NO MORE BANGING ON DOORS

I was unable to blog the entire past week because the blog was down. Silvana, the intrepid, hard-working, and resourceful website consultant who has supervised all my blog work, looked things over right away and then brought in techies from the web host as well. She kept on updating me, letting me know she hadn’t seen anything quite like this in years, and was still working on Saturday on the blog even as I hosted family for the holiday weekend. This morning she told me to give it a go. I may be back—and I may not. Let’s see what happens.

The greater the technology, the more complex life becomes. In my head, I keep on hearing my father’s voice: Things were so much easier years ago. Who needs all this? Families stayed together, children respected their parents, parents took care of their children. There were no divorces, life was simpler and happier. Everyone knew how to behave.

This from a man who left his wife after over 40 years of marriage and married a woman who was a better match for him, no doubt, and also 15 years younger than my mother. Abandoning an unhappy marriage, he became a much kinder man, as if once he admitted to himself that his system had its own challenges and even failures, he could then better tolerate his children’s choices.

But there was always a disconnect there. Even as he loved to go online to read newspapers and study, he was always nostalgic for the old shtetl days when none of those things existed, when the news arrived very late, if at all, and when everybody knew their roles in life.

In our younger years he was highly disturbed by me, his oldest child, who was not going to limit her life, friendships, and marriages to religious Jewish society and who had no interest in a suburban middle-class life.

I still can’t forget how he visited me in Yonkers many years ago, where I was part of the Zen Peacemakers building the Greyston organizations. He looked around the rundown house where we lived communally, the dirty, vacant lot with broken beer bottles and used condoms nearby, the abandoned School 6 across the street, the people living across from us who didn’t look anything like the people we grew up with, and said, shaking his head in alarm: “Why are you living this way?”

About Zen Buddhism he didn’t ask or say one word and I learned to never bring it up. My father was easily frightened by life, and we had a tacit understanding: He wouldn’t ask me about things he might find unpleasant, and I wouldn’t talk about them. Our family version of Don’t ask, don’t tell. To this very day I’m not sure that was a good thing. It would have taken lots more skill than I had then to bring up tricky things. On the other hand, hiding things that are important to you brings its own badge of shame, as if something about you isn’t right.

From very early on, I learned not to say too much about myself. In a way, this written blog is an antidote to that history.

At the same time, I’ve learned not to bang on doors that won’t open. The world asks for many things from us. People reach out wanting to study, learn, communicate. And then there are those who appear in your life with no interest in what you do. At times you want to share with them, you want to open your heart, but the doors are closed. You try tapping lightly, and when there’s no answer you knock, and at my dumbest I’ve even banged on the door trying to get in.

I don’t do that anymore. Some doors are closed. You can try again in a few years, and again after that, but I no longer waste my time or effort trying to get through padlocked gates. Luckily, life leaves lots of doors open.

I have to negotiate that every day. At certain times in our life, when we have to provide for ourselves, family, manage career, etc., it doesn’t feel like there’s much flexibility or room for creativity; our hours are full. But even then, the question appears: Is the door open or closed?

I’ve returned to some sketches I wrote years ago, thinking of making a book out of them, and I have to ask: Is it more writing or less? I think it’s more, but not sure what. Is it towards more work with the Zen Peacemaker Order? Should I do more locally? The Stone Soup Café, which we began years ago half a mile from my home, doesn’t just continue to feed people but is expanding into a culinary institute and a supplier of daily meals to the community—is that what’s next for me?Is this what I’m meant to do here? Do I feel excited, alive, and childishly hopeful? Or am I banging on a door that isn’t opening anymore? Is there something else that is waiting in the wings, beckoning? Where is the curve taking me now?

Even the blog going down in such a sudden way—what is that about? It’s like dancing with life and always asking: So what’s the next step? And the step after that?

When I lived in Manhattan long ago, I went for a short period to a dance studio because I wanted to become a good ballroom dancer. I was a whiz at learning the steps, but my gorgeous dance instructor would shake his head and say, “Eve, you’re not feeling the dance.”

I think that lots of the Zen training that I’ve done since then has been to feel the dance, to listen more deeply, bear witness, be more in congruence rather than in conflict. At the age of 72 you don’t want to waste your energy on fighting or banging on doors, you want to hear a call and answer.

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

YOUR HAIR IS FOR THE BIRDS

“Would you hold still, Aussie?”

“I hate it when you brush me.”

“You have two layers of fur that shed continuously. If I don’t brush you every day, it shows on the rugs and the couches.”

“What are you doing with the hair you’re removing from the brush?”

“I put it outside with the birdseed, Auss.”

“You want the birds to eat my hair?”

“No, I want them to use it for building their nests because it’s wonderfully soft, and now is the time when they need it.”

“Let me get this straight. You’re giving my hair to the birds?”

“Yes, Aussie. Your hair is for the birds!”

“XXNYDOPXXXMGY!”

“Come on, Aussie, think of it as interspecies cooperation.”

“Is that what you call our relationship?”

“Don’t you think it’s nice that your hair will hold and embrace newborn baby chicks, Aussie? It’s like you’re their godmother, see?”

“XXNYDOPXXXMGY! It’s my hair. Mine, mine, mine!”

