“Not everybody wants to be healed,” said Renee Fasthorse Iron Hawk. “Many want to stay in their corners.”
We’re in the middle of our annual Native American retreat, only this time it’s not on the land. We’re not in the Black Hills, or South Dakota, or Wyoming, Nebraska, or Montana. The land is our Zoom Room. Instead of gorgeous hills, streams, and night stars, there are 80 squares containing beautiful faces from different places in the world.
The name of the retreat is Sending Our Voices to Mother Earth.
Today, Violet Catches talked about her status as a “dual citizen.” I am also a dual citizen, a citizen of Israel, where I was born, and the United States, where I was naturalized at the age of 18. But Israel was founded by Russian and European Jews, who made sure that Western culture would be foundational to the State. (Later, Sephardic Jews, originating from the Middle East and north Africa, brought with them their culture as well, and co-existence between the two has never been easy.) For me, there was no conflict between the culture of Israel and the US.
Violet described something very different. She experienced an American culture that wished to educate and indoctrinate her in its ways, that for many years prohibited most aspects of the other half of her dual citizenship, including native spirituality, all ceremonies and prayers, disbelieved its history, and made its language taboo. For Violet, there was, and continues to be, conflict in being a dual citizen.
“My grandmother raised us, and she’s the one who schooled us. When the social workers came to check up on us, to see why we weren’t in regular schools according to the law, Grandmother would tell us to run down to the river and hide. We’d run down to the river and play, and later in the day we’d return and see her beckoning to us, to tell us it’s safe to come out.”
Violet continued: “When you’re a child you don’t mind all this, it feels like a game. But then you get older, and the pain and the pressure of always having to hide yourself, hide who you really are, explode. That’s why young people get addicted to alcohol and many drugs, because they can’t stand the pain. They go to a very dark place. Some of us come back and continue our journey, but some of us never come back.”
It never occurred to me that for some, dual citizenship implied being erased and ignored, your real name expunged, your language extirpated. Crossed out, one big X across an entire history and culture, splitting up families in a culture that values family almost above all else.
So this time we’re not in the gorgeous Black Hills. We’re in a Zoom Room with 80 people carrying the pain of racism and a pandemic that hits those who are exposed worst of all. Exposed because theirs are the jobs that require them to work in unsafe environments without proper equipment. Their jobs are essential, while they are expendable. It’ll be this way with climate change, which is already affecting vulnerable populations first and hardest.
“When you see that you’re a child of the earth,” said Renee Iron Hawk, “it changes how you see yourself and your life.”
Children are vulnerable; they need to be cared for, held, loved. They’re aware of forces that control their lives that are far more powerful than they are.
“Grandmother would take us down to the river,” recounted Violet, “tell us to open our palms, and put a rock on each palm. ‘Hold that rock till you can hear what it says,’ she’d say. ‘Listen to the wind, the trees, the grass.’ We have to remember that they are all stronger than we are.”
We are not almighty, we are children of the earth. As children, we have to listen, watch, learn. Most important, we have to heal. But—
“Not everybody wants to be healed,” Renee reminds us. “Many want to stay in their corners.”
How much are we up for? And what will we give, what sacrifice will we make, in order to be healed?
“How come you haven’t destroyed Porky, Harry? Usually I buy you these toys that are advertised as being durable and tough, and it takes you less than an hour to take out all the white filling and sprinkle it on the floor or the grass outside. But Porky’s been around for weeks and he’s still intact.”
“Porky’s indestructible, Boss. I gave it my best shot.”
“And he also still bellows, Harry. Usually you manage to shut them up real quick, but not Porky. He still has his voice—and his innards.”
“Boss, you finally bought me a toy that won’t die.”
Bernie died. I remember that each time I open my eyes in the morning. But that’s hardly the whole story.
What an honor it was to take care of him after his stroke! Ordinarily, he hated to be taken care of, he often quoted Peter Matthiessen with approval: “When I get sick I just want to crawl under a rock and be left alone.” Yes, I made chicken soup and hot toddies when he had a cold, provided hot and cold compresses for pain. He said thank you, but clearly didn’t depend on them.
He had no choice after the stroke. I wondered how he would respond to so many diffeent therapists and caregivers, people helping him walk and cleaning up after him. He gave in with so much grace it left me breathless.
Usually, we avoid illness. We hate it when someone gets sick and then we have to take care of him/her, especially when it’s for a long time, maybe forever. People used to ask me: “He could last for another decade, are you ready for this?” It took me a while, but at some point I accepted it completely.
Now I feel something much stronger. It can be a real blessing to have sickness right in the middle of your home, inside the family, not in the nursing home or the hospital. Illness stares you in the face day after day, and you learn and understand more than you ever will reading all those books and sutras. What do you learn? To take your place in the wide, unfathomable fields of life; to see how things turn on a dime, that one day you’re the one taking care, the next you’re the one who needs attention; to do your best even when nothing is up to you alone, plunge in with all your heart, with all your mind, with your entire body.
