WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO TURN THE PAGE?

“Oh Aussie, I’m so happy to see you! Did you miss me?”

“No.”

“Did Tim take good care of you?”

“You bet! Where is he now?”

“Where did you go, Aussie? What did you do? Tell me everything.”

“We went out on at least two walks every day. I met everyone in his family, made friends with a young puppy, went to a barbecue, went to a party, and finally he took me to the Cape for several days.”

“Aussie, he took you to Cape Cod?”

“You bet! You know where you take me? To the same forest, the same preserve, the same ponds, the same Plains day after day.”

“I don’t go anywhere else, either, Aussie.”

“I’m too young for this kind of life. I need more adventure!”

I came home yesterday morning to an empty house. No one was home, not even Aussie, who wouldn’t be arriving for a short while with Tim. I did what I always do: dragged the valises up the steps, and then went out and walked all around to get my bearings. Saw that a bright orange dahlia had bloomed, but not the others. The grass was wet and mowed, Black-Eye Susans everywhere. Bowed to the large, wooden Kwan-Yin in back and noticed there was no dog shit to pick up in the back yard.

The first thing I did after I unpacked was to get out my clippers, cut some flowers, and put them on the altars in the house. I have some 5 downstairs and 1 upstairs, not including Kwan-Yin outside. I’ve taken care of them for some 22 years. There’s an altar with a small Kwan-Yin and Maria of Guadalupe for folks who’ve died, including Bernie. There’s Maezumi Roshi’s altar. There’s Sarasvati, the goddess of speech, by my desk, and another altar upstairs where I sit.

When I left for Israel, I knew the flowers on the altars needed to be replaced but I ran out of time. So now I restored beauty and order. Candle here, incense there, flowers here. Get the basics right, I remind myself. Set up the foundation, and the rest will come.

I have faith in that, empty house and all. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rumble of nervousness in my stomach, a need to press my bare feet against the hard wooden floor to remember that something is holding me even here, without family, no sister, brother, mother, or husband, no lunches made by my brother-in-law who’s a fabulous chef.

A student and friend came by with kale, lettuce, and tomatoes from her garden, not to mention milk from the cow next door, eggs from her farm, fruit, and frozen fish from an organic fishing enterprise in Alaska. She knows I’m in quarantine once again. My heart swelled with gratitude to see her.

Speaking of quarantine, I’m shocked by the lack of any kind of reminder at Newark Airport that you have to go into quarantine if you’ve traveled internationally. Landing in Tel-Aviv, stern medical aides were everywhere taking your temperature, asking you the usual questions about your health, reminding you of a 14-day quarantine, asking me where I plan to spend it, my contact information, warning me the police will come to check up on me. They didn’t, but believe me: I got the message!

I land in Newark, figuring that they’ll tell me what the precise restrictions are. Instead I sped through passport control and customs, walked out into Arrivals, and finally outdoors where I could take off my mask after hours of wearing it the entire trip. No one stopped me to check my health, no one said a thing about health rules for international arrivals. No one in the airport so much as mentioned covid.

It’s not as if I expect police to check up on us here as they do in Israel, this is a much bigger country. But not even a mention on the plane or in the airport! No one bothering with temperature, no stern admonishments, no contact information.

They leave us to our own. So, I go with Aussie to the woods (a sad disappointment after the beach at Cape Cod), I’ll use the drive-by banking tomorrow, maybe wash the car. I’ll be careful; I want others to trust me.

There’s sudden thunder and Aussie sidles over to me, rests under my arm for a moment, then relaxes and walks to the other room. Patience, I tell myself and her. There are still adventures ahead for both of us, only I’m probably not there yet. I live in a house with lots of photos of my dead husband and our activities on the walls, Buddhist images and art, drawings and pictures of people we’ve known, people who’ve studied here, dreams both dreamt and undreamt, questions answered and usually unanswered.

I loved it, still love it. What does it take to turn the page?

“Leave the house,” people tell me. “Get something smaller, more manageable.” Where, I wonder.

I need to belong to something—an endeavor, an earnest effort, a vision dancing on the horizon. A friendship. A love. It is a great privilege to belong—to these woods, to the immigrant families I hope to see later this week, to a Zen sangha, to life. It’s even a great privilege to pay the price of belonging, which is to lose it all in the end.

“Meantime, Aussie, patience. I know, I know, it’s not my strong suit.”

“Not mine, either,” says Aussie. ”Wake me up when you get your act together.”

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A PLANE STOPS FLYING

I drop briefly at my mother’s apartment before my brother’s wedding. She’s dressing with the help of her extraordinary Indian caregiver, Swapna Santosh. I see her put on a white skirt (though previously she’d told me sternly that only brides wear white in weddings). I had just brought her the cream-colored lace jacket she loves to wear that my sister picked up from the dry cleaner, and as she puts that on I remind her to wear the gold necklace she got from her grandchildren and not to forget a shawl because the wedding will be outdoors and she may be cold. That’s when she looks at me.