“Oh Aussie, nothing in the world belongs to just you or just me. In fact, the Buddha said that there really isn’t a you or me to begin with.”

“Oh yeah? Watch me bite you and then tell me there’s no me!”

I recently listened to an interview of the poet Mary Oliver, who said that when she began to write poetry she was warned by another poet against excessive use of I. Many of Oliver’s poems talk of her walking in nature and witnessing the life around her; she has said that her poems come out of her walking outdoors, holding a notebook, and making notes.

When I go walking I hold my phone rather than a notebook and I talk into it when something grabs my attention. But I was very struck by the warning she’d gotten against excessive use of I. I—this writer—was nervous about it from the very beginning of this blog. On the one hand, there are the stories you want to share about your life, good stories, maybe even important stories. A friend used to tell me that it’s always women who feel that their stories aren’t important enough to be told.

But I’ve read and heard too many anecdotes, ruminations, reflections, and insights that seem to hit you on your head relentlessly with their constant I: This is what I see, this is what I think, this is what I’m learning, etc. In this culture, we are self-involved even on the path towards finding God, or at least towards realizing no-self.

Reproducing my dialogue with Aussie is one way of avoiding that self-important I. The challenge, which Oliver met so well, is always how to open a life so that others could see themselves in that life, in that walk to the woods, in the joy of blue skies after days of rain, the return of purple crocuses after a hard winter, the finches finally turning yellow, the gray, hungry deer becoming warm brown over summer. Can I see my own changes in their changes?

The founder of Japanese Zen, in his instructions to his monks, wrote: “Fools look at themselves as if looking at another; those who are developed look at others and see themselves.”

Bernie liked to introduce himself as an addict. “I’m addicted to the self,” he used to say, and added: “I will always be addicted to the self.”

I see this over and over in my own life. Even when I’m on a Zoom screen with others, listening deeply to what they say, I sneak a look at my own little box and mentally talk to the person there as if it’s another: Why didn’t you put some lipstick on before the Zoom, you look so pale! You need a haircut pretty soon. Can’t you sit straight?

Someone asked me about the status of the immigrant families I work with. The local farms have reopened. In addition, there are many work openings (which officially, at least, are not always available for immigrants without  the proper papers). For these reasons, after talking with Jimena, I decided to stop buying food cards in the local supermarket for a while.

But I continue to give cash assistance for urgent or emergency needs. Last week, using the funds you donated, we helped Perpetua avoid eviction. She received an eviction notice after not paying rent for 3 months.

Perpetua had left her children in Guatemala in the care of her mother while she works here on the farms and send as much money as she can back home. Her mother got Covid in early winter, which was a big strain on the family, and Perpetua also had to send money for medications. The farms were shut so there was no income, and in February she herself contracted Covid.

I can well imagine why she didn’t pay her rent. But if she gets evicted, she can’ help herself or her family. So yes, we paid the rent, and these are the kinds of situations during which we step in to help. Please continue to give to this fund (using the button below); we continue to make good use of it.

“I’ll send you a picture of the eviction notice,” Jimena said. I told her it wasn’t necessary; after more than two years of our working together, I trust her completely. She texted a photo of it anyway. Also, she said that Perpetua was so grateful that, once the vegetables start coming in with warmer weather, she wants to bring me some.

I used to say to these palpable offers of gratitude that they’re not necessary, but I’ve learned that actually, they are. Instead, I warmly thanked her.

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

KNOWING YOUR PLACE

“Aussie, did you kill that finch?“

“It was on the ground eating your birdseed.”

“Oh Auss, this is the time when the finches turn into a beautiful yellow.”

“Too bad, it didn’t know its place.”

In May I will participate in the Zen Peacemakers’ retreat bearing witness to racism, which will take place in Alabama. We will spend time in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma (you can read more about it here). In preparation, I read the book entitled 1619 Project, 500 pages long, that was based on the spread in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. I also read one or two rebuttals to get a sense of how other historians saw this.

I hadn’t realized the enormous wealth that enslaving people brought to Southern states and their families. The book documents how the cultivation of sugar and, more importantly, cotton required enormous amount of land, and equal amount of cheap labor. To get the land, poorer white folks were cleared off as well as the Native American tribes that lived in those states (the Trail of Tears). To get the cheap labor, Africans and children of Africans were enslaved. The value of those enslaved people was astronomical, making the American South almost the wealthiest place in the world.

I won’t deny it, I’d go upstairs at night to do my reading, which I usually look forward to at the end of the workday, see the book by my bed and hear a voice exclaiming: No, no, no! No more! But once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down.

Greed is one of the three main poisons in Buddhism. Documenting the greed of these families and states, and how they pushed with all their might to protect that wealth through manipulations of the Constitution and the cynical passage of laws and political measures, including making it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write, makes our current billionaires, who protect their own wealth gap between rich and poor, charitable and munificent in comparison. Reading about the price paid by enslaved men, women, and children sold downriver to maintain that wealth, was harrowing.

There are various allegations by historians of how accurate the book is, with The New York Times  standing firmly behind it. The biggest theme of the book, and the one which attracted the most criticism, was that the 1619 Project puts slavery smack in the center of the story of the United States, that in fact enslavement is the most basic characteristic of this country. It considered 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought by ship to Virginia, as the date of the founding of this country; it claimed that the Revolutionary War was basically fought to protect slavery, and that our system of capitalism arose out of that system.

