WHAT SCARES ME

I spoke with a friend, a Palestinian peace activist living in the West Bank. His daughter attends an international school in Israel, comprising Israeli, Palestinian, and international students. When the Middle East war began, the internationals and Israelis returned home; the Palestinians had more trouble due to locked checkpoints.

Finally, the school re-opened and students came back. That’s when a post appeared on Instagram accusing the school of harboring children of terrorists.

To call my friend, who’s done extensive peace work for 30 years, a terrorist is ludicrous. To call his work partner, who also sends a child to that school, a terrorist is comical. But the post garnered some 5,000 comments, each more violent than the other: Close up the school. Cancel its certification. Burn the terrorist children. Torch them and the school.

He called the school and was reassured by them that his daughter is not in danger and that they will take care of things. The person who wrote the post wasn’t a student or staff member. He was ignorant, my friend said, but what about all the rage that came up in the thousands of comments?

People walk around with so much fear, he told me, both here, where he lives, and in Israel.

And when we’re afraid, anger is where many of us go.

A week ago, I received a terrific body treatment from Kendra Renzoni, whose classes in Foundation Training I greatly benefit from. I walked out of her studio in the most relaxed, calmest of bodies and spirits, when four footsteps later my cellphone rang.

“I don’t know if you had a chance to see the announcement we got,” my sister tells me.

“I had the phone off,” I tell her.

She relates that our nephew, serving in Gaza, and his unit were staying inside a house when a missile hit the house and some of the soldiers were wounded. He wasn’t. They took the others to the hospital while his own military service in Gaza is being extended at the very time that he was scheduled to go home.

She lost me after the first sentence. The body treatment, with the relaxed joints and muscles, was gone. Instantly, things got super tight.  Neck and shoulders stiffened as I walked to the car against an icy wind.

That beautiful boy almost got hurt! It wasn’t even a conscious thought; in fact, there were no conscious thoughts, just a darkness that dropped over me like my bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night, when I can’t see anything. I sensed it, felt it—and got angry.

Why angry? Because in my case, a whole assortment of feelings—grief, sadness, fear, misery, distress—often turn into anger. It’s an old conditioning of mine and I’ve had plenty of experience with it.

I was grateful for my practice. It hadn’t stopped the anxiety and anger, but it gave me just enough space to see what was happening, just enough distance to marvel at how easily I could still lose my bearings and evenness. How easily my mind can still get swallowed up by blind fury—not at anyone or anything in particular, not even at the Hamas fighters that fired the missile, no, not at anything or anyone, just the world. Rage at life.

And for however much time that lasted—two hours, maybe—I felt I had a glimpse of how others feel, not just in the Middle East but also here. What might cause someone to kill others and then himself, as so often happens in this country. Grief, disappointment, and pain can change into anger in an instant—at an ex-wife, at parents, at parents-in-law, neighbors, old friends, even strangers—and you start shooting, and finally end up shooting yourself. Because finally, who are you most angry at?

It’s my nephew, I thought. It’s not the army. It’s not the people in Gaza. It’s my nephew.

Snow has begun again here. I will work and sit this evening. And then, before finally going upstairs to bed, will open the front door and peer out at the cold and dark, as I usually do.

Only this darkness isn’t like what I felt last week, it doesn’t promise destruction. It’s the darkness of the universe that contains both the Big Bang, giving birth to every single thing, from grains of sand to entire galaxies, and the cataclysmic black holes and conflagrations that devour entire star systems.

There won’t be stars out tonight lighting my way, but that won’t disturb this earth that will continue on its lonely orbit both around the sun and the center of the Milky Way, carrying its magical kingdom of oaks, traffic lights, Aussies, black sand beaches, white foam on top of waves, and flocks of birds. Even illegal chihuahuas.

What are the odds of my being here, alive?

Why can’t I just be grateful?

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CAMELOT VOTERS

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let

The wire brush of doubt

Scrape from your heart

All sense of yourself

And your hesitant light.

That’s part of a poem by John O’Donahue. Isn’t it perfect for these freezing days of winter, Aussie?”

“I hope you’re grateful, that’s all I can say.”

“Why, Auss?”

“Because it’s freezing outside. Not just freezing, fucking freezing, and who loves you and takes you out on a walk in this weather? Moi.”

“You take me out for a walk?”

“Who else? Certainly not the illegal Chihuahua Henry, shivering inside on three blankets and two pillows with a quilt over his head. Illegal ain’t leaving the house till May.”

“I thought I’m the one taking you out on walks.”

“Please! The Great Man is right, they’re poisoning our blood and making it thinner, like their Mexican blood, that’s why I have to drag you out so that you don’t get fatter than you already are.”

