LIVING WITH GOYIM

When I turned 18 and started driving my mother’s red Dodge, she asked me one day to drive my aunt Sarah to Brooklyn. Sarah had come from Israel to see her sister and needed a ride.

I asked her how it felt to come to New York for the first time, and she said: “I can hardly wait to get back home.”

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t like to live with goyim.”

I thought she was being ridiculous but said nothing. Okay, she’d come from Holocaust Europe like the rest of my family, but this wasn’t Germany, this was America. She’s too sheltered in the small enclave she lives in, I thought.  I was proud of being 18, proud of driving, proud of the red car. My whole life was ahead of me, and I certainly didn’t want to stay with my family and neighborhood. Get me out of here, I thought endlessly. Take me to Manhattan, with its jazz clubs, its bars, its unkosher Italian and Chinese restaurants, its 60s demonstrations.

I’m dying to live with goyim, I thought to myself.

I figured my parents were different, but they actually weren’t. Just three years later they were back in Israel, from where they’d originally arrived in the US. And while I never once heard a word from them that they didn’t feel safe here—if anything, they looked back on their life here as one of struggle that ended with a successful entry into middle class—they were glad to go back and be with their own kind. They had fun visiting, but they didn’t want to live here.

For me, the more kinds the better.

I think about my parents when I hear how many people of color also feel best among their own kind. “I talk differently, I don’t look over my shoulder to see what anybody thinks of me,” an African American friend recently told me. She liked my part of New England and its progressive values but had no interest in living here or in mixing with whites generally, she felt best in her own community.

When I go to schools or universities, I see very few mixed groups. In Queens College in the 1960s there was a lot more mixing; by the time I was in Columbia University’s graduate school, bordering on Harlem, students stayed apart a lot more.

We have our lives and experiences. Some cling to people like them, and some love to mingle with others who’re different. It’s way too complex for guilt or blame, right or wrong. Nevertheless, I often think about how segregated we are becoming. We always had challenges integrating races and cultures; now we also have the challenge of integrating across economic classes. Most white, well-to-do families wish to be with others of their kind, live only in certain (suburban) neighborhoods, and send their children only to certain schools so that they could get into certain money-making professions.

Maybe we’re not meant to mix easily here in America, which lacks one hugely dominant culture in the way European countries have.

Zen Peacemaker International hosted a program on racism this past weekend, and what moved me most was the presentation by Mark Eckhardt, Founder of One Million Truths, on the universal effects of racism. Usually, we talk about who does what to whom, and Eckhardt spoke movingly about what he’d personally suffered. But he challenged a mostly white audience to examine the question of how racism had affected each and every one of us.

This time I seriously thought about it. I realized that I grew up in a home where the question of having a friend of color couldn’t even come up, and where I would have been kicked out of home and told never to come back had I dated a man of color. I thought of the lack of diversity in my early places of work.

I remembered a large publishing company, one of the first places I worked in, with an African American researcher, the only person of color there. He was quiet, thoughtful, and always with a book in his hands when not working. The book was the opening we’d use to strike a conversation, but he ate lunches alone. There was an invisible line neither of us crossed, though I remember him vividly to this very day.

Reflecting on Eckhardt’s question, I realized that relationships could have been so much richer, so much more interesting, so much deeper and more fun, had I been able to break through the strictures of racism. Had I been able to live with goyim

We’re one body and each part yearns for the other part. It’s often not conscious; at times it may even feel quite the opposite. But that’s just in our own small, mechanical minds. Outside that minion mind there’s a call to connect with each piece of the whole, inside and out, see ourselves as one community of humankind trying to live together, claiming its identity as family. It doesn’t mean you don’t have preferences; you like to talk to one cousin and not to another. Ultimately, it’s still one family.

Love comes up for me when I think of this family, when I think of this one country.

Earlier today I went to Jimena’s house to meet immigrant families with food cards and cash. Jimena had bags of food—mostly processed or canned—given out by schools for pupils still staying at home, along with lots of milk.

And even as I was told by a few how much they appreciated the food cards and used them for fresh meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables, I was deeply moved by how we, as Americans, feed people. Perhaps it’s not highly nutritious, and yes, we could always do more and better, but we feed children. Listen to that: We feed children. It doesn’t happen everywhere. And for that time in Jimena’s unheated closed porch, I felt humbled by and grateful for how much we keep on doing for people, whether they’re like us or not.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

MAKING A MOVE

My mother moved this morning. She had to leave her old apartment of some 20 years and rent a new apartment.