As far as I’m concerned, if only 50% of the events documented in the book are accurate, it’s harrowing enough to make any American take a good look at what we learn in school about this country and ourselves. But the basic question is whether slavery and its aftermath make up the central and most significant element of this country. There, more than anywhere, is where the questions lie. I would also add that some of the pushback against the book carries a strong tone of condescension.

My Jewish family includes religious and nonreligious members, as well as some who are ultra-orthodox. As a family member, every once in a long while I get a scholarly email from that world. A year ago, I received such a family email in which someone quoted an old teaching from some 200 years ago which was hostile and demeaning to goyim, non-Jews. I waited politely for some 24 hours and then did a “Reply All” in which I wrote that I find such statements abhorrent. Since then, I haven’t gotten another email and, for all I know, my name may have been removed from the list.

I thought of that after doing my readings for the retreat. If you were to ask that portion of my family what they think of Christianity, they would immediately tell you that Christianity is all about anti-Semitism, that it fomented anti-Semitism from its very founding, and that hatred of Jews is its most basic feature.

My uncle, one of the first orthodox Jewish clinical psychologists and a professor, told me long ago that when he grew up it was an unspoken rule to spit if you passed a church (discreetly) because of what churches did to the Jews. He would never say the names Jesus or Christ (though, of course, anti-Semitism only arose after his crucifixion), nor would he say Christmas, instead saying Xmas.

From where he and others like him stood, Christianity meant anti-Semitism and nothing else. Not for him the teachings of St. Augustine, St. Francis, love, or liberation theology. The Christian religion had been responsible for massacres, pogroms, and expulsions, culminating with the Holocaust where one-third of the world’s Jews had been exterminated. That, for this part of my family, was and continues to be Christianity.

Needless to say, there are lots of other opinions, all of which are formed by our history, our upbringing, our values, and other things. We tend to see life through the prism of what’s important to us, form our opinions, and call them the Truth.

Regardless of whether the 1619 Project is right in declaring that enslavement was the central feature of this country, or wrong as its detractors insist, you can’t ignore its many dimensions as they wind their way to now, 2022. You can’t not be affected, you can’t not reflect on what it continues to mean for all of us living here now. But when I read the back-and-forth between historians, arguing vociferously against this side or that, I was reminded of that email castigating all goyim, and then thought of Bernie’s dictum: It’s just your opinion, man.

Yes, that opinion was born of tremendous suffering endured by Jews for over 2 millennia. I remembered the hundreds of times I heard my mother’s stories of what our family went through in World War II. And yes, even if it’s about “historical events,” even if it’s about immeasurable pain and anguish, about destruction and genocide that we bear witness to via going to Alabama, Auschwitz, Srebrenica, or the Black Hills in South Dakota, even if thousands of volumes back up this position or that, for all the pain and sorrow–it’s still just your opinion, man.

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

NO TRUTH, MANY OPINIONS

“Hi Chavale, where are you?”

“By my home, mom, walking the dogs. It’s a very cold day but the sun is shining brightly. It’s very pretty here.”

“Listen, you must talk to people.”

“Mom, there are no people here.”

“What do you mean, there are no people? They just leave you out on the street like that?”

“Mom, the reason there are no people here is that I walk in the woods.”

“You’re left OUTSIDE?”

“I love to walk in the woods, mom.”

“You’re IN THE STREETS? People are letting you stand like that—IN THE COLD!”

“No, mom—”

“Listen to me. You can’t do that. You have to ask people for help.”

“Mom, I’m not cold. I’m wearing a warm jacket, the sun is out, things are fine.”

“Later things will happen and people will say: We didn’t know, you didn’t tell us, that’s why we didn’t help. So, ask for help and don’t let anyone leave you out on the street.”

We go back and forth some more and finally I give up and say: “Okay, mom, I’ll take your advice and do that.”

She’s mollified. She’s calm, her mind at peace. I stopped trying to convince her and instead shifted to: What can I say or do that will put her mind at rest?

You’d think that, with a mother in dementia, I’d have figured that out a long time ago. But the old habit of trying to persuade someone that I’m right and s/he is wrong doesn’t die easily in me; I have made a long career out of arguing. Again and again, I see that if I can let go of my ideas just a little bit and listen deeply to someone else’s needs and claims, perhaps something will arise that will take care of both of us.

It’s a long, tough road. Often, I’m reminded of Bernie’s teaching: It’s just your opinion, man! He expounded on it in his book with Jeff Bridges, The Dude and the Zen Master, but I think that for many people it sounded a little too dismissive, too lightweight, because it didn’t seem to address the pain and suffering that sometimes lie behind our stories, memories, and belief systems: I was abused, I was neglected, I was hurt and wounded; I went through trauma. What do you mean, it’s just your opinion? You call suffering an opinion?

I had a conversation with another teacher about the hatred many people voice for Vladimir Putin, and suddenly I remembered a visit Bernie and I made to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine some 20 years ago with the actor, Richard Gere. I hadn’t thought of this in a long time.

We met with people who held different positions and views on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including peace activists on both sides, Palestinians protecting their homes, Jewish settlers insisting that the West Bank was theirs, etc. Richard wanted to hear as many diverse opinions as possible. Finally, he wanted to visit with people who were responsible for terror activities.