“Give me a break, Aussie.”

“Answer me this: Who has to wait for who to put on layers before she goes out?”

“Whom.”

“Who?”

“It’s who has to wait for whom, Aussie.”

“Right, it’s moi. Who has to wait for who to put on two pairs of socks?”

“You.”

“And the heavy boots with the thigamajigs on the bottom?”

“The yak-trax so that I don’t slip on the snow and ice.”

“That red thing you put on your head?”

“Woolen hat.”

“The thigamajigs on your hands?”

“Gloves.”

“The snake wrapped around your neck?”

“Scarf.”

“Would you be doing this without me?”

“No, Aussie.”

“Who’s the great bodhisattva, taking you out on your daily walks?”

“You are, Aussie. But you know what amazes me? It’s to see Jason and Emily taking down two trees in this weather. Emily didn’t come in today, just Jason, but she’s just as much of a trooper as he is.”

“And he doesn’t wear a hat or gloves. Of course, he’s younger, healthier, thinner, kind of cute with his thick hair and beard. I bet he and I could have a great romp in the snow, unlike me and you-know-who, who recites all that drivel.”

“Poetry, Aussie, is not drivel. I greatly appreciate the people who work outdoors in this weather. Jason and Emily taking down two trees to give us more sunlight, Steve and his crew who will come in to replace our 35-year-old roof, and then Bill’s crew will install solar panels.”

“We don’t need solar panels, we have electricity and oil heat.”

“The world needs solar panels, Auss, but who’d have thought people would be working in ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit? Jason said that when he climbs the trees, the wind chill factor is ferocious. And I’m thrilled to see how many women are working in these crews. When I was younger, roofing and tree work were not open to women.”

“I wish they’d stay home; I love having the guys to myself. Did you see Steve’s eyes when he saw me? He was ready to take me home with him—and I bet he loves Donald Trump.”

“How do you know that, Aussie?”

“He was a big guy.”

“Big guys like Donald Trump?”

“Naturally. He wore a heavy flannel shirt, nothing too colorful, a thick red parka without a hoodie. No North Face heated vest for him, he’s no wimp, he’s a guy guy—and you know who they vote for.”

“Aussie, it’s dangerous to make such generalizations.”

“Only he didn’t drive a truck with a dead deer in the back and there wasn’t an American flag hanging out the window.”

“Jason drives a big truck for the wood he cuts down.”

“Yes, but he works with Emily, a woman. They’ll go for Camelot Joe.”

“Camelot Joe, Aussie?”

“Kamala and Joe. Can’t we hire somebody else to take down those trees?”

“Aussie, here’s the last lines of that poem by John O’Donahue:

If you remain generous,

Time will come good;

And you will find your feet

Again on fresh pastures of promise,

Where the air will be kind

And blushed with beginning.”

“Sounds like another Camelot voter to me.”

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YOU DON’T DISAPPEAR

Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

Thinking of you. Wondering how you are today. Deep gratitude to him.

Yesterday, January 18, would have been Bernie’s 85th birthday and warmhearted greetings and condolences came my way via text and email. Also by phone, but I haven’t answered. The Gaza fighting has been closer to home in more ways than one and it preoccupied me a lot yesterday.

Long before October 7, if you brought up the Middle East, Bernie would shake his head slowly. What would he do now?

I always imagined him living a long time; his father died when he was 91, so it was only natural, I thought, for him to live even longer. He was so strong and healthy! When my father died at 90, his wife looked at me, bereft.

 “He was 90,” I reminded her.

“Yes, but his mother died at 102,” she said.

Probably older, I thought to myself. We never knew her real birthday.

Bernie died two months short of 80, and I now think that that was a good age to live to. A friend is undergoing both chemo and radiation treatments. When I try to empathize with her, she tells me that it breaks her heart to see so many younger people undergoing the same treatments in the hospital.

Bernie accomplished much. He had many students and affected way more. He had three marriages to three wonderful women. I had a call yesterday with a Greek woman who talked about his influence on her at the Auschwitz retreat, and how that affected her own life plans, including building a retreat place for meditation, peacemaking, and healing. Next week I’ll go to Greyston for yet another film about him and the Greyston Bakery, and what spiritual leadership can mean in the business world.

When someone’s life has such lasting reach, when someone has been loved and respected by so many, expecting more, wanting more, feels selfish.

It’s easy to say, after somebody dies, Wow, he gave so much! We often don’t see it before they die. We want more from the husband, more from the teacher. It’s hard to be content with things as they are, as they’re taking place.

