BOXES OF BOOKS

“Guess what, Aussie? The book came out! It finally came out, Aussie, here it is!”

No human was around when two cartons of The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments arrived at the front door. Harry was on a chair in the living room, resting after an icy excursion into the woods, but Aussie was on the futon under the fichus tree in my office and she raised her head, half concealed by leaves, as I dragged the boxes here, opened one up and took out a book.

I wasn’t happy at first when I saw the two cases. It’s one thing to labor privately over the koans of other people’s lives—How Heavy Is My Mother’s Diaper? Shadows, What Is Best for You, My Child? The Infinite Black Abyss, Blaming God—making each koan your own, each situation from someone else’s life your own, always asking: How do I practice with this? How do I live this?

It’s a whole other thing to see one day, after years have gone by, a case of books and you know it’s now out in the world, out in public. It’s no longer yours.

All my insecurities came up: Is this any good? Will other people wish to read it? The practice of Zen koans has been around for well over a millennium, comprising dialogues between monks. Some years ago (can’t remember how many) I heard in the zendo a mother describe a tough exchange with her son, and it hit me that these are indeed our practice fields, the situations we face at work and at home make up the soil and grit of our practice.

“Let’s produce a collection of householder koans,” I announced without thinking to the group sitting there that evening.

And I did, I thought to myself as I unpacked the books. We did. The inspiration behind it was genuine enough, but will it reach people? Will others connect with it and see their own lives in these koans?

At first, I didn’t want to open the box. Then I did. I picked up the top book and brought it up to my nose to smell the pages, the words. Looked at the gorgeous cover art generously donated to us by the artist Helen Berggruen. And thought of all the people who’d made this possible, and especially the many Zen practitioners who took my request to heart and sent me their stories of edges and heartbreaks they face day in and day out.

I had a manuscript of close to 100 pages when I approached Paul Cohen, at Monkfish Publishing, and he agreed to publish it provided I created more content. That’s when Bernie had his stroke. Time passed, we went to rehab centers, the Taub Clinic in Alabama, the months turned fuzzy and many things went by the wayside. What now? I wondered. Is this going to be another project that I won’t finish, another good idea that won’t come to fruition?

A good friend suggested: Find a collaborator. She reminded me, as I need to be reminded often, that I don’t have to do things all on my own.

I turned to Wendy Egyoku Nakao, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the motherhouse to so many Zen centers around the world. Egyoku took her time. She reviewed what I had, sent me some initial thoughts, thought and thought some more. Finally, to my surprise (I knew how busy she was), said yes. “But it’s going to take me time,” she warned. “I can’t begin to get to this till winter.”

Monkfish, to their credit, agreed to wait.

During the winter some terrific koans began to arrive on Egyoku’s desk from students at the Zen Center. “I have to reflect on them,” Egyoku said. “You can look at each one from so many different angles.”

She was thorough and deeply respectful of the lives shared with her. Slowly, she wrote her reflections. Phone discussions were held. I flew out to Los Angeles for a week of work. “How’s it going? ” Bernie asked me. “Slowly,” I said.

That’s what I remember now, how slow it all went, how much patience it demanded from a very impatient woman. Moi.

We make our plans and God laughs. What we thought was something we could leap into without hesitation or delay becomes something you fit in between calls to doctors, talks with rehab counselors and physical therapists, research on the latest remedies to major stroke. It slips from top 5 priorities to number 25 when you can only get to number 3 on any regular day before calling it a day and going to sleep. Wondering if you’ll ever get anything of your own done again.

And the truth is, no. Nothing of mine got done again because nothing is mine. No effort here was only mine, it took a world to make it happen, not just the world now but the world of long ago, when Chinese monks began to record quixotic dialogues between Zen masters and students (What is Buddha? A shitstick, or The cypress tree in the garden), talked of golden fish that pass through the net and pointed at wild ducks, wondering where they went.

The entire universe manifests when you plunge into your own life. As Dainin Katagiri wrote, “If you do something wholeheartedly, all sentient beings come into your life.”

You can buy The Book of Householder Koans on Amazon here. Please also consider ordering it from your local bookstore.

 

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WE HAVE TO HEAL

I sat in the Rapid City airport not knowing when I’d get home. The plane to Minneapolis was delayed, which meant that I would most probably miss the last flight to Hartford, which in turn meant that I’d spend the night somewhere in the Minneapolis airport and get home only early afternoon the next day.

Why do we always travel to South Dakota in the dead of winter, I  wondered for the umpteenth time. I know the answer: To plan the summer’s bearing witness retreat with Lakota hosts. And yes, you can bet that it’ll be cold, there will be snow, planes will be delayed, I’ll drive home in a snowstorm, in short: it’ll be an adventure. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

This year’s retreat will probably center on the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. It’ll take place on the anniversary of the Battle of Greasy Grass, sometimes referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, and there will be re-enactments of that battle nearby, but the big focus will be on prayer and meditation at the Medicine Wheel site. It’s premature to set out the details, these will be extensively scouted before we publicize them.

