DROP IT!

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

“Who cares what you remember?”

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

“Something stupid, probably.”

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

“No no no no!”

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

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

“All what, Aussie?”

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

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

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

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

“Treatise on what?”

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

“See!”

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

“Every day a new day!”

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

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

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

“I never forget that!”

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

“You know what Bernie said: Fuggedaboudit!”

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

“Drop it!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just be here now.”

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

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

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

“Drop it!”

“Our treatment of nations who lived here—”

“Drop it!”

“Abuse of a child—”

“Drop it!”

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

“Drop it!”

“Plans for a rib steak dinner—”

“When? When? When?”

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INTIMACY IS NOT BRAIN-TO-BRAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will you do starting January, people ask.

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

“And what else?” asks the voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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SUNSET

“Aussie, Ruby died.”

“Who?”

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

“Not my friend.”

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

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

“She did not!”

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

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

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

“Those weren’t easy times, Auss—”

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

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

“Ruby tried to eat me alive!”

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

“What am I, a Buddhist?”

“Say what?”

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

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

“What did Ruby die of?”

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

“Did she smoke much?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“High blood pressure?”

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

“Ha!”

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

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

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

“It sure was Ruby’s last fall.”

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

“She almost ate me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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A TREE-LINED STREET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BACK HOME

I returned home on Saturday evening after a long drive from Maryland, a mile from DC, where I’d gone to help a family I deeply care about, post-surgery, with caregiving and household work. Six days had passed since I left New England, driving back and forth with Aussie in tow (actually, she relaxed in the passenger seat). With stops, it took at least 9 hours each way.

It didn’t help that Saturday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a quick Aussie morning walk, I set out onto I-95, a straight arrow going north, almost reaching the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore 45 minutes later, when the phone rang to say I’d left my valise behind.

But family and GPS to the rescue, I drove back south, met up in the parking lot of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Laurel, did the handoff of the valise, let Aussie out for a final sniff, and back on the road we went. You’re losing it, I told myself. Remember all those old people back in the day, endlessly losing glasses, car keys, and phone, going out to the market to get a can of diced tomatoes for the soup on the oven and coming back with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream instead? You’re there, kid.

My plan had been to do whatever needed to get done in Maryland as well as my own work. Hey, I thought, I could work from anywhere. I could blog, attend the zendo schedule and other meetings by Zoom, no problem.

It didn’t happen. Aussie managed to post one blog early last week, and that was it.

Folks, I come from a tradition where almost all the famous ancestors were not just men but also monks. They didn’t take care of children or parents, they didn’t take care of folks who were ill, elderly, or dying. They may have come to the house to chant; in Japan, they showed up mainly after one took one’s last breath in order to launch the dead on their next-life journey.

There were masters who meditated under a constant trickle of icy water in order to stay awake, or else sat on a sharp-edged surface for the same purpose. I believe that, to this very day, priests daily clean the vast wooden floors of the monastery of Eihei-ji with toothbrushes to stay focused and pay attention.

I’m not sure you have to go that far. All you have to do is start taking care of challenging children. Start taking care of people who’re too sick or disabled to take care of themselves or their surroundings. Start taking care—what does that mean? Holding their hands and making loving sounds like they show in some movies? How about load after load of laundry, from wash to fold? How about shopping? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. How about cleaning? How about visits to pharmacies for prescriptions, chauffeuring someone to a covid test, reading a book to a child, playing with walkie-talkies in the streets, finagling a brief afternoon rest before going back to work? How about walking the dog a few times a day?

Within an hour I was transported back to the past, when I took care of Bernie once he could no longer take care of himself. I remembered the moment-by-moment attentiveness, one task following another and another after that, day after day. I remembered finishing each evening with organizing notes for the following day: what we would have for dinner, what ingredients had to be picked up, what doctors, what radiation treatments, the bills, the emails, running interference when necessary, the cancer surgeries—

And I had help. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wonder how people without help managed. Because you did this relentlessly day after day. Because back then, you knew there was no going into the car one day and driving north.

Work like this means shelving your plans (Of course I can do the meditation schedule! Of course I can write the book! Of course I’ll do the retreat), and plunging in.

Plunging—because otherwise you get stuck in the story of it all. I was faced with a choice: I could listen to the upset voices in my head wailing out the story of hardship and sacrifice, or I could jump in and trust the experience. The first made me miserable. The second meant I joined the flow of things: heard the signal, took laundry out of the dryer and folded, cut onions for the soup, made the bed, remade the bed, got lunch started. When you do that you feel good, bad, and everything in between, but basically you’re just doing. You’re just living.

