MEANWHILE, LET’S LIVE

Jimena Pareja and I huddled under a store marquee for protection from the wind and rain as she called families in the area to come collect food gift cards. The marquee was so narrow that we couldn’t maintain 6 feet distance.

“Mabe we could go to their homes in this weather,” I suggested. Jimena immediately said no. Nobody wants me to know where they live.

A woman came with a thank you letter to me, written by her children because she spoke no English. Some weeks ago I had helped her with rent money she needed for a new apartment. Her children had learned the lesson of coronavirus, drawing stick figures with gloves on the hands, saying: God bless your hands.

I look at my hands as I type this on the keyboard, one still with my old wedding ring (I think of taking it off, but haven’t yet), the other with a ring my father bought me. Two rings from the two men in my life. I wonder if there will be a third.

I also brought some cash to help someone meet an $858 electricity bill, which a woman showed me last week. “They are both farm workers,” Jimena explained. “That means they have no work in the winter till they return to the fields at the end of February. So the bills build up in the winter when they have no income, and they pay them down when they start to work. Only now there is no work.”

Your monies have all gone to buy food cards—putting food on the table is essential. The other needs were met by me. But I’ve received a few payments where people wrote to use for the families in whatever way I think right, which gives a little more flexibility. For now, food gift cards are still most important.

On another front, Eef Heinhuis, a beautiful Dutch woman, is asking friends, as a birthday gift, to donate for food cards for undocumented families here. I was taken aback and deeply moved. I thought of the Marshall Plan after World War II, when America gave billions of dollars in aid to devastated European countries. We had the Democrat Truman in the White House and a Republican Congress, but there was bipartisan understanding and support of the Marshall Plan, not the blame game we see going on now.

The circle has come round in this Dutch-based effort to send money to families who suffer here. They understand that while the virus affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us equally, and those already poor or on the margin are being pushed off the edge. The thing to do at this time isn’t to find villains and bogeymen (Lock her up!, Trump, China, Democrats, Republicans, etc.) but to see that while we’re all in this together, some will hurt more than others.

The other day I talked to my mother, who tells me that she has no more reason to live. “Will this ever change?” she asks.

“Will what ever change?” I ask her. “The virus? Human beings?” She’s not sure what she’s referring to. “If it’s the virus, doctors will find vaccines and reliable tests.”

“And a vaccine for humans?” she wonders.

“I don’t know about that, mom.”

After a few more minutes she’s ready to hang up. “Okay,” she says. “Meanwhile, let’s live.”

My friend, Roshi Dr. Ken Byalin, wrote a very moving blog post celebrating 20 years since deciding to take early retirement. He describes how, at that time, he had no idea what he wanted to do other than continue helping youth with mental illness, which he had done earlier.

He could have continued doing this at a regular job with a salary; instead, he chose to go his own way and find a Zen Peacemaker path. What’s the difference between a social worker doing his regular job and that same social worker doing his work as a Zen Peacemaker? In some way, that’s what his post is about.

He describes starting a small foundation which integrated mental health treatment with the arts. Finally, someone suggested he consider opening a charter school to help youth with mental illness get to college.

Ken was not an educator, schools had not been his thing. They encountered one hindrance after another, obstacles from a state and city bureaucracy that didn’t believe that such a school could be successful. Application after application was turned down, there were frequent trips to Albany, all seemingly in vain. Patient, determined, and humble, he persisted.

Ten years ago they began a charter school for some 75 pupils. Now there are three schools serving over 1,000 students. Half have mental health issues, a big majority are from low-income families, including immigrants; almost all of them go on to college. Read his post.

Someone asked me the other day how I started raising food money for undocumented families. “You always say that all you want to do is write,” he reminded me.

I shrugged and said that I sat down with the woman who has been cleaning our house monthly for the past 15 years. We always talk over coffee first (we like to go out to breakfast but can’t now). I reminded her of how she described to me one Thanksgiving when she invited over for dinner workers at the local Chinese restaurant, mostly Chinese immigrants. She knew they slept 5 to a room in local apartments, their families back home.

“What happened to them?” I asked her, knowing the restaurant had closed.

“They’re gone, Eve. They left,” she said.

“But where did they go? Everything is shut down.”

We discussed this, and somehow the hardship of getting food for one’s family came up, so a short while later I drove to a local supermarket, bought 2 food cards, and gave them to her.  Her work had been cut down, too, but she’d told me: “We’re okay, we don’t need anything. They need.” The food cards were for two families she knew who were struggling.

She gave the gift cards away and I blogged about it. Immediately came the online inquiries: How do I help? Can I contribute to this? I said yes, and now meet every Tuesday to give out food cards bought with donations from kind and generous people. Meaning you.

The bank account I just opened for this purpose has some $2,500-$2,600 in it right now. In three weeks’ time we altogether gave some $2,700 to undocumented families in this area. That totals well over $5,000, which takes my breath away.

Life opens up, shows what’s needed, and people step up. Not-knowing is not ignorance, it’s complete openness, fully engaged rather than passive or sedated. It’s feeling blindly in the dark for what I can do now rather than trying to figure it all out ahead of time.

It started with food cards. It led to someone needing to raise rent so their family could have a roof over their head. That led to helping to meet an electricity bill. Now I’m looking for a techie to help the kids figure out how to do school on Zoom.

One need leads to another need to another need. That’s fine, it’s how the world works. I can’t do it all, not even much. I can do what I can do—with your help. It’s what I loved about Ken’s blog. He went into retirement with no idea or expectation that he would be starting 3 charter schools for youth with mental issues. He found his way in the dark, one thing leading to the next and then the next. Twenty years later you look back, shake your head, and say: How did this all come about?

