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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IF I HAD SNEEZED

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Of all our national holidays commemorating the past, this one feels closest to me because I lived in King’s time. I wrote probably the first or second poem in my life after 4 young girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In my house the Holocaust reigned supreme as the only frame of reference for terror and catastrophe, but the death of those girls was the beginning of a long process of re-education.

I studied King’s life over the years, and each time this day arrives I notice something new. Today it was this item:

King had been stabbed by a mentally ill woman in the late 50s in Harlem. Upon his recovery he said that he blanked out on many things, including telegrams from the President, a visit from the governor, etc. But he remembered a letter he received, which said:

“Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

King was referring to a doctor who said that a sneeze would have brought the blade into the aorta and he would have drowned in his own blood.

Ten years later King evoked that letter in his talk at a Memphis church: “I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.”

He then went on to detail all his various efforts that were part of the Civil Rights struggle, culminating with his appearance in Memphis, always beginning with the words: If I had sneezed. If he had sneezed, he wouldn’t have done this and he wouldn’t have done that.

It got me to thinking: What would have happened in my life if I had sneezed at an inopportune time? No one had ever tried to kill me. Still, it brought home the vagaries of the body, how little control we really have over so many involuntary movements that form the autonomic nervous system. and how much control those actions have on our life. Life-and-death control. A heart murmur. A blood clot. A sudden, unexpected spike in blood pressure. A sneeze.

And now think of the world as an autonomic nervous system, over which I have almost no control, and things happen: an eruption of a volcano spewing lava and gases, Bedouins chased out of a valley to make room for apartment buildings, a package falling off a truck in the way of a coming car, a hawk capturing a mouse on her way to feed her children, who may now starve. Every single one of these things affects me. They may not cause me to die but, given certain conditions, they very well might.

We then make up stories about it: The police weren’t vigilant; if only we’d done more about this or that, if only we cared enough about beings who share the planet with us. All of which is probably true but is sometimes also our way of avoiding a very central truth: If we’d sneezed, we’d have been dead. It’s not all up to us.

That knowledge could be frightening, and it could be liberating. You do your best—and most of how the world goes is not really up to you. Still, you do your best.

King had such a short life. He was so young when he led the bus boycott in Montgomery—in fact, in a city full of black church ministers he was the one to lead the boycott because he was so young and inexperienced, he didn’t know enough to say no, as the others had. His was a jampacked life, at the nexus of national events and movements, giving him an influence that goes far beyond that short life. He visits me in memory and imagination often; he was a great inspiration for Bernie. But even a man with his charism (dictionary definition: “A divinely conferred gift or power”) could only do so much in this vast, unimaginable world.

He gave that “had I sneezed” talk in Memphis, the talk often now referred to as his Mountaintop Talk, in which he said that he’d reached the mountaintop and realized he may never get to the Promised Land, and that was fine. Some 24 hours later he was dead.

Today I lit a tall stick of incense for him, the kind I light for major teachers, and watched the incense smoke rise and disappear into the air.

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JANUARY 18

Photo by Peter Cunningham

Tomorrow would have been Bernie’s 81st birthday.

“Do you think a lot about him?” people ask. When I’m lonely, I reply. And when something happens that reminds me of him. For instance, this morning I thought of fundraising, Bernie’s least favorite thing. He didn’t relate well to people personally, and that undermined his ability to raise money. I remembered meetings with wealthy people. Bernie, underneath all his talk and bravado, was actually very shy. How difficult those were for him.

Once again, I’ve been reading my journal from 1987 to 1991 when we were developing the Greyston Network in Yonkers, New York, and Bernie’s relentless push against all odds to keep it going. So many of my notes have to do with not having money, letting go of people, and the never-ending work.

Years later, I see so much clearer how, for Bernie, Zen was never just meditating on the cushion. Zen was the Greyston Bakery, Zen was the Greyston Builders, Maitri Center (day center for people with HIV), Issan House (housing for people with AIDS), Greyston Family Inn (permanent homes for previously homeless families) and the Greyson Child Care Center. He could not understand how others didn’t see it that way.

“‘I get letters all the time from people interested in becoming trainees here. [He wasn’t kidding, we were glamorous, often in the news, the only ones for a long time in the Western Buddhist world doing what we were doing. And we certainly needed help.] But I don’t invite them to come up here because I know that what they are really looking for is Zen traditional training—lots of sitting, service, talks, retreats, and we don’t have that now. They’re not looking for the kind of practice we have here.'”