“And what will you be wearing?”

“What I’m wearing, mom.” I tell her. A blue linen, well-cut dress. Colorful choker around the neck, Indian earrings—a gift from my brother who loves India—in my ears.

“That?” she says, shaking her head. I could almost read her mind, if only because in the past she hasn’t hesitated to put it into words: Looks like a bathrobe.

We had a wedding on Thursday night, a Jewish wedding. I’ve attended elegant events in banquet halls and large homes, restrained Buddhist ceremonies, church weddings with the organ pounding out the wedding march, and even in England watched the men in top hats and the women in flowers. I must tell you that when it comes to sheer joy and exuberance, there is nothing like a religious Jewish wedding.

From the beginning there is music, with men singing songs around the groom and women surrounding the bride with their songs, and as both groom and bride advance to the canopied chupa individually, their friends dance around and in front of them, accompanying them to the ceremony. I don’t care much for the ceremony itself—the officiating, witnessing, and blessings are given only by men with the bride standing passively by them—but almost as soon as it’s over the dancing resumes, continues throughout dinner, and goes on and on and on half the night.

My brother, Moti, and Ruth, his bride, couldn’t have all that in the pandemic. There was a limit of 20 people at outdoors gatherings, while indoors restaurants had low numbers they could accommodate.  They ended up with 68 of their closest friends and relatives in a small, semi-wild preserve behind his apartment, dotted with trees and benches, with 20 close up and 48 (in theory) at a greater distance surrounding them, all masked. Her children, musicians all, played as their mother advanced to the canopy where the groom waited for her.

At the end of the ceremony they danced only briefly around the couple out of fear of the police coming to disperse them, and then followed the newly married couple down the path to a restaurant with 3 rooms and an outdoor patio that could legally accommodate this number. Food was served in individual Styrofoam boxes. In Israel, the rule is that you wear masks till you sit down at the restaurant table, and then you can take it off, but of course waiters wear the masks continuously.

I sat there with mother, sister, brother-in-law, an uncle and cousins, and thought that getting married in the middle of a pandemic takes a certain kind of audacity, not to mention logistics. It’s easier to leave arrangements to a banquet hall or hotel, but the restrictions are not only severe but always changing in Israel, which has a continuously high rate of covid infections. For this reason, many, many have postponed their weddings for after the pandemic. A wedding in the middle of a plague is a reminder of life.

In Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, God tells His people: “I have given you life and death—so choose life!” So many of us don’t. We lose awareness of the precious moment, we give our attention to slick social media manipulations, and choose to become unconscious. Still, in the face of illness, choose life. In the face of hardship and setbacks, choose life. Moti and Ruth chose life.

It’s so important not to let anything quash our spirits. They’re dampened often, but always we’re enjoined to make a choice. Not just to keep on going—there’s something heavy and resigned about that—but to seek the aliveness of the moment. In that sense it has nothing to do with who wins and who loses, something burns and illuminates all the time, and if I follow that light then things will be well.

For everyone? No. Forever? Of course not. But here I am, in Israel (I return home on Sunday), and recall a famous rabbinical saying: “Yours is not to finish the task; yours is to begin it.”

At the end we walk home, my mom looks up at the dark Jerusalem sky and points: “Look! A plane stopped flying!”

“It’s a star, mom,” my sister says, and pushes the wheelchair to the car.

 

 

 

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ONE DOWN, A WORLD TO GO

Three of us shared the above dessert last night: brother, sister, and me. It came at the end of a terrific dinner at an Argentinian restaurant in Jerusalem, my first real meal outside the house since I came here. And this was a very special meal indeed, a dinner for my brother before he marries.

A wedding in Israel—even if it’s your second or third, and even if it’s in the middle of the corona, as they refer to the virus here—is still a big deal. You get your hair done, your face, your nails, your toenails, special make-up. True, you can’t invite hundreds of people, there will be some 60 outdoors, spread wide apart. No real dinner because restaurants are severely limited, but some nice refreshments and toasts. Still, it’s a JEWISH WEDDING.

But it won’t be as meaningful to me as the dinner last night, when it was just the three of us. Not just the three of us, three big worlds that often collided and smashed things up in the past, three strong personalities on very different paths, with concentric families and circles that at times touched and at times seemed like they were in different galaxies.

It was this way from forever, when a mother harbored one daughter and called her her own, a father harbored the other and called her his own, while both laid claim to the one boy whose arrival they’d waited and prayed for, so that he was split down the middle into two broken halves. The competition, the miscommunication, the aggression followed by years of withdrawal. How easily we could turn on each other!

