THE REAL SOFTIE

The rain was coming down with no end.

“Maybe we should start growing rice,” a fellow Zen teacher said this morning.

“Or else learn how to blow those storm clouds out West,” someone else said, thinking no doubt of the droughts, record-breaking temperatures, and fires.

By late morning the rain diminished enough for the dogs to go out. I came back from the kitchen and saw something dark on Aussie’s rug, bent down, squinted (it was dark inside the house), and something fluttered.

“Aussie, what did you do? You brought in a chipmunk!”

She slapped her tail happily against the rug.

I got a paper towel and picked it up. It’s almost dead, I thought. I took it outside and put it among the wet shrubs in back. “Don’t go out to get it,” I told Aussie. “Let it die in peace.”

An hour later I mentioned it to Lori, my housemate and a far wiser woman than me. “Let me see it,” she said.

We walked out back. It was still there and it was still alive, though it barely moved. And it was no chipmunk. “It’s a baby bunny,” she said. “I think it’s in shock. We need to get it warm and dry.”

With that, she picked it up, covering it up with her hands in the rain, and tried to find its burrow. But it was almost impossible, she explained, because mother rabbits dig their burrow inside the soil and cover it up with moss and grass. “Or else the den may have gotten flooded by all the water that’s come down.”

We went back in. “I need a box, a towel, and a heating pad,” the good doctor said.

We put out a small cardboard box on the kitchen table and covered it with a towel, and Dr. Lori put the tiny bunny inside. We then both scurried around looking for a heating pad. She set everything up in her office by her desk, keeping Henry far away.

When I went out with the dogs she gave me precise instructions about getting non-cow milk, dry baby cereal, and an eye dropper. We came back drenched through the skin.

“It’s really perked up while you were gone,” Lori announced, opening up the towel. The almost dead chipmunk was now clearly a baby bunny, squatting warily on its back legs, eyes open. “I looked it over thoroughly and Aussie didn’t put a scratch on it. She probably found it and brought it in gently in her mouth.”

“You mean, I didn’t kill it?” says Aussie.

“Afraid not,” says Lori. “If Henry’d gotten it, the bunny would be a mess by now, but you, Aussie, are a real softie.”

“Am not!” says Aussie, raising her tail high, deeply insulted, and rushes through the dog door to kill as many living beings as she can. But it’s raining again and she comes back quickly.

“You know how many birds I’ve killed?” she demands.

“One bird this season, Auss. Last year there were two or three.”

“You know how many mice I’ve killed?”

“A few.”

“And chipmunks! Don’t forget the chipmunks.”

“So far, Aussie, I’ve seen zero dead chipmunks.”

“What about squirrels?”

“One dead squirrel. ”

“Don’t tell anybody,” she begs. “When we go out with Leeann and ten other dogs, I’m the one who rushes out after prey, big and small, and they follow. If they knew that after all those runs I scored just one dead bird, a few mice, and one squirrel, I’d never be able to hold up my head. And now I really messed up. I could have killed a baby bunny, a new specie in my collection. Instead, Lori is busy bringing it back to life. I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Aussie, why do you like killing so much?”

“It’s my nature. I’m a world-class hunter.”

“But what I’ve seen is that you like to chase and run; I’m not sure about the killing part. You don’t shake them to death when you catch them, they die because you grabbed them too hard. The bunny doesn’t show a scratch.”

“I am not a softie, I’m a killer!”

“What’s wrong with being a softie, Aussie?”

“Soft is for wimps. Killing’s for heroes.”

“Aussie, you could have killed that baby bunny with one bite. Instead, you carried it gently in your mouth across the yard, through the dog door and kitchen, to your rug and left it there for me to find. There are four Buddha images alongside the walls surrounding your rug, maybe they had something to do with it.”

“Don’t make me throw up.”

“Could it be that they’re having an effect on you, Aussie? Making you sweeter, for instance, more compassionate?”

“Vomit vomit!”

“You used to be a lot tougher, Aussie. You were once a real killer.”

“Get those Buddhas out of my room. Quick!”

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RUMINATIONS AT THE HAIRDRESSER

A tree has its beauty even when ravaged by woodpeckers.

I am shopping in Trader Joe’s this morning, on the way to get my hair cut, when I recognize a woman I haven’t seen in over a decade by the ice cream and frozen pepperoni pizza display. Once the wife of a friend, both have been happily divorced and happily united with other partners for a long time.

“You don’t look a day older than when I last saw you,” she gushes.