God bless your hands. We’re all the hands of Kwan-Yin, the great goddess of compassion. We work like she does, fumbling with the pillow at night, the hands knowing blindly where to go. Life tells us what to do, we just have to listen.

And as my mother said, meanwhile, let’s live.

 

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BUPKES

“Harry, you’re my hero.”

“Really, Boss?”

“You went against the big bear that’s been coming around our house. It’s already come three times, bent down the fence in many places. But last night, Harry, I saw you run towards him, bark and snarl, and that bear turned around and fled.”

“It came back later, Boss. I would have chased it away again only you closed us up in the house.”

“He’s too dangerous, Harry. Do you know how fast he can move? One swipe of his paw and you’re dead. If he comes back, stay away.”

“Like Aussie”?

“Exactly like Aussie. She stayed right by the house and let you fight alone. This morning she broke away again.”

“She’s on her way to Washington. She wants to be Donald Trump’s dog.”

“Do you miss her, Harry?”

“Of course, I miss her. She’s my teacher. She gave me my new dharma name.”

“What’s that, Harry?”

“Bupkes.”

“She calls you Bupkes?”

“I’m so proud. I’m not Harry anymore, I’m Bupkes. She says it’s a great name.”

“It means you’re nothing, Harry.”

“Aussie says that in Zen being nothing is very important, that it’s something to aspire to. I’m a natural, she says.”

“Harry, this is what comes out of studying with someone who doesn’t know anything.”

“She says that’s what makes her a natural teacher. A natural teacher for a natural bupkes.”

“Zen is not about being nothing, Bupkes—I mean, Harry. It’s perfectly fine to have character, personality, aspirations, ideals, and passions. The point is not to get attached to them, see? The point is not to think that they represent the only truth, the only reality, see?”

“No, Boss. Awesome says—”

“Awesome?”

“That’s Aussie’s dharma name, Boss.”

“Why does that not surprise me?”

“Awesome says that that’s who I am: no character, no personality, no aspirations, no passions.”

“Who’s the one who chased the bear the other night? Who’s the one who showed courage and tenacity?”

“Awesome said it was stupid.”

“Aussie is a phony teacher. You know, Harry, Jews had their phony teachers or messiahs. They called them False Messiahs. Bernie, of course, loved false messiahs, he said the most interesting messiahs were the false ones. He never got particularly uptight around maverick Buddhist teachers, either; he said that Shakyamuni Buddha was a maverick teacher.”

“I didn’t know the Man, but Awesome says he didn’t get upset about too many things.”

“He was pretty passionate about things when he was younger, but as he got older, Harry, he found more things to laugh about, or laugh with. Back to your name, Harry. You can’t be Bupkes and she’s Awesome. In this house you’re siblings, you’re just as good as she is, probably a lot better.”

“But I’m not like her, Boss. She has so much confidence, she knows what she wants, she’s not afraid of anything—”

“Except the bear, Harry.”

“She’s the teacher, she’s the leader!”

“Harry, it’s sometimes hard to be with someone who has so many gifts. You feel like you’re always in their shadow, that they get all the light while you’re ignored, that they have a halo and you have—”

“Bupkes. And soon she’ll be Donald Trump’s dog. I mean, wouldn’t you rather hang out with Donald Trump than with Bupkes?”

“I have a feeling that Aussie will come back real soon, Harry.  I have a feeling she’s missing you already.”

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I WON’T USE THIS WORD

My brother, a religious Jew, once told me, “Precision with words is a spiritual practice.”

As a writer, I agreed. What wordsmith wouldn’t? But I’ve been thinking a lot about that statement since the election of 2016, and especially the word elite.

Several years ago I blogged about that word in a give-and-take with my deceased dog, Stanley (he wasn’t deceased then). I was still not clear, and maybe that was why I made do with a half-humorous conversation with a canine. I feel differently now.

Though I was born to an immigrant family without means, many would say that, what with a graduate degree from Columbia University and a decision to plunge into engaged Zen practice that took me to places and people I love and admire, I am now among the elite whether I like it or not. I don’t argue with that, though I wonder what is the value of a label that defines an Ivanka Trump and me. I haven’t met her, but my sense is that the means at her disposal as well as her values differ substantially from mine. But we’re both elites, right?

So what does that word mean? A dictionary definition doesn’t do it, I have to look at the cultural context to understand why this label, the E word, is flung around as widely as it is.

I live in a rural, low-income area where many people barely finish high school. Often there are alcohol and drug addictions; their children have lowered horizons.

Many others came here from New York and Boston to teach at our Five Colleges. They send their children to terrific public or private schools, with extracurricular activities that are not just sports but also dance, arts, and theater, preparing them to go to universities anywhere in the country and good jobs from there.

The former probably refer to the latter as elite, but both their children don’t usually stay around because this Happy Valley lacks a solid economic base. There are simply not many jobs around. It’s very common to find clothing store salespeople with graduate degrees, except that local stores are closing on account of online buying.

Who is the elite? The way some people talk, if you live in an urban or suburban setting, or anywhere on either coast, you are an elite. That covers a hell of a lot of people. It covers the urban poor and it covers a shrinking middle class that can’t afford a $400 emergency bill. It covers members of minority groups and legal and illegal immigrants. It covers people who’re not professors, politicians, or in media. It covers students saddled with humongous debt and retirees who work at a late age to make ends meet.

That’s a hell of a lot of elites, a big proportion of the population. If the country was benefitting us as much as people believe, we’d be immensely prosperous.

We’re not.

Elite has been used to pit people against one another. You can’t quite define it, and for that exact reason you can wave it as a red flag to incite confusion, misunderstanding, and hate. The more encompassing and less clear, the better weapon it becomes.

Since 2016 I’ve wondered why people who felt shut out of the American economy didn’t join forces. Why don’t white rural farmers join hands with the urban poor or those who lost their jobs because factories closed? Why didn’t students struggling with crippling debt join hands with migrant workers living in horrific conditions?