The tragedy of covid is that the sick person—be it with covid or something else—is removed immediately and taken into isolation, and you’re unable to visit him/her in the hospital. In that way we don’t just avoid exposure to covid, we avoid exposure, period. Exposure to the flush on the cheek of someone we love, the quiet sadness in their eyes, the confusion, the need for reassurance. Their need of us. We lose exposure to all those things, yet they’re some of the basic ingredients of a life.
Yesterday I visited a sewing circle made up of immigrant women, many undocumented, who are sewing masks. I won’t identify anyone by name yet, but, as usual, it started with someone who was concerned about the welfare or immigrant families without work or help from any government, social agencies and schools shutting their doors to them. Using her own money, she invested in sewing machines, fabric, elastic, needles, threads of all colors, various cutting and measuring implements, and started a circle of some 15 women to sew masks and, later, other sewing products.
When I came in, she needed help elongating her dining room table so that it could be used for measuring and cutting fabric and liner. A few women came in, one of whom I remembered from our food card program, followed by my friend, Jimena Pareja, who, after putting in long hours at her full-time work, started guiding one person in measuring the liner and fabric with great precision.
I watched the process: Iron fabrics, measure and cut liner and fabric, put 10 samples of ready-cut materials with elastics into each bag, and get the bags with templates to the members of the circle so that they could sew at home.
I watched this happen in a modest home on a modest street in a neighboring small city. I thought of all the things we do to avoid staring taboos in the face—poverty, homelessness, illness, injustice, abuse. And I watched women transform taboos into things of healing and beauty.
There is nothing so ugly, so horrible, or so painful that it can’t be transformed. That has always been the promise of my Zen practice. I don’t practice so that things will change; rather, my practice trains me to let go of the fears in my head, open my heart, and see what is possible—the lotus in the mud.
My guess is that I will write more about this sewing project in the future. For now, I’m still thinking about how to support them; I’ll know more in a week. What I know they need for sure is help with marketing—a website, for example. They already have a template and some contents. Perhaps one of you reading this post knows how to do put together a website that will promote and sell masks and everything else the women are selling (their masks also include masks specifically made for people who need to lipread, hence, the transparent one below). Obviously, you can do this even at a distance. And if you know of a possible market for these products, please be in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Many more women wish to join this circle and make money for their families.
Finally, I’m still collecting money for food cards. Another $1,000 of cash and cards went out a few days ago; we average giving out about $1,000 a week.
At its inception, the Zen Peacemaker Order asked of its members to tithe. I had been tithing for my entire adult life due to my Jewish upbringing, the only exception being the year after Bernie’s stroke, when I knew we would need lots of help. A year later Bernie and I went back to tithing again. The Order asked its members to give to charity either at least 5% of their gross income or 10% after taxes.
It’s a marvelous practice to take on, not just because many people of different faith traditions have practiced it for thousands of years, but because it asks you to build giving right into your life instead of leaving it to arbitrary fits of generosity. Sometimes we feel generous, sometimes we don’t; tithing provides a minimal ground under our feet, it’s pure arithmetic, a law unto itself. We give because that’s what we’ve taken on. We give because we’re human, because we inhabit this planet alongside billions of other beings, because we know it’s all us.
You can donate for food cards and cash help to immigrant families by using the Donate button below and adding the instruction: For food cards. You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. On the memo line of the check, please write: For food cards.
“Aussie, how wonderful. Harry ran after a chipmunk, and instead of running off with him I called you and you came right back!”
“Which means I get Fine Dining instead of a dog treat. So what do we have for Fine Dining, Boss?”
“Pieces of chicken.”
“White or dark meat?”
“Aussie, you’re getting much too spoiled—and fat because of all the different treats you get during this training.”
“Rules are rules, Boss.”
“What rules, Aussie?”
“Whenever Harry goes off somewhere and I come back to you instead of joining him, I get Fine Dining. The bigger the temptation, the greater the reward.”
“What do you mean, Auss?”
“When you say ‘Far enough, Aussie!’” and I come back, I get a regular dog treat.”
“When Harry chases a squirrel and I come back to you instead of joining him, I get Fine Dining, which is chicken.”
“If Harry chases a deer and I come back to you, I get Super Fine Dining, which is pieces of roast beef.”
“And if Harry splashes after ducks in the water and has all that fun, and I don’t, I get the Supreme Meal.”
“What’s that, Aussie?”
“I don’t have Italian salami.”
“It’s either that or the ducks, Boss.”
“You know, Aussie, we sometimes refer to our life as the Supreme Meal.”
“You mean, if I don’t chase the ducks I get to eat you?”