I thank her. I don’t believe it. A lot’s happened over the last dozen years. And yet, I wonder silently as she and I talk, she’s the one who doesn’t look a day older. She seems to have the same trim, athletic body I remember from before, her blonde hair is now blonder, longer, and falls in waves over her shoulders. The face is a little more worn, the skin not as smooth and satiny as I remember it, but there she is, a testament to time almost standing still.

She’s retired, she tells me. Works out every day in the gym. Her children and grandchildren are far away but she takes care of things in the house, takes care of her partner, relaxes, enjoys TV. She commiserates over Bernie’s death and a minute later we say goodbye. Twenty minutes later I’m sitting in a hairdresser’s chair contemplating my face and hair in the mirror.

I retain my brown hair but mostly in underlayers and in back; up front it’s gray and silver. I’m a little heavier, a little more squat. And my face, oh yes, my face. It’s always had blue furrows under the eyes; now they’re less blue but deeper. The mole on my left cheek has expanded. Vertical lines climb up above my upper lip and between my eyebrows like the pre-9/11 towers, and a patch of skin under the lower lip is somewhat mottled.

We make different decisions on how we age. There was a time when I flirted with the idea of coloring my hair, and decided no. Decided not to beat my age, but to look it. Not to try to look younger, that period when I was on the lower rungs of the learning curve, climbing slowly and painfully, illness and loss of someone I loved kicking me higher up that curve day by day.

Why shouldn’t I show my experience? Why shouldn’t I reveal some white hairs in my eyebrows? Why shouldn’t I let my hair age in peace, as I let the leaves age in peace come fall? I don’t yell at them for turning red, yellow, and orange in October, I don’t think they have to stay green all year. Why should I stay the same?

We’d made different decisions. Mine was to push forward with my work while staying as healthy as possible. Dumbstruck by life day after day, I see more creative opportunities than ever before, more alignment among the various things I do, be it writing (two additional writing projects in addition to this blog), teaching, and the organizing, planning, and teaching we’re doing on behalf of the Zen Peacemaker Order. There’s the undocumented families I care about, there’s my mother turning 93 today.

When you do that, all is not peaceful. Keeping things going, concern, meeting deadlines, the endless work that doesn’t satisfy all and never will—they have their effects. Don’t be surprised if you look at a mirror one day at the hairdresser and see their traces all over your body, your face, and your hair.

I don’t regret my decision. If anything, I’m grateful for the encounter in Trader Joe’s followed by the rumination in front of the mirror, reminding me, more and more consciously, of the choice I made.

Late yesterday I met Ofelia with her four small children. Her husband was biking to work and a white car ran him down in a hit-and-run. He lost control, the bike careened over the guardrail, smashed down into a wide culvert and he lost consciousness for almost an hour. When he awoke he lay there, unable to move. He called out, finally someone heard him and called an ambulance. In the hospital he was told that, among many things, he had a broken ankle and wouldn’t work for two months at the very least.

Ofelia (not her real name) works in the farms part-time, but can’t do more with four children at home. Jimena’s husband already promised them he could fix an old bike to bring him to work, but now they need financial help just to make it through this next period because, like everyone else, they barely make it paycheck to paycheck. If you can help, please do so by using the link for immigrant families below.

Thank you very much.

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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EVE IN THE BARDO

Thunderstorm weather

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like I’m in the Bardo. Outside the sun is shining for just a little while, but it doesn’t fool me, I know thunderstorms are just around the corner,. I’m not rushing out of the house.

And that’s how I feel about going out into this post-covid world. It feels safe (I live in one of the states with this country’s highest vaccination rates). On July 4 I was at a picnic hosted by Windhorse Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield. I joyfully recognized folks without their masks, hugged them, felt those hugs like never before pulling my entire body forward,. Friday night the restaurant in which I met friends was humming just like previous Friday nights, noise at the bar, the tables full of laughs and chatter, the waiters tempting you with menus and drinks. And last night, a culminating delicious dinner at old friends’ home, catching up, listening to the Moonlight Sonata played on the piano. Yes, live music!

You must think I’m the social butterfly of the season, but I believe it’s only the third time I’ve gone out socially in almost a year and a half and these all congregated together across one long holiday weekend. I have almost no such plans for the foreseeable future, and that’s the point.

There was a social world with certain rules before covid. During covid we were locked up here, obeying new rules. And now we’re vaccinated, looking forward to September when the kids will start getting vaccinated (a whole new layer of safety added). And still, I’m not jumping to do what I did before. I’m not eager to rush out to movie theaters or restaurants, not hurrying to invite people over, I remain very uncertain. Not from fear, from—uncertainty.