Why didn’t all the pockets of our population who’ve watched GNP rise while their share of wealth has sunk since 1980, the bigger part landing in the pockets of the much fewer wealthy—why didn’t they come together and fight for their share?

Many reasons are cited, including racism, American propensity to avoid revolution, and others, but elite is one of them. It’s leveled at anyone who’s not you. It’s been used to discredit, delegitimize, and stigmatize. It’s got nothing to do with people and valid needs and grievances, and everything to do with manipulation, deception, and trickery.

As a writer, I know that when a word incorporates so many different people and meanings, it becomes meaningless. I won’t use it.

I’m also clear it’s become a label of opprobrium used at best to cause confusion; at worst for shameful purposes. Lately the medical doctors and researchers leading our efforts against the coronavirus have been labeled elite. As a person who cares about spiritual values, I won’t use it. It’s adding wood to the fire, not to explain or clarify, but to aggravate the spin in the head.

On Tuesday I met with some 15 people from various undocumented families in a town nearby, introduced to me by my friend, Jimena Pareja. She called them on the phone and they came to get $50 food gift cards. I stood there and—what did I feel like? The E word came to mind.

The white woman with her dogs on the back seat of her red Prius (albeit 9 years old), who shows with every mumbled Spanish word how she doesn’t master languages other than English (I am fluent in Hebrew, not too helpful that day). The woman who, through genetic makeup (including skin color), schooling, support, hard work and maybe dumb good luck was now handing out $50 food gift cards to them, who don’t know when the next check will arrive.

That’s not all I am, I wanted to tell them. My parents were refugees. I remember eavesdropping on their fights about money when I was a child. I collect social security and have no pension, try to make my car last as long as possible. I’m nowhere as pinched as you, and don’t fear ICE like you. But you and I have more in common than in difference, and if I could get my Pimsleur Spanish to work better I’d find a way to communicate that to you, other than saying every week: “My friends gave me money to help you with food from the supermarkets.”

Some 10 years ago I walked early on a Saturday morning from a hotel in downtown Los Angeles to the Zen Center of Los Angeles, along with another Zen teacher and friend. We were both in LA for an annual gathering of teachers in our dharma family. It was around 7 am and I looked at the people on the street, white and of color, somewhat bleary-eyed as they came to work in the many fast food places downtown.

“I feel sorry for folks who have to come in to work here on a weekend morning,” I said to my friend.

My friend’s sangha was in a low-income area close to the Mexican border, and she worked a lot across the border. “That’s true,” she said, “but don’t forget that we also make our choices in life.”

What does elite have to say about that?

 

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TOYS FROM DONALD TRUMP

Mea culpa. I made an error in my last blog. I wrote about my mother and her escape from Europe after World War II, referred to her book, Childhood Lost, a truly great adventure story, and invited people to order it on Amazon or else write me and I’d send them a copy. Time had stood still and I knew just where all those copies were: in a bag in the supply closet of my office.

Sure enough, I received requests for the book, time moved on, reminding me that my office is downstairs now, and where are the books? I looked for them all over, including in the basement, and didn’t find them. I’m pretty sure they’re in the house but I can’t put my hands on them right now. Amazon also asked for more copies to restock and I don’t have any to send them. If I can ever get to Jerusalem again, I’m sure I can find more in my mother’s home.

I’d planned to write about my encounter with undocumented families yesterday. I’d planned to write about my friend, Jimena, and the 15 people we met, to thank you for the money coming in, and to give the latest accounting of what came in and what and how it has been spent. But occasionally events of the hour overcome events of the day. Natural occurrences especially are so vivid and overpowering.

Less than an hour before Green River Zen meets on Zoom on Tuesday evening, I’m having dinner when the dogs rush out through the dog door, barking insanely. Since they rushed to the eastern section of the yard, I go to the living room and look out east, and the biggest black bear is standing on the other side of the fence.

The dogs bark furiously, which often sends bears scurrying away (they don’t fear dogs but dislike the noise and disruption). Not this one. This one—a mammoth—isn’t leaving. Aussie stands a little back, while 43-pound Harry the Cur, true to his currish essence, jabs his head right into the fence trying to get at the bear’s throat. The bear, which must weigh some 500 pounds, pushes his head into the fence, too. It’s so big I’m reminded momentarily of the mythical bear in William Faulkner’s great story.

I go out and call them. Aussie’s ready to come in; not Harry: “Soon. I have a job to do.” I finally put something extra in my voice, a little more terror, both dogs come in and I shut up the dog door. We settle down to watch the bear through the glass door, Harry fighting me for the front seat.

The coast is now clear (Took you long enough, is the silent message I get from the bear), the giant animal walks around the fence (twice as tall as last year’s fence, courtesy of Runaway Aussie), with astounding agility clambers over it, and proceeds straight to a birdfeeder some 10 feet away from us. He gets up on all twos and tips the birdfeeder down to his mouth much like we tip a cup of water down towards our lips.

When it’s empty, he squats down in the middle of the hillock of empty birdseed shells that has accumulated over the winter, picks up mounds of shells with his paw and transfers to mouth. Harry in the meantime can’t stop screeching, pounding on the glass with all his might, while Aussie eggs him on: “Go get him, Harry. Go get him, Cur.”

She makes no move to join him.

The bear gets up  and walks towards our door. Now it’s my turn to screech-is it coming indoors? Never known a bear to do that. But two feet short of the door it turns, rounds the corner of my office and goes to the birdfeeder hanging there. When it’s finished with that, it goes straight to two birdfeeders on the other side of the house.

The psychologist Danny Goleman once told me that bears have imprinted in their brains maps of yards with bird feeders, including the exact locations of the bird feeders. If I wasn’t sure before, I believe him now.