At that time Hamas and Islamic Jihad sent suicide bombers onto Israeli streets to kill as many people as possible. When you walked on the streets of Jerusalem, it was common for people walking towards you to stare down at your waist to see if you were wearing a belt with explosives.

We communicated with various people about this, including the question of whether this would be safe. The answer came back that if we were actually invited, safety would be guaranteed because hospitality for guests was a basic Muslim principle; no one would invite you into their home and then harm you. After discussions and lots of phone calls, we were finally invited to meet with the head of Islamic Jihad in Bethlehem.

We had to leave our van and were taken into a car. At first, they refused to take me, a woman. I argued vehemently, agreed to cover my hair, and finally they let me in. I thought they would blindfold us. Instead, we went round and round the narrow, cobbled Bethlehem streets in twilight.

Finally, the car stopped by a small door dwarfed by very tall, ancient walls. Inside was a large rectangular room with couches on an old Persian rug. A short, bespectacled man sat there, our host. An elderly woman came in, his mother, and she brought us cups of sweet, hot tea and platters of dried fruit.

His name was Issa, which is Jesus in Arabic.

Now, years later, I hardly remember our conversation. No phone could be used, no notes taken, we weren’t to talk of this publicly. Given the cavernous old walls, I had the sense that we were very close to the Church of the Nativity.

Asked why he recruited and sent out suicide bombers to kill men, women, and children, Issa quoted the Koran. He was courteous, aloof, and held tight to his uncompromising beliefs and opinions. He also said that he knew he wouldn’t live long, it was just a matter of time before Israeli soldiers located him.

At some point, someone asked Issa what he would have done if he wasn’t with Islamic Jihad, if there was something else he’d wanted to do with his life, and he said: “Of course. I wanted to go to New York.”

“What did you want to do in New York?”

“I wanted to train to be a social worker and then come back to work here, in Bethlehem.”

Richard said that if he still wished to do that and could find his way to New York, he would help him to get that training. It would be a valuable service to bring back to the West Bank.

Issa said nothing; we all knew it was a pipe dream. Soon after that we got up, thanked him, said our goodbyes, and his people took us via a circuitous route back to our van. Some six months later I heard he was killed by Israeli soldiers.

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

BAD HAIR DAY

“Why is today different from all other days?” asks my friend, Peter KuKu Cunningham.

“It’s St. Stupid Day,” responds the director of the Order of Disorder, Michel No-Can-Do Dobbs.

As this dialogue unfolds by text, I decide to light incense to honor April Fool’s Day. I plant a stick in each of three holders for three altars, as I usually do for special days. They catch fire, then die out. I repeat this twice, and each time all three incense sticks go out. After that, the glass oil candle that’s always lit also goes out. Damn! I say to myself.

An hour earlier we finished a module for the Zen Peacemaker Order cohort entitled DON’T BURN OUT: Lightness, Laughter, and Self Care. Instead of starting with a couple of minutes of silence, as we usually do, Michel leads us in a couple of minutes of laughter. “And let me know if you have nothing to laugh about, and I’ll give you something to laugh about,” he warns us. He reminds us of Bernie’s advice to start every day by looking at the mirror in the morning and laughing at yourself.

Bernie did more than that. Even as he was balding on top of his head, his hair grew stringier on the sides. Every morning he’d get out of bed and look at his messed-up hair in the mirror. He’d muss it up even more, looking more and more like a hirsute alien with curled lips and crazy eyes, and laugh out loud. Then he’d mess it up even more and laugh even harder at himself.

Finally, he’d come over to the bed. “Eve,” he’d say excitedly, “look at my hair.”

“Not again, Bernie,” I’d mumble, keeping my eyes shut.

“Come on, Eve, what do you think of my hair?”

I’d open my eyes and scream. He’d break into a loud guffaw, then walk over to the mirror on top of his dresser and peer once again at his image, laughing delightedly.

You know how some women worry about what their hair looks like in the morning, anticipating a “bad hair day?” Every day for Bernie was a bad hair day, and he loved every minute of it. He started his day this way—and mine—daily for a couple of years. I forgot all about it till this morning.

There’s a famous Zen koan about Master Zuigan who would call out to himself every day: “Oh, Master!” and would answer: “Yes?”

“Are you awake?” he’d ask himself, and would answer: “Yes, I am.”

“Never be deceived by others, any day, any time.” “No, I will not.”

I think this was Bernie’s presentation of that koan every single morning with his hair.

The stroke finally put an end to that particular play, but not to all, as you can see above.

Often, his partner was our dog, Stanley. Bernie walked precariously with a cane. His right foot couldn’t feel the heavy shoe that enveloped it nor the ground holding him up. As he slowly, after mucho physical therapy, started walking on the floor and even up and down stairs, Stanley would lie down smack in front of him, obstructing his progress. We called Stanley the Obstructer, and Bernie would have to finagle his way around the big dog.

Today, April Fool’s Day, is Bernie’s day and I am missing him very much.

Thomas Merton wrote: “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the eyes of the universe. What might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what is most serious.”

In that spirit, I call my mother every day, and every day it goes like this:

Mother picks up phone, hangs up.

I call again. She picks up phone.

“Hi, mom.”