But if we’re lucky, if we don’t give up hope and hard work, years later we sit down two days before a wedding and share food, laugh at each other’s preferences (You really are not much of a red meat eater! What do you mean, no wine!), dip forks into each other’s salads (Just a little bite!), and share a big chocolate dessert.

And if you’re me, you lie in bed later on and remember other evenings, other attempts at shared meals, other half-hearted reconciliations, other times when we tried and fell short, when the past seemed to laugh hideously at our tremulous efforts. I shut my eyes thinking two things: That this might be the happiest day of my family life, and appreciating how much time some things take.

“Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty … Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”

Those were Michelle Obama’s words. This same woman a short while ago confessed to suffering depression over the past years over what has happened to her husband’s legacy, what has happened to this nation, and  especially to black people.

So, let me confess to middle-of-the-night anxiety and anger at Donald Trump. In daylight, I could rarely summon much feeling towards him. From the beginning I felt that he showed signs of mental illness. I’d lived in New York City when he flaunted his girlfriends on the front page of The New York Post even while married, giving the finger to his family and basic moral values, anything to get the spotlight.

When he became president, I couldn’t hate him any more than I did someone else with mental illness. The man simply had no idea what he was doing, I’d shake my head. It wasn’t that he put his personal interests ahead of anything else, he had no sense that something else existed. I took seriously what his election revealed about the torn fabric of our country, but when anger came out, it was aimed at other members of his party who knew better and still supported him.

And then there were the nights. When I don’t sleep, when the hours are dark and silent, I feel rage stirring up inside me towards this man. I read of his opening up the Arctic Refuge in Alaska to oil companies for drilling in the face of so many environmentalists’ decades-long work, including Peter Matthiessen’s. I read of the EPA lifting limits on methane gas. I think of immigrant families hiding from ICE. I think of his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, being in active contact with Russian intelligence. Of threats to use the post office to eliminate people’s votes. Of the wall he’s built circumventing Congress, and his sheer disdain and contempt for everyone but people like his golfing buddies, including the working-class men and women who voted for him.

The logic of day continues to whisper that he’s mentally ill. My night voices remind me of how he’s hurt and bullied, the many, many coronavirus deaths, the welfare net ripped to shreds at the very time when jobs and businesses are lost.

And on those bad nights I gnash my teeth at those who voted for him, and who may well vote for him again. White Supremacists alone can’t help him win. Fringe gun-rights groups alone can’t help him win. Sensible people can; they voted for him in 2016, and they can do this again in 2020. Will they? my night voices ask. And if they do, what then?

And I remember the dinner last night, and how broken people and families can come together. In this case they love each other, but they don’t have to. They can learn to share bread together, realize that the only way to survive is to work across differences, not ignore or seek to destroy them, that underneath it all we do talk the same language, and we can learn to listen.

I’ll show up regardless of who wins in November, including if Joe Biden wins. I learned that much from Obama’s victory in 2008, when I felt like I was walking on air for three days and forgot the hard work ahead. Forgot the people left behind on all sides, forgot the pandemic of racism that has been of much longer duration and with far more terrible results than covid. I don’t plan to forget this time.

Count me in for the long run, tough nights and all. And if it takes time, that’s fine. One family, despite the odds, came together last night and had a whale of a time. That’s one down, many more to go.

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IN IT TOGETHER

My last post described my joining the enormous protests that take place in Jerusalem against the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. A few people emailed me wondering how, with only 10 days of quarantine behind me, I could go to a major protest in the center of town. I have no excuses; I should have been more vigilant. At the end of the evening, when we got home, it suddenly dawned on me and I turned to my brother: “OMG, I should never have gone there!”

At the same time, to provide some context, I had no idea what this would turn out to be. I’d seen the demonstration during the day when I’d take my regular walk, consisting of far fewer people, enabling me to easily maintain distance even as I peered at the sleeping bags on the pavement and the people loitering about.

That’s what I thought we were going to do Saturday night. We could see people in black shirts and Israeli blue-and-white flags wrapped in black streaming towards the center, with police blocking entry in various corners; all that time it was easy to maintain distance.

That was the time I should have turned back. Instead, suddenly we were in the central area, comprising big blocks that the police had cordoned off for the protest, and before you knew it you were part of many thousands of people waving their black-wrapped flags and wearing black masks, yelling, drumming, singing, shouting through megaphones, with enormous messages flashing on adjoining buildings and a sea of signs. By then it was too late.

And once there, I was transfixed by the energy, by the people fighting for change, by the understanding pervading everywhere that the world has to change, including their part of the world. That sick people have to be cared for, that the young need education, that the gap between the monied and the poor needs to shrink. Everywhere around me were signs: JOBS, EDUCATION, MEDICINE FOR EVERYONE. Not just for the rich, who could run away to second homes and lie low, but for everyone.