“We have to heal,” said Manny Iron Hawk sometime early evening on Saturday.

We were exhausted; I felt like my ears couldn’t take any more talk and discussion, and indeed skipped out on dinner later on. But Manny slapped the table with his hand and repeated: “We have to heal,” adding: “Not everybody is ready for that.”

He spoke of the many Lakota who choose to sit on the sidelines, not learning their language or their culture, staying betwixt and between. Manny and his wife Renee have begun a Lakota immersion school in Eagle Butte, Cheyenne River Reservation. The Lakota culture will survive if the Lakota language survives.

I’ll go further: We humans will survive if indigenous cultures, with their intimate connection with the earth, will survive. It’s in all our interest to make sure that the Lakota culture survives, and for that to happen the language has to survive. But not  enough children go to their LOWI School, parents are afraid it will undermine assimilation with white culture.

I remembered our 2015 retreat, the first one with Lakota elders, when so many white people came and so few Lakota. I also thought of our 25 or so retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where so many people have come from different parts of the world, the fewest being Jews from Israel. There were always reasons—We’re surrounded by Arab nations, we need to be strong—but the biggest of all was that so many don’t choose to heal.

It’s not easy to leave the role of victim and do the work of making peace with all aspects of your life, which in the large picture are all aspects of yourself. “I forgive, but I don’t forget,” Manny said.

Every day they encounter racism and discrimination on and outside the reservations. Two months ago we heard from Violet Catches of gang members running women in cars off the road on the reservation. Hundreds of women have been missing over the last few years, feared murdered. There are lots of reasons for anger, for withdrawal, for giving up.

“Don’t be angry, go deeper,” says Terry Tempest Williams. Stay with the source of the anger, the pain, the grief. “See it to the end, or its endlessness.” Don’t hide, don’t deny, don’t give up and leave it to future generations. We have to heal.

We didn’t go anywhere, we did what we do year after year, sit for long meetings at the Quality Inn in Rapid City and walk 15 steps to the nearest Millstone Restaurant for lunch and dinner. Not much chance to see the big sky of South Dakota, though in early morning  I saw the full moon for some 10 minutes before it sank into the black clouds. Breakfast’s at the motel, and that’s when Manny’s, Renee’s and Violet Catches’ children and grandchildren join us before going into the motel’s indoors heated pool while we assemble around the tables and start our long meetings. At lunch time Manny, Renee, and Violet rush out to get food for their families before they join us at the Millstone.

“All of us have children who struggle with alcoholism,” a Lakota friend said to me that weekend. “All of us have at least one child who is in serious trouble.”

“Who are you?” Manny recounts that he asked his grandson. When the boy gave no amswer, Manny asked him: “Are you an Indian?”

The young boy said no.

A week later Manny asked him the same question again. This time the young boy said that his father was Indian.

“That’s better,” Manny said.

I arrived home today at 2:30 in the morning. Snow flakes slammed against the windowpanes  like shards and Interstate 91 was a vast, white wasteland, no cars driving north but mine..

 

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SUCH A GOOD BOY

The day before I leave to South Dakota brings a little snow and lots of ice, so I give the dogs their weekly marrow bones as consolation for the lack of walks; I won’t be around this weekend.

Harry’s been a guard of resources since the day I got him. That’s the name for a dog that goes after all food, including the food of other dogs (or humans, for that matter). Harry’s the only dog I had who jumped up not just to the butcher block table to get at an egg salad sandwich, but also up on the higher counter where I’d left a pot of soup to cool.

More seriously, he’s attacked Aussie three times over bones and rawhide, twice causing her serious injury. He hasn’t done this in nine months, but I still manage them carefully, separating them not just at food time but also when they get snacks, shutting my office door on Harry after giving him his bone.

After an hour he’s finished his marrow bone and looks up. He can hear Aussie’s teeth grinding away at her bone in her corner under the dining table three rooms away. She likes to take her time and be extra loud about it. He’s already gone to drink from the water bowl and now sits back on his haunches next to my chair, looking up at me with great significance. I stop what I’m doing at my desk and look down. He eyes me, then looks over his shoulder listening to Aussie chewing away on her bone, then turns and looks back at me again, and I know.

He’s showing me that even as he hears Aussie grinding away on a marrow bone that he’d love to take away from her—he’s not doing it. He’s not going after Aussie, he’s not going after her bone. All year he’s heard me say on these occasions, when he’s finished with something and she’s not: Leave Aussie alone. I don’t say it now, I don’t have to. He looks over his shoulder again, then back at me as if to say: See? I’m not going after her.