My sister, brother, and brother-in-law found her a bigger, sunnier place in the same neighborhood, ground floor (she had to negotiate two flights of stairs till now), arranged payment of the rental, went through everything she owned and packed them up, moved the boxes and furniture on Sunday, and this Monday morning brought my mother to her new home, where she found a clean, bright apartment with furniture in place, books in a bookcase, kitchen installed, even pictures hanging on the wall (deep appreciation to my brother-in-law for that special effort).

Yesterday I called her in her old apartment and she answered. “How’s the move?” I ask her.

“I’m already here,” she said.

“Are you sure you’re there,  mom?”

“Of course. I moved, didn’t I?” She continued: “All my friends congratulate me on how, at my age (almost 93), I could do the entire move, with all the things and the furniture. They can’t believe I could do it, but I tell them: ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’”

I listened, thinking about how that very day her children had hauled things onto a truck, unloaded, and then put away, sweeping and cleaning. She has dementia, I know. At the same time, I wondered about what happens to our minds in dementia, and whether and how our habitual patterns persist even into very old age.

A friend of mine a long time ago related how a friend of his had ended her life at 75. She wrote a letter to her friends, of which he was one, saying that even though she was in very good physical and mental health, she was putting an end to her life because she wanted to die as she had lived, on her terms. Not for her the deterioration of body and mind that happens to those who age, she was putting a stop before any of that happened.

We both agreed that this is an individual decision, there’s no principle that applies to all. But, I added, what your friend may have missed is that getting older is as much of a growth process as when you’re young. When you decide to shut off the lights at a particular time, you may be doing this even when there’s still a lot to  learn and discern.

What I think we most have to learn, I told my friend, is to empty our hand of things we clutched at much of our life, including our self-image, identity, and even work. None of that will last. It’s a big reason why Buddhism recommends that you prepare for death even when you’re young. Not that you shouldn’t have idealism, energy, and passion, not that you shouldn’t fall in love and raise your children, but even as you acquire, conquer, and enjoy, you learn not to cling to them too much. In the end, it will all go.

We open our hands loosely, I’ve told students. We have our opinions, stories, ideas, all of which are fine. But can we loosen up those fingers and hold things lightly?

My mother prided herself on her independence and drive for life. This is true for many people, but in her case I think much came from the Holocaust. The lesson she derived was that you had to survive at all costs, on your own.

Over the years, as she got older, her Buddhist daughter tried to talk to her about decisions she should make about end-of-life care, medical proxies, how she would like to live and die, and failed miserably. I think she heard that conversation as a betrayal of her deepest beliefs. She knew she couldn’t go on forever, but investigating what that meant, how she needed to consider a time when she couldn’t control her life, was anathema.

In her dementia she’s sure she’s the one who moved her home, she’s the one who packed everything and even helped load the furniture. Not very different from her confidence that she’s the one who organized my brother’s wedding last summer, that it wasn’t catered but that she’d cooked the food night and day (she hasn’t made a cup of coffee for herself for the last four years).

She doesn’t let go of old thinking patterns, won’t acknowledge much what folks do for her nor express appreciation. I’m not sure that’s just her dementia, I think it’s also old assertions getting stronger and even a little contentious. “Humph,” she snorts, “when they ask me how someone my age could do all this, I say: ‘Of course! Why not?’”

This is not easy on those working hard to take care of her. She has grown much softer and tenderer towards me, the one who lives far and can’t do much at all. Sometimes I think that it’s precisely because she knows I’m not there and that she can’t depend on me that she cherishes me so much.

I think of my mental and emotional habits, and how now’s the time to practice letting go.

I also think of Bernie, and especially how yielding he became towards the end of life. He was second only to my mother when it came to being independent, hating to rely on people. But after the stroke he just let it all go. He insisted on exercising every day and doing as much as he could for himself, but when he couldn’t, he let others take over and said thank you. He let others serve him, feed him, buy his clothes, and look out for all he needed. He, who loved to drive and play with computers, let others drive him, work out the hardware and the apps, help him to bathrooms, clean up, help him get up when he fell. Not once did he betray the slightest twinge off resentment or frustration.