Put me in the middle of a scene like that, and I’m hooked. Put me in a scene like that in Uzbekistan, Mogadishu, or Hong Kong, and I’m hooked. Put me in a scene like that in the US of A, and I’m hooked.

The Zen Peacemakers, coming out of a paradigm that we’re all One Body, work to realize this oneness and bring it to other people’s consciousness as well. That is why I was so moved by the small group of meditators in the middle of that animated crowd, and how the crowd made room for them, appreciating that there was something in that silence and immobility that was a crucial part of all this change, the radical recognition that the very people you’re yelling against are all this One Body, too.

Which doesn’t mean you don’t struggle against corruption, fraud, and dictatorship, but it’s like the fighting you do in your family, seeing your brothers’ and sisters’ history and still recognizing the harm, still working against it.

Today my sister took me to the Old City to shop. One of my feet swelled and I found myself walking on the outer edge of my right foot as I went to one of my favorite stores in the Christian Quarter, Jerusalem Pottery, where they do hand-painted pottery in the old Armenian style.

Suddenly, I had the inspiration to buy small crucifixes made out of the wood of olive trees in Bethlehem for the immigrant families we’ve been supporting. They’re all Latino and most of them go to local churches. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land, walking on the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been buried, is a dream beyond their wildest fantasies.

We help over 90 families with food cards, but given the price, I limited myself to some 27 small wooden crucifixes, my gift to them. I will put one in each envelope containing a food card and practice my Spanish explaining that the cross is made out of the trees that  dot the landscape of Bethlehem.

I probably could have negotiated a cheaper price, but first, I’m a lousy bargainer, and secondly, I was all too aware of the many stores that were shut down, shuttered stands where I used to buy large glasses of cold pomegranate juice, closed stores that once showed gorgeous rugs and carpets, the few people walking down those ancient cobbled streets as opposed to the mobs you usually encounter in August. The virus had tentacled its way into the homes of Palestinians and Jews; as the sign in the meditation circle said on Saturday night, they were in it together.

“No tourists,” explained the shopkeeper, searching frenziedly for the credit card machine. His young son found it and the father turned to me: “No tourists, so I forget where I put it.”

Even here, in Jerusalem, I am clear that I have to continue to support immigrant families with food cards. This virus isn’t going anywhere quickly. Before I left I left some $2,200 with Jimena Pareja for that purpose. Please join me by using the Donate button below and writing in the Notes: For food cards. Or else send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write on the memo line: food cards. Thank you for your kindness.

 

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REVOLUTION!

I broke out of isolation in the early evening (almost 10 days after my arrival) to walk after a day of staying put. In Jerusalem, if you’re walking for the sake of exercise you don’t have to wear a mask, but I did anyway because I don’t walk that fast. My brother walked with me; these are the last days before his marriage and I treasure our intimacy. We walked all the way down to the edge of Rehavia, looked across the valley towards the Israel Museum, and then came back up. Walking towards Aza Street I saw a group of men looking in one direction

“What are they staring at?” I asked my brother.

“They’re praying,” he said.

The synagogues here are closed because of covid, so services take place primarily outdoors, on sidewalks and streets. Instead of crowding indoors, elbow to elbow, the men stand at a distance outdoors, masks on, following the chazan(chanter) up front.

An orthodox Jewish service calls for a quorum of 10 men, women don’t count, so it’s almost always men who stand outdoors praying, not women. That’s the reason I’m not usually taken up by images of Jewish men praying. But this time I was moved.

I remembered the energy of praying indoors, the men huddled around the Torah, the women at the perimeter of things, the male chanting and the mostly male replies. This was different. Standing apart from each other, the group energy did not take over; each individual seemed lost in his own prayer and reflections in the middle of a busy street. There was no loud chanting to sweep you out of yourself, it was just you in your chosen spot on the pavement, you in your chosen spot in the world.

One man actually stood right by a large recycling bin of bottles. This is Jerusalem, the holy city; every inch here is sacred.

Later at night we walked over to the protests. Thousands of Israelis have been protesting outside the Prime Minister’s house for weeks on end. Binyamin Netanyahu, often referred to as Bibi, is being tried in court on a  variety of corruption charges and they want him to step down. Dressed mostly in black shirts or tops, they’re there every day, bringing sleeping bags with them to sleep on the streets.

It felt as if everyone held a sign: “RESIGN!” “MONEY’S KING!” “DEMOCRACY” “GREEDY PIGS!”

“RESIST” and over and over again, flashing against the buildings surrounding the thousands of people: “REVOLUTION!”

I felt right at home.

Revolution!

They sang and yelled, took photos like me. Hundreds upon hundreds of police closed up block after block, so that cars had to park kilometers away. The protesters yelled at them that by blocking off the corners they kept people in small crowds, raising the threat of covid. Almost everyone wore masks, but there was no way to keep distance.