What is this?

Something happened to us, to me. During covid I discovered the joy of solitude and the boredom and sadness of loneliness. I saw my hankering for protein and sweets zoom. A house I love came in on me, feeling a little like prison. I was busy, but sometimes felt lost.

Now I see people, and I still feel lost. Do I really want to go out, I wonder? Do I really want to see them? Wouldn’t I be happier looking at my computer screen and getting work done, or else reading, or taking another walk with Aussie?

“Most people talk of what they know,” a friend said to me the other day. “They leave little room for surprise.” And yes, after the first few minutes when my arms open up for a hug, feeling happy and grateful that they’re in my life, after pleasantries are exchanged, after we catch up (Are you healthy? Is our family healthy?), then what? I catch myself sneaking a look at my watch.

Not this past weekend, which was wonderful, but other times for sure.

What’s going on? Did I feel this way before covid? I used to enjoy social chatter. I appreciate what it does, the relationships it strengthens, the community that is reinforced. But now I sneak a look at my watch. And when the next invitation comes,  I stall, I wait, and finally ask myself: Do I really want to do this?

It can be a little dangerous for a single person like myself to be too alone, not to meet the world, to contract and find refuge in the four walls called myself. And yet, covid changed something in me.

Right now, I feel like I’m in a kind of Bardo, not here and not there, not doing the things I did earlier but not clear what I’m supposed to do now. Something’s changed, but what? Do I re-emerge? How?

The world begins to beckon but I still hesitate.

 

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THE REAL KING

It’s been raining hard for some 36 hours. The dogs entertain themselves while I call my mother.

“How’re you doing, mom?”

“I’m waiting to meet Barbara.”

“Who’s Barbara, mom?”

“Barbara is the woman who the king met at the seashore.”

“Is that so?”

“He met her and he liked her so she thinks she’s going to be queen. Because he made her.”

“What do you mean, made her? Who’s he?”

“The king, of course.”

“And who is Barbara again?”

“Some woman he met at the seashore. I’m waiting for her, she’s supposed to come here. And I’m going to tell her some things.”

Then she starts singing a song from her childhood in Czech.

“What does it say, mom?”

“A child looks out the window and sees a dark city, but there is a light in one window,” she translates cheerfully. Then she sings another, and when I ask her about that she tells me it’s a hopping song they used to play when they were children. She sounds very happy now and adds: “Barbara’s not coming but it doesn’t matter, she can’t ruin my happiness, you know why?”

“Why, mom?”

“Because I’m waiting for the real king. The real king!”

I love these conversations with my mom, I can stay on the phone forever.

Some might call them nonsense. They are non-sense, in that they don’t meet the criteria for sense. Whose criteria? The criteria of consensus reality. I read that term somewhere, implying that there is a general sense of how things really are that a consensus of humans agrees on. According to consensus reality, the above conversation makes no sense. My mother doesn’t know any Barbara and we have no king in the family last I checked.

Neither do I try to psychologically analyze this. For example, is she referring to her son who remarried a year ago because he found another woman to make him happy? Cliché, cliche.

I love this conversation precisely because it makes no sense. It’s some kind of channel to invisible images and tales, stories from other planets, other beings who may see the real reality that I can’t because my senses are so limited.

Since we create reality with our mind, my mom and I don’t live in the same reality. Sometimes her mind creates nightmare scenarios for her. That’s when I get urgent appeals to make sure I have food in the house (“Always, always keep a loaf of bread in the refrigerator and a bottle of milk, you never know what can happen!”) and not to leave the house no matter what because the tanks are on the streets. This latest reality involves a Barbara who is not the real queen, and a king who may not be the real king.

There are implications for her wellbeing here that I’m not blind to; I’m especially concerned when she feels terrorized and in fear of her life.

At the same time, I’m fascinated by my mother’s many lives. I even envy her somewhat, for she has to deal with a Barbara and a king, while I wonder how to walk two dogs in the midst of rain. We label one dementia and the other common sense, but I forget that when I talk to her on the phone, when I hear the indignation in her voice that her position is being usurped by a strange woman or the promise that she’s waiting for the real king—the real king!

Who is that, I can’t help wondering. My mind, feeling rootless and barren this gray, rainy day, now goes to a sunny seashore. By that seashore a king meets a woman called Barbara and falls in love, or in lust. Now Barbara thinks she’s queen. The rest of us groan under her whims and dictates. Who does she think she is? So what if she’s beautiful or curvaceous, does that make her queen?

And who made her queen? If he can be fooled so easily, maybe he’s not the real thing, either. Who’s the real king? Where is he?