He said this to a meeting of residents where he announced that the Zen Community of New York was letting go of all the Greyston entities. We sat there, shocked. But we started them, with our blood and guts! We work in them, we manage them! No, he argued, it was time to spin Greyston off because it had gotten too complex for this small group. The Greyston Foundation would manage it instead. People argued till he finally said:

“’The hardest thing to accept is that we have to give them up. We want the groups to belong to us and they don’t. They belong to themselves. The Bakery is itself, it doesn’t belong to us anymore. Greyston Family Inn is becoming strong and financially independent, it’s going to go its way. Trying to keep it under our auspices is holding it back because we don’t have the wherewithal to control it any longer, we’re not giving it life, we’re robbing it of life, as simple as that. We’ve given birth to these groups, we’ve nurtured them, now it’s time to let them go.’”

We built a gorgeous zendo (mediation space) on the third floor of the Greyston Bakery, but as Greyston grew we needed more office space. I wrote this on April 19, 1989:

“I went into the zendo on the third floor yesterday morning, and was shocked. They’ve added more desks and the zendo is practically gone. The altar is no longer in the center of the room but off to the side, barely visible, and there are cushions only on the left side, about 10 in all. I feel terrible seeing this. I know it’s inevitable, the zendo will disappear due to the encroachment of more desks and telephones. But I prefer to come up and see it gone altogether one day, to this gradual diminishment, week by week.”

Actually, all that happened was that we moved the meditation space up 2 blocks to the basement of a private house, it never disappeared altogether. Either way, it was all Zen practice. What I thought was a surrender of practice was nothing more than one form of practice bumping into another form, finding its space and energy. And I indulge some personal nostalgia. How silly I was in those years!

He got so much criticism from his own students and from folks outside that, on August 8 of that year:

“[H]e said he was giving serious consideration to dropping out of the lineage. Japanese Soto Zen had no space for a priest and teacher who wanted to work with the homeless and he wasn’t going to give up his desire for a genuine religious life in order to fulfill priestly duties. Priests and teachers have a main obligation to find dharma successors, but he has a calling. His models were Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King. People constantly approach him with expectations of a Zen teacher—retreats, koan practice. Perhaps the best thing would be to disrobe and go his own way. He said: ‘Too many other centers are like Jewish temples, which you visit once a week, pay your dues, do a monthly retreat and get that much closer to enlightenment. That’s not a religious life.’”

Once a month all work would stop and everyone—bakers, childcare workers, managers, builders—would come to a Greyston Network meeting to hear about what everyone was doing. People brought food. Who was in our sangha?

“Black Baptists like Pat and Joan substituting at the phones, Hermenia flirting with the guys and cackling away, Alex from El Salvador sitting with the Jewish women giving Geri their advice about delivering babies, wise-cracking Bonnie with Florence who talked about her motherhood 25 years ago, Zen students milling around, Mina from Trinidad bringing Indian food, Tom Betz coming down and bellowing why didn’t anybody tell him there was a party, holding a drumstick in his hand, Daion telling George Ferguson that there was no, repeat no, snitcher in the Ben & Jerry’s night crew, Joe the ex-con.”

At the height of our difficulties a businessman came looking to buy a piece of the Greyston Bakery, help manage it effectively for a percentage of the profits.

“He clearly felt our labor costs were too high by far, maybe our line would have to be totally overhauled. He said ‘You have to decide what you want here, a community or a business. If it’s a business, you got to run it like one. You have to have a bottom line. If it’s a community, that’s fine, but then it’s not a business.’

“Sensei [Bernie] invited him to a meeting of the Greyston Network next Wednesday. He asked what that was and he explained that once a month the various groups meet to discuss what’s going on at the Network. ‘And you stop work for that?’ he exclaimed. ‘You stop production! Do you know what happens to production when you stop it in the middle?’

“‘Come to the meeting,’ Sensei said.”

The businessman left and never came back.

It’s tempting to wax nostalgic, to wish you were more mature back then, less needy, understood him better, more supportive of this glorious vision of Zen in the West. He’s not here, but I am. You are. Keep on going, work in the cracks of society, nourish the hungry, take care of the sick and weak, those suffering from prejudice and hate.