It was after 10:00 at night and the next morning was a workday, but still they came, chanted, yelled, raised signs saying they’d had enough of stealing, embezzlement, bribery, and all-around fraud. They also hurled insults at how the government had failed miserably in controlling the coronavirus.

It was clear even to me that these weren’t the Peace Now protesters of former years, demonstrating against settlements or the occupation of Palestine. This was a whole new generation.

“What are they shouting at?” I asked.

“Bibi’s home,” my brother said. “It’s back there behind the trees. They say Sarah (Netanyahu’s wife, much disliked by many Israelis for her extravagance and tone deafness) goes crazy from the noise.”

For once, I could almost feel for Sarah.

“They’re probably in their home in Caesarea,” he added. “Don’t worry, there are protests there, too.”

And then I felt I came home. Smack in the middle of the yelling through megaphones and constant movement, sat people in meditation posture, in complete silence. There were some 15-20 of them, and I was moved at how the raucous, angry crowd walked carefully around them, not even treading on the corners of the large mat they had put on the pavement on which they sat. One woman sat silently behind a sign: We are in this together.

Yes, I thought, an American coming from New England, that’s it. We’re in this together, always always One Body without exclusion.

I was moved to see the meditators. I was also moved to see the men who prayed earlier. And finally, I was moved to see the protesters. Something is not right with the world, I know that very well.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”

The same goes for truth.

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PARISIAN DRESSES

My sister has Molly, an Anatolian shepherd who beseeches me to throw her the red satellite-shaped dog toy on the floor so that she could retrieve it, chew it up and bring back, then repeat, and repeat. I love playing with Molly; Molly loves to play with her toys.

Meantime, it’s back to stories of the past with my mother, who has told me lots of stories about her childhood from the time I was born practically. This one is new.

“I’m not buying a new dress for the wedding next week,” she says, referring to my brother’s wedding a week from now. “I have enough to wear.”

She always loved to buy clothes for holidays and simchas (joyful occasions), never anything expensive, proud to get compliments on something that was very reasonably priced (“You’ll never believe how little I paid for it!”), as if to say: I never sacrifice frugality for taste. My sister and I take out a black skirt from the closet and talk about combining it with one of many long-sleeve tops (“The wedding’s outdoors at night, you’ll be cold!”). I suggest a white skirt instead of black, but she immediately shakes her head. “Only the bride wears white,” she says, “what will people think?” The bride is 52 and my mother is 92; it would be hard to get the two confused.

I have learned to appreciate when elderly people try hard to look good day by day. It’s not easy to get up, feel the stiffness and pain in your joints, bend down and roll on panty-hose or knee-hi’s over hurting ankles or knees, reach around with both arms to the back to pin together the two ends of your brassiere, stretch creaky arms through sleeves and button the shirt with arthritic fingers. It’s not easy to look at the mirror and put make-up on a face ravaged by time.

Many women make this effort day after day. I used to think it was out of vanity, but no longer. It’s an act of honoring the life force, the feeling that life must go on even in the face of tiredness from age and discouragement from coronavirus, the remains of willpower. In the face of white hair, protruding belly, skinny legs and arms, and wrinkles on my face, I am still a human being.

This is what my mother told me:

“School closed because of Nazi decrees when I was 14. My mother decided that there was no way her daughter was going to stay home so she sent me to learn how to sew. Th head seamstress sewed dresses for Bratislava’s most important people, following the latest designs from Paris. She had senior seamstresses, who did the extra embroideries and ruffles and were always there when the client—the mayor’s wife, the wife of rich nonJews—tried things on so that they could do last-minute alterations. There were the junior seamstresses, doing the basic sewing,, and there were interns like me.

But the head seamstress was the most interesting of them all. I can’t remember her name, but she was very proud of her designs. On Shabbat she and her husband would go to shul (synagogue), like everyone else, and there was always a big stir when they walked back home. He would have his glasses on, which was a sign of learning, and she would be wearing her most chic dress to show it off, show off what she could do.

They would walk together right in the middle of the street; it was as if the street parted to make room for them, and every window in every house opened up so that the rest of us could check out how she looked and what she was wearing because we were so jealous. We were skinny and poor; she was a beautiful woman and no one wore anything like her dresses.”

We both laugh at these memories and the delusions of the past, the things that once impressed and moved us, wiser now in some way but still missing the enthusiasm and the exclamations of admiration, how impressionable life was then, so unrestrained and open to surprise.

I don’t ask her about what happened to the beautiful seamstress and her learned husband, I’m quite sure that if I did my mother would shrug her shoulders and say one word: “Auschwitz.” I’ve heard this often enough.

Instead  I think of what my brother put to her the other day: “Imagine you’re the last Holocaust survivor living, what would you tell the world?”