You can say his brain had changed due to the stroke, but I don’t think that accounted for it all. He had practiced for this period of his life all his life, even as he couldn’t see the stroke coming. And when it came, he was readier than anyone I’d ever seen.

I always envisage him when he got up at 10 in the morning. I would hear him move around and would go to the bedroom to see him sitting up and looking out the window before laboriously putting on the heavy black shoes that, winter and summer, took him to the bathroom. I’d sit alongside and look out the window, too.

“How are you? How was the night?”

He answered truthfully. Okay to the first, and the nights were often not so good. What was he thinking, what was he feeling, I’d wonder about this most uncommunicative of men. He would look out the window, the beginning of another day with only half his body operating, and open his hand.

 

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THE PARTICLE OF DUST

In 1987 I came down with terrible abdominal pain on the eve of Thanksgiving, and on Thanksgiving morning a good physician friend came to where I lived, in the Zen Community of New York and diagnosed appendicitis. He called the local Yonkers hospital and brought me himself to Emergency to have my appendix removed. It was done quickly that same day, but I had an anaphylactic reaction to the antibiotic the surgeon had given me.

Thanksgiving weekend is not the best time to get sick and lie in a hospital. It took them 24 hours to realize what was happening, and that realization only happened due to a good friend who came to visit, realized what was going on, and raised the alarm. By then I was fading fast, so they put me in the ICU for a several days till I recovered. They also gave me large doses of steroids, which produced hallucinations. One of them involved friends, blood, and enlightenment, leading me to believe I’d just had the most significant  insight of the century. After all, I’d been practicing for some three years!

While in ICU, Bernie, or Sensei as I called him then, came to visit. This was long before we came together as a couple and I  was moved, knowing  how busy he was. I babbled to him about my enlightenment episode and what I had seen (surely as a result of massive drugs), giving him a blow-by-blow description. He stood at the bedside listening quietly, a small, strained smile on his face, and said nothing.

When he left I was a little disappointed. Wasn’t he going to confirm that I had seen something significant? Wasn’t he going to say Wow! or That’s great!? Here I’d been granted a glimpse into the essence of the essence and he had no response other than that small smile, not even a grunt to show he was listening.

And yet, he had listened; he just never said a thing.

I love spiritual drama. I love studying, reading texts and passages, and thinking Yes! Yes! Yes! with marquee lights blinking. I love reading profiles of leaders, accounts of their dreams, their prayers to God and how God or some inner voice spoke and told them to go ahead, risk all. I love to read of their successes, of how they transformed not just their own life but helped others transform theirs.

Transform. What a big and splashy word that is, full of promise of metamorphosis and, even better, improvement. I was a caterpillar, slow and lumbering, easily stopped and even trampled upon, and now I’m a butterfly, gorgeous and free, asked for dates by cute flowers.

Oy, has that word gotten me into trouble! So many people want that: insights, revelations, at least a corner turned. And if we work towards social or environmental change we want results. We want to see great work done, smiles on people’s faces. We want to blog about successes.

Successes happen all the time, but they’re not the big headlines we dream of: No children starving anywhere! Covid gone! No more suffering in the city of Greenfield!

It’s hard at times to accept my smallness. I have big emotions, great passions—I don’t feel small. I want to give big hugs, even if now they encounter only space.

“I’m giving you a space hug!” cried Violet Catches to me on Zoom the other night from Pierre, South Dakota. And her face smiled as if I was actually there, in the flesh.

I feel warmth and excitement, the sense of always being on a journey—and you’re telling me I’m just a particle of dust? Even the realization that I’m just a particle of dust comes with no bells or whistles, only a kind of yielding and surrender: I see, I’m just a particle of dust.

Reader, there’s beauty in that smallness.

On Wednesday I went to give out food cards and carried $700 in cash to pay rent for the woman whose daughter with child had come from Atlanta. I’d written about her last week, a girl who’d arrived in the US pregnant, gave birth and raised an infant while finishing high school, and now all three generations needed a place to live. People responded, making me happy as I handed out the cards and the cash.

“Thank you so much, Eve, and thank everybody for us,” says Jimena, “and OMG, Eve, somebody really needs help!”

