TO OPEN OR NOT TO OPEN?

Earlier today a group of Zen teachers of the White Plum family, that traces its dharma lineage to Maezumi Roshi, one of the Japanese pioneers who brought Zen to the West, met on Zoom to talk about whether and how to reopen our various centers and groups, what are the ever-changing recommendations, the concerns of students, and the technological feasibility of Zoom and hybrid study/practice.

Those who advocated for hybrid technology, i.e., doing things both in person at the center and also through Zoom, described all those who’d be helped in this way. Maybe they’re unvaccinated; maybe they live or travel out of town; maybe they’re frail and don’t travel easily, or have families, or generally have many things on their life plates, including a great love of the dharma.

I am considered a second-generation American Zen teacher, and well remember my upbringing. I was a fanatic, I loved Zen training, I especially loved the engaged Buddhist training that had us start a bakery or build homes for families with no homes or an AIDS center. I saw my teacher practically every day (before I married him!) because we all worked together and considered that a great way to study; he at times told me it was the best way to train.

But earlier today we talked about reaching out to people who can’t do that. The next wave of American practitioners don’t love the dharma any less but wish to honor other commitments as well, like marriage, family, and career, taking care of young children and elderly parents. We saw messages from people saying that Zoom was a lifesaver for them because they couldn’t drive or fly or show up for expensive retreats.

We talked about why people refuse to vaccinate. Some are anti-vaxxers, but some are also “conscientious objectors” who feel they have good medical reasons not to get the coronavirus vaccine, while some have specific conditions that their doctors have advised them to watch out for.

I detected in myself an old intolerance for those who didn’t practice like me, who didn’t put the dharma front and center in their lives, who weren’t ready to sacrifice a lot for this beautiful practice. Back when we trained, the dharma was still a newly planted exotic plant from the East, fragile and still uncertain in American soil, and those of us lucky enough to encounter it desired passionately for it to take solid root, flower, and never disappear.

It has taken root and flowered, so now the big question is: How does this practice serve as many different people as possible? How does it serve vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, people of different religious traditions (so many of whom do meditation), cultures and ethnic backgrounds? What happens to our common language? How does the practice help me love the world in all its flavors and intricacies?

In exploring the question of whether to open up and how, I looked into what the local churches were doing, too, and found that at least two had a somewhat different protocol. They had decided not to ask their parishioners about whether they vaccinated or not, and certainly not why.

At first that made sense to me as part of our overall concern with privacy. But I realize now that when we shut the window down on that discussion, we are losing an opportunity to listen and learn from approaches to covid different from ours. It’s a little analogous to those who insist they are colorblind and don’t notice (or wish to notice) the skin color of the person they meet or the cultural differences. It’s their way of pursuing equality.

Equality can’t be blind to differences, equality is part and parcel of being different. If I don’t recognize the other person as different from me, with a different history, path, and way of life, then I’m not progressive, I’m blind. I condition my acceptance of people on blindness to what makes them specifically different from me. That’s somewhat narrow, and also not a lot of fun.

So, I plan to follow CDC guidelines even as these change (overall, I think they’re highly conservative). But I’m also interested in the stories of those who won’t vaccinate, their motivations and apprehensions, and I want them to know mine. I don’t want to hide our differences behind privacy protocols, but rather create a space where we could listen to each other.

 

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A NEW AMERICAN BREED

Colors of Summer

The other day I took Aussie and Henry for our daily walk in a nearby park. It was a hot morning, mosquitoes and gnats feasting on the three of us, and as we walked back we saw a man in the distance with two small dogs. Though he took a path that ran parallel to ours but was further up, I attached the leashes around Aussie and Henry, who’d begun to bark. Henry barks from sheer excitement, Aussie stays quiet and watchful.

“My dogs are friendly,” I shouted out to the man, as I do whenever I see dogs in the neighborhood. We could see each other clearly, Henry barking away.

“That’s all right, I don’t got no problem with dogs,” the man shouted  back. “Now people, that’s another thing.”

“Maybe we should leash the people rather than the dogs,” I shouted back good-naturedly.

“Good idea,” he shouted back, “especially y’all Democrats!”

He added a few other adjectives and some mumblings, and then was out of earshot.

“Wow,” I said aloud as I released both dogs. “Wow.”