The dogs can’t compete with that.

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THE ONE BIG ONE

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“Hiding.”

“From what?”

“Everything. The heat, thunderstorms, Henry the Foreign Menace. What about you, Boss?”

“During severe thunderstorms I like to go to the small bathroom that has no windows and hang out there. It feels safer.”

“You know what, Boss? This world is a scary place. There’s something to be afraid of everywhere you look.”

“Maybe. You know what I think, Aussie? There’s one big one; the others are important, too, but not like the one big one.”

“What’s that?”

My friend, the journalist Jon Katz, likes to quote one of his journalist mentors from way back: “There’s only one story, and it’s about the rich screwing the poor.” For me, that’s the big story. In over 40 years the middle and lower economic classes have made almost no headway in salaries and lifestyle; too many in this rich country can’t afford decent housing, nourishing food, and medical care. The other stories are good stories, maybe important stories, but often I feel they hide the main story in this country.

So, what about the latest instance of police violence against a young man of color hanging out in his garage and not hurting anyone?

What about the Delta variant of the coronavirus that may have us reaching back for masks and curbside pick-ups again?

What about our leaving the people in Afghanistan to their fate, not to mention Hong Kong?

What about Bill Cosby?

The hundreds of graves of Indigenous children found in Canada?

Republicans voting down a committee to investigate the events of January 6?

All important, all valid, causing us to cringe, sigh, shake our heads, even weep. But they’re not the big story. The big story remains the rich screwing the poor, be they African American farmers, white miners in West Virginia, or undocumented families right in my own back yard.

In fact, if the culprits had to put their heads together and figure how to conceal the massive robbery that takes place in broad daylight every single day, how to disguise their corrupting influence over government, or generally how to sacrifice the wellbeing of so many for both the power and the playthings of the few, they couldn’t do a better job than creating the daily front page of every major newspaper.

Look at that front page now. Everything I mention above appears there, but not the biggest story of all. We get upset and worked up: How did Bill Cosby get out of prison after testimonies from so many women? What to do about Trump’s heading down to the Texas/Mexico border? The uproar about how American history is being taught, and whether or not a highly respected African  American professor will get tenure or not in a North Carolina school. The articles themselves repeat the word uproar all the time, the word defines us. They want us to feel upset, they want us to feel righteous indignation.

And—they don’t tell you that the rich are screwing the poor. They don’t tell you much about who pays the real price for our cheap clothes, our inexpensive dishwashers, the actual cost of cars, the implications of cheap food and cheap restaurants, the quick delivery of Amazon goods.

They ignore the fact that we can solve the challenge of poverty if we make that a top priority, just as we can solve homelessness. Other countries have narrowed income discrepancy, and so can we. They don’t tell us that at the price of cutting down our costly lifestyle, we can feed all our children and take families off the streets. We can narrow the range between haves and have-nots and make it into halves and haves-a-little-less. The media makes these sound like intractable, unsolvable problems, but that’s not the case.

Alleviating poverty is simply not our goal, and if you doubt that, look at the decisions we make and implement all the time.

Meantime, the puppeteers are lighting cigars and congratulating the media and each other on the diet of red herrings they continue to provide, headlines that cause us to be at each other’s necks, that cause us to despise folks who’re like us only of a different political party, a different race, a different religion, a different place in the country.

Sometimes we win the battles, sometimes others do. But who wins the big one? Who wins the war?

And where do I find that answer in the newspapers?

 

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OLYMPICS IN DOGLAND

“What’s new in Dogland, Aussie?”

“In this weather? Nothing. It’s too hot!”

“You went splashing in the water this morning, Auss, and you will again later. You don’t swim, you just wade in there and look happy. “

“You know what’s wrong with this country? There’s no Olympic competition for just wading into water and looking happy.”

“As a matter of fact, Auss, they’re holding tryouts for the US Olympic team right now.”

“I can’t compete because there’s no category for me.”

“The winners in those races look awfully happy to me, Aussie.”

“In Humanland, if you win you’re happy; if you lose you’re unhappy. In Dogland, you just go into the water and you’re happy. I would take gold if they had a category like that. Not to mention chipmunks.”

“You want an Olympic competition for chasing chipmunks?”

“Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, whatever.”

“When was the last time you caught one, Aussie?”

“One year, four months, and 2 days ago.”

“Doesn’t sound like you’ll make the American team, Aussie.”

“We need a canine Olympics, Boss. The first competition will be: How fast can you eat?”

“You’re a dainty eater, Aussie.”