The story comes out. A woman gave birth but her placenta didn’t come out. They operated on her and she began to hemorrhage and almost died (I start slinking down in my seat). They helicoptered her over to Boston where she’s been in ICU for 2 weeks (I slink down even more). Husband left work to take care of two children plus new infant, wants to visit his sick wife in Boston but has no transportation and must do covid test before any visit, etc., etc. Also, has no money.

By then I’m practically sitting on the ground. “I’ll check the bank account and let you know,” I murmur.

The particle of dust drives home. We’ll do something, she’s thinking, but not a lot. The particle of dust reminds herself that the money given out so far has made a big difference in people’s lives. She thinks it was Thomas Merton who said: Leave something to God. The particle of dust knows the ballgame with balls and strikes goes on forever, but luckily she loves baseball and will keep on playing.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

DISCARDING CLOTHES

I’ve had low spirits over the past few days, even as the sun finally comes out from behind the clouds and temperatures rise.

I believe we’re rounding the corner with the coronavirus, spring optimism—a little muted, a little tentative—is in the air. I go online morning and night in search of a vaccine appointment, for which I’m now eligible (no success so far). I even had visits at home from two friends of mine over the past several days, after so many weeks of none, and I can hear a whisper: Yes, we can do this, we can finally meet for lunch or coffee, we can finally hug!

At the same time, I hear about other friends who are very ill, even beginning the dying process. I don’t cry much, but in the past few days I find myself again and again looking out, lost in snow.

In Riddley Walker, a wise old woman tells Riddley that she can feel how It doesn’t feel like wearing her body anymore. It wears all of us like clothes, she says, but I think it has trouble putting on my body, like a shirt I have to stretch hard to get my arm through.

Lately I feel that it is discarding many clothes I know, clothes that were once beautiful outfits full of splashy and daring color, in-your-face frills and puffy sleeves. There are some clothes it’s not going to wear much longer.

Last thing at night, before going to bed, I put my boots and jacket on and go out to the yard in back. I walk up and down the shoveled paths of my outside home, first visiting Kwan-Yin, then going down one side and coming up the other, and finally visiting the birdfeeders that lie in deeper shadow. I stop in front of Kwa-Yin, compliment her on her latest snow outfit, and beg for compassion.

What is that?

Lately, perhaps due to the illness and death around me, I think a lot about Bernie. People ask me if I miss him. There are all kinds of missings. There are the unnumerable times when I think: Oh, if Bernie was here this is what he’d say, or If Bernie was here he’d do this, or together we’d do that. Situations galore come up, like my friend, Maggie, who’d come to clean the house and loved to tell Bernie off—”So now you’re making yourself coffee—when I’m doing the kitchen?” or “Why are you sitting in your office when you know I have to work there?” She was the only person in the world Bernie was afraid of.

Scenes reappear, stories, and memories. Memories, too, are stories.

One night I made my nightly tour outside, came back in, and went upstairs. Lately, I’ve been listening to the music of jazz musician Keith Jarrett while reading. And out of the blue Jarrett began to played the duet from Porgy and Bess: Bess, You Is My Woman Now. I don’t think anyone has ever played this melody as simply as he played it, and the melody ran through me so deep and sudden that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. In fact, for some seconds I couldn’t “place” the music, could just listen with a vague sensation of familiarity, and then remembered what it was.

What it was and wasn’t. It was more than that famous duet, it was words and music of yearning and passion, of a promise never to be sad (No wrinkle on your brow) even in the face of fear and an unknown future. The simple melody Jarrett played went through me, the bed, the floor, the foundations, into the deepest part of the earth. The book was gone, the hour, the sense of tiredness. There were no memories, no stories, no recollections. Sadness was there but Jarrett’s melody hit a place that was beyond sadness or gladness, a place deep in the marrow of things. Yes, it was sad; it also quivered with life.

When you get to that place, you become less afraid of deep feelings. You become less afraid of your emotions and of being at their mercy, of losing all balance and control, even of being swept up by memories that recreate trauma.

What I experienced that night had nothing to do with any of this. The sadness that was there was not like some dark, heavy coat; more like an unknown instrument being plucked and creating the First Sound, and that First Sound included my sadness and loneliness and so much more, longing, yearning, and response all together.

That was the night that I had come to a pause by Kwan-Yin and begged for compassion.

 

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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