You think you’re having a friendly chat, brought together by canines. But he’s having a whole other conversation, not with you but with some new genus called Democrats, a new breed of mammals in the family Americanus of which you didn’t know you were a member. I’m a registered Democrat, true enough, but to him I was a whole other specie which he’d like to see put on the Endangered list.

I like to laugh at silly things, but I didn’t laugh much driving home.

When I returned home Lori had a sweet, grave expression on her face. “I let Brutus go,” she told me.

“Brutus the Bunny?”

I checked the room that used to be her office in which she’d housed Brutus in Henry’s small crate. I could still smell the grass and hay she’d stacked on the floor once he got less interested in formula and more interested in greens. The smell was all that was left, she’d cleaned up quick, and the room is back to being her office again.

“I was waiting for some good dry weather to release him, and the weather forecast for the next several days is warm and sunny, no sign of rain till Thursday, so I let him go.”

“Where?”

“Out front, away from the dogs. He went under a bush and sat there, munching on grass.”

She looked sad. “Do you feel empty nest syndrome, like he went away to college?“ I teased her. “Lori, you saved that bunny’s life. He was cold and wet and still when you picked him up in your hand.”

“He was in shock from the cold and rain,” she said. “And don’t thank me, thank Aussie who brought him into the house gently in her mouth and put him down on the rug.”

“Fuckin’ ambulance service is what I am,” Aussie mutters. “Have mouth will travel.”

“I’m proud of you, Auss.”

“And did you give me something for all that work? Like a bone maybe? Or, even better, roast lapin?”

Yesterday Lori came back from the outside, eyes sparkling. “We just saw Brutus. Aussie tracked him down. I could see her sniffing in the bushes behind the laundry lines, so I looked closely and there he was, sitting in the underbrush, watching her carefully. As soon as he saw me he ran, crossed over my feet, and rushed out the fence.”

Lori doesn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize animals. Brutus (my name for that teeny creature that was almost dead covering barely half the palm of her hand) is a bunny, still small but growing. She wasn’t keeping him as a pet, she was clear he would return to the wild. But she loved the idea that maybe, just maybe he’d stick around the house, away from the dogs, and she’d glimpse him every once in a while. Check in on him, see how he’s doing.

She’d planned for warm weather, but by 5 pm yesterday the sky darkened, then turned black, the trees blew wildly and rain gushed down everywhere, even leaking into the basement.

This morning we looked around for him; so far, no Brutus.

You bring something from death to life, and let it go. There are no guarantees. What you have is gratitude for a nurturing friendship of several weeks, when you saw him graduate from formula to hay, grass and greens. What you have is moments of connecting with another specie, when you sit on the floor in your office as she did, door closed against the dogs, and Brutus comes out from under the desk and nibbles at the plate of greens you’ve brought in, and at times curls up on the palm of your hand. You both look at each other, he up at you, you down at him, contemplating otherness with curiosity and kindness.

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WE TRUST IN HEAVEN

Long, long ago I had a boyfriend whom I adored. We spent a romantic night together, I was quietly happy, when he turned to me and said: “Why do you always have to be so down?”

I looked at him, bereft.

“You’re not an up person, Eve,” he said. “You’re always thinking about sad things.”

At that moment I was as happy as a woman could be lying in bed with someone she loves, but I must have said something that elicited that reaction. I remember to this day how rejected I felt that moment. In fact, for years I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with me, that my mind could so often wander into realms of devastation and loss.

So, there I was last Saturday, the nicest day we’ve had this entire rainy month. I basked in the sun of Cape Ann on the North Shore, the Atlantic waves low and friendly, the foam laughing, a smile on everybody’s face. When I window-shopped at Rockport the store owners wished me a good day outdoors, promising to join us all outside when the store closed. I don’t think I heard one child cry the entire day, didn’t see chagrin on one parent’s overstrained face. The sun was free of humidity and the constant gray promise of rain. Saturday was free, Saturday was easy, Saturday was a day when I loved the world.

So what did I do? I went up to visit the cemetery that overlooks the beach.

“You did what?” Aussie said.

“I went to the cemetery.”

“Are you crazy? There was the beach just dying for you to go in, and you went to visit dead people?”

“They were dead people from 400 years ago, Auss. It was a real old cemetery.”