When he’s finished with the four birdfeeders this enormous black mountain—the biggest bear I’ve seen in my 18 years here—climbs over the fence effortlessly and slowly makes its way up the slope. A UPS truck stops in its tracks on the road above. I can only imagine the trucker telling his wife that evening: “Honey, you should have seen the bear I saw a few hours ago. It was a monster!”

I contemplated the porous boundary between wilderness and backyard that we enjoy here. Civilization has its limits, I thought, before hurrying upstairs to start meditation with the rest of the group.

This morning I brought indoors all four birdfeeders, saying goodbye to multitudes of goldfinches, and overheard the following conversation:

“There go my bird hunting and squirrel hunting for the season, Harry. What are we going to do now? We can’t run away all the time.”

“Don’t worry, Aussie, we’re getting another big toy to tear apart.”

“Which one? You’ve already destroyed Rhino Rhinoceros and Ellie Elephant. These are Brute toys, Harry, they’re supposed to last a week. With you they last a day, maybe.”

“I don’t know which one, but it’s coming in a big box and it says: For Aussie and Harry, from Donald Trump.”

“A fake toy!”

“Why does he put his name on it, Aussie?”

“Because he loves dogs, Harry. Can’t be any other reason.”

“Do you suppose he’s sending us Phillipa Giraffe or Rocco Raccoon?”

“Whatever, Harry. It’s a great act of generosity on his part. It shows he cares.”

“I prefer Allan the Alligator myself. What about the bear we saw last night, Aussie? That was some toy! Do you think Donald Trump sent us that, too?”

“Who else, Harry? There’s nobody like him. He’s got full authority over the entire animal kingdom. You know what my greatest dream is, Harry?”

“To tear the innards out of Carmen Coyote?”

“No, it’s to go to the White House and be the man’s dog. As far as I can see, Harry, his only problem is he’s got no dog. With me at his side, giving sage advice, he’s unbeatable.”

“Take me with you, Auss! When do we go?”

“Next time we run away, Harry, promise. Get ready.”

 

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LOVE THE STRANGER

This stormy morning I drove to two supermarkets and bought more food gift cards for the undocumented families that I’ll be seeing tomorrow. My instinct was not to take the dogs, but they were out the door and in the garage before I knew it.

Sure enough, as soon as I pulled out in the gray, pouring rain, Harry started whining in my ear from the back seat: “Open the window! Open the window so I could stick my head out!”

No way I was going to open the window in that storm.

He started mewling, then crying, then screaming into my left ear: “Open the window! Open the window!” Now he’s sitting looking disconsolately at the rain outside: Another day of my life is wasted!

In about a week, we’ve raised over $3,800 for food gift cards. By “we” I mean you and me. Adding my own to this, this endeavor is nearing $4,500 in total. (When I started fundraising on behalf of the Greyston organizations begun by the Zen Community of New York many years ago, we were only being paid small monthly stipends, but Bernie was very clear: You never fundraise for anything without first donating yourself.)

Including the purchases today, I’ve spent some $1,750 covering two weeks of emergency food (and my own cash for a housing emergency). I want to stretch out the time for giving the cards because all indications are that this Time of the Virus will go on for a long while. With that in mind, I opened up a separate bank account online today, for greater ease and transparency.

I have been thinking a lot about the undocumented families living nearby. I grew up in an orthodox Jewish home and studied the Hebrew Bible extensively. Early on I was taught the commandment: Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The Biblical Hebrew word for stranger is ger, meaning alien resident (as opposed to toshav, or regular resident).

The commandment to love the stranger is repeated more times in the Hebrew Bible than any other commandment, including the injunction to love and worship God. Some say that variations of that injunction (take care of the stranger, do not oppress the stranger, etc.) appears some 36 times; others say as many as 45 times. Either way, no other commandment is even close to that number of repetitions. And always it’s accompanied by the reminder: Because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Not just were we strangers, we were enslaved, and finally fled for our lives and freedom (celebrated now, during Passover). Not much different from the refugees arriving at our shores with only grinding poverty, political oppression, violence, and hopelessness to look back on.

Tomorrow I won’t be able to take photos of the people who come to get $50 food certificates. Due to the virus I can’t invite them to have coffee with me and tell me their stories. I won’t be able to photograph their homes though I know where they are. I won’t bother photographing the park where they take their children because it’s closed. For now, I’m not even naming my friend who calls to them to come out. ICE continues to be active even at this time.

Farmers are cutting down on hiring because of the closure of restaurants and hotels. There are no open bars or cafes where you can wash dishes, no open theaters where you can come in between shows to pick up popcorn containers and candy wrappers discarded between the seats. Even outdoors construction and maintenance work have been severely curtailed.

Most important are the closed schools. Most important because, just like my parents, the dream that brings immigrants here, through unimaginable risks and dangers, is to raise a family that has a future, children who could get decent jobs, go to college, have a life. I’ve often heard from them that for themselves, they’ve given up; for their children, they’ll never give up.

I mentioned that my parents were illegal refugees years ago. They went through the Holocaust separately, and having survived the war, each in turn decided to leave the ruins behind him/her and go to Israel.

“Why should I have stayed?” my mother said when I asked her. “Everybody was dead.”

They couldn’t get visas anywhere, including the US, and Israel was blockaded by the British Navy. My father arrived with false identity papers and was immediately sent to a refugee camp near Haifa. My mother didn’t even have that much.

She left Czechoslovakia with her orphaned 3 year-old nephew and traveled with him all the way to a refugee camp at La Ciotat in the southern coast of France. Hundreds of refugees were there, too, and one day practically all were taken on board a ship poised to break through the British blockade and arrive in Haifa. They wouldn’t take children since the trip was too dangerous and my mother was left alone with the little boy.