“Depends on what you feed me. Give me sirloin and watch me stuff it. Another one is, put dogs inside a fenced yard like ours and see who manages to get out first.”

“And that dog wins gold, Aussie?”

“No, that dog comes last. You have to be an idiot to leave here. Here’s another one. For this we need a live fawn.”

“Oh no, Aussie, no you don’t!”

“It’s the best! A pack of dogs goes into the woods and the first one to take down a fawn wins.”

“That’s why Leeann won’t take you  out for several weeks, Aussie. She told me that there are lots of fawns out there this year and a pack of you broke away from her last week and attacked a fawn. She was devastated; it was the first time that had ever happened. Did you attack that fawn?”

“I did not!”

“You had a bloody muzzle, Aussie!”

“I was picking strawberries.”

“Leeann won’t take you and other hunters out for a few weeks, Aussie.”

“That’s no way to treat an Olympic champion. I know! A digging competition! Gold goes to the one who gets the woodchuck. Or a bacon competition.”

“How does that go, Auss?”

“You leave bacon on a counter a short distance away and we make a mad dash and jump up to get it. The one who jumps highest wins.”

“Gold?”

“No, bacon.”

“What about Jewish or Muslim canines?”

“They’ll win the fastest get-me-out-of-here race. That’s why bacon is so good. You either run towards it or away from it; not much middle ground with bacon. There are lots of other great races we can hold in a canine Olympics: Who snores loudest on a cold day by the fireplace? Who contorts herself to take up an entire queen-size bed? Who wets the most people by shaking herself off after a dip in the pond? We could have a special  competition for chihuahuas like Henry, too.”

“What competition is that, Aussie?”

“How many times can you go up and down the stairs after a ball. In fact, we could make it an intelligence test for both of you. How many times do you throw the ball upstairs, he runs up and brings it down, you throw it back up, he runs to get it and brings it down again, before you both get it’s a stupid game? The lower the number, the higher the IQ. How many times did you throw him the ball today?”

“Thirty-five.”

“That sounds about right for both your IQs. Pretty dumb game, if you ask me”

“You should have seen how silly you looked standing in the middle of the pond today with that big grin on your face, Aussie.”

“Ecstasy can sometimes look silly. “

 

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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FAMILY-2

I looked into the PayPal account for funds coming in to help Elena get an apartment to accommodate her children when they make it to the United States, and found that $1500 had come in. That’s without my checking the mailbox, which I’ll do on Monday.

Thank you very, very much for this help.

We are having our first official Zen Peacemaker Order program in a long while this weekend, keeping me busy, so Jimena came by this morning and picked up some $1,425 and we talked a little about the future. For now, we agree that I need to build up the reserve somewhat in order to continue with both food cards and special cash assistance.

The Fourth of July is coming up, and Latino families celebrate it like there’s no tomorrow. Picnics, barbecues ,and jaunts to parks, pools, and lake. Lake Wyola is 10 minutes’ drive for me, and sometimes I go swimming there at 5 in late afternoon when most of the families have gone home for supper. Not these families. They bring food and music and several families stay there with the children into evening. They know how to party.

I’m not much of a partier, so I love it when others do it for me. I used to envy people, wish I was like this person who knows how to party, or that person who knows how to have more fun, or that person who really knows how to relax, or that person who knows how to build organizations and community, or another person WHO KNOWS TECHNOLOGY.

But I haven’t felt like that for a long time. They’re doing it for me, I don’t have to do it all. I can leave it to them to bring to the world and life things I can’t, just as I bring into the world and into life whatever I can. Perhaps that’s what we mean when we say that we’re doing something for all beings.

I have learned a lot from the families I’ve worked with, and especially about their very powerful family links. They’re ready to leave their families and travel far away, cross borders, take ridiculous risks, and what happens if and when they finally make it to their destination? They live squeezed together in crowded apartments and try to find jobs at salaries most Americans would never accept: farm work, dishwashers or cleaners in restaurants, maybe even the lowest-paying jobs in supermarkets.

Because of them, we get basic goods and services for relatively low prices. And they do all that in order to send money home to support the family they left behind because that family has way less than they do now, though they’ve hardly made it to the first rung in American society.

Green River Zen sits right above a farm. I’ve gone there in very hot days when the sun beats down and watched Haitians working the fields. The farmer who owns the fields finds it cheaper to fly Haitians into America, provide them with living accommodations, and fly them back at the end of the season than to hire Americans.

“Nobody from around here wants these jobs,” he says. Of course, he didn’t specify what wages he was offering.