I’m a storyteller, but give me the choice between the story and the life and I’ll take the latter any day. I know the story seems to lay out the meaning and purpose of things, but when you jump in they all collapse into the doing.

People who do this work are my heroes. You’d never know it from Western culture, with its stories of wanderers, romantics, adventurers, and brave soldiers. But our adventurers have companions, Huck had Tom. Soldiers have other soldiers, rules, and structures. Try to be a caregiver in the house, alone, invisible, nobody there to see you, witness your efforts.

My mother hated that work. On some level, she couldn’t forgive the husband and children who were the cause of it all. She loved her children and she liked to cook, but was never presented with another option, a different choice, a way to feel that she was the author of her own life.

“No one ever encouraged me in anything,” she told me once, in tears.

Nor would you ever guess from Buddhist literature that caregivers are heroes. That literature adulates the lone man who sat under a tree and vowed not to get up till he awakened. Please! He sat, for God’s sake! He didn’t run up and down stairs or stand by an oven for hours.

The great Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen and the Eihei-ji monastery, ritualized every aspect of daily life—how you cooked, how you ate, how you slept, how you went to the bathroom— to keep his monks focused and attentive; hence the toothbrushes at Eihei-ji. But all he had to do was send them to nearby homes to help take care of farmers, peasants, and their families. Meeting those needs—believe me, they would have been paying attention plenty.

Tell all those monk warriors we read about, who woke up at 3 am to sit every night, cold and uncomfortable, trying to stay awake—there ain’t nothing to keep you awake like a fidgety or crying child. Nothing to focus your attention quite as much as a tower of dishes waiting in the sink, a tower of clothes waiting to be washed, a house to be cleaned, homework to be gotten through, meals to be cooked. Towers and towers of stuff rising up after you’ve taken them down, day after day.

As a friend of mine, another Zen teacher, said: It’s endless. Now what?

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AUSSIE’S GREAT ADVENTURE

Aussie at Sligo Creek

“Aussie, this is your first long trip in the three years since you’ve lived with me and here you are, in Maryland. What a big traveler!”

“I hate every minute of it.”

“What’s there to hate?”

“I hate being in the car for so long.”

“I split the trip into two, Aussie. We drove Sunday evening down to New York and saw Genro Gauntt.”

“I LOVE Genro!”

“I thought you didn’t like men, Aussie.”

“I LOVE Genro to death.”

“We drove down to Maryland the next day.”

“I wish we stayed with Genro.”

“I made a long stop  on the way, you had plenty of water, exercise, and treats.”

“You should have left me in New York. All that highway noise made me deaf!”

“I shut the windows for that reason, Auss, but then it got too warm.”

“You know you’re on the wrong path when no matter what you choose, it’s always wrong!”

“But we got here yesterday afternoon and it’s been great, Aussie.”

“Great? It’s busy, nonstop! You know how hard I’m working?”

“How hard you’re working, Auss? Are you cooking?”

“Never. I lie on the floor right between your legs to trip you up whenever there’s cooking, just to remind you. Always eat raw!”

“Are you doing loads of laundry?”

“What’s laundry?”

“Are you washing lots and lots of dishes?”

“Aussie says: If you can’t lick it, screw it.”

“Do you clean up after yourself?”

“Excuse me, everything coming out of me is organic.”

“Do you play with a young boy, take him shopping, read books and give him lots of love?”

“I only love Genro.”

“So why are you working so hard, Aussie?”

“You know how much commuting I do? I start out on the bed in the basement. Then I go upstairs to use the sofa in the living room. Then I go up another flight of stairs to lie on the office rug or on any of the beds upstairs.  I’m on the road all the time! ”

“Aussie, I meant to tell you, you’re not supposed to go up on the beds here. It’s fine back home, but it’s better if you don’t do that here.”

“Oh oh, as soon as we get down south ugly racism rears  its head.”

“Aussie, it’s got nothing to do with your being black or our being in Maryland, it’s the hairs you leave on the bed.”

“They’re racists here. Have you seen all the dogs parading up and down the streets? Do you notice who’s missing?”

“Who’s missing, Aussie?”

“Henry’s missing, that’s who. Have you seen one chihuahua in the two days we’ve been here?”

“Come to think of it, no. But Aussie, I thought you didn’t like chihuahuas.”

“I don’t, but there’s one thing worse than chihuahuas.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“Having nothing to complain about. Life isn’t life with nothing to complain about.”

“You’ll get back to New England by the end of the weekend, Auss. That way you could go right back to your bitching and moaning.”