And suddenly I’m so moved by how much he’s learned in the 13 months he’s been with us, how eager he’s been to find his place. He’s young and intense, without Aussie’s poise and planful intelligence, not a cunning bone in his body, he’s way too straight and explosive for that. And he’s learning. We’re all learning.

“You’re such a good dog, Handsome Harry,” I murmured to him as my hand fusses over his forehead and he closes his eyes with pleasure. “You’re such a good boy.” I give us both a few precious moments to appreciate the dance we’ve done together, the way we took a chance on life together. One more disturbance, I actually thought last May, and he’s gone. I’ll find another home for him, a family that will adopt him as an only dog. But I also worked with him, shutting the door on him though he whined a bit at that, warning him to leave the other alone when he finally got out.

You work and you work, and you have no idea what will come out in the end. Will he finally learn (“Once a resource guard, always a resource guard,” one trainer warned me)? You think you know what the point is, but really you don’t. None of us know what the point of anything really is. We think we might be alive for a reason, but in the end we might just be machines for producing carbon dioxide.

About timeless eternity, I have nothing to say. But I can take a few minutes and look into Harry’s brown eyes. His earnestly ask me to pay attention, while mine are filled with gratitude. “Such a good boy,” I tell him again and again.

 

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DEPRESSION AND THE POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN

The Buddha angel where I sit

I burn incense downstairs at various altars on different occasions: new moon, full moon, memorial days, important days. But in my bedroom, where I sit, I burn sage right under the big, red angel Buddha. Alberto Mancini, an Italian painter, gave it to us years ago. It looks mostly like a Buddha Charlie Brown with wings. Some people didn’t like it; I loved it, especially for the red color, and kept it close.

After Bernie died I found a large packet of sage among our things, and began to burn it. Sage purifies and heals. It doesn’t last as long as incense sticks (it’s common to do Zen meditation for at least the length of one incense stick) and the fragrance fades quicker. But my nostrils have learned to quiver like my dogs’, and long after it’s burned out I can smell traces. My room, too, smells a little like sage.

I went to my doctor on Monday morning and asked her for a prescription for antidepressants. It feels awkward to write about this, but I’ve learned long ago that it’s the very things that feel awkward or raw that are best to write about. It’s not hard to record moments of clarity and even exhilaration; to admit that for the past two months your spirits are hitting lows morning after morning, and that at 6 am the world looks like a fearsome place, that’s something else.

Depression feels a little self-indulgent. I know, I don’t have much control over when it hits, but the voices are there: Do you know what’s happening in the world? Do you have your eyes open to the suffering of so many? How could you be concerned with just yourself? How small, how petty. Get up and do things. Help people and forget yourself.

And indeed, last night I went to a gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of 25 stops they’re making across the country. I was disappointed that Rev. William Barber had to cancel, but I was deeply moved by this rebirth of Martin Luther King’s dream, another big gathering in Washington, DC in June. And as I listened to stories of struggle of those who work hard and are still poor, including health care workers, the poor with disabilities, those in recovery from opioids, and those without homes–right here in my own backyard–a voice whispered to me: You don’t have time for depression. Get over it.

It didn’t work. I do many things during the day without reflecting on how I feel, but it feels like climbing up solo, without ropes or carabiners, each step grinding and uncertain. My brain feels foggy and I make mistakes, overlook things, forget what I’d decided to do just five minutes ago. Small setbacks and challenges loom like gigantic tornado clouds about to set down right on top of my home and destroy it.

I’ve never minded winter in New England before, I actually loved the bad roads that forced one to stay home if possible, sink into things, go deep. It’s when you get below the mental dialogue, story and memory, deeper still under the currents and whirlpools of everyday events, then go deeper still, you often find the universal pulse, the one that reminds you that we get born and we die, and shit happens in between. When you get through your personal karma you find that when it comes to the basics, you’re part of the human and nonhuman community, always were, always will be.

Only I haven’t been able to get there these past two months. My mind is distracted and vaporous. It’s not stuck in stories, it’s just plain stuck.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a good marriage or a bad one, you merge like two trees that feel it’s ultimately more nourishing to share one big-size trunk than relying on two separate cores. Yes, you have your own, but you also have the shared. Till you don’t. And you can’t know what that feels like, having the shared roots torn from under you, till it happens.

So many voices:

You’re a veteran Zen practitioner. If your meditation hasn’t taught you how to deal with suffering, fear of the future, with being alone (I lived alone for many years between marriages, and lived quite well, but that memory offers me no reassurance right now), then what good is it? If you can’t do it for yourself, what are you teaching?

Shouldn’t you just rely on your practice?

And where’s your sense of gratitude for what you continue to have? Where’s your appreciation for your health, your home, your dogs, the love that so many friends and family give you?

Beside, when you love life, you love life absolutely, not on condition that nothing bad will happen.

All those voices are there. And also my sister’s practical voice over the weekend: You’ve been stuck for a few months. Take something to help you get over the hump, and then leave off. Get help. You need help.