Maybe she would tell the world about the seamstress who walked straight down the center of Judenstrasse in Bratislava, proud of her creative abilities, proud of the beauty she was and wore, proud of all she had in her life. Maybe she would remind us of how we walk straight down the boulevards of our own life, proud of who we are and our achievements, proud of our stories about ourselves that are nothing, in Uchiyama Roshi’s words, but clothing that we put on and that life takes off.

Around us the windows of social media might open with exclamations of wonder, people will Friend us and ooh and aah on Facebook or Twitter, will admire the make and design of our thoughts and ideas, will check us out to see what they could learn and adapt to their own shapes and lives—oh, the beautiful small things of life! All our exquisite Parisian dresses!

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WHEN OUR STORIES FAIL US

People have written me saying that I’m too pessimistic about the coronavirus, describing unpleasant air travel experiences, jumping to conclusions about our ability to fly for family reunions, to bridge the distance between ourselves and the people we love.

It’s not all somber. Outside, Jerusalem is enjoying fabulous weather, cooler than the hot temperatures afflicting my home in Massachusetts, and at Jerusalem’s golden twilight, my favorite time of day here, when  I take a daily fast walk for exercise, the parks are full of orthodox Jewish families enjoying these last weeks of school vacation.

Nevertheless, I feel that many of the stories of my life are failing.

That’s the great thing about this business of not-knowing—our stories fail us: What we planned to do, where we planned to go, the vacations we were counting on, the camps we were going to send the kids to, the schools in the fall, the museums/films/plays/exhibits we were going to see, and most important, the people we were going to visit.

The vast uncertainty of things also affects us on deeper levels—the meaning of our life, the nature of the tasks awaiting us, what matters more and what less. I find that even the usual vocabulary fails me. I want to act with compassion—what does that mean at this time? Nice Buddhist  concepts don’t help me face the grit of what is happening now.

Covid and quarantine throw me back to bearing witness moment by moment; there are no stories to hide behind.

I wrote to a friend of mine yesterday: “Tell me, are we in that time of life when we’re just letting go and letting go and letting go?” I find myself reaching and trying to understand. Is covid a premonition of something? A warning? Of what? What are we being asked to do?

Clichés come to mind: restoring our humanity, restoring a humbler and more natural relationship with the Earth  These have no meaning for me, in fact, it’s too early to come to conclusions. I’m in quarantine, can’t go out into life to see what’s going on, play a role, talk, do. Right now, I’m being asked to just lie here on this bed as I type, listening to voices in the other room from whom I must keep distance. They are in earnest discussion about something or other, just as I get into earnest discussions about things. But not now. Right now, it’s staring at a computer screen and beyond that a white wall broken by the door to the bathroom.

It’s too early for conclusions. I try one story, it fails. I try another story, it fails too.

I do feel strongly about one thing. People say that after a vaccine comes out things will go back to normal. No, I think, I don’t want things to go back to normal, I want this to affect us deeply, to help me make changes I wouldn’t ordinarily make.

What are these changes? How should we live post-covid?

I see my mom twice a day. Yesterday I found her lying cheerfully in bed. These months haven’t been easy for her. She misses going to the synagogue on Shabbat or holidays, no friends come to visit. In fact, in the early days Israel had a complete prohibition on visiting elderly members of the family and my sister and brother obtained special permission from the doctor and police enabling them to visit.

“Ima,” my brother says, “imagine that you’re the last Holocaust survivor left in the world. Everyone else has died, no one is left but you. What would you say?”

“What should I say?” she repeats dubiously.

I take it up, too. “Mom, Holocaust Remembrance Day arrives and you’re the last one left standing, or more realistically, lying down. Imagine all the international networks putting their microphones right in front of you and asking you for a message. What would it be?”

We’re having fun with it, but secretly we’d like to know. What would she tell us? What crucial piece of wisdom, after a lifetime of experience, would she share?

She shrugs as if it’s all nonsense, says nothing. She won’t save us the work. Once she had all the answers. Not now.

 

 

 

 

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I’M IN BIDUUD, DUDE

Biduud in Hebrew means isolation. Isolation is how they refer to 14 days of quarantine.

I talked about this many times with my brother and sister well before I came here, and we agreed that I would break the ironclad rules of Biduud to see my mother, who lives a 5-minute walk from my brother’s home, where I’d be staying, and to see my sister who’d visit here. My brother in law arrived, too, and gave me a hug, to my delight and surprise.

I leave the house to see my mother twice a day; I also plan to go walking once or twice, morning and early evening when it cools down. This is somewhat chancy as they told me in the airport, upon my arrival, that the police would come checking on me.