“No, Auss, I mean that our life can be a meal that serves many, many beings. Everything we do in service of others and ourselves is another course of that meal, another dish to savor. In that way our entire life can be the Supreme Meal.”
“I don’t think your life qualifies as a Supreme Meal, Boss. I’m not even sure it qualifies as a dog treat.”
“We do our best, Aussie. Everyone serves their own Supreme Meal.”
“But some lives are Super Fine Dining, some are Fine Dining, and some, like yours, aren’t even—”
“Aussie, why do you have to be such a hard-ass?”
“Rules are rules, Boss.”
“You know, Aussie, Bernie used to say that there is no rule without exceptions. He’d make up a rule, and then would make an exception of the next person who told him why she couldn’t follow the rule.”
“So that became a new rule, see? Rules are rules, and there are always exceptions. That’s the new rule.”
“Aussie, do you notice your energy?”
“Should I? Is it Fine Dining?”
“Your energy, Aussie, is almost always closing things up instead of opening up to new possibilities.”
“Not so, Boss. Did you notice me swimming? Unlike wimpy tail Harry, who won’t go into water deeper than his knees, yuck yuck!”
“Look at what you’re doing, Aussie. You put me down, you put Harry down, you’re constantly elevating yourself and belittling others. You’re not serving, Aussie. What kind of Supreme Meal is your life?”
“I want to eat the Supreme Meal, not serve it.”
“Try opening up to new things, Aussie. New ideas, new practices, new foods.”
“Like duck a l’orange? What do I have to do to get duck a l’orange?”
“The closest you’re going to get to duck a l’orange, Auss, is catching one of the ducks in the pond and adding an orange.”
I take Harry to the Sunday dog gathering in the nearby park. I’d take Aussie, too, but she growls at Joan, Ziggi, and the other small dogs who race around and yap a racket. They don’t acknowledge her seniority, they don’t give her any respect, so after tolerating them for a few minutes she starts snapping, then growling, and it’s time to leave the party. So, Aussie goes on a separate walk with Tim while I take Harry to the canine morning soiree.
But Harry doesn’t mix well, either. The big stars are Australian or Border Terriers like Ziggi and Joan, who jump up at every big dog to get its attention, run run run, and then collapse and roll onto their backs, small paws up in the air, emitting delighted squeals as everybody sniffs them. They remind me of certain popular girls at parties who had little to say for themselves but talked a lot of self-regarding nonsense, and everyone thought they were cute.
There’s also Midge and Walker, Harry’s size, happy to play but not requiring all the attention. More often than not, they’re Labs, They’re like the regular girls, the ones who didn’t wear the shortest skirts but always had someone to dance with.
Finally, there are older dogs like Smoky and Poppy, who confidently go their own way, at times joining the others, at times not. There were always some at parties who’d stay out to smoke a cigarette, come in to see the action inside, but basically never worried about what anybody thought of them.
And then there’s Harry, the classic wallflower. He comes in, tail wagging, chases the dogs, gets chased back, then pauses because they’re back with Ziggi and Joan again: Where is everybody? He joins the circle running around Ziggi, then stops: I don’t get why this is such fun. Harry isn’t sure who he is, wants to join the others but doesn’t know how, wants to be like the others but doesn’t know how.
“Go play,” I tell him as he comes over to me, “that’s why we’re here. Don’t be so existential, do something!”
And he tries, poor fella, he wants to mix, he want to be like everybody else, but he’s not. It’s not his fault he’s a born wallflower, just like me.
When we get home Aussie sniffs him carefully. “Thanks for leaving me home. Did you at least have fun?”
“No,” says he.
“It’s a waste of time taking him there,” she tells me.
And still I take him on Sundays, trying to see if he could put his nature aside and have fun. Only he can’t.
I want to be different, too. I want my life to speed up a little, I want to go to restaurants, I want to go see a movie, I want to talk with someone who knows me deeply. I want to join the party everybody else is having, but I can’t.
I did some bookkeeping work recently and got into a credit card account that was still in Bernie’s name. I had the username and password, went into his profile, and saw the identifying questions they’d asked him to answer as a second layer of security. One question was: “What’s the birthday month of your best friend?”
His answer was: “December.”
I shut my eyes, then wiped them with a tissue.
He never called me his best friend. He never said anything about our friendship or even our closeness, about the preciousness of daily companionship, two people in the front seat of a car talking or just being silent, passing each other in the house—“Bernie, can you reach up and get that for me?”—”Can you open up this jar? I can’t because of my wrists [he was referring to his arthritis]—”What are we eating for dinner?”—”Do you have an errand for me to do so that I could take Stanley for a ride [he meant: Stanley and his cigar]?—that thing of mystery called a couple.