“So what? Dead’s dead! If I was there by the beach you wouldn’t catch me dead in a cemetery, not even to pee.”

“I know, Aussie, but it was interesting. The gravestones were so old you couldn’t make out the writing on any of them before 1800. Like this one:

To the memory of Solomon Poole,

Oldest child of Solomon and Polly Poole,

Who died September 27, 1805, aged 1 year 11 months 20 days.

Not so sweet a flower, and must it fade?

“You’re out of your mind. You’re a crazy woman.”

“That’s what an old lover said long ago. But you know, Aussie, people lost their children all the time in those days. There were no antibiotics, little understanding of the importance of clean water and hygiene. Many families lost most of their children, not just a few.”

“There you go again, getting all sad on me.”

“I’m not sad, but I am drawn to things like this, I can’t explain why, Aussie.”

“Just don’t call it intergenerational trauma—puhlease! You wouldn’t have caught The Man going into that cemetery.”

“You wouldn’t have caught the Man on the beach if he couldn’t smoke a cigar. And don’t forget, Aussie, we went to Auschwitz many, many times, which is a gigantic cemetery. Not to mention Murambi and Srebrenica. They always affected him very deeply.”

“That was in Poland, Rwanda, and Bosnia, not Rockport, Cape May, US of A.”

“You’re right, Aussie, sometimes I still tend to go to the dark side.”

“Sometimes?”

“But since Bernie died I’ve gotten lighter, Auss, haven’t you noticed? I’m even happier. Sometimes I’m even funny.”

“Name one time.”

“It’s as if on his way out he looked back, saw my devastated face, and said: Not sure I’ll need it where I’m going, so here, you can have it. And he left me his lightheartedness and humor.”

“His neediest pupil.”

“In that spirit—”

“Here it comes.”

“–I want to ask for help for a particular family that suffered a fire in their house.”

“Why can’t you and I have a conversation without your bringing up people who’re suffering?”

“Aussie, there was a fire on the second floor of a local apartment building from—”

“A barbecue?”

“—someone who smoked in bed and fell asleep. Nobody got hurt, they all got out safely.”

“Could we make that the end of the story?”

“No, Aussie. The firemen came and saved the building, but the water destroyed everything on the first three floors, including everything in one apartment on the ground floor where two families were crowded together. One was here legally, so they could get relief from the landlord and the insurance company, but the other family was illegal, parents with three small children, and they got nothing. They lost everything, Auss—beds, furniture, clothes, cribs, and temporarily their home. Everything was destroyed and not one penny in compensation. I’m bringing some cash to Jimena tomorrow to bring them, but we need more. And food cards for them as well!”

“More, more, more! There’s never an end. And there you go again, being sad.”

“I’m not sad, just noticing how two families live squeezed and crowded in the same apartment, and one gets help and one doesn’t. Helping them is not because I’m sad, helping them is God’s work.”

“Excuse me?”

There was another gravestone in the Rockport cemetery:

Joseph Roe, died May 23, 1817, aged 19 years.

Love and affection here erect the stone.

He was flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.

He was a twin. Like twin brothers, they loved each other.

One still remains, but where is the other?

We trust in heaven.

We trust in heaven—and ask for help.

 

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GONE (JUST FOR WEEKEND)

I’m going away for the weekend.

It may sound like no big deal; to me it’s a big deal. I haven’t gone away in a long time except to work or to see family. Neither are occasions for complete relaxation. But I woke up on Wednesday, looked at Harry as he stared at me, Pinky the Elephant in his mouth ready to be tossed from me to Henry and back to me and back to Henry—you get the idea—and I wanted to go right under the blanket again. Ditto when I came downstairs and Aussie wagged her tail, wanting her breakfast.

When I can’t look at dogs anymore, I know it’s time for a break.

When I make a big bow to Kwan-Yin and return inside because I don’t have the energy for one more service, it’s time for a break.

When I can’t put together the meal for Aussie—dog food, cheese, fresh water—it’s that time.

When I don’t want to go down to the basement to empty out the dehumidifier, it’s that time.

When I can’t look at emails, don’t feel like checking in with mom, don’t want to check up on Brutus the giant baby bunny who’s twice the size he was some 9 days ago when we found him close to death outside, it’s time to get away.