“Chavale, where are you?”

“I’m in my house, mom.”

“Where?”

“In America.”

“Really? Since when?”

“A long time, mom.”

“Oh.” She thinks it over for a minute. “Well, one day we will meet, and that will be a great day.”

“Yes, mom,” I say, “that will be a great day.”

Dear readers, please consider donating to this blog. I am aware of the many urgent pleas for money these days—for Ukraine, for Afghan families—and this causes me to hesitate to ask. The blog is a gift from heaven to me, and from me to you. But it incurs expenses even as I continue to keep it going. Many things in my life have been given me freely, and I reciprocate as best I can.

The next years will pose many challenges, with lots of asks for money, lots of asks for active response. I’m happy about this give-and-take, we’re not meant to live in towers, isolated from the world. But if you enjoy reading this, please consider supporting it in any sum by using the Donate button below. Many, many thanks.

“I hate it when you write about me,” says Aussie.

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

 

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

GETTING AWAY FROM ALL THAT

In the 1980s I went to live with a boyfriend in the town of Patagonia, Arizona. If that sounds remote, you’re right. It was two hours southwest of Tucson, 14 miles east of Nogales on the Mexican border.

We lived in a trailer for a few months before I returned to New York, two writers carving out space and time. Patagonia was then mostly a town of trailers, lots of Latino families, a small grocery store selling meats and produce past their prime, cowboy ranches behind the hills, and blimps high up looking for people crossing the border.

Every afternoon my boyfriend and his brother-in-law, who also lived in town, came together to smoke weed. I didn’t because weed put me to sleep. One day I heard them getting very upset about the prospect of a senior housing project getting built just above the town. They were virulently against it—it would destroy the local ambience, this wasn’t what Patagonia was about, it wasn’t why they’d come here—and they were going to fight it tooth and nail.

I was surprised to hear them fulminate. All of us lived modest lives there; we didn’t have to pay rent for the trailer, had money for food, and didn’t spend more because there was nothing to spend money on. But there were lots of families with children squeezed into small, narrow trailers. They went to Nogales to cash welfare checks and use up food stamps because there was no way to make any money in Patagonia. A senior housing project might bring in well-to-do people, whom my boyfriend abhorred, but it would also bring jobs and help the town’s economy. Both men, left-wing radicals both, were dead set against it.

I remembered all this talking to a neighbor yesterday morning. The Montague Farm that the Zen Peacemakers had once owned, where I still like to walk the dogs, became a venue for weekend weddings after we left, and she was up in arms. On Saturday nights she heard music till 11:00 (latest), strangers walked on the road, some cars couldn’t find the place and asked for directions. “It shouldn’t be here,” she said.

Having been on the other side of things, I tried to describe to her how hard it was to make a go of the Farm, that there wasn’t enough community demand for the beautiful space, and that weddings were the only way to keep it in the black. She wasn’t interested.

After we hung up, I remembered that time when the Zen Peacemakers worked out of those offices, held a number of big gatherings, and the zendo sat there as well. No one complained about noise, but a few complained about light pollution from the beautiful hall that was lit at most a couple of nights a week. It was the first time I heard the term light pollution. I personally loved to drive on the road below and see the big hall gleaming with its golden light, but obviously not everyone did. I wondered why they didn’t consider the light coming out of their windows also light pollution.

“What are we supposed to do, work in the dark?” I said to the foreman who supervised the renovations of the hall.

He said, “People come here to get away from all that.”

The question is: Get away from what? Get away from life?

The Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts, sometimes known as the Happy Valley, is a highly progressive part of the state. It has five well-known colleges and universities with a sophisticated international student body and faculty. Many people have come here from Boston or New York. There’s everything that you associate with college-based towns and cities: a lively music/art scene, active newspaper reporting, and a lot of community organizing around social issues. On weekends it’s common to see people holding up placards in the village commons against war, fossil fuel, nuclear energy, etc. The area is full of well-meaning, highly intelligent, and principled residents who meet in New England’s storied town hall meetings, models of local governance recognized around the world.

There is practically no affordable housing here. The Commonwealth (love the Massachusetts moniker) mandates that 30% of all new construction units must be affordable housing in an area where home prices have gone sky high, but when contractors come to our town meetings with plans for such construction, they are voted down. This has happened in at least three towns that I know of over the past few months. Local town officers tell us that we are in violation of Commonwealth law, but that doesn’t seem to make much impact.

Almost everybody here bemoans the little progress the country is making to fight climate change. So, we must have lots of wind farms in this rural area, right? Wrong. Large solar installations? Wrong again. These proposals are voted down over and over, usually shelved with the declaration that the town needs a year to study all the implications. For the country and the world, developing clean sources of energy is super urgent. But build those alternatives here? Not on your life.

People have lots of reasons: It’s the wrong scale for the small town, it may damage the forests, it’s unsightly, there are lots of places far and wide that are more suitable, say Nebraska. just not here. Not in my back yard.

Massachusetts voters voted a few years back to legalize marijuana. My guess is that in our area, almost everybody voted for it. But when companies and farms wanted to start growing cannabis and selling those products in dispensaries, the towns again used delaying tactics. Yes, it was now legal, yes, there was a big demand, but couldn’t you sell it in Keene, New Hampshire, or down in Springfield where the population is poorer and of darker skin (not that anyone actually spells that out)? Here we have to be careful about our children, our schools. Cannabis suppliers had to start suing towns in court before the towns finally gave in, and now we have several such dispensaries in the area doing great business, I’m told.