You can have the love of your life and never know it. It’s not about what the movies show, it’s not about a glorious ring (both of ours cost $25.) or a passionate sunset. In our case it was a million little things, our families, and Zen Peacemakers. While we consumed newspapers, we never discussed politics, the only exception being the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, about which Bernie was passionate (How can Jews do that!). What we talked about was the Zen mishpucha, the Zen Peacemakers, and what we could do. Always what we could do. Nobody felt the slightest interest to talk about politics. Donald Trump was barely mentioned in our home.
“What’s the birthday month of your best friend?”
And he, who would often forget my birthday, knew the answer.
I went to a small party in someone’s back yard the other night, everyone keeping distance. Two children were splashing in a pool and the adults drank wine and laughed with relief at going out.
When I got home, Aussie sniffed me up and down “Did you have a lot of fun?” she asked.
“Not a lot,” I said.
Two days later a friend wrote me this: “Make space for the falling stars.”
“I’m not hiding, Boss, just trying not to die from sunstroke. Where did you think you were taking us?”
“I’m sorry. I took you guys on a trail that I thought had more shade as well as water.”
“No water, and almost no shade. I’ll probably die before I make it to the car.”
“Don’t be a prima donna, Aussie. Have a little rest, and then come out. My car’s a 2-minute walk away. All the windows are open, you’ll cool down right away. The air is fresh.”
“It won’t be once we get there. Harry will fart as soon as you pull out.”
“I will not.”
“You always do, Harry. The Boss shuts the door, the car starts moving, and off you go. Never fails. Bam goes the door, car moves, and you let it rip.”
“Harry’s also the one who pulls on the leash, Boss, eats faster than a coyote, remembers he has to pee in the middle of the night because he forgot to do it earlier just before you shut the dog door, and throws down everybody who comes to the front door so that he could make his escape.”
“Aussie, you’re the queen of runaways. Harry’s got nothing on you.”
“Worst of all, he’s always in such a rush that it takes him a dozen times to empty his bowels. He squats down a little, gets distracted, and jumps up. A moment later down he goes again, and quickly up again because something else got his attention. I’ve never seen a dog with more disgraceful bathroom habits. I, on the other hand, take my time, settle down on my back legs, lower my butt daintily—”
“Enough, Aussie, I think we got the picture.”
“Who ever heard of a dog that’s such in such a rush all the time that he can’t even shit normally, Boss?”
“Let’s not discuss this any further, Aussie. The two of you used to get along so well, what happened?”
“Harry’s growing up. He’s becoming a guy. A dude.”
“So what, Auss?”
“I don’t like dudes.”
“You’re afraid of men, aren’t you, Aussie?”
“It’s the common sense approach, Boss.”
“What happened to you before you came here, Aussie?”
“My relations with men have been traumatic. That’s why I hide under the car.”
“Mine, too, Aussie. Why do you think it is? Because we made bad choices?”
“Nah, they’re just no good, Boss.”
“All of them, Auss?”
“They’re always in a big rush to go somewhere else—”
“You’re the runaway of all time, Aussie—”
“And they have no feelings, Boss, they have no emotions. Now, if we could get rid of Harry the house would be all-female and we could build an advanced civilization.”
“You know, Auss, I’d like to meet another man.”
“Oh, here we go. Another bad choice.”
“Come on, Aussie, they’re not all terrible. You like Tim, don’t you?”
“He gets down on the floor and plays with us.”
“What happens if I meet somebody, Auss?”
“Where we live, who’re you going to meet, a raccoon?”
“You don’t need to meet anybody, Boss, you got me and Harry. Ahead of us is a long life together.”
“I want to talk to somebody, Aussie. I want to love—”
“You love me, don’t you?”
“—And be loved back.”
“Harry loves you.”
“Oh Aussie, I don’t want to be tough like you. Can’t you let go of that and be more open? Get a little softer, a little tenderer? I was tough my entire life, Aussie. Toughness gets you through things, but it can shut other things out.”
“Just as long as it shuts out the sun. Don’t want to get sunstroke.”
“Your sister was here earlier,” my mother tells me on the phone from Jerusalem (I check in with her every other day). “We talked about how much harder things are getting in the world.”
“Yes, mom,” I agree as I look out at the big rain finally coming down in Western Massachusetts. We haven’t had such a thorough drenching in a long time. The flowers are happy, while Aussie and Harry lie disconsolate on chair and floor.
“Eve, do me a favor, you’ve always been the writer in our family. You must write what I’m saying.”
“What’s that, mom?”
“You must tell people how important it is to do good for each other. Things won’t get so bad as long as we do good for each other.”
“Yes, mom,” I say, and for a moment I think about Donald Trump, who has evoked the economy every chance he gets since 2016, as if that’s the only thing that matters. Right now people need help for sure, they need the economy to recover. But the economy is never the only thing that matters.
Traditionally, historians say, when the economy is strong the incumbent party wins the presidential election (an exception was the election of 2000). In America, they say, nothing matters to voters like the economy. Is that so? Will it always be so?