But I couldn’t join the gatherings held in his honor, much as I appreciated them, couldn’t talk to people about him. That’s the trouble for me in those conversations, they’re about Bernie. I don’t experience him like that. His picture is on the altar in the living room, along with some others, and every morning, when I light incense, I say Hiya, Bernie, or Good morning. He looks back from under his bushy eyebrows and above healthy, ruddy cheeks, enjoying his cigar, enjoying life, and he’s here, in the house, in me.

German writer Mariana Leky, in her gorgeous novel What You Can See From Here, quotes a Buddhist aphorism: If you don’t see something, it can’t disappear. We see something when we discriminate or differentiate it in some way. Consciously or unconsciously, I see Henry holding his green turtle in his mouth, Aussie barking outside in the snow, chimes ringing from under the bare maple. I can’t see something unless it’s separate from me. I’m the observer and the observed is what I see.

When you don’t see like that, nothing can disappear. Bernie isn’t an object to see or discuss, he’s completely inside me and this house, no outside or inside. When I greet his photo in the morning, I’m greeting me and lots of other things besides. He’s in my blood, in the air, on the outdoors deck where he sat to smoke cigars while working (later we converted it into another indoors office, where I now sit without cigar). I can’t see him, and for this reason he can’t disappear.

He’s not around to celebrate his 85th birthday and I don’t think he’s responding to folks emailing me Happy birthday, Bernie. Why should he? He’s not 85, he’s something else.

“What survives you is the result of your actions,” he used to say.

The man doesn’t disappear.

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BATHROOM MIRROR

I came out of the shower this morning and heard Henry scratching on the door: “Let me in! Let me in! Llama Louie wants to give the morning teaching!”

I didn’t want to hear Llama Louie because I caught sight of a strange woman in the bathroom mirror. “Who the hell are you? And how did you get inside the bathroom?”

She smirked.

“You put blue shadow under the eyes rather than on top, don’t you know how to put on makeup?”

She smirked again.

“Your face is lined and you’re too curvy, which is a nice way of saying that you’re overweight.”

“I am you,” she says.

“Don’t give me that Zen stuff,” I tell her, “I have too much on my mind.”

“Like what?”

“I’m feeling dark about this country.”

“That’s because you read the book Prophet Song,” she says. “The reviewers warned you not to read it even though it won the Booker Prize because it’s so depressing. But did you listen?”

“I read it because it’s gorgeously written. Only once I read about how the Republic of Ireland becomes a fascist state and people walk around saying a million times This can’t be happening in our country—only they say that the beautiful Irish way, you know—I got dark. If things like that happen here and we start saying This can’t be happening in our country, it won’t sound that beautiful. Come to think of it, I don’t know why the Irish want to restore Irish when their English is so gorgeous.”

“I think you got down on account of the Iowa caucuses this week.”

“It’s hard to face another election with Trump running. What’s worse is that I don’t know what to do.”

“Just like you don’t know what to do about the Middle East war, not that your input is all that critical.”

“What’s worse, strange woman, is that it’s winter with snow on the ground, frost in the air, and a wind chill of about -100, give or take.”

“It’s getting even colder.”

“And even worse is that Aussie is chewing on something in the back yard; she may have killed another squirrel.”

“Stop bitching,” she tells me. “Do your sitting, toss Llama Louie around with Henry, fill the birdfeeders because they’re empty after yesterday’s snow, do laundry—have you forgotten it’s Wednesday, your regular laundry day?”

“How is that going to dispel the darkness? And tell me again, who are you? Some kind of spiritual teacher or something? And how did you get into this bathroom?”

“I told you, I am but a reflection of you.”

“Like the moon reflected in water? Don’t give me that Zen shtick, I am way younger, way slimmer, way cuter. Only what’s that birthmark at the edge of your forehead? Looks familiar, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it before.”

“Let go of all that darkness stuff, sometimes it’s poetic but mostly it’s mush. Work on gaining strength for what’s to come.”

“Hey lady, I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 74.”

“Which means you need to gain your strength.”

“I knew you weren’t me. There’s a Zen koan which asks: When the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay here? The Zen master answers: Because they did not gain strength on the road. See? If you got an answer, show me.”

“Put some lipstick on, you look terrible. Now listen to me,” the woman in the mirror says. “There’s snow outside, maybe more coming this weekend. Temperatures like in Greenland. Use the winter to burrow deep, like all intelligent animals. This is the season for regaining confidence and strength, use it wisely.”

“How do I do that?”

“Trace the progress of the afternoon sun on the snow, keep your hyacinth blooming. Watch the juncos outside. If they can make it through a brutal winter, so can you. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“As Mariana Leky writes in her book: You cannot always choose which adventure you’re made for.

“Huh?”

“Donald Trump, Boris the bear, Hamas, winter squalls, Bibi Netanyahu, dead squirrel on the snow—find a way to meet them.”