Too many Americans don’t have a clue about the depth of poverty in other countries. They take for granted food assistance, welfare payments, free public schooling and low-cost housing projects. There’s a lot to say about the huge discrepancy between rich and poor here, and I want to write about it next week,  but this is still way more than what other people have. As I wrote yesterday, we have our poor, but how many go to foreign countries to send money here? How many won’t see their children, spouses and families for years, and maybe never, just so that they could send money home?

I am so grateful for WhatsApp, which enables them to be in touch for free so that they could talk to their children, listen to what happened in school, what’s happening with covid, who’s sick.

I remember being with Jimena one day when a handsome young man, some 18 or 19 years old,  whom I never saw before, came over and talked to her in a low voice. He had just arrived and needed help with food. We had run out of cards and promised help for next week. But what was more urgent for him was to find a job, any job. His mother was sick back home and he had to send her money so that she could get medications.

In covid times, people had no money not just to get medical treatment but to bury their dead. Ask me where I really learn about family ties and sacrifice, and I’ll tell you it’s here, in these families. Or with Saint Swapna, the Indian woman who takes care of my mother.

If life doesn’t give them what they need, they do without. They don’t complain, they don’t gripe against God or the universe, in fact they can barely meet my eyes when they tell me what is happening to them.

When I was in Israel we got a call from Swapna, this time not about our mother but about her. She had a terrible toothache, had had it for several days, and finally gave up and called us. I’m  glad to say that the three of us siblings headed out there right away, and while my sister got on the phone to find a dentist and stayed to take care of my mother, my brother and I took Swapna to a dental office next to the big shopping mall in Jerusalem. Swapna had met us at the door and didn’t have the strength to hide the pain as she usually did, tears just streamed down her cheek.

“Why didn’t you say anything earlier, why did you wait so long?”

But that’s a rhetorical question for Swapna. She’s used to waiting things out, hoping they’ll go away, not wanting to trouble.

I went with her into the dentist’s office to help with language. The dentist was a kind Jewish Russian woman. She saw right away that Swapna had lost a tooth, but the root was still there and had gotten infected. She took it out, and then looked through Swapna’s entire mouth. She pointed out about 3-4 other places where teeth were either cracked or missing, two areas requiring root canal work, one or two teeth needing crowns, and cavities galore.

“Have you gotten dental care?” I asked Swapna.

She shrugged.

“Do you want to get this work done?” I asked her. Money would be no object. She shrugged again. Both questions were rhetorical, as far as she was concerned. Dental care was an off-planet luxury for her. A tooth got sick so that was the end of it; she was used to losing them. The best she could hope for would be to get relief from crippling pain if and when it hit her, as it had those days.

She’s a beautiful woman with thin shoulders that go up and down when encountering things beyond her life experience. Dental care is one of them.

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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FAMILY

Yesterday was Wednesday, so Jimena and I met in late afternoon. It’s summer now, we’re back to meeting outdoors on the corner of a busy street just as we did last year, till the cold winter forced us into the closed front porch of her house.

It was nice to be out there again, part of town life, people shopping for groceries, darting into the barbershop, picking up pizza, bringing in dry cleaning or taking out ice cream for the kids. Normal people doing normal things. At times, when I meet the men and women who are here illegally and need extra help, their children giggling and well dressed, the girls with bows in their pigtails, the mothers tired but proud, it’s easy to think they’re just like everybody else only with extra money worries.

That’s not true at all.

But small things first. Lilli (none of the names here are their real names) comes for food cards and brings an enormous bag of broccoli heads for us from the farm where she works, and proceeds to detail a recipe for broccoli, bacon, and cheese. “You know I’m not taking all that home,” I tell Jimena. “This is enough to feed four families.” And indeed, at least two other women take some before Jimena and I, at the end, split the remainder.

Irma shows me her electricity bill. She’s heavyset, a haggard look on her face, and accompanied by a little girl. They owe $425 for electricity that has carried over from their unemployed winter. If it doesn’t get paid down, their electricity gets shut off on July 1. They’re undocumented, so they don’t qualify for emergency assistance programs against eviction by landlords or getting cut off by utilities.

I do a little arithmetic in my head. Yes, we have the $425. Irma murmurs something to Jimena. “She’s afraid she won’t get it in time and they’ll turn off the electricity,” she translates for me. “I tell her you keep your promises.”

“So far, yes, thanks to many, many people,” I say. It’s hard for her to understand how one gets support through a blog and but she nods appreciatively. I’ll get the cash tomorrow and get it to Jimena.