But my mother has left me behind. “Look, Eve, I feel so close to you, see? Can’t you tell? It’s like you’re right here in the room with me even though—how far away are we? How many miles?”
“At least 7,000 miles,” I tell her.
“But see how close we are to each other even talking like this on the phone? I can feel you. Can you can feel me?”
“That’s always been the spirit between us. So now, carry the spirit into your writing. Tell people they should take care of each other. God will bless your efforts, you will see.”
I hang up the phone. The rain continues loudly outside, leaves rustling a racket, but inside it’s quiet. I still hear her voice, the passion she put into her words. Her voice was often passionate and emphatic in the past, but telling me to write in her name—”You are a better writer than I am!”—to tell people to take care of each other is something new.
Her mind is disintegrating, I remind myself. In the beginning of the conversation she was telling me how beautifully her grandchildren sing to her, but whether she’s referring to her grandchildren or, more likely, her great-grandchildren, I know they don’t visit her. So whom is she hearing?
We are so close, you and I. How many miles? 7,000?
Yesterday Jimena and I gave out more food cards, this time in a different town than usual. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. “Let’s focus on the same families and maybe make a real difference,” I suggested (she says we’ve been helping over 90 families till now). But she asked me just this once to help with another community of undocumented families, and I agreed.
Usually it takes a while till people walk over to collect their cards. This time there was a crowd in the school parking lot before either she or I arrived, and once she came, it went very fast:
“This is my friend, Eva,” Jimena would say in Spanish, and I’d say “Hola” and they would introduce themselves: Rosa, Carlos, Elena, Gabriella, Jose, Cesar, Julieta. They’re accompanied by small children, who usually have very American names: Jennifer, Ashley, Bethany, Jessica. Everyone wears masks.
“This is a gift from my friends,” I tell them, handing out food cards.
A woman comes, in her 30s, a bashful smile. Jimena says that she’s new here, just arrived from Honduras, two weeks after crossing the border. I’d like to know how she did it, but others are waiting. We give her a card; she’ll also receive $150 for help with start-up rent and utilities. Another $50 in cash for another utility bill and Jimena provides receipts.
Luz (not her real name) has three children and no husband. She worked in a restaurant and got paid under the table, but restaurants are closed except for take-out. Where does she get any money at all, I ask Jimena. Yes, they often have families that help, but how much? And how much can you work with three children at home?
The school is deserted but we have a real crowd.
“Se que no es mucho,” I say to a young woman with a little girl. I know that it isn’t much. $50 is $50, which is not pennies, and I know that small is never small, that you can never know how lengthy the reach of every single act of kindness. Nevertheless, seeing the crowd of people waiting to get these cards makes me wish I could do much more.
“For us it’s much,” says the woman back in English.
What is much? Money is not much; caring is much. It tells them that they are not alone, that people care, even people from far away whom they will probably never see, as far away as Europe, care what happens to them.
“You sound so close, how many miles is it?”
“But you sound so close.”
We’ve given well over $10,000 in food cards and cash till now, let’s not stop. You can donate for food cards and cash help to undocumented families by using the Donate button below and adding the instruction: For food cards. You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. On the memo line of the check, please write: For food cards. As my mother says, “God will bless your efforts, you will see.”
I went to a rally sponsored by Black Lives Matter on Saturday. It was dismally hot and humid, especially behind a mask. A few hundred people had gathered, a large turnout for this very small, predominantly white city. The main intersection was closed off by policemen, their black-and-white cars blocking vehicular entry. The rally lasted a half hour and then began to march down to the police station. I left at that point, the heat and humidity being too much, and indeed a brief but significant thunderstorm erupted shortly afterwards.
I later heard that a second march arrived around mid-afternoon from another place, bigger than the one I was in.
I was moved by the policemen who stood guarding the protesters. It reminded me of how stuck they are smack in the middle of things, hearing themselves vilified while protecting those who called them names by megaphone. They are the enforcers of our social and cultural mores, with weapons, organization, training, and a law that almost always is on their side. With their uniforms, batons and guns, it’s easy to hate them because they’re the ones who directly inflict the damage.
They’re simply the front lines of a far vaster army. One of Bernie’s favorite koans was: Who’s pulling the strings? Behind the yelling protesters (What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!), behind the police talking to walkie-talkies and motioning cars away from the mobbed intersection, behind the blazing headlines on newspapers—who’s pulling the strings?
I stood with the protesters, applauding but not yelling. Yelling is no longer my style. I loved their individual, creative, home-made signs and wished I had my one-size-fit-all sign, showing a big circle and inside, in red letters, the words: Take care of the whole. Many held their children on their shoulders. They had talked about this with them; they’d tried to impress upon them the importance of this moment.