Being in a plane for a long international flight felt like being in a flying hospital. The stewards, masked and gloved, did minimal contact. American airlines have radically skimped on food service since 2008; this was even skimpier, and very heavily packaged. No alcohol/drink service, no coffee or tea after dinner, no handing out of menus or earphones, no handing out of nonessentials.

Once we arrived, we couldn’t exit without having a health interview and filling out a questionnaire:

Where are you staying?

Who else lives there?

If someone else lives there, do you share a kitchen or bathroom?

Do you have a phone number?

And finally: If police come to check on you and you’re not there, you’ll be fined 5,000 Shekels (equivalent to $1,500).

So I don’t see Jerusalem. I sit indoors or in the small patio outside the front door (see above). Masks are mandatory everywhere while walking outside. My family has cooked marvelous meals for me; still, I miss cafes, I miss restaurants, I miss going places. Can’t do any of that, I’m in Biduud.

I talked to Swapna, the lovely Indian caregiver who lives with my mother. She was supposed to go home to see her family—a husband, little daughter, and parents—last spring. She never got to fly out. She hoped for September; it doesn’t seem possible now.

“So when will you go?”

She shrugs. It’s not up to her, it’s up to God.

“Don’t you miss your family?” I’m not ready to leave it up to Him/Her so quickly..

She has black, shiny circle eyes which she squints as she shrugs again.

Which brings up the question of what you do when you live far away from your family. All these years we’ve been sure we could bridge the gap: I’ll come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas; I’ll see you in the summer; I never miss big family events.

Swapna’s parents and little girl live in a fairly remote village in central India. She works in Israel and her husband works in Qatar in the Gulf, both sending money home or else saving up, and the two have managed to coordinate their visits home so they could be together. Whenever she goes home she posts photos on Facebook, and I see the young woman whom I always spot in pants and a T-shirt posing in gorgeous saris bedecked in gold posing formally for family photos.

“Would you consider settling here?” I ask her. Her sister has done that, but she shakes her head.

What happens if we can no longer travel with ease, if we can no longer bridge the distance? How does that affect our plans for study, work, home?

And I’m reminded of the old stories I’ve read of what it was to immigrate to America 100 or 150 years ago. Whether it was a Russian shtetl you left behind or an Irish family that came to wave goodbye to the boat, you often knew you were never going to see your parents or siblings again, and they knew the same about you.

“After they come up with a vaccine, things will be different,” I assure my 92-year-old mother.

She doesn’t hear me; instead, she looks yearningly out the bedroom window.

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THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT

“Aussie, I’m leaving!”

“OMG, it’s the end of the world!”

“It’s not the end of the world, Auss.”

“The pack is done. Finito. First Harry’s gone, and now you.”

“Only for a short time, Aussie. Not the end of the world.”

“Easy for you to say. The pack is gone. The world as I know it is gone.”

I remember Aussie’s words when I enter Newark Airport, in New Jersey. There are lines in front of the United counter, but almost no one in the lines for general security. Once on the other side, I look up at the monitor, its five panels usually filled with listings of United flights flying around the world, and you can see above how many flights they show. Only 2/3 of one panel shows flights, the others are either blank or carry ads.

I look at CIBO and other food express markets. No sandwiches, just a few varieties of potato chips.

Bernie and I flew many times through Newark, a hub for United Airlines, and I would complain about the people squeezing sideways just to walk through the concourses and, of course, the long lines in the women’s restrooms. Today there is no line in the women’s restroom.

You’d think the airport would look cavernous without people, but if anything, it seems to have shrunk. Hudson Bookstores, closed. Museum shop, closed. Gucci and dozens of other fancy shops, closed. I can’t help it, when I see a store dark on the other side of the window, I get mournful.

The airport and airline workers I run into are wonderful. You can see their smiles behind their masks, trying to reassure us, trying to help out, not denying the challenges but clear, firm, and comforting. It can’t be easy for them, walking down deserted concourses, passing the small passenger vehicles that are parked, empty, their drivers without riders, without tips.

They carry on bravely. United has announced that pending a major improvement in the virus control or the passage of another big relief bill for airlines, it will probably let go of 40% of its labor force as of October 1. Still they smile and offer to help you with the bag or the check-in. They’re kind with their words and generous with their time. They’re not all that busy.

Tim is taking care of Aussie in the time that I’m gone. Tim has always been a part of our packl. I’m already thinking of returning on a Sunday morning. Her head will pop out of the dog-door to see who arrived in the garage.

“You’re back! The world hasn’t ended after all!”

By the time I leave the airport in Tel-Aviv to go up to Jerusalem, I will have seen that world behind a mask for at least 16 hours. It’s easier for me, I’m not a little girl or boy like so many around me on the plane, who talk and cry and shout gleefully from behind a mask. I’m not like so many others in families here, who hope to be heard through their masks. I’m alone.