“Could we pick up Genro on the way?”

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PURSE IS THE WORLD

Please look carefully at the small, embroidered squares above and below. Shake your head, shout to the skies.

My friend and dharma sister, Barbara Wegmueller, talked to me in Switzerland about the project she and her husband, Roland, supported. It started when a friend of theirs received these squares from Afghan women in a small village. They were embroidering these squares and sending them to the West in the hope of getting money to sustain their families.

If you read the newspapers, you know the distress Afghan families are undergoing. There is very high unemployment, and many of those who’re employed don’t get paid. Earning money in this way is not just crucial for the family, it also gives women respect in the eyes of their families and village.

Barbara’s friend asked her Swiss friends to incorporate these small jewels in their own arts and crafts, and she made an exhibit of this artistic fusion, Afghan and Swiss women creating their own works of art integrating two very different styles and evoking two different cultures—all in the same objet d’art.

As you can see, one woman sewed the square onto a purse that she created. These beautiful art pieces were then sold with the money going back to the Afghan women.

Years ago, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to such an effort. Of course, it’s nice to get money into the hands of women who are homebound, covered now from head to foot, trying to feed their many small children, but how much was this seriously going to improve things?

All that’s changed for me.

Imagine that you’re carrying the purse pictured above. You’ve put in your money and credit cards, your checkbook and car keys, all the Western artifacts so crucial to a Western way of life. But that purse is no longer just functional, it’s combined with a gorgeous piece of embroidery created by a woman far away, who may never see a credit card in her life, no checkbook and no car keys, but who works exquisitely with shapes and colors, creating a small work of art and sending it out into the world.

Now it’s part of your purse. It’s part of you.

When you look at your new purse, what occurs to you? That you’re not alone? That you’re part of a world and life that defy categories and labels? That rather than being separated by names and geography we can create combinations that integrate both? Something throbs through that purse: an Afghan culture, Afghan womanhood and family, mothers looking through the all-covering burqa and seeing what we all see—green leaves on brown stem, yellow sun, white-topped mountain and blue, blue sky—all pulsing with color, pulsing with life. Sisters.

I took photos. “Take them home,” Barbara said. I think she hoped that I, too, would find something to combine with them that would honor the eye and hand of those that made them, that could even send them money in exchange for these patches of beauty.

I’m not an artist or craftswoman, so if you have ideas of what we could do with these squares, please make sure and write me. The purpose, down the road, is still to get some funds for these village women.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me add that since the Taliban took over Afghanistan no money has been sent until its safety and security could be verified. But the money is there, in Switzerland, waiting to be transferred, and I believe it will be very shortly.

I saw my friend, Jimena Pareja, yesterday. I brought food cards with me and was also asked for burial money. Anita (not her real name) lives here with two young children, having left her husband in Guatemala with their two older ones. Split families are very common here. Maybe one adult made it across and one did not. Or maybe one stayed back with the understanding that he’ll take care of the older ones with the help of money his wife will be able to make working on farms here.

But Anita‘s husband, who lives in a small village, got sick. He went to the city for medical care, got covid at the hospital, and died. The family needs money to bury him because they have nothing.

“What will happen to the two children back in Guatemala?”

“She wants to bring them here,” said Jimena, then shrugged. “We’ll see.” As if to say: That’s life.

And that is life, unpredictable, waves crashing and receding every minute.

I also asked about Hilaria. While I was in Switzerland Hilaria’s brain lesions began getting bigger once again. They had  diminished in size and the plan was for her to undergo surgery once the lesions were small, but now they’re getting bigger. She’s stressed out, afraid of losing her apartment, afraid of what will happen to her sons (they’re being cared for by other families). Her deafness doesn’t help. I told Jimena that, one way or another, we will continue to pay her rent and utilities so that she needn’t worry about that.

How does a single mother feel when she can’t do anything but wait for tough surgery, her sons uncertain and afraid? Of course, she’s told that stress makes things that much worse, but is that enough? If you can help, please do so.

I myself will leave for Maryland tomorrow to help care for a family that is very dear to me, visited and revisited by cancer. I’m taking Aussie with me—she better behave! I plan to blog from there but won’t know anything till I am there. I promise not to stress about it.

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.

FOUND OUT IN THE BATHROOM

you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

The poet David Whyte wrote the above. The words mean a lot to me, probably would at any age, but I’m at this age, past 71, and this is what they mean to me now:

I told my sangha that I’m letting go of my leadership of Green River Zen Center as of January 2022. If a few thought they were falling off their chairs (or cushions), I can say I was already down on the floor, rattled and looking up, blinking in the light, wondering what happened. It took a while for me to decide, and I questioned it a few times later, but each time I became reconvinced that it was right.