The day before, the dogs had run away. I had walked them in the woods above a lake, Aussie spotted a deer, and dashed after it as fast as her legs could take her. Harry, in back, detoured around me and joined her, barking excitedly. They were gone for 24 hours.
I made endless forays into the woods that day, alternating with waiting in the car and hoping they’d remember the parking lot. I wanted to write, to think about George Floyd, to think about this country and the world. Instead, I got more and more anxious about a pair of young, rambunctious dogs.
I went back in the evening and still they weren’t there. I returned home facing, for the first time, a long night without them. The following morning, I returned at 7 am to the parking lot. A red-and-brown bullet sped past me up to the driver’s seat, jumped to the back seat and lay down to sleep.
“Harry, where’s Aussie?” I asked him.
She was right behind him, standing back as if thinking: If the Boss is going to kill somebody, let it be Harry. Finally, she wagged her tail and came. There was nobody around but a pair of kayakers, and the dogs had hung around them hoping they’d throw them a sandwich.
Is this how best intentions are left unfulfilled? You want to do something, you want to show up, find a wave that can carry you and the rest of the country forward towards major changes. But the dogs get lost, a parent had a stroke, the electrician arrives unannounced, you didn’t sleep at night and walk around tired and irate at a body that at times betrays you, that keeps you in your day-to-day bubble.
And yes, you have to write another blog post.
At 8:30 the previous night I’d returned to look for them. The sun had set and I climbed up the hill calling out repeatedly: “Aussie! Harry!” I entered the woods. During the afternoon I’d heard from bikers and walkers that a big bear had been spotted above, and I looked down the dim path. No bear, no dogs, just silence and night coming on.
In my last post I asked myself: How do I not live in a bubble? I wrote that since the killing of George Floyd I recalled my first demonstration in Central Park after King had been killed, and thought about the 52 years that had passed since then.
But those kind of reflections become their own bubble: I went to this demonstration, I worked with that organization, I always wanted things to change, blah blah blah.
How do you not live in a bubble? Especially if you live, as I do now, in an area that is mostly white and rural, not mixed and urban. The wounding that happens here—and it does happen here—is usually less violent and more subtle. There is still fear. Most people of color tend to come from the Five Colleges that have much pride in their diverse international student body. Which can become another bubble.
I’ve been working with koans for a long time. A Zen koan is something that ostensibly makes no sense when you first read or hear it. A student asks an earnest question and the teacher gives out a shout or a yell, even a blow. They see wild ducks flying overhead and the teacher asks where did they go? The student doesn’t know so the teacher pinches his nose hard and yells: “When have they ever been gone?” You look up at the sky, there’s nothing there, so why does the teacher yell those inscrutable words?
Maybe because everything is here all the time. Our senses don’t reveal that but somewhere, somewhere, we know it’s true. We can’t see it from a distance—that leads to analyses, conclusions, and judgments—we can only be aware of it up close.
Bernie often told me that koan study is always about standing in a different corner of the room and bearing witness.
I look at the lines of helmeted police looking like so many of Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, or the National Guard on horseback. Friends get indignant—It looks like a military state! I tell them they can afford the indignation because they’re not the one who owns the neighborhood store that doesn’t bring in much money, that took a hit during covid, and has now been burned to the ground. Or else someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of your apartment.
Till now you looked at the situation from the safety of your computer desk or your television set. What happens if you change the corner of the room where you stand? You might look around and say: I need protection. It wasn’t me that killed George Floyd, but I’m losing everything!
Change where you stand again and see how the family of George Floyd is experiencing this moment. Change corners again and see an unhoused woman looking through a store window at the riots on a television screen that has a home while she does not. Move to another corner and bear witness to the horror onlookers felt watching the killing of George Floyd. Move again and witness the birds flying away from there in fright from the yelling and the noise.
Depending on what corner of the room you stand, you’re going to see things differently.
But first, are you ready to move from one corner of the room to another? Are you nimble enough, flexible enough? If you are, you’ll see that people are usually not more stupid or evil or ignorant or violent; given the corner of the room where they/we stand, this is what they/we see. It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it wrong; all of life is right here this moment. It’s all one room.
“Don’t you feel paralyzed then?” I’d ask Bernie. “How do you know what to do?”
“The room contains all these corners,” he’d say, “it’s still one room. Can you do something that addresses all the different corners? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Whoever you exclude will undermine what you do. Still, you must do something.”
Do your best even if you can’t take care of everyone, but always remember that somewhere behind the cobwebs, in a dim little space, there’s a corner you haven’t visited.
Since the killing of George Floyd, I feel I’ve lost the ground under my feet. I walk the dogs, shop, Zoom with a variety of people, look at our overgrown, gorgeous garden, and I’m numb.