Wearing a mask this long gives one a sense of how so many others live, working and talking from behind a mask for many hours each day, knowing that with all those precautions, they’re exposed.

I will be warned at the Israeli airport to stay away from people and always, always wear a mask. My brother will be waiting for me. And when it’s just the two of us together, I think I will give him the biggest hug of my life.

 

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QUESTION-RESPONSE

I am going to Israel on Wednesday to see my mother. There will be quarantines on both sides of the trip, in Jerusalem and back here. Nevertheless, I decided to hell with it, she’s my mother and I want to see her.

I dilly-dallied with this decision for months. What finally broke the logjam of contradictory information and advice was my realizing that the virus is here to stay maybe past my mother’s lifetime. Things may well get worse before they get better, meaning that while now only a quarantine is required, we could have full shutdowns again in fall and winter.I decided to seize the pocket of opportunity.

I feel like I am living deeper and deeper in not-knowing about this world and how we’re living than almost at any time in my life.

By not-knowing, I don’t mean ignorance. Yes, I truly don’t know how things will work out, in that sense I am ignorant. But I keep on thinking of Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on experienced happiness vs. the memory of happiness, the moment-by-moment intimacy with sadness or joy vs. our story about whether our life is sad or happy. Not-knowing relates to letting go of our story of how happy we are, or what this life is, and making more and more room for the experience itself.

Life is not proceeding in any linear pattern that I can recognize. I am now 70 and used to wonder what it would be like to live in the middle of climate change. I now know that while it’s still not the middle, climate change is well into its very big start and here I am, in the middle of that. I have no doubt that covid and climate change are related, that life is responding (some might say reacting) to how humans live on this planet. Or, as Victor Frankl wrote, life is posing question after question to us.

I recently read Victor Frankl’s Say Yes to Life, which is derived from 3-4 lectures he gave in Vienna within 6 months of his return there after spending 3 years in death camps. He returned to discover that most of his family, including his wife, never made it. While other Holocaust survivors sank into deep depression, he gave the lectures that make up this book,  pointing to his conviction that life has meaning no matter the circumstances.

I couldn’t help but be struck by a few parallels between his time and ours.

“If there is a fundamental difference between the way people perceived the world around them in the past and the way they perceive it at present, then it is perhaps best identified as follows: in the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today activism requires pessimism. Because today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely.”

We were captive for years to a story about the continuing progress of human life, especially due to technology and increasing wealth. Bernie was an optimist, too, convinced that we awaken more and more to our interdependence, to the fact that we’re One Body. He was sure the Internet was a big manifestation of that.

My sense is that Frankl is right, we now are aware that there is no real formula for progress, nothing inevitable about it.

“The present generation, the youth of today . . . no longer has any role models. Too many upheavals had to be witnessed by this one generation, too many external—and in their consequences, internal—breakdowns; far too many for a single generation for us to count on them so unquestioningly to maintain their idealism and enthusiasm.”

We’re not after a Holocaust or a world war, but we are aware of conflagrations the world over. When I look at how the young generation responded to Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, when I look at how passionate they are about ecology, food, and our relationship to the natural world, I don’t see wild, unfettered enthusiasm, but rather an enthusiasm tempered by sober realizations of what they are facing.

In Frankl’s words, they have no role models. Even the righteous ones among us feel somewhat quaint, our former lifetimes somewhat irrelevant. The young generation’s passion excites me no end. They’re not silly or naïve or innocent, in retrospect I think we were the ones who were silly and naïve.

I have fewer and fewer ideas about what awaits us, and it’s for that reason that I am ready to go through airports and planes, with quarantines on both sides, simply because I still can and I want to see my 92-year-old mother. I don’t have a clue what’s coming around the block.

I’m not afraid; I’m awash in curiosity.

Frankl wrote that even in the concentration camps, certain people knew they had a task, and this task gave meaning to their lives. He wrote: “[It’s] not what can I expect from life, but what life expects from me. What is my task at this moment, and at this moment, and at this moment? Living itself means nothing other than being questioned: our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to—being responsible toward—life.”

Last winter I decided to re-energize the Zen Peacemaker Order that Bernie Glassman and Jishu Holmes founded in the 90s. Before covid, I was preoccupied by the challenges of climate change. What is my task vis-à-vis future generations, I asked myself again and again. There were individual efforts, but I felt more was needed, so I decided to help create an  international container of trained spiritually-based activists who base their work on a common Rule or practice and have a family—each other—to sustain their hearts. Life presented me with a question, and that’s how I responded.

I also respond now by traveling to see my aged mother. I also respond by finding caretakers for Aussie, by giving $1700 ahead of time to help immigrant families during these next 2 weeks. A friend told me of the illness and death of her service dog, and I cried. Question-response; question-response; question-response.

Let go of the story, and now bear witness. Let go of the story, and now live.

 

 

 

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