You’ve simply had enough of drowning and you want to live.

I never drowned in Green River, the group is too small. But I pay deep attention to anyone who wishes to walk this path with me at his/her side (in our group it’s mostly her). Gratitude spills from my heart for the many teachers I’ve had, who took on the role in response to their vow not to let the Buddha seed be discontinued. I think we did it out of love.

I still hope to continue to teach; at the same time, the transition has begun. I say over and over that we teach what we ourselves have to learn. What is the Buddha Way about? Bernie used to say: It’s about becoming a mensch. That becoming never ends.

It used to be that, to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin’s famous aphorism, I was the fox who did many things. Now I want to be more like the hedgehog, who does one thing, and that is a fuller, deeper, slower life. I’m nowhere as beautiful as the bright yellow leaves outside my office, but in a funny way, I’m more attuned to love and beauty than at any other time in the past.

When the sun is out it makes the yellows and oranges very bright, but when it’s gray the colors shimmer. That’s what I look for now: brown contours surrounding the color, the way the branches lean towards my office as though commanding: Come with us.

“Don’t you think I should prune those branches?” Jan the gardener asked me a while ago.

“No,” I said. Let them come closer and closer. I want to be intimate with this trinity: life, love, death.

I want to write more. Time and time again I sit in front of the white screen and have no idea what to write. But I’m not paralyzed as I was long ago, the years have brought faith and trust. And soon the fingers begin to type, first slowly and tentatively, then with more confidence, and after a few paragraphs a crazy, sacred energy is streaming through my body, carrying me along. Or maybe not, because I’m gone.

[T]o take the one hand you know belongs in yours.

Maybe there is a special one hand still in my future for me to hold and love, maybe not. Right now I’m aware of the many hands stretched towards me, hands of family and of old friends, dharma buddies I’ve ridden with together along some strange, heartbreaking routes. Like Ulysses, I want to egg them on: Tis not too late to seek a newer world, so push off and, sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrows. Love has taken us down so many mysterious paths, where laughter and grief converge and become one.

My non-Jewish housemate told me about her brother. He drank, had medical problems, and finally died at a young age. He loved to sing, she said, and had a special voice. He searched everywhere for venues where he could sing, often without success, but he wouldn’t give up. Once he saw an ad by a synagogue for an assistant cantor. He’d had Jewish friends, knew some of the liturgy, so he went for an interview and was offered a job. They assumed he was Jewish, of course.

He served as the assistant cantor in the synagogue for a few years, mastering the Hebrew prayers and the old melodies. When the cantor retired he was hired to take his place.

“What happened to him?” I asked her.

“He was found out and had to leave,” she replied.

“How?”

“In the bathroom,” she said.

They couldn’t grasp a non-Jewish cantor leading Jewish prayers. Had they fully understood that God is love, maybe they would have kept him on.

you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

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ME AGAIN

“Hi Aussie, it’s me again.”

“Of course, it’s you again. Would you please get out of bed and feed me?”

“Okay, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s me again. Here it is, Tuesday morning, and it’s me again.”

“Who else did you want it to be?”

“I don’t know, Auss. It could have been Barack or Michelle. It could have been Angela Merkel. It could have been Henry.”

“Please, not Henry. Who in their right mind would want to be a chihuahua? Besides, how do you know it’s you again?”

“Well, I’m wearing these black-and-white pajamas, same pajamas I always wear.”

“Don’t other humans wear pajamas?”

“Not everybody,  Aussie. I didn’t wear pajamas for a long time, or anything in bed for that matter.”

“Spare me, I don’t want to hear about any of that. Still, how do you know it’s you?”

“You’re wagging your tail as though it’s me.”

“I wag my tail at lots of people and animals—just not Henry.”

“I think I wanted to be someone else for a long time.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been me for 71 years and I’m tired of it. Can’t I be you for a change, Aussie?”

“Then who would I be? AND DON’T SAY HENRY!”

“Don’t you ever feel like you want to be somebody else, Auss?”

“No, I‘m happy being me. Nothing is better than being Aussie. No life is better than Aussie’s life, especially when she’s down on her belly in a puddle. Heaven!”

“Aussie, why do you have to flop down in every puddle in New England?”

“Where else should I flop down?”

“In the streets of Northampton. I take you walking on the streets and you get all nervous, eyes like black balloons, constantly looking over your shoulder. You rush into the car as quick as you can.”

“Of course. You know why?”