Lydia with three children arrives for food cards. “Do you need diapers, too?” Jimena asks, and right away calls her husband to bring diapers size 5 from the porch of their house two blocks away. The children play. Claudia also appears, 7 months pregnant. The women talk. Lydia’s son was always so attached to her he would never leave her side. She had to go to work so they brought him to a woman next door who takes care of the children, and now he can hardly wait to go there. Every morning he gets up and shouts the word: “Bye!” Everyone laughs. It’s a beautiful day.

Elena arrives, slender, wearing a baseball cap. From a distance she seems young but as she approaches I see her face is mottled and worn. She comes for food cards and chats with the others but hangs around after they leave and starts talking urgently.

She’s trying to bring both her children, a boy and girl ages 12 and 14, from the Dominican Republic. She came here to work and send money home for the children, whom she left with her parents. Millions of women do this all over the world, including my mother’s caregiver in Jerusalem, who left her little boy in her mother’s care in a small town in India and made the long journey to Israel. Every Wednesday, like clockwork, she goes to the post office to send money home.

Elena was not legal, and therefore couldn’t go back and forth to visit them. She worked day in day out and lived frugally. Now she has a path towards legal residence and wants to bring her two children to finally live together with her. She has a lawyer and must sign plenty of affidavits. One insists she prove that she can afford an apartment for the family. That means she has to leave the little room where she’s lived and pay for an apartment, a real home, for the children. Once all the affidavits are signed she has to wait three more months, and then the children can come.

“How much is it?” I ask.

Both women shrug. It’s always the same here: first month, last month, and security down, a total of $1,800.

I do a little arithmetic in my head. The balance in this account is low by now. “Right now, we can do $1,000,” I tell her. “I need to get more money.” Then I ask: “How many years has it been since you’ve seen them?”

So far, Elena’s tone has been almost casual, smiling, eyes veering from the ground to Jimena, as if not much is at stake. “Ocho anos,” she says. Eight years. The smile remains, but tears gather around the eyes and she turns away so we shouldn’t see them. Soon it’s a full breakdown; she can’t stop weeping.

She hasn’t seen them in 8 years. She left her children when one was 6 and the other 4.

How is that possible? It’s a naïve question from a naïve Norteamericana who should know better by now, who should know that all kinds of things are possible when there’s no ground to hold you as you try to keep standing, keep walking. Who by now should know that the poorest of the poor here are still miles ahead of many whose only crime is to be born elsewhere.

I think of spending last weekend in Maryland with Bernie’s daughter, her husband and son. In many ways, home is family, especially to these families who didn’t need covid to remind them what Thanksgiving meals feel like with no one around the table, no one opening gifts under a Christmas tree.

Almost each and every one has had to come to los Estados Unidos to make money to send back to support entire families. Is it any wonder that, whenever anyone has to go anywhere–be it the bank, the store, or a doctor’s office–the entire family comes along?

I’ve witnessed many people living on low incomes here in our own country, but who here goes halfway round the world to work and send back money? Who goes without seeing her children, without seeing his wife, without seeing parents ever again?

Jimena hugs her. I hug her. The sacrifices people make again, and again, and again. She shows me a photo of the boy, who has dreamy looking eyes and the kissingest lips you ever saw, practically in the shape of a heart. “Good luck,” I murmur.

If you can, please consider helping Elena and those like her be united again with their families. Thank you.

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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A NEW ZEN MASTER

A field of lotuses at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, DC

During my time in Maryland with Alisa Glassman and family, I didn’t call my mother. There’s a 7-hour difference between the two of us and by the time I remembered each day it would be too late. But yesterday, driving up the long New Jersey Turnpike north, I got her on the phone. For some reason she was breathing hard, even panting, but denied it when I asked her about it. She wanted to get off the phone and said: “Chavale, whatever happens, don’t give up faith in the truth.”

“What truth is that, mom?” I asked.

“You know, I know. Just don’t give up faith in that.” And then she added: “I have to go.”

“Don’t go yet, mom.”

“I’ll call back, okay?”

She never does. She seemed to hang up the phone, but didn’t really because I could hear her caregiver, Saint Swapna, saying: “Speak, Ima, speak! Why don’t you speak?” Swapna, who’s Indian, calls my mother by the Hebrew word for mother, which never fails to touch me.

And I heard my mother say back: “Because I have nothing to say.” And sure enough, she hung up the phone.

“Don’t give up faith in the truth,” though she couldn’t say much about what that truth is. I remember plenty of years when she knew exactly what that truth was. It was her truth, the truth of being an orthodox Jewish woman (who secretly had lost her faith in God after the Holocaust), who believed that nothing was more important than family and community (even as she constantly wished she’d been born years later when women were freer to pursue other careers).