Desperate, she took him to the Marseilles harbor and saw a ship leaving for a cruise of the Mediterranean; one of the places where it was going to dock was Haifa, Israel. She watched folks go up the gangplank, their papers examined scrupulously onboard by the ship’s captain, who was well aware of efforts to break through the Israel blockade.

Suddenly she saw a group of young students lined up two by two, and as they came up to the ship they didn’t have to produce individual papers, they were simply counted and ushered onboard; clearly they had papers as a group, not as individuals.

She urged her little nephew forward, they joined the line, and as soon as they got onboard they disappeared.

This is not the place to tell of their adventures aboard that vessel, the people who helped them, and that terrible scene at the end, after the ship had docked in Haifa, when she had no recourse but to face the ship’s captain and tell him what she had done. If you want to read that story, you can write me and I’ll send you a copy of her book, or simply order the book, Childhood Lost, by Shoshana Brayer, from Amazon. Suffice it to say that the British sent her and her nephew to a refugee camp as well, where she met my father.

Ahead of them, just a year away, was another terrible war, and a year after that I was born.

As a young girl, it was hard for me to imagine the scene she described at the Marseilles port. There stood a small-boned, thin 18 year-old with a young child at her side, both having gone through hiding, starvation, terror, and violence, watching a group of affluent European school children beginning a Mediterranean cruise.

“A Mediterranean cruise!” I’d exclaim. For the young woman standing by the gangplank, after all she’d gone through, Israel was the Holy Grail; for the others it was one of several tourist drop-off ports, like the Bahamas for Caribbean cruisers. It was hard for me to believe that all this existed simultaneously in the same world.

But when she rushed forward with her little nephew and stood with them, they were all together in one line, two by two on one gangplank, for the briefest moments—till she disappeared with the little boy in order to hide onboard.

Similarly, many of us live in completely different worlds from the families struggling to survive nearby—but for some moments we can stand together. For me that moment is not just tomorrow, but every time I bring them to mind and then do something.

If you’d like to join this effort, you can use the “Donate to My Blog” button, which will send you to PayPal, and where it says “Add a Note” please write: for food gift cards. Or else send a check to me: Eve Marko, POB 194, Montague, MA 01351, and there, too, on the note please write the same.

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ALWAYS BURY YOUR BONE IN THE SPACE YOU DON’T KNOW

I enter my office and see Aussie staring out the glass door. Outside, directly in her line of vision, Harry is burying a marrow bone under a big rock. He digs and digs, sending the dirt spray high in the air, sneaking looks around to make sure no one sees him. When the hole’s deep enough he rolls the bone in, then covers it up with dirt and dry leaves, giving a final triumphant kick with his back paws. Aussie watches and watches, tail wagging merrily.

I know just what the conversation—in a day or two—is going to be:

“You stole my bone! How did you find it?”

“What a dummy! I watched you through the glass door and saw what you were doing. Who told you to bury a bone so close to da Boss’s office?”

“It’s the space I know.”

“But you have the entire back yard, Harry. There’s the space by the wooden woman, the space by the shed, the new daffodils I like to pee on.”

“But I don’t go there too often, Aussie. It’s the space I don’t know.”

“You should always bury your bone in the space you don’t know, Harry.”

“Let’s play tug-of-war with Rhino.”

“I can’t, Harry, I  have to maintain social distance.”

“But if we pull and pull, Aussie, don’t you think we could get far enough from each other so that we’re safe?”

“The only thing that’ll keep us safe, Harry, is if da Boss gets us a bigger toy.”

“Aussie, what does being safe mean?”

“It means knowing you won’t get sick, you won’t be hungry, the house will never fall on top of you, and you’ll never die.”

“But that’s impossible, Aussie. I mean, if I don’t get sick now I could always get sick later, especially when I get old.”

“Not me, Harry.”

“And if a tree falls on top of the house—”

“I’ll be cavorting outside, Harry. The tree won’t touch me.”

“As for never being hungry—”

“I’ve taken a vow to become a balloon.”

“And of course we’ll die, Aussie. Who doesn’t die?”

“I won’t. I plan to outlast da Boss and I plan to outlast you. Won’t have much fun without you, Harry, but there’s always somebody else I could boss around.”

“Wow, Aussie, I’ve never met anybody like you before. Would you be my teacher, Aussie?”

“Only if you promise to listen to me. When we run away, who’s the one who takes you around? Who shows you the raccoon condos and the rabbit runways?”

“You do, Auss.”

“Remember the time da Boss was gone and we made it all the way to Leverett, Harry? Wasn’t that great?”

“No, I ended up in somebody’s house and Tim had to come and get me.”

“That’s because you didn’t stay with me, Harry. I could have brought you home.”

“But Aussie, I lost a toenail. So I whined outside the door and this nice woman took me in. I played with her dogs and she fed me. She’d have done the same for you.”

“I don’t go to strangers’ houses. And I could have brought you home if you’d only listened to me. If you want me to be your teacher, Harry, you have to listen. I can teach you all the things I know!”

“The Boss always says it’s about not-knowing, Aussie.”

“She knows nothing.”

“That’s my point. If you’re my teacher, Aussie, are we going to do face-to-face, just like the Boss does?”

“No, Harry, we’re going to do knows-to-knows. We’re dogs, after all.”

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I WANTED YOU TO MEET THEM

I walked with Harry and Aussie up a narrow canyon a week ago, hills sloping up on the right, tall gray cliffs on the left. It was still cold, and since the canyon doesn’t get much sun there were spots of snow and ice. No one else walked that morning, people are careful in my neck of the woods.

Suddenly the dogs huddled around a large rock, sniffing. I drew close, bent down, and heard a loud moan. Around me everything was frozen and still. I listened harder, and realized it was the sound of water—a lot of water—spilling and gushing down invisible beneath the hard earth and rocks. There was lots of  movement under all that immovability.