“I don’t want them.”

“It’s not your choice, so make it your choice. Create your own rules, play the game. Just one more thing: Use the winter season to gain some strength.”

“Who are  you again? And what are you doing in my bathroom?”

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GRRRRRR!

“Aussie, we got a $1,100 donation from Guerilla Yoga this morning.”

“Gorillas do yoga? That I gotta see. Do they do downward facing gorilla?”

“No, silly. Guerilla Yoga is a Swiss group of wonderful teachers who lead yoga sessions outdoors for free, open to anyone who wants to participate. A lot of people come, and after the class they ask for donations for a particular cause. Today we got a gift from them for immigrant families so that the families could keep their homes and pay their heat bills this cold winter.”

“But they live in Switzerland! Why should they bother with a bunch of illegals in Massachusetts?”

“Aussie, they bother because, in the end, one heart beats for all of us.”

“Oh phooey!”

“Seriously, Auss. How else do you explain that people living in one side of the world feel something for people who live on the other side, people they never heard of, never met, who may not look or live like them—and still they want to help?”

“They’re Swiss. Are you sure this isn’t a loan?”

“You know, Aussie, when I first began to distribute food cards to the families here during the Covid pandemic, I explained to them that we get donations for their benefit from Europe, the Middle East, and even Australia. They couldn’t understand it; they asked me why people would do that. But we’re wired to feel for others, it’s what makes us human. You know what His Holiness the Dalai Lama says? If you want to be happy, help others.”

“I help others, and I’m not happy.”

“How do you help others, Aussie?”

“Haven’t you noticed how nice I am to Henry lately?”

“Now that you mention it, Auss, I have. He got close to your Sunday morning marrow bone, and you didn’t attack him.”

“Grrrrr.”

“I also saw that he slept on the futon cushion in my office, where you like to nap, and you let him.”

“Grrrrr.”

“And last night he slept on your dog bed in my bedroom and—”

“Just for a few minutes!”

“Right, just for a few minutes, but still, you let him, you didn’t fight him and send him yowling off to Lori.”

“Grrrrr.”

“Does it mean you’re sick, Aussie?”

“No, it means I’m into non-violence.”

“Wow! In honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.?”

“No, in honor of my getting older. I can’t chase somebody away like I used to, so Henry walks all over me.”

“Aussie, nonviolence doesn’t mean that you let somebody walk all over you. It means that when a threat arises, you respond in a nonviolent way.”

“It means I’m a nothing, a big doormat for him to step on.”

“It doesn’t, Auss. King got into everybody’s face, but he was always looking into how to do it without violence.”

“He was a wimp—just like me.”

“Actually, nonviolence takes a lot of training. It’s the natural thing for us, faced with a threat, to pick up the first thing we see—a stick, a knife, a gun—for defense. Nonviolence requires discipline and that you find ways to protect yourself without hurting the other person.”

“Like what?”

“Like the way you growl but don’t hurt Henry.”

“I want to hurt him so badly when he goes after my bone!”

“There are other ways, Aussie.”

“I want to kill! Kill! Kill!”

“I can understand that, Auss, but—”

“I want to get his head in my jaws and squeeze! I want to grab a hold of his neck and fling him across the room!”

“But you restrain yourself, Auss, which is good and—”

“I want to stamp him down on the ground and maul him with my claws! I want to push him down the stairs to the dark basement and shut the door on him! I want to call the coyotes to tear him apart limb from limb! I want Boris the giant black bear to devour him!  I want to grab his collar with my incisors and throw him up in the air like he does to his toys! I want to choke him and strangle him and maul him and rip him apart! I want to hear him squeal with his last breath!”

“Aussie, I thought you eschewed bloodshed!”

“I did, but I love talking about it. Now I can go back to being nonviolent.”

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LIFE IS SCARY

Today, Aussie and I broke the law and walked to the reservoir in adjoining Lake Pleasant. The sign prohibits access, but every once in a while, I break the law and take her there. We still have lots of snow on the ground, including ice on part of the water that’s by the main road, so imagine my surprise when we made our way down the hill and saw the large reservoir completely clear, blue-green, with ducks swimming on the opposite shore. No leaden gray surface as it’s been for a long time, just white clouds reflected in the water.

Aussie was happier, too, and I realized that dogs are probably as affected by weather as humans. She pranced around, stopping only to contemplate going into the cold water. Rain starts tonight and will go into tomorrow mid-morning, I’m told.