We enjoy such safety here. There’s a big middle class, people are educated, and most are fairly prosperous. You’d think that this affords us a greater margin for taking risks, for giving more than others for each other’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet. Instead, we live petty, precious lives, guarding vigilantly against any intrusion into our privilege even as we congratulate ourselves on our progressive values and write indignant letters to the editor about the state of the world.

While we complain that there isn’t much of an economy here outside the colleges and that our kids have to leave the area to get jobs and homes they can afford, we object to the smallest noise, the smallest road congestion, lights at night, and wind and solar installations that will actually do something to fight climate change.

People are proud to be on the right side of the issue, send money, petition their representatives, indulge in outrage about what direction our country’s going in. But do something about that here? Give up some of our elite indulgences to actually make a difference?

Not in our back yard.

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CAR CONVERSATION

My favorite place in the woods

“Open the window! Open the window!”

“I’m not opening the passenger seat window, Henry!”

“Open the window!”

“Henry, it’s 25 degrees outside and windy. It’ll be even colder since we’re in a moving car. Read my lips—I’m not opening the window!”

“How do you expect me to know what’s going on outside?”

“Look out the window, Henry.”

“But my eyes aren’t as good as my ears and my nose. I feel like I’m blind and I’m deaf inside the car. Open the Goddamn window!”

“Here we go again,” sighs Aussie from the back seat. “Can you shut up, Henry? Why do we have to bring him along? The car is much nicer—and warmer—without him.”

“Aussie, I’m taking both of you on a car ride and all I get for it is tsures.”

“That’s because I’m so bored! Why can’t you be a hunter/gatherer? Do you know how much fun I would have? But no, you have to sit in that chair all day and stare and talk to the screen.”

“And she never opens windows!”

“It’s freezing these days, Henry. You know, Auss, hunter/gatherers lived a nomadic life and didn’t always have much food to eat. I doubt their dogs were as well fed as you are.”

“She means they weren’t fatsos like you, Aussie.”

“Shut up, Chihuahua. What fun we would have had! We’d have been running after prey, the wind at our tails. Or I could have jumped into the water to help you fish. What a life we’d have had! And what are you now?”

“I’m a writer, a student, and a teacher, Aussie.”

“And what am I?”

“Nothing useful, that’s for sure.”

“That’s not true, Henry. Aussie’s my companion. Long ago dogs helped us hunt and herd sheep and guard homes and cattle.”

“And what now?”

“My life has changed, and therefore so has yours, Aussie, because you dogs long ago made the decision to live in our world.”

“So now what do I do?”

“Aussie, I think now you’re my companion.”

“And what is that, pray tell?”

“Well, in the morning I come downstairs, we greet each other, I stroke your fur and sometimes give you a belly rub, Auss.”

“Big deal.”

“Later in the morning the three of us walk together and often have a car ride to a store or the gas station or the bank, like now, where they’ll give you dog biscuits.”

“I hate civilized life.”

“In the afternoon you find a puddle of sunlight in the backyard while I work, and you’ll come by and put your head against my leg to say hello.”

“Only when it’s time to remind you to feed me again.”

“After that I take you out again for a shorter walk on the road or else you go with Lori and Henry. Evening comes and you lie on the blue wool blanket that Tim left for you on the black living room chair, and you doze off, and when I finally turn off the lights, I stroke you again and tell you it’s been another great day with Aussie.”

“So that’s it?”

“I guess so, Aussie.”

“When do you open the window?”

“Shut up, Chihuahua. And you call that a life?”

“Yes, Aussie, I call that a life. I might not have many years ago—”

“When you were a hunter/gatherer? I should have known you then.”

“You may not have liked me then, Aussie. The point is, sometimes I walk with both of you and your mouths are relaxed, you look happy, your eyes sparkle, you run around and chase each other—”

“I never chase Henry, it’s always the other way around.”

“—you sniff out the rabbits and chipmunks, you dart after squirrels, or else you make a mad dash after deer—and you’re happy, Aussie. And I’m happy. Spring has begun, the peonies are surviving our freezing temperatures, the sun feels closer to home, the birds are singing, and we three enjoy being together, we enjoy the world. And in those times, Auss, I am profoundly grateful for you and the Chihuahua, as you call him, and for the time I have with you. I don’t wish for anything more.”

“How about a man?”

“Haven’t met anyone yet, Aussie.”

“Steak?”

“I don’t much like steak.”

“With all the humans in the world, I have to find somebody who doesn’t like steak.”

“Open the window!”

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LET’S JUST FEED PEOPLE

Photo by Peter Cunningham

Yesterday I wrote about what stays behind after a person dies. About visiting with a friend, a new widower, walking around the house he and his deceased wife shared, and how vibrant the emptiness of that house was. It hit me strongly how much my eyes and mind fixate on forms, and it is when those forms are gone that I can sense something else that had always been there, more palpable than before, a deep, live awareness.

But we also leave something else after we die, too: the results of our actions.