I look but don’t see the hummingbirds at the feeders outside, nor the red flowers courtesy of July’s foot of rain, and don’t even mention the word cooking.

You need to get away, a voice said.

Why? another voice said. I already live in such a gorgeous place if only I’d open up my eyes and take a good look.

You need a change, the voice insisted. A place where you don’t take care of dogs or do things for the house or answer emails or any of that. A place where you can look at something else.

Like what?

Like an ocean. When did you last see an ocean?

I can’t remember.

Go to the ocean.

I haven’t gone away alone since before marrying Bernie, unless it was to teach or to write or to see family. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on my own and do nothing.

Who says anything about doing nothing? Go to the beach, window-shop, try a new restaurant or café. Sit and look out at the waves.

Like I said, doing nothing.

Are you afraid to be alone when you’re not working? Not being capable, not being valuable?

Before Bernie I traveled alone lots, didn’t think twice about it. It’s different now. I mean, whom am I going to talk to over dinner? Maybe I won’t bother with dinner, just eat a sandwich late afternoon and go back to the room.

Eat dinner in a restaurant, be a mensch. Bring a book. Order some wine.

I guess I could make some overdue phone calls.

Don’t make overdue phone calls.

The only vacations Bernie and I ever took were to Hawaii to see Ram Dass. We loved those times. It’s the only occasions when even he didn’t talk about work, his vision, the problems, all the stuff he always talked about. This is going to be a short weekend at the shore, and I’ll be alone. Storms again on Sunday. Who’ll watch over Aussie when she freaks out?

She’ll manage. You’ll be on your own in a new place. Anything can happen.

Or nothing can happen.

Which would you prefer?

 

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NOT HAPPENING ON ZOOM

We usually do our summer retreat in mid-August. Green River Zen closes for the month but we come back together for the retreat. It’s scheduled for August 18-22 this year, and I still don’t know whether we’ll do it just on Zoom or in person, too (hybrid style).

A handful of us have been coming together on Saturday mornings to sit at the beautiful Windhorse Hill Retreat Center, owned by Engaged Mindfulness Institute; others come in by Zoom. I know this hybrid technology makes all kinds of long-distance connections possible and enables folks who can’t get there, due to age or medical conditions, to be there as well, but I don’t really grok it.

A small group of people sit together, and even in silence we’re vividly aware of each other, we self-organize to do whatever has to get done, talk, smile, and laugh at the end. And there’s the group that looks from the outside in, or at least it feels that way. They’re at home, in fact you can see the home in the background of the square in which they appear. They’re in their own practice space as we are in ours, but to me it feels like two different groups.

When you’re there in person there are bodies, movement, chairs and cushions adjusted, robes put on, books given out, altars set up. We’re engaged in a practice that deepens not just awareness of self but awareness of other, too. How does that happen on Zoom? We can communicate deeply, but for me it’s still computer icons communicating deeply with computer icons.

The mind speaks its truth, but the body speaks deeper. Someone describes how he was hurt from a fall, but it’s nothing like seeing him limp around, sitting on a chair, even raising and resting the leg on another chair. Someone has had a hard time with her children who’re stuck indoors all week due to the rain. She has her story about it—we all have our stories—but it’s nothing like what the body shows: blue caverns under the eyes, getting up slowly from the cushion, preoccupied look on the face. The whole organism is showing the story.

Technology makes so much possible even as it drives us further apart from one another.

So much happens on the way to the zendo:

A deer hops across the road.

You’re stuck going 15 mph behind a semitrailer trying to negotiate the Sunderland road that’s being repaved.

You thank the signal person who’s managing traffic on the one lane that’s open—and remember how many people work on weekends.

You see the clouds drifting over from the west and wonder if it’ll rain yet again.

You pass a local farm and remember to pick up some fresh corn on the way back.

And finally, you turn into the farm below the zendo where Haitians are picking vegetables, which brings Haiti right here to the Valley. Do they wonder what’s happening to their families? They’ve been working for low wages under this month’s perpetual rain even as disorder and violence run rampant back home.

The person who arrives at Windhorse to do a Saturday sitting is not the person who left home. She’s greeted animals, got nostalgic upon seeing a Ben & Jerry’s truck with its picture of happy cows in the Vermont hills, and finally, a flash of Haiti.

That person will sit with others who also had their adventures coming from home.