What am I thinking of this morning? I think of Kisagotami. The old Buddhist story is straightforward:

A young mother in old India loses her baby. She goes crazy from grief, holding the baby’s corpse in her arms and not letting go. Finally, she goes to a teacher she’s heard of, the Buddha, and begs him to bring her baby back to life. He agrees on one condition. First, she has to visit the houses in the village and find one that had suffered no loss, take a mustard seed from them, and bring the seed back. Kisagotami does as she’s told, only to discover that not one house has suffered no loss; they’ve all suffered through illness and death, many losing children, parents, friends. She returns to the Buddha, picks up the dead baby, gives it up for cremation, and becomes a follower of the Buddha.

In the beginning of my years in Zen Buddhism I couldn’t understand this story. Who finds solace for a personal tragedy in the suffering of others? Doesn’t it exacerbate it? Or at least, wouldn’t you feel your own grief denied when someone you describe it to says: That’s terrible. Now let me tell you what happened to me.

As the years passed, and especially recently, the story has deepened for me. As the scholar Peter Hershock described in his book Liberating Intimacy, what happens to Kisagotami when she knocks on doors in search of a home with no loss? The woman of the house answers. The young, grief-stricken mother tells her why she’s come.

“Come in,” the woman says. They serve her tea and listen to her tell the story of her baby—how beautiful it was, how healthy, how it brought her such joy, and the catastrophe of its illness and death. They nod, commiserate, urge her to drink more tea. Then they tell her about their grief. About the father who had a work accident. A daughter who died at childbirth. How they couldn’t take good care of parents because of the lack of money. Kisagotami sips her tea and listens. No mustard seed here, so on she goes to the next house, where the same thing happens.

Finally, she understands the significance of the Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering. Rich or poor, Brahmin or not, suffering is part of being human. You try to build a life of meaning and love, you get old and sick, look back and wonder if it was all a dream, and then die. What a crazy way to live! All life is fragile, no wonder we try to be on top of things, no wonder we’re fearful and impatient. The fragility of being human is what binds us to each other, including the lack of solution and control.

Contrary to what our parents and media tell us, we’re not living in a context of no problem, everything’s good! (with the implication that if your life is different there’s probably something wrong with you). Disappointment, heartbreak, and loss are essential parts of this life–as are laughter, ducks swimming on the water, sneaking our way around the reservoir overjoyed by the blue skies. If we don’t recognize that, we become over-protective and defensive, trying every which way to control things, and when shit happens anyway, we feel like failures. Or at the very least, that something wrong happened.

I’ve seen this in the US more than in any other country, specifically among more affluent white people. I think it’s what causes our fearfulness in one of the securest countries in the world. I can’t begin to count how many people I talk to, upon describing the weather, losing power due to a storm, or a bad work experience, say: “It’s scary.”

It’s all I can do to not say: “What’s scary, life?”

We hear of parents who’ve lost children to illness or violence. Many are dogged by this catastrophe forever, even divorce because their marriage can’t survive the tragedy. And there are a few who find their hearts opening to other children who are at risk, other children who are sick. They’re the ones who start foundations to help other children, who advocate on behalf of a medical cure, who open their hearts to the grief of others. Their personal grief widens to include the grief of others.

I used to think that the word healing meant that you bring an end to someone’s pain. I am not sure any longer. The word is related to whole, and maybe the job of healing is to acknowledge that accidents, illness, violence, death are all parts of the game. They’re part of the wheel of life, co-existing with us, even calling for our attention, a way to live with rather than against all the time. Not fight fight fight cancer or drugs but see how everything has its place.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t seek a cure for cancer, that I don’t protect the people I love, that I don’t care for those without homes or food. I do whatever I can do while recognizing that everything has a cause, that the fullness of being human asks me not to worry so much about good and bad or right and wrong, but rather see that we all occupy the same space, share the same DNA, and one way or another, we also share very similar struggles. Nobody’s outside of that circle, without exception.

The Buddha could have told Kisagotami that death is part of life; he could have given her a teaching. Instead, the Great Physician sent her out to discover this for herself. I feel right now that we’re all Kisagotamis, sent out into the world to bear witness to the breadth and fragility of humanity, admit our interdependence and kinship, and out of that take care of the world.

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REMEMBER YOU ARE LOVED

Looking back I see more than seventy years

have already passed.

I am tired of seeing through right and wrong

in the human world

Snow in the late night covers all traces

of coming and going

A stick of incense burns by the old window.

I sit.

The poet Ryokan describes more and more of my life.

We still have snow outdoors, though much has melted in rainstorms. Lying in bed last night, I could hear gusts and rain slapping the walls, occasional chimes from the chimes over the remains of a big oak tree. Through a slightly open window I heard the stream below us turning into gushing white water, then the sound of a freight train chugging its way up north on tracks half a mile from the house, Aussie jumping down from the living room sofa, her favorite bed, to hop on the big lounge chair or else the futon in my office. Her nights are full of pilgrimages from one bed to another. The surge of heat as the furnace finally, in the dead of winter, comes into its own.