“Just be a mensch,” he used to say. “That’s all I want, just be a mensch.”

 

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THEN AND NOW

“Let me go! Let me go!”

“No way, Aussie.”

“I’ll be good. Just one time!”

“No!”

“There’s a scent out there, olfactory retard!”

“No, Auss!”

“How come Harry gets to run and I don’t?”

“Because I can’t take you both on leash into the woods, it’s too difficult. And when Harry’s off-leash and smells a scent, Aussie, he runs and comes right back. I’ve timed Harry every day and he has yet to come back later than 2 minutes. If he ever comes back later than 5 he’ll go on leash, too.”

“Once! Just let me run once!”

“No, Auss. I’m done.”

“Since when has you become so rigid? This is unlike you. This is most—most—unZen!”

“Au contraire, Auss, it’s very Zen.”

“Oh yeah? What’s Zen about it?”

This is not about Aussie, I realize it’s about me. For 15 months since her arrival I wouldn’t let go of a fantasy built on the past, that this dog, like two previous generations of dogs over 22 years, would do what they did and be a walking companion in the woods. She’d sniff at the roots of trees and dig up suspicious tunnels, she’d run after deer like any self-respecting dog but would always, always come back after a few minutes. We’d enter the woods together and leave together.

That fantasy had lots of accessories: a house or cabin near the woods, daily meditations in forest, dog follows scent while I follow tracks, etc. I held on to this fantasy with accessories with all the stupid stubbornness I have historically manifested many times, other folks’ warnings notwithstanding.

And last week the fantasy came crashing down. I knew with sudden clarity that as long as Aussie behaves as she does, I will not let her go off-leash, even if that means for the rest of her life. It would mean fewer walks in the woods (not easy to walk a dog on leash in dense woods), fewer forest meditations. It took everything else down with it, such as a need to live close to the woods. There were new ingredients at hand: a different dog, a different time in my life, different needs. I lay in bed and realized that this liberated me to think of different housing possibilities, even a small apartment with a garden in back.

Let go of the past, bear witness to now, and life opens up, including possibilities you didn’t consider before. Whatever you end up doing, there’s always more freedom when I’m no longer imprisoned by what I did in the past, what I thought I needed, what I thought I couldn’t live without.

Definitely Zen.

Bernie’s birthday is coming up on Saturday. These are always the tough days because they cluster together in a little over two months: his death, my birthday, our anniversary, his birthday. When I was sick and had trouble breathing, a few people told me that in Chinese medicine, difficulties in the lungs point to grief. I didn’t think I felt grief, I’d left much of it with his ashes at Auschwitz/Birkenau in early November, on the anniversary of his death.

But memories and dreams flood me at night. Memories of our first anniversary 11 months after his stroke, when I took him to a restaurant in Northampton and the celebration turned into a nightmare, bringing home the realization that taking Bernie anywhere on my own would come at a very high price. (Could we go to visit Ram Dass in Maui? Could we go to my brother-in-law’s 90th birthday party?) I said yes to those requests, wondering how we’d pull through, but he never summoned the energy for a flight to Hawaii and he died before his brother-in-law’s 90th.

With Aussie I held on to some fantasy about a dog-filled past that has nothing to do with now; I just wasn’t ready to let go. But now I know: That was then, this is now. And now deserves more exploration.

As long as there’s no deep snow on the ground I’ll go into the woods. One dog will be free to run (at least as long as he returns within a few minutes), one dog will be on leash. I will empathize with the dog that’s leashed by her own conditioning, her own habits and history, her own perpetual ways of doing things. I will watch Aussie plopping down on her butt from sheer bewilderment at this new reality, eyes, nose, and ears following Harry as he dashes off after a scent, only to return in two minutes.

“What a jerk. Why’s he coming back so soon?”

“Because that’s how he gets to go unleashed, Aussie. The minute you get back in two minutes I’ll let you run, too. Not that I’m holding my breath.”

“How’s 2 days?”

“Two minutes, Aussie.”

“How’s tonight? Promise to be back by midnight.”

“Two minutes, Cinderella.”

“How’s two hours?”

“You’re wasting my time, Aussie.”

“Next Monday at 4? OK, by the weekend. I promise to be back by the weekend!”

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