“Someone almost ran right into me,” one says, shaking his head.

“A hawk flew right over the car when I drove up,” someone else says.

The mallet is hitting the suspended wooden board, calling us to sit. We sit together, mixing it all up. My inhale is their exhale, and their inhale is my exhale. Our shared stories all mixed together so organically we don’t even notice.

This don’t happen on Zoom.

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SAFE! SAFE! SAFE!

Roiling floods in Western Mass.

“How did you reach me here?” my mother asks on one of my daily calls to her.

“What do you mean, mom?”

“How did you know where I was?”

“Aren’t you at home?”

“No.”

“Where are you?” I called her home phone number; she doesn’t have another.

“I’m in a resort. A place where people usually visit in the winter but  also in summer.”

I’ve stopped challenging her perceptions long ago. “And what are you doing there, mom?”

“We look around, we talk to people. I eat three times as much as I eat at home.”

I ask for more details and she changes the subject. “How are you doing?” she asks me in Hebrew, using the plural you.

I answer in kind. “We’re doing well.”

“Give my love to everybody.”

“I will, mom,” I say, and look around at the empty house.

Mother and daughter are confused about I and we, but maybe we’re not the only ones.

I live in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, one of the covid-safest places on earth. Massachusetts joins the states of Vermont, Connecticut, and Hawaii with the highest vaccination rates in the country. The state government issued excellent, tough guidelines about closing up, wearing masks, etiquette in stores, etc. when covid first began. We have superb medical facilities and lots of community support. It doesn’t hurt that, for many of us, population density isn’t high. Most days I see a lot more four-leggeds than two.

In the beginning I thought it was too much. I bore witness to the economic devastation afflicting low-income families, those who depended on stores, restaurants and farms to stay open. It was when everything shut down that I heard of families going hungry, especially immigrant families who didn’t get government assistance, and caused me to start writing about their need for help to put food on the table.

Closing up kept some of us, who could work from home, very safe, and it devastated others, including people who saw their small businesses destroyed and lifelong savings wiped out. But I was wrong to question the mandate to close up; the state got it right. We had local surges like everyone else, but overall, in our area, the numbers stayed low. In the last several months they’ve been very, very low.

Living in such a high level of safety—far, far safer than most people around the world—what do we do?

We have a choice. We can start advocating for those who’re not as safe as we are. We can actively look to support local businesses, stores, and restaurants. We can look outside of ourselves and inquire what others need and how we can help.

We can also try to ratchet up our safety another notch, and another notch, and then another notch. We can scour the Internet for radical solutions, for columns by epidemiologists who claim to know lots more than does the CDC, who push the buttons of fear and anxiety. We can get subsumed by the question of how many feet distance we really need (certainly more than the CDC’s 6, maybe 12, I even heard 25, which for many of us would mean we can’t be in one room with anybody else). Even as we’re reassured about the safety of food, we could spend our energy washing it all after it gets delivered, take more showers than usual, wash our clothes more than usual, and leave Amazon packages outside for days. Anything to feed the beast called fear.

I’m not speaking about people with severely impaired immune systems or who are especially vulnerable. I’m speaking of people like me and younger, including those with almost no special conditions to watch out for. I myself suffer from asthma and have had serious enough reactions to antibiotics that I was once put in ICU for a few days. And yes, I know that the CDC has erred in the past concerning covid—but who hasn’t?

Covid is new, we’re learning more about it even as we live with it. But we have to look wider and bigger than just our individual health. We’re part of a community, a country, and a very well-off one at that. I feel I want to go with the national flow because I want the nation to thrive, not just me. I want to be part of a bigger community that finds its way through this. Recognizing our interdependence, I mask up to protect others. I take the vaccine to protect others.

I go to restaurants to help them open up, because I may well know the dishwasher or the one who comes to clean afterhours, they’re the same people who come to get food cards on Wednesdays. I buy at local farms because the workers there are also familiar to me. I’d like us to be safe enough in order to send massive shipments of vaccine to other countries rather than safeguarding them here, because I’m part of a world that was left topsy-turvy by this virus, much of which hasn’t recovered at all.