“You were in Israel a few weeks ago? How was it?” This from the eye surgeon I visited, preparing for cataract removal in my second eye. No, I wasn’t in danger, Jerusalem got rockets just one day the entire time I was there. Looking at his name, I ask him if his family’s roots are in Lebanon, and he says his father’s are. He was born here, but I always love meeting someone from that Fertile Crescent, with its extraordinary culture, food, and hospitality.

 “Do you go back?” I ask him. “Do you take your children?”

The answer is no. He’s afraid of the instability and violence, the destructive, percolating passions.

I’ve felt locked in those passions, too, but winter in this Valley is a miracle. The snow covers the earth and all its cacophony and bedlam. In the midst of glaring headlines about the Middle East, Ukraine, and Trump trials, it whispers: It’s time to rest. Or at least sit in a warm office under the gray, woolen shawl Bernie brought you from Colombia years ago, and remember that you were loved. That you are loved.

Work and repose at the same time. The birds are eating at the birdfeeders, squirrel tracks in the snow, dogs running delightedly on the puffy powder. They find winter boring and lately have been barking a lot.

“What are you barking at?” I shout at Aussie. “There is nothing there.”

“Nothing is worth barking at,” she shouts back. Ahh, a Zen dog.

Some go to sleep forever. Our first winter in the house I came out the front door on an antarctic morning to find a dead coyote on the front path. It lay there, skin and bones, no blood spots of any kind; it had starved to death. Perhaps it had come to the house for a last-minute search for food before giving up and lying down on the snow.

It shook me up. Death had been so close by, starvation right out front, and I didn’t know it? I’d slept through it?

I picked the body up with a big snow shovel and carried it into the woods. Didn’t tell anyone, not even Bernie.

The same thought crosses my mind now: Someone died out there and I didn’t know it? The newspapers announce YES!, big-time. The Council on Foreign Relations says there are some 32 conflicts or wars actively going on now. The numbers of those dead from war climbs up from year to year, never mind millions of refugees. And I will go to bed soon under warm blankets and read, just as I did that night when the coyote came to our house looking for food.

My eternal koan.

James Joyce, too, saw the snow, and wrote how it falls on everyone evenly, covering up the home, the asphalt roads, the bare trees, the graves, traces of past loves and irritations of the present. It nurtures the earth underneath while the earth waits patiently and quietly.

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

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

THE MORNING AFTER

A good old snowstorm hit us over the weekend. It began around 6 in the evening of Saturday, left some 6 inches overnight, and another 3-4 inches on Sunday. Not a blizzard, not a blow-out of a nor’easter, just an old-fashioned storm that dropped lots of snow on the ground. I remember that when we first came to New England almost 22 years ago, there were many of these throughout the season, but that doesn’t seem to be true anymore.

We woke up this morning to the clearest blue skies I’ve seen since returning from Israel on December 26, a sun so warm it probably came here from Barbados for a brief winter break, only 2-3 white wisps hanging in mid-air that bore no resemblance to the heavy gray skies we’ve had so far. Friends of mine are flying to St. John’s today for a few weeks of Caribbean warmth, and I didn’t envy them in the least.

“You want to hear something stupid I did today?” I wail to my sister on the phone.

Sure she does.

“There was snow and ice on the roads, so before going out with Aussie I got my heavy winter boots out of the closet, then looked for ice cleats to attach to the bottom of the boots and couldn’t find any. Or rather, I found one. I was surprised because I depend on them a great deal, just like I depend on winter studded tires for driving, and I couldn’t find them. I had lots of trouble fitting one cleat on the boot. You listening, Ruth?”

She’s listening.

“The walk was fine except that the cleat came off, so I took it back to the car. I came home and started taking the boots off, and guess what?”

What?

“The cleats had been attached to the bottom of the boots all along, they’d been there since last winter—and I never noticed! In fact, I’d actually tried to put a second cleat under them, no wonder it didn’t fit and finally slid off. This,” I conclude, ”is the results of years of Zen practice. Look at the quality attention and mindfulness I’ve managed to cultivate.”

She laughs, then says, ‘Oh honey, you’ve worked hard to let go of that strong brain of yours. I guess you’re finally succeeding.”

I don’t think she meant that I’d grown stupid or ignorant, though I’ve certainly forgotten a lot of what I once knew (famous enlightenment verse about that). It’s just that once it was so important for me to be bright and brainy. I was critical, fault-finding, proud of my mind, and felt that being smart was the most important thing in the world.