I feel like that in this season of coronavirus. We stay home, we don’t hang out and talk over coffee, we don’t walk or drive much on the streets, you don’t see movement. But that doesn’t mean movement is not there. It doesn’t mean people aren’t opening their eyes and changing their behavior. A lot is happening, even if for now it feels invisible and subterranean.

Zen always talks about life and death. Not the death that happens at the end of life, but the life and death of every moment: every moment a new birth, every moment a new death. If we could see the life and death of each moment then we lose our fear of death, but we have to really pay attention. The challenge is always how to pay attention in the middle of work, raising a family, taking care of self, children, partners, parents, community.

People are paying plenty of attention now. “The theme is right in front of us,” a friend told me today. We don’t have to pull at anybody and say: Hold on a minute, pay attention!, They’re paying attention, all right! They know whose life is on the line.

I went to pick up dog food today and noticed how carefully people walked around each other, masked, clearly understanding the impact they have on the life of strangers. We depend on one another, we need one another, we don’t exist without one another. It’s self-evident. What could be better?

Yesterday I hurried to Turners Falls to meet my friend. I had 10 $50 gift cards from two neighboring supermarkets with me, along with some cash of my own. The latter is to help a family that is losing their apartment and needs to move, which means raising first-month rent, last-month rent, and security (standard for this area), so I donated cash for that. But food is what counts, and food is what I plan to help the families get with these gift cards.

I could have brought more with the money readers have sent me, but I wanted to see how it would go this first time; I was also pretty sure I would be distributing more cards next week, and the week after.

My friend dialed some numbers on her phone, and in two minutes a young woman came, huddled in a jacket. Several minutes later another woman appeared, and then another. They live in small apartments nearby and came out quickly when called.

I started stammering in my Pimsleur Spanish. The conversation was almost always this way:

“Hola, me llamo Eva.”

Their name was Maria, Rosa, Rosita, Anna, Sandra, Marta, etc.

“Esta bien, y su familia?”

Yes, they’re well, and so is the family. They have 2 children, 3 children, 4 children. They are all home.

I tell them in my bad Spanish how my friends (that’s how I think of you, blog readers) have given money to help them get food.

They say gracias in so many ways, not just with words but with their eyes. One starts crying.

I feel self-conscious. They’re human beings, I’m a human being, who needs thanks?

“I want them to meet you,” my friend said. “And I want you to meet them.” The food was important, but so is the meeting.

We all need help right now, I assure them. It’s difficult now.

Yes, they agree, it’s very hard now. Some of the men can still work in farms, but many are cutting back and some farms won’t hire at all right now. Other jobs are nonexistent. Restaurants and cafes where they washed dishes are closed; schools are closed.

The schools continue to provide lunches for their children; for other meals they use food pantries. “Only the children don’t always like the food from food pantries,” one explains, “and we don’t get fruit.” She wants to use the food card to buy fruit for the children.

My friend explains that the families are getting tablets for the kids so they could do online learning, but most don’t have Internet connection, only now Comcast has agreed to provide 2 months’ service for free and then charge $10 a month. “That’s pretty good,” I tell them. Yes, they nod, it’s very important for the children to keep on learning.

I used to drive some of the women with their children to doctor appointments a while ago. “How are they now?” I ask. They shrug. Now is no time to bring anyone to a doctor or to a hospital.

“I’ll be here again next week,” I promise them. I have money for more food cards for about two weeks.  After that, I don’t know. Besides, my friend says she knows 32 families who could use this kind of help; we only helped 10 this time.

Dear reader, there is a challenge here we must meet. It’s easy to push to redistribute the money of multi-billionaires; we have to start with ourselves. People hide out not just because they’re illegal but also because they’re poor. In this country we are ashamed of being poor. I can’t photograph them, I can’t get their personal stories (at least, not yet), I don’t even ask them their last names.

There are terrible things going on down by the Mexican border, people turned back without a hearing, separation of families, etc. It has long been a thorn at my heart, but there’s not much I can do about it right now. What I can do is help put food on the table of families hiding out right here, trying to create a decent life for their children.

My parents were refugees. I look at those women who came out to thank me and I want to thank them, because I feel that I am helping out my own parents who were once in their place.

If you’d like to help me continue to do this, please donate and put on the notation: Food gift cards. I looked into whether one could buy gift cards online. One supermarket doesn’t do that. The other does, but when I tried to do it myself the page didn’t work. I will call them about it tomorrow.

 

 

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OF UNDERLINGS AND OVERLINGS

“Harry, why do you howl like that?”

“Like how, Aussie?”

“Each time a firetruck or a police car pass the car with the siren going, you sit back and howl.”

“I’m doing what my ancestors, the wolves, did long ago, Aussie. They howled, too.”

“Harry, you’re descended from wolves like I’m descended from elephants.”

“How come you’re so hoity-toity, Aussie?”

“Because I am top dog in this family. In case you didn’t notice, who gets served breakfast and dinner first?“

“You do, Auss.”

“Who’s the first one to get treats?”

“You do, Aussie.”

“Who’s the first to get the weekly marrow bone?”

“You do, Aussie.”

“Know why, Harry?”

“No. Why, Aussie?”

“Because you, Harry, are an underling.”

“What’s an underling?”

“The opposite of overling, Harry. I am an overling. Look at me and weep. An overling has everything going for her. She’s smart, enterprising, gets all the food she needs, and has your basically great life.”

“And an underling, Aussie?”

“Underlings are not as cute or good looking, and certainly not as smart. They often don’t get enough food and they can’t run around. The best they can do is follow overlings around and benefit from their generosity.”

“What about humans, Aussie? Do they have underlings?”