When I was in Israel during their latest war with Gaza, I couldn’t help but be moved by the rawness of feelings coupled with a nationwide determination. It didn’t matter whether you were left or right or directionless, old or young, soldier or pacifist, people helped each other and expressed deep concern for each other. There were many who expressed deep concern for Gaza. Then I’d read the American media, which was full of petty caviling about whether the CDC was right or wrong in lifting mask mandates, full of columns by those who knew  infinitely more and better, full of fearmongering, red warning lights blinking rapidly, undermining any sense of national solidarity—and I’m not speaking just about Red states, either.

Safety! Safety! Safety! they kept on wailing to the safest people in the world.

Petty, petty, petty was my response.

The Delta variant may be coming our local way, so what do we do? Shut the doors of our minds and hearts, resolved to up our safety level more and more and more and more? Is this what it means to live and practice in the safest area in the richest country in the world? If we have to close up, how do we keep our hearts open? If we have to mask up again, how do we stay aware of what other families need? And even as we accept physical limitations in order to avoid getting sick, how do we continue to reach out?

As my mom said: “Give my love to everybody.”

 

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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WHAT I KNOW ABOUT LOVE

It’s a busy morning.

Starts out as usual: shower, meditation, brief service to Kwan-Yin, feed Aussie, look at news and answer emails with first coffee of the day, yoga sun salutations. It’s already hot and muggy, I want to take the dogs out as early as possible because a good friend is coming for lunch, only first there are important phone calls from my brother, followed by the plumber who replaces an old, leaky toilet.

I take the dogs up the slope—”Aussie, where are you?”—in a hurry to leave the hot sun behind and enter the forest, and run into someone I haven’t seen since before covid. We exchange pleasantries—”How are you? Fine, how are you?”—and I’m in a hurry to get into the shade when he says to my retreating back: “Eve, do you know anything about love?”

I stand still. Then I turn around slowly, say the first thing that comes to my mind: “Not much.”

He tells me a story; I can’t share it here because it’s not my story to tell. He’s younger than I am, which makes a difference. Love changes as we go from one period of life to another.

Do you know anything about love?

Before going up that slope I’d paused for a moment at a small, pretty meadow, a mound of green. The dogs cavort there now, but there was a farmhouse there till about a month ago, an 18th century farmhouse where a dozen of us lived communally for a couple of years. Bernie and I lived in the oldest part of the house, two rooms with walls, floor, and no insulation. We froze in winter and perspired miserably in summer. I had an old, full-size electric blanket with me from years ago. Bernie had pooh-pooed it at first, no electric blankets for him. Came winter and I draped it over my half of the bed, only to notice that less and less of it was covering me as the night hours passed, the rest pulled over towards the left.

Muji the dog had shivered in that room in mid-August, Bernie put on an electric heater for him, but he died shortly afterwards.

To go to the bathroom, you walked out the door and down a ramp into a freezing pantry, then through a thick wooden door to a dining room, then the kitchen, and hoped to God nobody was taking a bath.

“I’ve done enough communal living in my life,” Bernie growled, but he stuck with it for two years.

“It’s as if nothing had ever been there,” a friend said the first time she saw the mound of grass. Not a log or a piece of lumber, not a single trace of history.

No problem, we’re Buddhists. We believe in change.

A blog reader wrote me: “Up to now, I can’t wrap around my head the fact that he hasn’t contacted you in any way just to let you know how he is. A very simple thing to do.”

Truth is he’s contacting me all the time. He was in that farmhouse and now he’s in the absence of the farmhouse. He’s in the converted barn that once hosted the best conference of Western teachers of Engaged Buddhism and that now hosts weddings every weekend.

He’s in the left-hand side of the bed whether it holds his body or not.

Over many years and in many interviews he said that he first met up with Zen in Huston Smith’s Religions of Man. Smith only had a page or two on Zen, he said, but when he read that brief chapter as a teenager he felt like he’d reached home. Some years later he began to sit, and then met Maezumi Roshi, his teacher.

Walking in the woods so many years later, I remembered that in the 1970s, during my first marriage, I watched a PBS documentary series based on Smith’s book. It was almost 50 years ago, yet I remember that the hour on Buddhism began with a Zen monk in black robes hitting the suspended wooden board called han with a mallet in a cadence that started slow and got faster and faster, finally ending with 3 beats: medium, soft, LOUD!

“It measures how our time passes,” someone said there. That’s all I remember about that hour, only a feeling I couldn’t put into words, bare, abrupt, slashed down to the core. A dozen years later I began to sit.