A day after I visited with my widower friend, I sat down in a café 5 minutes’ drive from my house and listened to Kirsten Levitt describe to me her vision for the Stone Soup Café, of which she is head chef and Executive Director.

Stone Soup Café began at the headquarters of the Zen Peacemakers when it owned the Montague Farm. Most of our work involved creating programs and supporting spiritually based peacemakers around the world, but we wanted to do some direct service, so one day Bernie said: “Let’s just feed people.”

We called it the Café (it got the name Stone Soup later), and each Saturday volunteers cooked a big meal and laid it out in heavy pots on serving tables. The meals were fresh and fabulous, using a lot of organic produce we got for free from neighboring farms. They included meat and vegetarian alternatives, and lots of dessert.

Since this was a rural area with little or no public transportation, many of us drove all around in cars to pick people up from their homes, bring them over for the communal meal, then drive them back. Others took the kids into the woods for hikes and games. At various times acupuncturists, massage therapists, and even a doctor came to give free treatments. And we almost always had live music lined up.

When we gave up the Farm, the Café looked like one of those ideas whose brief lifetime had come and gone. Instead, Ariel Pliskin revived it in Greenfield. He and his housemates began cooking those great meals again and he persuaded All Souls Church to make their lower floor available for the sit-down meal. Kirsten Levitt came on as the head chef. No one was paid, everything was done by volunteer labor.

Those early meals in Greenfield featured at first just a few dozen people. Our Zen group, Green River Zen Center, was sitting in Greenfield at the time, and after the Saturday morning schedule we’d hurry over to the church to cook. Many of the participants stayed to do council, a circle process, in the end, and it was there that Bernie talked of the importance of feeding people with dignity. “My dream in Montague, and now here, is that we prepare delicious, healthy meals, not just sandwiches and a cookie, and that we will do this in such a way that when people sit down and eat, they don’t know if their neighbor is a millionaire or a homeless person. We are feeding everyone with dignity.”

More and more people came. Soon the Café was feeding 130-150 people every Saturday, with wall-to-wall tables and chairs for all the families coming in. Firsts were served, then seconds, and after that you could take as much as you want home in the paper plates and bowls that were offered.

Years later, when the pandemic broke out, I was afraid the volunteers wouldn’t want to come, so I came that first Friday night of the lockdown to cut vegetables and prep. And you know what? People came. At first, they dribbled in, then more came, and even more. Prep tables were laid out in the dining room so that we could maintain distance as we prepared everything for the cooks on Saturday morning.

Multiple courses were cooked, packed in beautiful boxes, and the boxes put inside bags with the Stone Soup logo on them. Every Saturday at noon people would line up to pick up these bags and drivers brought bags of food to the homes of those who didn’t wish to go out.

“We now cook 500 meals every weekend,” Kirsten says to me over tea. “Two-thirds of them go to people’s homes and one-third to those who line up outside. We can no longer feed people indoors; we just don’t have the space.”

Is that another reason for the vision to fade? For Kirsten, it’s an excuse to gear up, not down.

“We’re looking for a new facility, not just for a café but also for a Stone Soup culinary institute,” she tells me.

She knows what she wants: A large space in which people can sit to eat, with dignity (she emphasizes those two words all the time, just as Bernie did years ago). A big commercial kitchen for food prep as well as for classes and classrooms to teach food prep/service and basic job skills for students. She wants to prioritize people who’ve been unemployed, including those coming out of prison or jail. There will also be someone on the other end to help place them in jobs.

She thinks it’ll take two buildings and has her eye on a property that’ll require renovation of an existing structure and construction of a second building as well. Her plan is for people to eat in that building 7 days a week, the prep to be handled by students at the culinary institute. And she feels confident because they just won a big state grant enabling them to pursue all this.

I sat there, listening to her paint this vision, talking about how much she’d learned from Bernie’s Three Tenets, the first of which is not-knowing, opening yourself wide to the beck and call of the universe. And I couldn’t help but think of the small meal we began years ago half-a-mile from where I live now.

“Let’s just feed people,” the man had said. The universe listened.

You can see more about Stone Soup Café here.

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ENTER THE DRAGON

The door of my office looks out at the back yard and the many feeders hanging there. Sometimes a bird flies smack into the glass door. I heard that sudden, heavy sound yesterday morning, looked out, and there was the junco on the steps. Not flat out, standing on its small legs, but clearly stunned. I watched it for a while—wanted to make sure the dogs weren’t out and about, happy to make trouble—and soon it flew up to the nearest branch, ready to be a bird again.

After that I visited a friend who lost his wife a month ago. I knew both of them as a couple, and now I was getting to know him alone, as an individual. If my experience is any guide, it’ll take him longer to recognize himself as an individual than it takes a visitor like me.

Tibetan Buddhists and others talk of the person who died spending time in the Bardo, but I’ve learned that the people we leave behind, still living, are also in a bardo. Their identity as half of a couple has disintegrated now that their loved one is gone, and they are only beginning the process of reassembling a new identity. In my experience, that new identity often integrates qualities of the person who died and aspects of the couplehood they shared.

Three and-a-half years after Bernie’s death, that identity is still in formation. My friend is only beginning that process now.