“You bet your cute white chest, Harry. Lots of them.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Fairness has nothing to do with it, Harry. There are always going to be underlings in this world.”

I listened to the dogs’ daily musings about life and wondered, as I do almost every day, how I ever got such a bossy, obnoxious dog like Aussie.

Yesterday I woke up and remembered that Peter Matthiessen had died 6 years earlier on yesterday’s date, April 5. I thought of how Bernie and I had decided to get up in the early morning to get out to Long Island, but neither of us could sleep that night so instead we were up at 2 and drove down to Connecticut, took the ferry across the Sound, and met up with his family and Zen group that morning. We saw his body in the funeral house before it was cremated.

I looked up what Wikipedia had to say about him: Peter Matthiessen was an American novelist, naturalist, wilderness writer, zen teacher and CIA officer. Zen teacher and CIA officer, I thought. How cool is that?

He worked for the CIA for only a short time when he was in Paris, quickly realizing that he felt more comfortable with those he was supposed to report on than with his peers in the Agency. But he led an extraordinary life, traveled to isolated tribes, searched for mythical animals, swam with great white sharks, bore witness to the tragic extinction of native cultures and species. In some way, he was bigger than life.

We traveled with him a little bit; he encouraged me to write, was generous with his praise.

I went downstairs and was about to light incense for him, as I do on memorial days, when I remembered someone else who’d died on April 5. Adam was the son of a dear, long-time friend. He died on April 5 around 2000 or 2001. He had been born with brain damage and at the age of 9, exhibiting daily fits and seizures, he was put in a residential home, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

I once went to visit him in Kentucky with my friend, his mother. We had Thanksgiving dinner at Denny’s, which was a big treat for him, and he stayed in a motel room with his mother and watched television till late at night. We tried to take him to a movie but he got antsy so we had to leave. We met his roommates and his counselors, saw the new basketball court, got good reports about him. He was on strong medications otherwise he would go into violent fits.

He told his mother that he decided to become a Born-Again Christian.

“But you’re Jewish,” she reminded him. “Should I not send you anymore Chanukah gifts?”

He thought long and hard about that.

He seemed basically happy till he died on the evening of April 5, almost going on 50. He’d been given a snack of crackers with peanut butter before bedtime and choked to death.

Standing in front of Kwan-Yin, I saw Adam in my mind from that Kentucky visit long ago. His mother, who told me she thought about him every day, is no longer living and I wondered who thought of him now; I was glad I still remembered.

Adam and Peter, I thought. I should light two sticks, one each. They were so different: one traveled all over the world, writing great books and articles, loved and admired by many, the other living his life in a Kentucky residential home, sedated, waiting all week for the Sunday morning call from his mother in New York.

Is one more valuable or important than the other?

Virginia Woolf wrote: “While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free . . . Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes.”

I lit one stick of incense for both.

 

 

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THE KINDNESS VIRUS!

I’m surprised by the responses I get to my blog. Last time I wrote about the importance of giving money to those who have nothing right now, not even enough to buy food, and people wrote back asking how they could send money to them. I was very moved.

At the same time, I have to act responsibly. I made calls to Catholic Charities in Turners Falls because I know they serve the illegal community (a few years back we gave a little help to their summer children’s program). But the place is closed, of course, people are working from home and their availability is different.

I did connect with a woman I met in 2016 who is liaison for schools and local agencies with the undocumented community. She told me they lack social security numbers, of course, and therefore can’t get any government help at all. Some of the men work on farms; others have been laid off and can’t find work. All have little children.

We went over many different needs—I told her we couldn’t do so much, but we could do some. She agreed that gift cards from two nearby supermarkets meet a basic need for many.

We agreed to meet next Tuesday; she will introduce me to some of the families. I will bring food gift cards with me. If you wish to fund this, you could hit the Donate button on bottom and write: For Families in the Note, and I’ll know what it’s for. You could also send me a check to POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.

What I also plan to do is look into how folks can buy gift cards directly from the supermarkets and send me those gift cards, and I’ll get them to the families, thus avoiding Paypal payments, etc. But for now, given the inquiries I received, this is the best I can offer. If you’d prefer to wait till I clarify the latter approach (probably this weekend), that’s fine. I want to do this in a trustworthy way.

I tried to get the dogs onboard with this, maybe act as mascots, but they were most uncooperative. I overheard the following conversation:

“Who’re you sleeping with, Harry?”

“I’m sleeping with Rhino, Aussie.”

“You’re not sleeping with the Boss? You’re not sleeping with me?”

“If I don’t sleep with Rhino you’ll take him from me. I have to be watchful every moment.”

“It’s not me you have to worry about, it’s the Boss. She’ll give Rhino away, just watch. Some dog will give her a sob story about how she doesn’t have any toys to play with, and Rhino will be gone just-like-that.”

“We do have other toys, Aussie.”

“No one as big as Rhino. We had Bear, till we tore it to shreds. No, we have to watch Rhino on account of how sick the Boss is.”

“The Boss is sick, Auss? Does she have you-know-what?”

“She has worse things than you-know-what.”

“Like what?”

“There’s altruitis, caringitis, and generousitis. But there’s something that’s far, far worse, a disease there’s no cure for.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“THE KINDNESS VIRUS!”

“That sounds very bad, Aussie.”

“It’ll kill her for sure, Harry. Meantime, you and I lead deprived lives. Do you have any idea how many wonderful treats pet stores now have? Things they didn’t have when I was a pup?”

“Like what, Aussie?”

“They have jerky from every kind of animal you can imagine—”

“Chicken, cows, turkey, pigs—”

“Deer, buffalo, yak-“

“Yak jerky is yucky. Say that fast many times.”

“And even llama jerky-“

“Jerky from Tibetan teachers?”