“Why, Auss?”

“Because people go shopping in Northampton. They constantly need things; that scares me. I tell you, Northampton isn’t safe for anybody. You know what’s the trouble with you?”

“No, but I think you’ll tell me.”

“You think too much. If you didn’t think you were the most fascinating thing in the world and instead flopped belly-down in a puddle, you’d be a lot happier all around. Which reminds me. I noticed that my bag of treats was empty and thrown in the trash. What happened to all the treats?”

“I brought them to my goddog yesterday, Auss.”

“You have a goddog? And pray, who is that?”

“Her name is Bailey. I visited her human yesterday. I know Bailey from very, very early on. My friend and I were talking about her before she was born.”

“And you brought her my treats? Did you bring anything to her human?”

“Roast chicken and mashed potatoes.”

“What about giving your goddog roast chicken and mashed potatoes? What about giving me—”

“You know I try not to give dogs too much human food, Aussie.”

“Okay, so now we both agree about something.”

“About human food for dogs?”

“No, about how you wish you were someone else. I also wish you were someone else.”

“Who, Aussie?”

“Your New York friend who cooks sirloin, chicken breast, and omelets for her dogs. Who doesn’t lounge around in bed in her black-and-white pajamas whining about wishing she was somebody else but gets off her butt and makes her dog breakfast. That’s who!”

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MARIANNE IN THE KITCHEN

Aussie and I walked by ourselves down an unfamiliar path. The leaves are changing color and lots of squirrels and chipmunks crisscrossed right in front of us, giving Aussie lots of exercise. They’re busy stocking up for winter even as the trees drop their leaves, stocking down, so-to-speak.

Lori and Henry came home 10 minutes after we did, Aussie growled the minute the front door opened, I said What’s going on?, but Henry knew perfectly well and he hurled himself at her neck, leaping so high he almost soared clear over her back. She chased him down, cornered him on the rug and put her jaws around his little head. I winced and almost called her off, but she released her jaws on her own so Henry instantly hurled himself at her neck again, as if saying: Do it again, Aussie, do it again!

I opened the door and told them to take it outside, which they did, chasing each other back and forth around the yard till Lori started making Henry his supper, at which point both ran into the kitchen because Aussie gets little cheese treats during the meal prep for Henry. After Henry ate he brought me his blue and orange ball to throw, which I did, he brought it back, I threw it again, and the setting sun threw one last golden light on golden leaves. You get the picture: cacophonies everywhere.

When I did my retreat with Franziska Schneider in Switzerland, the retreat center had no in-house cook so Franziska hired Marianne, an outside cook, to provide the meals. We had simple and  tasty food throughout (with the exception of the concluding lunch, when Marianne offered in one meal all the starches and sugars that she didn’t give out during the rest of the retreat). There were some two dozen different dishes in that final lunch, including 4-5 desserts.

Throughout the retreat Marianne, with a big smile, would announce during each meal what the food offerings were. Two people always had to help clean up at the end and I would hear Marianne giving instructions in a loud voice, giggling and laughing, and the people helping her would then also giggle and laugh, raunchily calling out to her, having way too good a time.

The strict Zen teacher in me grumbled inwardly. In Zen retreats the position of the cook is very important, and the job of the cook isn’t just to make sure that meals are ready in the prescribed hour but also to maintain a retreat atmosphere in the kitchen, keeping everyone focused and quiet, fully concentrated on what they’re doing.

That was not the atmosphere in the kitchen. Marianne was irrepressible.

Towards the end of the retreat, Franziska broke the silence to thank Marian for the wonderful meals. Marianne replied in kind—and replied—and replied. She couldn’t stop talking. Later I was informed that she told us we ate a lot.

I sat close to her during this exchange and watched her face. I didn’t understand a word she said (all in Swiss German), and this freed me to watch her more carefully. She was a middle-aged, slim woman, short black hair, with big dark eyes behind round, schoolmarm glasses. She talked animatedly, a big smile splayed across her face revealing small, white teeth, giggling and laughing just as she had throughout her time in the kitchen.

I was glad I’d never gone into the kitchen and asked her to take things down a bit. I thought about the big urge we have to express ourselves, this life form, this individual dharma, whatever it is—right/wrong, follows the rules/doesn’t follow the rules, loving, hating, stiff, wacky—all those different ways of being seeking expression all the time, not as hungry ghosts but as vibrant expressions of life, no different from the bells around the sheep and cows, the gurgle of the brook, the silent, graceful falling of the leaves, Henry throwing himself at Aussie—so much diversity, so much lusty expression.

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.