It took me a long time to lay that to rest, to open up to other energies like love and care, to nurturing life around me, and that unnamable, empty essence at the bottom of it all. When I look behind me at various relationships that were on offer throughout my life and the mindless arrogance and silent criticism with which I met them, I shudder. So, I don’t look back too much.

In that vein, or in any vein, a gorgeous winter, when I love trekking in the cold and love even more returning to a warm house, is threatening to many immigrant families living in nearby Turners Falls. A friend calls me today: “Eve, I got a call from Cindy. Her husband’s hours were cut down in the restaurant where he works. You know, they have two little children plus a newborn.”

She doesn’t have to say much more. I keep the house at 65 degrees Fahrenheit; both Lori and I wear layers at home, Aussie has her fur coat, and Henry snuggles between pillows and a blanket when he’s not throwing his toys around. You can’t do that with little children and a baby in the house, they need heat. This morning I visited an old student in her assisted living facility; it was kept so warm I could hardly breathe. But how much heat could they afford in their homes with little children running around?

This is the season of barely enough. The farms—the biggest employers around for families, especially undocumented—are shut down so income takes a radical dip. The heat bills zoom high, as do electricity, as do the rents that here, as in so many other places in this country, know just one direction of travel: up and up and up. Very little affordable housing.

Other charities do what they can. Young kids get winter jackets to go to school, but I’ve seen their mothers come for food cards with bare feet in sneakers and shivering in faded cardigans.

These winters are beautiful for some, like Aussie and me walking along snow-covered fields that once grew corn and pumpkin, and a fearful challenge for these families as they try to make it through another harsh season of unpaid utility bills and eviction notices.

I arranged to provide $500 to the family where the father lost many of his long working hours, but the winter has just begun. Christmas is over, but not the season of giving and caring. Please donate to these families using the button below so that they could make it through another winter, their children warm, their teens in school.

By the way, since someone asked me, most of the families I know are in the midst of a lengthy process of seeking asylum. Yes, they have no documents, but they’ve begun the process of becoming legal even as it costs them years and plenty—and I mean plenty—of money. They’re not criminals.

“Donald Trump says that Henry’s poisoning my good old Texas blood,” Aussie says.

“How’s he doing that, Aussie?”

“If he bites me, I may get his Mexican germs.”

“That little dog is in awe of you, Aussie, given that you’re four times his size.”

“I don’t like it when he talks Mexican. And why does he have such weird toys, like Llama Louie?”

“What toy should he have, Aussie?”

“He should get a Barbie and throw her around. That’s the good old American way.”

Thank you for your help.

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

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

GIFT FOR KWAN-YIN

This morning I walked over to Kwan-yin with a stick of incense, as is my custom. It was the coldest it had been so far; we expect a snowstorm tomorrow. The incense stick leans a little sideways in its tiny holder on the pedestal where she stands, and as I stretched up, I noticed that someone else had also made an offering to Kwan-yin. Henry, the illegal Chihuahua recovering from an attack by a neighboring dog, had left a fallen branch at her feet.

Maybe the little dog had hoped she’d throw it for him, he’d bring it back, she’d throw it, he’d bring it back, etc.—and maybe she did. Right now, there it lies, a simple gift from a dog’s heart that feels truer than my stick of incense, as if it’s saying: Here is my favorite thing in the world, all for you.

Whereas I sometimes sound like: What have you done for us lately? The Middle East is burning up, Pakistan is expelling 1.7 million Afghan refugees, there’s war and famine in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, a quarter of a million people came over the Mexico-US border in December alone—where’s the compassion, man—eh, woman?

She looks deeply at me with humor in her narrow eyes: What’s your idea of compassion? and thereby shuts me up. I have plenty of ideas for compassion, but often they’re just ideas.

Our winter is here, and under the heavy gray, lowering clouds I wonder about my path in life. Not so much what will I do when I grow up but rather: What kind of beginnings are possible for me now? I think of John O’Donahue’s poem:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge. 

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. 

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this. 

In Green River Zen’s January newsletter, I announced that I was retiring from teaching at the local sangha as of June 30, 2024. I wished to make space for younger teachers to take over; I also had the vague sense that a page had been standing upright for a while now, ready to be fully turned, and it’s time I turned it.

Not because of better things to do.

“What will I do?” I wailed to my sister when I saw her in Jerusalem 10 days ago.

“You always find something,” she said.

She’s right, of course, I will do things. But I think my more basic question was: What will I be? I feel more stripped down than ever (even while wearing a thick red sweater this evening), less layered than before, all the extras coming off, leaving what?

I think back to a brief conversation I had in Jerusalem with a friend of my brother who’s done peace work for many years between Israelis and Palestinians. A secular man, he asked me what was meant by spiritually-based social change. I described briefly the Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets—not-knowing, bearing witness, and taking the emergent action. He listened, nodded, said nothing.