I need help.

We used to put it like this: Years of meditation, dharma transmission, leading this or that—all this plus $2.75 gets you into the New York City subway. Or is it $3.00 now? You’re no different from anyone else. Know this at the deepest core of your being, take comfort there: In essence, you’re no different from anyone else. Your mind does its games like other minds, you back away from loss because it hurts and from uncertainty because you’re afraid—like everybody else.

Sit, be as present as you can be, use all you know and don’t know to arouse compassion for yourself and others, and still remember: You’re not different from anyone else.

 

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FRIGHT TIME

The mail brought a brown envelope from an unknown name in New Jersey. I opened it up and out popped a book cover (just the paper cover) that was a little familiar: Fright Time was the headline, showing a boy and girl, faces somewhat scared, underground using a flashlight to light their way. Under the title were the names of three long stories (length of novellas) contained in the book: The White Phantom, Nightmare Neighbors, and Camp Fear.

I wrote The White Phantom. Long ago, circa 1993 or 1994.

A letter accompanying the book cover informed me that the writer, a young man in his 20s, was a huge fan of scary stories, and that one of his favorite stories when he was a child was The White Phantom. Recently, he reread the story and still loved it.

The footprints were big. Real big.

I noticed them right away because it rained last night. They were animal  prints in the hard mud, the biggest I’ve ever seen.

This is crazy, I thought. If I didn’t know better I could swear some gigantic animal had stood here last night and looked down at our house!

The young man asked me what was the inspiration behind the story. I stared at that sweet question and thought: I don’t know. I barely remember the story.

So I did what any forgetful author does, who gave away the last copy of her book ages ago: opened up Amazon, found the book, took a look inside, and found the above quotes. Also rediscovered the heroes, a plucky boy and girl (aren’t they always plucky?) named Andy Baker and Jenny Humphreys, a/k/a Shades on account of her sunglasses.

I was pretty sure the White Phantom was a gigantic dog (who else do I write about?), maybe inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles (now that’s a scary story!), and I thought I remembered that it had something to do with the villages that had been destroyed to create an enormous reservoir in the valley below. At the time I was living in Woodstock, above the Ashokan Reservoir that feeds water to New York City, and villages were destroyed to create that Reservoir, just as villages were destroyed to create the nearby Quabbin that sends water to Boston.

But I was wrong.

“It’s a spirit,” she whispered. “A spirit that takes the shape of an enormous white dog. A monster. It protects the Indian burial grounds on the hills above the ridge. Years ago the Seneca Indians lived in this valley. They buried their dead in the hills right above us. The White Phantom protects the Indians who are buried there.”

I wrote about Indian burial grounds? Did I even know at that time that a more proper name was Native American? What on earth provoked me to write about that? Here I am, just four days away from leaving to South Dakota for our winter meeting to plan the summer’s Native American retreat, and I discover that some 26 years ago I wrote a story for young children about an enormous phantom dog that protects native burial grounds.

You can say it’s a cliché. You can wonder how deeply I delved into what burial grounds and ancestors mean to Native Americans. I wonder, too, because I no longer have the book and don’t remember what I wrote. Still, I believe in karma, not coincidences.

“Go figure,” Bernie liked to say. That was his favorite name for God: Go figure.

I was very moved by the letter that related to something from long ago. Back then, a close friend of mine and a very fine writer had been approached to write long mystery/fright stories for a series of books aimed at young teenage boys, around 12 years of age. He wrote one, submitted it to editor Rochelle Larkin, who didn’t like it and suggested revisions. He refused.

“The thing writers have to do to make a buck,” he muttered to me on the phone. “Want to give it a shot?”

“I hate scary stories, I won’t read them,” I told him. “And I won’t get within two blocks of a horror movie, otherwise I can’t sleep the entire week.”

Maybe I  couldn’t read them, but I could write them. I needed the money, so I spoke to Rochelle, she explained what she wanted, and I sat down and wrote a novella-length story. She loved it, published it, then published about two or three more. I got so good at writing them I could finish one up in 3 weeks.

I finally stopped a couple of years later when I began to write Bearing Witness for Bernie. Speaking of fright stories!

Over the years, every once in a long while I get a letter from a young reader telling me how much he liked the story, and I’m moved. Not because of what it says about me, but because of what it says about readers and how we are all different and need different things.

My writer friend loved Japanese and Chinese-style stories, wrote accordingly, and rarely published. I was passionate about good writing. But many boys have read my Fright Time stories and written to tell me how much they loved them. And now a young man in his 20s reread what he loved as an adolescent and wrote:

“I was blown away by the plot and also by how much I felt I got to learn about Andy and Shades in just a short amount of pages. The imagery and detail also added to the suspense. Thank you for writing this story, it was (and still is) one of my favorite short stories. I would be honored if you could autograph the enclosed picture.”