My brain tells me this is certainly not the first and unfortunately will not be the last. My brain tells me that this goes on a lot—a lot!—and what am I thinking of. My brain tells me that what needs to be changed is an entire system, from A to Z, that changing a system can be dangerous and is a long time coming.
My brain tells me lots of things; they don’t penetrate.
What I keep on mentally mumbling to myself is: 52 years. I was 18 when I went to my first demonstration in Central Park, New York, on the Friday afternoon after Martin Luther King was shot. It’s 52 years later, I repeat to myself obsessively. 52 years . . . 52 years. More than half a century.
Last night, when the Green River Zen group Zoomed together, I resonated most with a woman who said she wished she was in New York. I’d felt that since covid began. Get on the front lines where people really hurt. Get into the cracks, as Bernie used to say. March with the marchers, protest with the protesters. Stop writing about dogs.
“What do you mean, stop writing about dogs? We’re the most important thing in your life.”
“You’re not, Aussie. I give you attention, I train you, I feed you, but—”
“Boss, you should take care of what’s in front of you—namely, me.”
“I don’t want to live in a bubble, Aussie.”
“What’s a bubble, Boss?”
I’ve been feeling in a bubble since mid-March when I locked down in a beautiful home while spring brought out new buds and leaves, bears woke up from slumber, and birds celebrated renewal at the same time that so many were got sick and died. At the same time that so many were laid off, businesses shut down, savings disappeared, eviction notices came in the mail, and food pantries ran out of food.
I didn’t want to shelter in place but shelter in place I did, though I wanted to walk the streets, masked, make eye contact, find my way into the center of the storm.
“Don’t even think of going back to New York, what’ll Harry and I do there? Get friendly with yuppy dogs in Riverside Park?”
“Don’t worry, Aussie, I can’t afford to live in Riverside Park.”
The question is: How do I not live in a bubble? I’m up on the news, I get the info, but that becomes its own addiction and destabilizes the mind. More and more I feel that the media—right and left—are our puppet masters, using headlines like strings that pull us up and down, in the process making loads of money.
Compete with everyone in vilifying Trump? He’s the symptom, not the disease.
“We’re all One,” you say, “isn’t that enough?” That’s another bubble.
Feed emotional turmoil, weep, gnash my teeth, then go rest from all the angst? Long ago I learned that people mistake strong feelings for action. They mistake earnest, lengthy discussions over glasses of wine for doing something. It was Robin DiAngelo, in White Fragility, who pointed out how deceptive those grand emotions are, how much attention they call to themselves, how in the process we think we did something and forget who and what must always remain the focus.
Have your feelings, I tell myself, but don’t let that become your bubble. Don’t go home feeling good about all that indignation, sorrow and guilt.
People with no food on the table don’t have that luxury, they have to get up in the morning and figure out how they could get a few hours of work. Feelings are good, but without action they can become another bubble.
In the end of 2016 I was stunned to see a photo of Wesley Clark, Jr. kneeing in front of Chief Leonard Crow Dog asking for pardon for what the US military had done to his tribe. He went down on his knees—not too different from what so many demonstrators (and even some police) are doing now–and asked for pardon.
That’s what I think we have to do. Find one African American family and ask its members for pardon. And whether they give pardon or not, ask what we can do for restitution. What do you need? A better apartment or house? Medical care? Help your kids go to college?
After the 2016 election, when threats against undocumented families in our area became very real, my friend, Rami Efal, came up with an idea. What if we create a small Circle of Care around each family, find out from them what they needed, and helped them: with work, negotiating their way with English and the legal system, their children. What if we used circles to take care of people?
Imagine doing that for people protesting about how they are being treated by our country, by all of us. Imagine creating a small circle around each such family and asking: What do you need? And then, even in small ways, addressing those needs.
Yes, we could send out reparations checks. Not with Donald Trump’s name on it, but in the name of The People of the United States. But circles of care are better because isn’t that what we’re called to do, care for each other? Show people they’re not alone, never abandoned, that they’re seen, their troubles recognized, and we want to help?
And while we’re about it, we could do the same for the Native American tribes and families who lost so much. First ask for pardon, and then form a Circle of Care around them.
You say we don’t have the resources for all that care? I say, we do. Add up our public and private wealth, the corporate profits and the small change in thieving offshore accounts, and you’ll see that we do. There is enough money for us to care for each other.
How do I not live in a bubble?
Let myself get cut to the quick, then see the smile on a child’s face, her big eyes looking at me with curiosity and not fear, laughing at my poor Spanish, the inner contentment when she knows she’s being cared for. Let yourself bear witness to the joy and suffering of the world. Plunge into both.
“Right now I’d like to plunge into some chicken, Boss.”
“Aussie, you’re a great comfort.”
“I’m your only comfort, Boss.”
She’s not. So many others comfort me, too. Kathryn, from Canada, who sent me a card enclosing what was left of her American money when she returned home from a brief visit to New York. I straightened out the $5 bills and 6 singles with deep thanks.