I was a rebel practically from birth (a Sagittarius, after all!), but encountering that truth was like running into a brick wall. I respect the truths of different peoples and sects, but in my experience, the more fundamentalist people are, the more certain they are that they have the truth. Triumphalism, is how the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, referred to it. They may call themselves anything they want, may say that they believe in live and let live, but scratch a little under the surface and I often found there self-righteousness and certainty, neither of which is hospitable to people who don’t believe as they do.

But now she can’t define truth anymore. She knows it’s there, knows one has to have faith, but she can’t say any more about it, and when I try to press her she hangs up the phone: “I have nothing to say.”

I often feel like I have nothing to say, especially before I give a talk or teach. I pause to see what thoughts come up, impressions, ideas, and instead: I have nothing to say. My mind used to work like a factory overtime, with plenty of things to try out, koans, stories, anything at all, but it seems to have quieted down.

We had a big storm earlier this afternoon. The rain pounded loud and hard but I didn’t close any windows, I wanted to hear what it said.

I grew up thinking that my social value lay in my silence and ability to listen. Within my family I learned to be quiet. Socially I was very clumsy, and soon found out that people didn’t mind me around so long as I listened. I became a listener, and my only role in social gatherings.

Later on, I was often surprised by how some people talked on and on about themselves, their work, their families, anything at all, and the question of Who cares? never seemed to come up for them. They assumed that everybody cared, not a doubt in their minds. I’d have dates with men who talked and talked about themselves, and at the end were sure that I wanted nothing more than to have another opportunity to sit silently and listen to every detail of their lives. Even if they asked me a question about myself, it was obvious they could hardly wait to turn the conversation back to themselves.

One result was that in social situations (as opposed to work), I still tend to be shy. If anything, I need to be encouraged to speak about myself, need to be given the gift of some silence so that I could find the words to express myself.

The musician and composer Ben Folds wrote: “It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.” He wrote that about the artistic voice and added: “It’s something you feel in the dark.”

But that’s not just true about the artistic voice, it’s true about my truth, and maybe your truth, too. And at least for a moment, my mother’s truth that moment, when she’d run out of familiar words and stories, run out of lessons and polemics and even Jewish phrases, and all she could finally say was: “You know, I know, just don’t give up faith in that.”

And when pressed later she said: “I have nothing to say,” and hung up.

In her late age (and dementia), she’s become a Zen master.

 

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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NOT AVOIDING WEIRDNESS

Today Alisa, Bernie’s daughter, took me to visit the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.. “The lotuses are in bloom,” she said, “let’s go see them.” It was a warm, dry day and we took some precious private time to walk together and talk.

There were seed pods everywhere. Having spilled seeds into the water, they were now turning black and drying under the sun.

The beautiful lotuses rooted in mud have always been a symbol I loved for a spiritual life, but the only lotuses I’d seen so far, including in my trip to Vietnam many years ago, were those flowers that seemed to float right on top of the water.

But this is Washington, and these flowers opened wide and floated more than a foot above the water on very strong stalks. I watched them, wondering how such heavy flowers survived on tall stalks that were themselves rooted in  soft, muddy soil. The wetlands were all around us; our feet sank and got muddy. Yet out of this soft, squishy mud rose up firm stalks and rainbow petals, with a yellow center the color of sun.

We talked of challenges at home and at work, we talked of much that is messy and unclear. You’d think that when one gets older (like Alisa) and much older (like me), things would fall into place a lot more. You’re wiser now, you choose your battles and engagements with more care. Tread more carefully; avoid weirdness.

That may well be true for some, but not here. In my life I see wetlands all over, places where you slip and slide, where the ground isn’t super firm, in fact you often can’t see the ground under you.

What can I do if my life gets squishier by the moment? I walk on more paths with unfamiliar destinations, and it’s not uncommon at all for the ground to shift under my feet. Life hasn’t gotten narrower and firmer, it’s gotten more porous. Goals and strategies remain, but peripheral vision has widened. And yet, I slip and slide less.

I also care less about spotlessness. Mud covered my sandals today and I shrugged.  It was a fine price to pay to see lotuses, a black racer snake (the first snake I ever saw climbing a tree), turtles, and a blue heron. Don’t get me wrong, we walked on firm terrain most of the time, including on boardwalks, but the mud lay in ambush around corners, and we went ahead. A brief sensation of sinking into oozing mud, but it was warm and grainy, and would dry on my skin before we got back to the car.

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