The picture he sent was the cover I found in the envelope.

 

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OUT OF THE BLUE

I was told that one of the major Buddhist magazines, Lion’s Roar, is publishing an excerpt from our Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment. There were delays with the printer proofs, but these are now in order and it looks as if the publication date is February 25 at the latest (3 weeks’ delay). So those of you who pre-ordered, you’ll get the book by the end of February—and thank you very, very much. Those of you who haven’t, you’ll be able to buy the book not just from Amazon but also from an independent local bookseller very soon.

Last night I held the first of a series of workshops on householder koans. I asked the small group of participants—seasoned meditators—to consider a specific occasion in their life which made an impact on their behavior. It didn’t have to be big, I said, it just had to show some kind of pivot into an aspect of life that you might not have considered or were comfortable with before. Often you can feel those turns stretching you—or at least stretching your story of yourself.

As I waited for them to write I tried to think back to such an event in my own life. I was tired and couldn’t think of something right away. I knew they were there, turning points in my life big and small, but they didn’t come to mind—till one did.

I remembered living in Woodstock in the early 1990s, the first time I ever really lived in the country. I rented a garage apartment next to a big, gray, stone house where my landlords lived, the woods on one side and the big Ashokan Reservoir on the other. I lived there alone with Woody, my Golden Retriever. The apartment had poor insulation, as I discovered the first winter I was there. I’d get out of bed in early morning, get hit by cold air, and hurry off to take a hot shower to warm up.

One morning I hurriedly pushed aside the bath curtain to put on the water and saw a small black spider on the bottom of the tub. Ordinarily I’d have ignored it and turned on the water; it’s what I’d always done. This time I stopped. I didn’t think anything, I don’t remember that much time passed. I just walked to the cold kitchen, got a piece of paper and a cup, retrieved the spider and took it outside.

That’s what I did from then on, day after day, especially in spring and summer when big and small insects come into country homes. By now I’m so organized that in warm weather I have a cup as well as a piece of lightweight cardboard on the bathroom counter, ready to take out the bees, spiders, crickets, beetles, ladybugs and dragonflies that seek out water and end up in my shower.

What I remember from that early morning in the early 1990s is that I just acted. Nobody talked to me about it, I didn’t think about the Buddhist precept of non-killing or anything like that. I just looked at a black spider at the bottom of the bathtub, stopped my hand from turning on the water and walked to the kitchen to find something to retrieve it and take it outdoors. No internal discussion, no feelings of empathy or compassion, no story around what a good person would do or not. My behavior just changed that morning, out of the blue.

We often think that behavior changes from story: I realized that everything is Buddha, everything is alive, that God appears in all things, so I saved the life of the spider. But actually, behavior can change with no story at all. One day you just see life in a different way.

David Whyte wrote “I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had … but on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself.”

I don’t think it’s about personal identity at all. One day, without warning, you leave yourself behind—your belief systems, your values, the mental scaffolding of your life. You see something fresh, not as a function of yourself but as it is, as if for the first time. And you do something differently.

 

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HOW’S YOUR HEALTH, JON?

My dear friend, the bloggerJon Katz, and I have a continuing disagreement. When I read in his posts that he’s been unwell I email him, “How’s your health, Jon?” Or “How’s that wicked throat infection, Jon?” And he invariably replies: “Don’t ask me about my health, that’s old talk.” Last time, he added, “I bet you don’t ask young people how their health is?”

We had an exchange about this some time ago. I wrote about the many people I know who don’t ever talk about being sick. I wrote that in our culture, not being in good health is often seen as some deficiency on the sick person’s part. If we’re not functioning at 1000%, we should just shut up and not tell anyone.

I know lots of people with chronic illness and pain who tell me of relatives and friends who don’t believe them, think they’re making it all up to get sympathy, to explain why they’ve had to work fewer hours at a job they love, or stop working altogether. Either way, they’re not believed. Almost as if: If it ain’t cancer, what are you complaining about?

I was no different. Long ago I worked with someone suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When he first told me about it, I looked at him, blinked, and said: “And that’s a disease?” It wasn’t a question to obtain information, it was judgment.

I replied to Jon that I actually ask everyone I see (if I hadn’t seen them in a while) how they’re feeling physically, including young people. Maybe especially young people because they run around more and take little time to check in and feel what’s going on. When I ask them how they’re doing physically they actually take a breath and try to reconnect with their bodies. I have a sense that they’re grateful for the question.

Young or old, physical wellbeing is the basis for wellbeing, foundational to seeing yourself as one holistic piece, body-mind-soul-spirit, all one thing. I actually don’t know where one ends and the other begins.

Like many others, I fall into the trap thinking: This distracts me from what I want or need to do. But is it a distraction? Is it secondary to other things? Or is it this moment itself, asking for attention and care? And who said that my work is more important that moment? It may not be the only thing, but it’s certainly no distraction.