We sat down and talked; then he took me around the house. I’d walked around that house before, but this time it felt very different. The absence was so present! His wife had been a powerful personality and you might imagine that with her gone, there might be a deadness in the air, a blank emptiness, a lifeless quality in their living room, bedroom, and office space. Not a bit of it. The house was completely alive. I don’t say this out of nostalgic remembering of her there, it was the absence that was alive.

When our human form doesn’t take space, the space that was there is still there. You realize it was always there and that it was fully and vibrantly present, completely aware, only our senses only focus on the person in the space. We think it’s the person that makes the presence, but that’s not the case.

Now the flesh-and-blood body is no longer there, but something vibrant and alive is. I could almost feel the hairs on my body trembling from all the energy in that house. When I first drove there, I was tired and dragging due to a lack of sleep the previous night. When I left, I felt wide awake and full of energy, ready that hour of the early evening to start a full day’s work.

Some people say that this vibrancy is left only when a great person leaves this realm of existence, and as I wrote before, my friend’s wife was a powerful woman. But I think it’s true for everybody. There’s something that shines all around and through us, and it doesn’t go when the body goes.

The thing is not to fill up the “empty” space they once occupied with distractions. Don’t be in a rush to leave the house, buy new furniture, seek solace in new boyfriends or girlfriends, in food, drink, and other addictions. My personal addiction is to being busy, to filling the day with projects, writing and housework.

After Bernie died, I didn’t leave the house for 49 days other than to sit in the zendo, walk Aussie, and get groceries. I wouldn’t see anybody. I worked, including keeping up this blog, but there were big pockets of silence, of getting up to go to the next room for something and just stopping. My friend told me yesterday that he at times sees and hears his wife in the house. That didn’t happen to me. Instead,, I stared at nothing, thought nothing. It wasn’t a dullness, it was entering a realm of aliveness that was quiet and deep, even intense.

To paraphrase the words of Eihei Dogen, the founder of Japanese Zen, I sensed that right there in my home, hiding behind the elephant of day-to-day life, day-to-day loss, was a dragon that had nothing to do with Bernie’s death.

I also knew, even in the midst of grief and misery, that that dragon was benevolent.

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GODDESS AND TWO DOGS

Burying her bone

“Okay, Goddess, have a great walk.”

I’m at the Farm Zen Peacemakers used to own, ready to go uphill and into the woods with Aussie and Henry, when the Farm’s current caretaker, after a brief chat, says goodbye with those words.

“Nobody ever called me Goddess before,” I tell Aussie.

But Aussie is busy. She has burrowed under the barn and come up with a bone from something that probably died underneath. Henry rushes to investigate and is almost executed for his insolence. Now Aussie is carrying the bone in her mouth with great aplomb, tail held up and wagging like a flag: This is mine, not yours, don’t even think of taking it away from me or we’ll start a killer war and not even bother to call it a limited military action.

But, as any spiritual practitioner can tell you, the trouble with having something is that you need to maintain and protect it. Aussie carries the bone in her mouth—she’s a dog so she can’t put it in a handbag, a shopping cart, or even a paper bag—and soon realizes she’s facing a quandary: If she keeps the bone in her mouth as we go into the woods, how will she chase deer, sniff out smaller varmints, scratch the tree bark as she goes up on her hind legs looking up at raccoon dens, and all the other things she loves to do? How will she run?

My pit bull Bubale encountered such challenges, but she was tough and adamantly held big bones in her strong jaws for hours, putting them down on the ground and licking them for a couple of minutes before picking them up again and carrying those suckers for a long time.

Aussie’s a different animal. What’s she going to do?

A part of me wants to help her out, relieve her of the bone, put it in the treats bag, bring it home, and give it to her then. She’ll be pissed for a couple of minutes, then forget about it, and be happy to find it in the back yard.

But a part of me wants to see what she does. She’s a dog, I’m not sure if she wrestles with the conflict or not, but she must have some awareness of both how much she loves the bone and also what it prevents her from doing. She can only do one thing; what will that be?

Part of life is working things out, making decisions. I sometimes fall into thinking that those are the things that stand in the way of life, that life starts only after I face the choices and make the decisions: Once I work things out, life will start again and I could go about my business. But the very process of working things out, making choices, and seeing what works and what doesn’t—that’s life, too.

The naturalist John Burroughs wrote: “[O]ur good fortune is that we have our part and lot in the total scheme of things, that we share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe, that we have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay.”

Life is in those basic interactions, the instinct to do this vs. that, the exchanges, the back-and-forth, the process of two steps forward and one back, the indecisions, the choices. Accepting basic constraints such as that I can’t be at two different places at the same time, can’t do two different things at the same time, can’t pay attention to more than one thing at one time. Physical constraints, financial constraints, dog-imposed constraints. Realizing that right now it’s just this and therefore can’t be anything else.

Burroughs also wrote: “[I]n the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it have in the end triumphed.”

When we’re on top of the hill I look back and see her disappearing into the shrubbery. I step back quietly and watch as she buries the bone. Henry does his second stupid thing in the last 10 minutes and approaches to see the hiding place, only to get his head kicked for his trouble. She digs up the soil and the leaves, deposits the bone very neatly in the depression in the ground, and then nudges back the soil and leaves with her nose. When she emerges, she grins broadly, convinced no one saw or knows anything, unaware that the tip of her nose, colored earth-brown, gives everything away.

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

 

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