I wished I’d remembered that earlier and told him. He would have gotten a kick out of it, he loved coincidences only he didn’t believe in coincidences.

This morning, as I walked up that slope under the burning sun, my mind was one big list of reminders: Don’t forget to take the bread out of the freezer—Do you have enough cheese?—Where did Aussie go?—Are we going back to sitting in person at the zendo?—Can I finish Jimena’s grant application this weekend (it pays part of her salary)?—What am I going to do about the cracks in the roof gutters?—Where are you, Aussie?—My sneakers aren’t drying out from all that rain!—and in the middle of all that, someone asked my back: “Eve, do you know anything about love?”

 

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BRUTUS THE BABY BUNNY

“How’s your patient?” I ask Lori.

Our baby bunny is doing very well. Warm and dry in his pink towel in a carboard box, he gets fed twice a day with milk and baby cereal through an eyedropper. On Day 1 he looked close to dying, lying in that cold, wet grass (it’s been raining every single day here for the past two weeks). That evening he ate his first food greedily and slept. Lori left the office door open; she wasn’t sure he’d make it through the night.

The next morning, she walked into her office and he was gone. She searched frantically, then went downstairs and found him at the foot of the steps, eyeing her with great curiosity. She put him back in the box, returned downstairs to look for a bigger box, and when she came back he was gone again. This time she found him right away in the trash basket. From now on her door remains shut, especially after sundown when he’s active.

Lori’s collected various grasses, hay and clover, and on Day 3 he’s eating that, too. A fastidious researcher, Lori says that bunnies don’t develop a scent this early in their lives, which might explain why Henry shows no interest in that direction. Lori doesn’t want it to get accustomed to dogs, not healthy for a wild bunny. At this pace, she’s wondering when the baby bunny becomes a bunny and could go out into the wild again. As you can see, he’s pretty tiny.

“Let’s call him Brutus,” I suggested.

We thinks the bunny burrow was just behind the house and may have been flooded by all the water coming down from the roof and gutters.

“I can’t believe what Aussie did,” Lori tells me. “She probably found Brutus lying in the wet grass, shivering and cold. She gently took it in her mouth, walked across the yard with it, brought it into the house and laid it down on the rug near her. I looked that bunny over, felt it all over, and it didn’t have a scratch on it.”

“I’m proud of you, Aussie,” I tell Aussie. “We think you saved Brutus’s life.”

“I’ll never live this down.”

“And look, Aussie, Leeann has asked for you to stay late tomorrow because she’s training another dog and she wants you there to model good behavior.”

“Moi? A role model?”

“You may not like this, Auss, but you’re becoming a Demo Dog. A demo diva.”

“Lower your voice,” she implores. “I’m losing my reputation.”

“I don’t understand you, Aussie. You have so much softness and gentleness. That’s what I first noticed when I went with Bernie to adopt a dog at the shelter. There were four dogs there, all fine, healthy, and noisy, and there you were in the corner, quiet and watchful. And when Bernie played with you, you were as gentle as could be.”

“Don’t remind me. I’ve been doing my best to change.”

“Why, Auss? Why do you want to be bad?”

“Bad is good. Bad is exciting. Who cares about good dogs or good people? BORING! The bad ones are always the interesting ones. When the Man was in the White House I was loud, I was obnoxious, I wanted all chihuahuas to be deported, I was head of the Proud Pooches. A whole new world opened up to me! What do I have now?”

“Joe Biden?”

“Brutus the baby bunny.”

“You know, Aussie, I used to think like that, too. I always fell in love with bad boys.”

“Was Bernie a bad boy?”

“The worst. Except for Raskolnikov. I loved Raskolnikov.”

“Raskolnikov the Borzoi?”

“No, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, who murders an old woman and steals her money. Naturally, the young woman who loves him is a saint.”

“Uggggh!”

“Exactly. She prostitutes herself to feed her family and in the end follows Raskolnikov to Siberia. If only he didn’t talk so much.”

“I ain’t no saint. Saints are BORING! Except for how they die. I love how they die!”

“Who knows? Underneath that smart-alecky, obnoxious self, there may yet rest  a bodhisattva. You did save Brutus, after all.”

“Should’ve ate him.”

 

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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.

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.