Jon writes beautifully about the possibilities of renewing one’s life at any age, at meeting creative challenges and going into places we haven’t entered before now, when we’re older. But I’m troubled by how we use our will to overcome things such as illness.

Willpower is a big deal in our culture, it’s supposed to overcome everything. The world of work is fueled by willpower, to the exclusion of intuition and perception. It’s fueled by competitiveness rather than community, the objective goal/bottom line rather than the larger view. Don’t even think of bringing the personal dimension into a meeting or sharing what you’re sensing and feeling, you’ll be laughed out of the room.

That’s the outside world. Home serves as the refuge from all that, especially for men. They come home and want to find a woman that’s warm, loving, intuitive, caring—things they themselves have and value but can’t show outside. They leave the house the following morning and the mask comes on: rational, objective, unemotional, data driven.

The same is unfortunately true for many of us women who go into a world of work whose vocabulary and culture was determined by men a long time ago.

Have you ever seen them come home from work? They put their arms out, greet their children enthusiastically, show love and affection unabashedly. The mask has come down and they acknowledge a whole dimension of being that is strongly denied back in the office. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, we all suffer from this dichotomy of having to be effective, efficient, and will-driven outside, while back home we can be loving, caring, and intuitive.

I take this into the world of health. Our body, this blessed vehicle that enables us to live, gets sick, rebels, says NO! to us in so many ways, and what do we do in response? Get back in line. You’re distracting me from what I have to do. I need to help this person and that person—I DON”T WANT HELP FOR MYSELF.

My husband Bernie showed tremendous willpower after his stroke. He exercised every single day with persistence and determination. But now he was also listening to his body in a way he never had before. He’d come to the very edge of things, peered over, and didn’t find much space for will anymore. Something else was beckoning, telling him to surrender, and he did.

I don’t mean when he died, long before that. And I don’t think we have to suffer a major stroke to learn that lesson.

 

 

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A BIG ANNIVERSARY

The Buddha angel where I sit

Today marks 75 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’ve lost count how many times I went to the site of those death camps as part of the Zen Peacemakers’ annual bearing witness retreats there, maybe around 20. Each time I’d shake my head and say: Enough, I’m never going back there again. Then I’d go again.

Every year I light sticks of incense on this day in January. Today I also burned some sage, which is usually used for purification. I did it as an act of healing.

My mother was placed in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, in which at least 70,000 people starved to death. At some point there was no food and the camp commandant ordered trains to come in to take all remaining prisoners to Auschwitz. They were loading up the trains when trucks bringing food came.

Two of her sisters, a brother, and a nephew were not so lucky. Frieda, her older sister, put a 2 year-old boy called Menachem (Hebrew for Consolation) in the care of a Christian woman who did this for monthly payment. Long after Bratislava, their home city, was proclaimed Judenrein, free of Jews, my mother and another brother would sneak off every month from the cellar where they hid to bring her money. Frieda gave birth to her second child, Freddie, and at Auschwitz was invited by Dr. Mengele to give Freddy up and join the labor pool (a slower way of dying). She refused and the two were gassed immediately.

Another sister, Golda, was summoned by the authorities to join a convoy of girls to do labor for the war effort. Labor for the war effort consisted of building the Auschwitz-Birkenau infrastructure that would later put to death some 1.1 million people, but no one knew that then. They never heard from her again.

After the war my mother took Menachem, her orphaned nephew, and they became two of many Jewish refugees throughout Europe on their way to either the United States or Israel. In one of the refugee camps she met two sisters and they became dear friends. Once she heard them discussing another girl who’d been with them at Auschwitz, who’d arrived on one of the first convoys and finally died of consumption, and realized they were talking about her sister.

Another of my mother’s younger brothers called Mordechai was a sickly 10 year-old boy. When the family realized that they’d have to go into hiding, they decided to put Mordechai into a hospital, reasoning he would be safe there. They put together all the money they had to bribe the authorities to put the young boy there. But the Nazis emptied that hospital and put the patients on the train to Auschwitz. There they were put to death immediately.

Every time I’ve gone to Birkenau I look at the photo of a young boy wearing a black old newsboy hat with a black jacket and pants, walking alone with the others to the gas chamber. Every year I feel like my heart drops down to my feet seeing that boy, motherless, fatherless, alone in the world, surrounded by Nazi guards and big snarling dogs, screams, shouts and curses, alone in his terror, uncomforted. I can barely breathe when I look at that photo, like I can barely breathe when I describe it here.

My mother managed to leave Europe by stowing aboard a ship in Marseilles on its way to Haifa,  Israel, which was then being blockaded by the British. With her was the little boy, Menachem, that Frieda had left behind. Photos of him show a boy with blonde curls and a shy smile. That little boy is now a man in his mid-to-late 70s, living in a beautiful apartment in downtown Toronto with advanced Alzheimers, but my mother still talks of him as though he’s that little blond-haired boy living close by, almost in the next town.