That very moment I felt as though I’d said too much, as though none of that was really needed anymore. I don’t need a recipe for taking action, I am action. Things are moving in me all the time, death, rebirth, death, as part of the roll and churn of life, no need to think things out too much.

When life leaves you alone, no longer tempting you with promises of fame, money, beauty, or a glorious future, you’re being pared down to walk naked in this world, occasionally looking at yourself and wondering whose skin this is, whose lines at the base of the thumb, whose hands cutting tomatoes and rinsing lentils for soup. What is this thing called me?

It’s time to leave something other than another incense stick at the base of Kwan-yin’s feet; the incense feels extra, of another age. Maybe all she wants, finally, is the thin torn branch at her feet, the biggest gift a little dog can give her.

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

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

A HAPPY NEW YEAR

“Not again with the kibble, chicken broth, and a few pieces of chicken. I’m always eating the same food! I must say, as a hunter, you suck.”

“Aussie, what’s the problem?”

“Ever hear of diversity, equity and inclusion? Dogfood is best when it includes everything—steak, hamburger meat, roast beef, hot dogs, meatloaf, corned beef, surf & turf leave out the surf, brisket—”

“I got it, I got it, Auss.”

“When it comes to food, I’m all for DEI.”

“What about when it comes to Henry?”

“Never. Why, oh why did you bring him back from the hospital first thing in the new year? When you left with him that night, I thought to myself: Good riddance!”

“That’s terrible, Aussie. Luckily, it wasn’t very serious and I was happy to bring him home. We were both exhausted and right away fell sleep. Interesting way to spend New Year’s Eve.”

“He looks weird with the three wounds on top of his head. He didn’t have much brains anyway and the little he had probably leaked out.”

“Aussie, why do you lack empathy? Henry had a number of other smaller puncture wounds, not to mention bruising on top of his right leg, the hind right leg, and even on his penis, the poor—”

“Henry has a penis?”

“He’s a male, Aussie, of course he has a penis.”

“I mean, a penis that you can see?”

“Yes, a penis that you can see, Aussie.”

“Do I have to put my glasses on?”

“Auss, it’s time to stop making fun of Henry. He’s been through a trauma.”

“Boo hoo, everything’s a trauma these days. I cornered a chipmunk under a fallen tree limb the other day, and you know what it did? It stopped running, turned towards me, and said: ‘Stop, you’re traumatizing me!’”

“Really? What did you do?”

“I said: ‘You think that’s traumatizing?’ Then I ate it.”

“That’s terrible, Aussie.”

“No, it’s diversity in diet.  Good, here comes Henry. Henry, how’s your itsy-bitsy-teensy-weensy—”

“Guess what? Llama Louie’s prophesying!”

“Llama Louie doesn’t prophesy, he squeaks!”

“Llama Louie is prophesying about the new year. You know what he says, Aussie?”

“That 2024 will be a squeaker? Hee hee.”

“Aussie, Llama Louie says it will be a good year for us. There’ll be peace in the world.”

“I don’t want peace, I want lamb chops.”

“All the wars will end, everybody will have enough to eat, nobody will go hungry.”

“I plan to be hungry forever.”

“We will all love one another.”

“Good, another Buddhist in the house. What does Llama Louie say about my running away from home?”

“Nothing. He says you’ll stay be happy here.”

“Me, happy? I have my principles, called Principles of Disgruntlement. What does he say about illegal immigrants?”

“There won’t be any. Everyone coming here will be legal.”

“You mean, chihuahuas will take over our country? How do we get any sex?”

“What’s that got to do with—”

“Never mind, Illegal. What does Llama Louie say about the resurrection?”

“Of Jesus?”

“God forbid. Of Donald Trump. He who won’t stay dead, who’ll come back looking for blood.”

“Llama Louie doesn’t believe in zombies, Aussie. He says we won’t be selfish and try to control everything, we’ll make room for everybody on this planet. We’ll take care of all species, we’ll take care of the earth—”

“What does he say about bacon, Henry?”

“Bacon? Nothing.”

“How do you prophesy about the new year and have nothing to say about bacon?”

“Llama Louie has a much bigger vision than that, Aussie. He’s prophesying lots and lots of joy. He’s prophesying lots and lots of fun and games—”

“Lots and lots of bacon?”

“We’ll catch balls together, go out on walks, you’ll learn how to jump in the air and catch a frisbee—”

“You’ll never catch me catching a frisbee, that’s for elitist dogs. What you  catch me doing is eating a lot of bacon, if I can get it. Henry, what’s a happy new year without bacon?”

“An unhappy new year?”

“Exactement.”

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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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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