“Stop interrupting, Harry. You can get antlers, kabobs, liver, cheese, peanut butter—”

“I am so glad to be living in modern times!”

“Exactly, Harry. We are lucky to be living now, in the midst of so much abundance. I need it all to fulfill my life vow.”

“What’s your life vow, Aussie? To wake up in the land of attachments?”

“To be a balloon. How am I going to become a balloon if all I get is tennis balls? I use all my tricks, Harry, put on my best beseeching face, open wide my soulful, brown eyes, nuzzle at her leg, dreaming that she may awaken from her torpor and say: Aussie, today I’m buying out the treats department of the Greenfield Farmers Co-op and laying it at your paws. Instead, what does she do?”

“What, Aussie?”

“She throws me a tennis ball!”

“That’s sick, Aussie.”

“Kindness Virus. Starts with confusion about priorities and ends up with total dementia.”

“What happens with total dementia, Aussie?”

“You don’t want to know. Protect Rhino with your life, Harry!”

“Aussie, will she ever want to give  away?”

“I wish! Why do you suppose I run away so often?”

 

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NOW and LATER

“Where are we going, Aussie?”

“We’re hurrying back South, Harry. We’re Dixie dogs, remember?”

“But I’m getting to like it here in New England, Aussie, especially now that spring is arriving and I can lie under the sun in the back yard.”

“You call this lying under the sun? It’s freezing, Harry. Besides, do you know what the Boss is doing?”

“I can’t imagine, but the way you’re running it must be terrible. Is it because she’s not letting us off-leash? If you hadn’t lost your training collar, Auss—”

“Worse.”

“Is she shutting the dog door during the day like she does at night?”

“Worse than that, Harry.”

“OMG, is she stopping to feed us?”

“Much, much worse than that.”

“What could be worse than that, Aussie?”

“Socialism, that’s what!”

“Socialism? What’s that, Aussie? Is it a new disease, like you-know-what?”

“It’s much, much worse than you-know-what, Harry. It takes food away from the rich and gives to the poor.”

“That’s terrible, Aussie. We can’t give our food away!”

“That’s why we’re heading home, Harry, I to Texas, you back to Mississippi. They don’t do dumb things like that down there.”

“What’s happened to the Boss, Aussie? Do you think she got the you-know-what and it’s affected her mind?”

“Dementia, Harry. Instead of getting us more food, she gets gift certificates from food stores to give out to families without food. If that isn’t dementia I don’t know what is.”

“Maybe their dogs don’t have food, either, Aussie.”

“And is that any of our business, Harry? You-know-what is taking over, Harry. Out there it’s everyone for himself, dog-eat-dog.”

“We don’t eat dogs, Aussie.”

“At least, not yet. You’re lucky you have me around for protection.”

“Aussie, the Boss has a big bag of food for us, dog treats, and even marrow bones.”

“You’re so dumb sometimes, Harry, I wonder how you put four legs together. I’m not talking about NOW, I’m talking about LATER. Nobody knows what’ll happen LATER, so we have to keep for ourselves as much food as possible.”

“But isn’t NOW more important than LATER? I’ve always hated it when we’d ask the Boss to take us walking and she says LATER. I like NOW.”

“I forgive you, Harry. You’re young; you think you’ll live forever. Listen to your older sister: When the world feels like it’s coming to an end you have to think of yourself, and not just for NOW, but also for LATER.”

“What happens when LATER comes, Aussie?”

“LATER becomes NOW, and there’s a new LATER. We always have to save food for LATER.”

I lost Harry and Aussie, but I have a suggestion, folks. You know how often we think about those who have little or no safety net? How that safety net has gotten shredded over the past 40 years? How the top 1% has more wealth than the bottom 80? Here is an opportunity to do our very own redistribution of income.

Ask yourself how much money you have, and how much money you need now. Notice how much less you’re spending on entertainment, restaurants, travel, and vacations. Ask yourself if you truly and deeply need that check that’s coming from the government (if it comes). Add it all up—and give it to those who are out of work with no income, without the wherewithal to put food on their table or feed their children.

Once a month, a wonderful Colombian woman comes to clean the house I share with Tim and Emma. I’ve known her for many years and we start the morning over a cup of coffee. She’s the one who used to host illegal workers in the local Chinese restaurant for Thanksgiving, telling me how they live several to a room.

“What’s happened to them?” I asked her this morning.

“They left the area,” she told me. “They have nothing.”

“But where did they go? It’s like this everywhere.”

She didn’t know. But she knows local folks who’re illegal here, who work at gig jobs and are now laid off, who won’t see one penny from our government. She knows mothers with children and no jobs, wondering how they’ll feed their families. It’s now spring, when most of the men head to the fields, but even the farmers are afraid so there’s no work.

We talked it over, I took the dogs for a walk in the woods, drove up to the local supermarket and bought gift certificates. I gave her two $50 certificates right off the bat—“That’s plenty,” she assured me, “they know how to make that last a long time.” Tonight she’ll talk to two other people—“My contacts,” she called them—and she’ll call me tomorrow and tell me how many more need gift certificates. I won’t be able to take care of all, but I can do some.

I can’t wait for Trump to lose the election, I can’t wait till our political leaders come to their senses. I have to start redistributing income on my own, right now, starting from me. I know the refrain, I hear it from people: But you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how much you’ll need, especially with everything that’s going on. You have to think about LATER.

I don’t live in New York, I have no medical background, and can’t volunteer in hospitals. But I can do this.

Not to mention all the money I’m saving from not feeding runaway dogs.

“Aussie, I think I’m ready to go home now.”

“Harry, you have to think about LATER. You have to plan for your future.”

“Yes, Auss, but NOW it’s raining, NOW I’m hungry, NOW I’m cold. Do you suppose she left the garage doors open so that we could get back in?”

 

 

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