On my last visit there in December she lay in bed, close to death herself, and talked of her searing love for him. I turned to my brother and sister and said: “It’s really clear who was her favorite child, and it was none of us, so we can finally stop fighting.”

It’s hard to explain what life looks like when you’ve absorbed these stories since you learned to talk and understand, when the woman who raises you seems bigger than life, of heroic proportions, having survived and helped others survive in situations you’ll never face.

“My daughter was born in the West,” my sister said when she gave birth. “She won the lottery.”

But Auschwitz happened in the West. There’s probably not a Jew in the world who wouldn’t bet that it could happen again, in different form perhaps, but still again. And of course, it happens to different people all the time even as I write these words while bright snow covers New England. These towns feel so safe, with their democratic-model town hall meetings and progressive views. But instability breeds fear, and fear can breed panic. And how many of the rest of us become passive and lethargic in the face of things we feel we can’t control?

For most of her life my mother was on the lookout for danger. Strength and toughness were the qualities she admired most; she called it being a man. It’s taken senility to soften those brittle edges. I called her today:

“Mom, are you watching the ceremonies marking today?”

“Of course I’m watching them. But don’t worry about me, I have plenty to do.”

“I’m speaking about today, mom, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There must be lots of ceremonies in Israel.” I wanted so much to connect with her on this day.

“Of course there are,” she says matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry so much, I have plenty to do. I’m very active.”

I wouldn’t give up. “What about today, mom? Anything special about today?”

“No,” she said. “Every day is special. Every day.”

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THE VOICES I LISTEN TO

I called a knowledgeable and generous friend and asked his advice about what to do with my dog, Aussie, who’s already managed once to escape the new fence (expensive—the bill just came in) and who runs into the woods for hours. He suggested I give her up. You have a lot on your plate, he said, a lot of unknowns, and your dogs should support you, not become the central feature of your life plan.

Whom do I give her to, I wondered. He responded that there are people who don’t mind if a dog runs around all day and returns at night: loggers, hunters, even farmers. And there are rescue groups, he added, that are really good at finding these people for a wild dog like Aussie. Dogs are meant to serve people, not the other way around. When one takes up so much energy and concern, you have to consider whether she’s right for you, he said kindly.

I appreciated his advice and told him so. But that night I woke up at 2 am and couldn’t sleep. Something was coming up for me that had nothing to do with Aussie, but my own struggle with the voices I listen to, and those I ignore.

First, I recalled that there’s a side of Aussie others don’t know, that I rarely write about here. She has a sweet and soft side to her nature that is a big contrast to the wild dog I usually describe, who takes every opportunity to run. I go downstairs in the early morning when it’s still dark for coffee and to raise the heat. Harry is fast asleep on the sofa; he won’t get up till breakfast. But if I enter my office, where Aussie likes to curl up on the futon, I hear a flap-flap-flapping of her tail. I sit by her and stroke her fur, and she rolls onto her back so that I could stroke her belly. When I pause she paws at my hand, asking for more.

Early morning is a time of intimacy between the two females in the house.

She’s also the most voluble dog I’ve ever had, using the widest array of whines, whimpers, cries, and barks that I’ve ever heard from a dog to communicate everything from I’m hungry! to Open the door! to Let’s go somewhere! to Let’s play! to Stroke me.

But that’s not all I thought about that night.

My daytime, wide-awake voice is the rational voice, the voice of discipline and will. That’s the one I’ve followed for most of my life. It’s the voice that says –Yes, you may have to do this. After all, you have to take care of things in the right way. If there’s a will there’s a way; this is no exception.

The middle-of-the-night voice is different. It’ the voice that kept me up all night on the July eve of leaving for our Native American retreat, where I serve as one of the organizers.  Bags were packed, dog care arranged, house and car ready. But I couldn’t sleep, and as I sat there by candlelight I could hear the old, stern voice, the voice of commitment, of a promise made so a promise kept, the voice of discipline rearing up its head and saying: No matter how you feel, go.

It took me all night to listen to the quieter voice of intuition, the voice that surveyed the devastated internal landscape 6 months after my husband’s death and said: You can’t.

Last night I again sat there, trying to listen to that quieter voice, the one that only now is stretching its muscle and learning to speak. The one that says somehow there has to be more give here, it’s not black and white. The one that recalled the paw scratching on my knee and the high-pitched whine of an animal communicating clearly.

The daytime voice was also there: She takes too much out of you; she’ll stand in your way, you won’t have the flexibility that you need so much now, after B’s death. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Ah yes, the will. The will to make things happen, to overcome, to never ever take the back door out of a situation. There’s discipline there, and also coercion. There’s rationality there, a cold and lonely country.

As I sat there Harry came up the stairs. He approached, looked at the bed as if wondering why I’m not there, turned around, and went back down to sleep with his pal Aussie.

