear. They come here less for themselves than for their children. They come for a future that won’t be theirs. They sit the kids down in front of iPads, sometimes 3 or 4 in a room doing separate classes. They work under a hot sun (we had a very hot summer this year) and then wonder how to make money when the farms shut down. Some go to confession, some not; if they do, I have no idea what it is they confess to because I am so taken aback by their generosity of spirit, by their ability to self-sacrifice and continually love and give.

When they thank me, I thank them. I don’t think they understand why.

Please help us continue to buy food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses (I’ll write about that in a future post). You can do that by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.

Since April 1, when we first began, we’ve given some $22,000 of help.  It’s very significant for them; please, let’s continue. Thank you.

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GROWLING AT OTTO

Photo by Stuart Warner

“Aussie, I want you to stop growling at Otto.”

“Otto’s a big dog, he can take care of himself. Besides, all he does all day is  sniff me.”

“That’s how you dogs meet each other and get all that information, Aussie: your gender, your age, whether you’re a potential mama, whether you’re healthy, what you ate for dinner last night. Who you vote for.”

“I sure love watching the Republican Convention. Can hardly wait for Big Boss to show up and tell you what’s what.”

“I thought I was Boss, Aussie.”

“He’s Big Boss, Boss. The greatest of Bosses. Otto wouldn’t dare sniff him. Trouble with Otto is, he doesn’t get the message. He wants another meeting, and another meeting, and another meeting, all with my butt. So I growl and he doesn’t listen. I growl and he doesn’t listen. So I curl my lip, and then I jump him.”

“You shouldn’t take things so personally, Aussie. This is all about miscommunication.”

“I communicate plenty.”

“You think you do, Auss. Let me tell you a story. When I flew home to be with you again—”

“You should have left me with Tim!”

“—I sat near a beautiful Nigerian doctor. She was tall and strong, I was awestruck by her. But she seemed reserved to me and hardly made eye contact, so I thought she didn’t want to talk. An hour before we landed, I complimented her on her elegant red shoes, and she smiled like the sun. We started talking easily and naturally, like we were best friends. At the end she said she wished we’d started to talk earlier—we’d spent a long night together on that plane—so I told her that the way I read her, it looked to me as if she wanted to be left alone. And she said: ‘Really? I thought the same about you. You’re an old woman so I have respect, I didn’t want to bother you.’ Isn’t that interesting, Aussie?”

“What, pray tell, has this got to do with Otto and me?”

“We’re all so different from each other, Aussie, so when we read each other’s body language it’s easy to make mistakes. And of course, she called me an old woman.”

“You are an old woman! You’re ancient.”

“I’m 70, Auss. The point is, in her culture, calling a woman like me old woman is a mark of respect. Here in the West, if somebody calls me an old woman, I belt him”.

“You shouldn’t take things so personally, Boss. It’s miscommunication. Speaking of which, just look at Ziggy, Remy, Martha, and the rest of these young dogs. I arrive and they come in a mob to greet me, giving me no space. They surround me, ram into me, jump me, and chase each other around me like a bunch of hoodlums. And they sniff, and they sniff, and they sniff even though I tell them as nicely as I can to get the fuck outta here. But do they listen? No. They sniff and they sniff and they—”

“So you growl–”

“You bet I growl!”

“–and I have to intervene, warn you not to curl your lips before throwing Walker or Ziggy on the ground, causing shame on our entire household. You know, Aussie, when Harry used to run into that kind of situation, he would just walk away. He never growled, he never jumped anybody, never got into trouble, he’d just walk away.”

“Not me, Boss, I teach them a lesson. How are they going to learn if nobody teaches them anything?”

“Oh Aussie, teaching is actually a humbling business. What you think you know you really don’t know.”

“Stop bragging. By now you know something.”

“Like what, Aussie?”

“You know not to bug me if I’m sleeping. When you come downstairs in the morning you peer into the office to check up on me sleeping on the futon. If I shake my tail you know it’s okay to come and stroke me, otherwise—”

“Stay away. You’re right, I know that. I’m lonely sometimes, Aussie, especially in the mornings.”

“What’s lonely?”

“I think, Aussie, that you felt a little lonely after Harry left.”

“I loved it.”

“You know what the poet David Whyte says about loneliness, Auss? ‘Loneliness is the very state that births the courage to continue calling . . . the far horizon that answers back.’ What do you think of that?”

“What’s a poet, Boss?”

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