A check for $100 from Joyce with the note that her retired husband is making bluebird houses in order to collect donations to help. Wow, I thought. Birthday appeal money from Holland, donations from a German sangha, and now a gift that comes from the building of bluebird houses.
A student left two $50 bills in my mailbox, and a week later came to the house, masked, with four $50 food cards.
A friend who walks with me on occasion, then remembers: “Oh yes, I almost left without giving you these,” and hands me food cards.
And if any of you have sewing machines you’re not using, think of giving them to a small cooperative of women here who are sewing masks to make a little money. Even better, if you know of a market for these masks—or for other sewn products, please get in touch with me.
Can we understand how important each of us is in the world? Our words, our actions, our intentions? I have no illusions, they will never drown out George Floyd’s last words. They will never drown out the scream that began with the founding of this country and that continues to echo inside me and you. Even as I write this, I can hear the whisper inside: Where have I been? Where are we now ? Where will we be tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that?
I vow to bear witness to the joys and suffering of the world.
You can give money for food cards for undocumented families by using the Donate button below, but make sure and add: For food cards. You can also send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write “food cards” on the memo line.
A friend came by yesterday. We sat outside in the back yard and talked about the demonstrations and riots taking place around the country due to the murder of George Floyd. She asked me what I felt.
“My heart is with every demonstrator around the country,” I told her. “But when it turns violent, public opinion turns against us.”
She didn’t agree. “It’s a war out there,” she said, “and it’s time we see it. Glass smashing, fires burning, police cars smoking, bodies on the asphalt, tear gas—that’s not China, that’s not Egypt or Syria—that’s us! That war’s been with us for a long, long time, but we don’t see it till it explodes.”
I look at the photos and news videos of what is happening in cities large and small, with curfews and the National Guard patrolling the streets. Not streets in the Spanish Civil War or during another military insurrection in South America, it’s here, now, on our streets.
There has always been a war. It’s been fought in segregated housing and school systems, in the workforce and workspace, in our prisons and financial systems, in our factual history and the stories we tell ourselves about that history, in movies and TV, and now, in the age of coronavirus, in medical wards with sky-high numbers of people of color coming down with covid. And dying from covid. Or dying early from illness, stress, violent neighborhoods, and waking up exhausted to relentlessly shrinking horizons.
We’re finally meeting the enemy, and we know who that is, right? No, not Donald Trump, not the Daughters of the Confederacy, not even Derek Chauvin and police like him. The enemy is us.
“It’s like lancing a boil or a pimple,” my friend said. “The pimple is right there but we don’t want to look, and it grows and grows till it bursts. It should have had treatment long ago.”
What treatment is that? Other people know the answer far better than I do. I’ll tell you what it isn’t, though.
How many of you know that Barack Obama signed a Native American Apology Resolution almost a decade ago? You might say: We finally apologized for what we did to Native Americans? How come I didn’t know?
One reason may be that nothing was said about it. Our President simply signed a resolution that was hidden in a defense spending bill, so that nobody would know.
Was there a press release? There was, only it talked about the defense spending bill, didn’t say much about an apology to Native Americans.
Did President Obama, noted for his eloquence, give a stirring speech about what we did to Native Americans: the massacres, mass larceny of land, dishonored treaties, the forced marches and reservations? As President and Commander-in-Chief, did he apologize for the what the government and military did and continue to do to Native tribes? Did he by any chance promise to take back the Medals of Honor given to the soldiers who massacred women and children at Wounded Knee?
No speech was given, no celebration of a historic moment covered by television networks worldwide. It was the quietest apology imaginable. The message was unmistakable: We apologized, now let’s move on.
We don’t need that treatment. We don’t need an apology that dishonors rather than honors, that perpetuates ignorance of terror and tragedy. That just wants to move on.
Let’s move on, let’s move on. Our great mantra. Didn’t we do enough? Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty legislation, affirmative action, election of Barack Obama? Hell, we even made a federal holiday out of Martin Luther King’s birthday, what more is needed? Maybe another museum?
One of the demonstrators was quoted as saying: “Can’t breathe with a mask on. Can’t breathe without one.” That’s the koan of America.
Today I picked up my car from the Toyota repair shop and the nice man whom I’ve known for almost a decade of car service was wearing a fabric mask as he brought me the car. “You should wear a medical mask, “ I told him, “since you have to wear one all day. You’ll breathe better.” He said he was fine.
We’re both white. We breathe well without a mask, and somewhat less well with a mask—but we breathe. And then there are Americans who can’t breathe, not with a mask and not without one. Do you wear a mask or not?
If you get beaten standing or kneeling, what do you do?
How do you Stay Safe, our favorite mantra nowadays, when you’re not safe during covid, not safe before, and not safe after?