All my life I’ve listened to will rather than intuition. My model was my mother, whose admonishment to me, long before Obama, was Yes you can, you could do anything. It doesn’t matter what else happens, and it certainly doesn’t matter whether you feel like doing it or not. In fact, what you feel like has nothing to do with anything, it’s the words that count. It’s the will, always the will. You have to do what’s right for yourself, the dog, the world.

How much of life does right capture?

Yes, I can appears simultaneously with No, I can’t. Can I listen to the second as I do to the first? Am I even open to No, I can’t? Am I listening to body as well as mind, to the emptiness inside that whispers to me as though I’m a shaman? Do I have to train as a shaman to listen to those voices, or do I just have to untrain somewhat the automatic yielding to: You must, you can, you will!

This battle between voices took place last night. I was open to both, still am. She’s meant to be there for you, not you for her. And the voice that whispered of a connection to this wild dog, that she’s here for a reason.

Fertile ground for projections, of course. Still, there’s a beckoning everywhere I turn. Can I watch and listen patiently, like Aussie sniffing and listening to animals up the hill? The fence prevents her from running up there, but still she stands silently, waiting. On a few occasions she manages to run, mostly not. Anything can happen, anything.

 

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OZZIE AND HARRIET

“Aussie, someone I know thought your name and Harry’s name were Ozzie and Harriet.”

“Why would he think that?”

“He thought I took the names from characters that appeared in a TV show in the 1950s, when men were men and women were women. The men were out front and outside all the time, bringing home the bacon—”

“I love bacon! And I love being outside! What did women do?”

“We stayed home and raised children, Auss.”

“I want to be the guy, Ozzie. Let Harry be Harriet. All he wants to do is stay home anyway. Were all those women also so boring?”

“It depends on how interesting you find accounts of taking the children to the dentist and the piano lesson, and how you got a good deal on chicken this week, and that the washing machine is breaking down.”

“I’d run away from home.”

“That’s your answer to everything, Aussie. “

The new fence held up for 12 days. For 12 quiet days there was no Aussie leaping over, no Harry following her happily. I let myself take a big breath of relief. I wanted her to settle down, walk on-leash on the road for a while, get the wild out of her system. Slow down, Aussie, I told her. It’s the dead of winter. Snow and ice on the ground, single-digit freeze almost every night (it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 am yesterday). Time to hibernate, time to have a rest.

Yesterday in late afternoon I warmed up a bowl of lentil soup and sat down, only to see two dark dots whizzing by the front of the house. Coyotes! I thought excitedly. But no, no coyotes, just Aussie running as fast as she could up the snowy drive, Harry in gleeful pursuit.

Did I throw the bowl of soup at the wall from frustration? I did not. I finished my soup calmly, put my boots, jacket, and gloves on, and went out in search of tracks.

The nice thing about having snow on the ground is that you can see tracks. The dogs had run up from the western side of the yard, so that’s where I went, looking for tracks on my side of the fence and on the other. Slowly I made my way along the perimeter of the fence and saw that someone else had preceded me.

Whenever I look out from my office Aussie is outside looking just as calm and casual as could be: I’m just hanging out, contemplating Plato, don’t mind me. The tracks showed the truth: That dog had walked the perimeter of the entire fence (and it’s a long one), casing the joint.

I could see where she’d paused, sniffing at wires and dead leaves buried in the snow, digging slightly with the tip of her black nose. I’d spot her black nose all white with snow when she came in and tell her she was cute. Cute, my a__! That dog had worked! She had done R&D. She had prepped and laid down the groundwork, working patiently and assiduously on her next getaway.

Tim is convinced that Aussie actually leans against the fence in the knowledge that this could loosen things up a bit. I don’t think she’s that smart, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do this anyway. Wherever I went, she had been there before me. Many times.

Finally, I found a place behind the shed where the wires had loosened. You wouldn’t call it a hole, but then you’re not Aussie. There were tracks on my side of the fence and tracks on the other. Bingo! I thought. I found a wooden platform that lay on the other side of the yard, dragged it over, and hauled it up. It didn’t stand perfectly over the loose wires, so I propped it up with wood logs to block entry and exit.

By the time I finished Harry had come back, but not Aussie. I fed him and went to the zendo. When I returned at 9:30 at night, temperatures at 7 degrees Fahrenheit, I thought I’d find her out front waiting for me to open the door (Aussie doesn’t seem to mind the cold one bit, she has thick fur). There was no dog out front. I drove in, shut the garage door, and went into the kitchen. Harry ran towards me. Behind him Aussie stood in the hallway, tail wagging nervously.

How did you get in! I blocked everything!

This morning she checked out the shed and came back. She didn’t go anywhere, probably gathering up her strength for the next excursion.

Me? I now dream every night about running away from home, leaving only tracks in the snow.

 

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