NOBODY’S GOD

Now to stand still, to be here,

Feel my own weight and density! . . .

O, in this single hour I live

All of myself and do not move.

The poet May Sarton wrote the above words in a year of deep depression. Sometime during that year she found her voice again:

My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence . . . I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

Settle down, I tell myself. Stop going places. Even at this time I drive to the bank, get a food item I’d forgotten, go to the farmers cooperative to get dog and bird food.

In my last post I wrote that I see this age of coronavirus as a gap. When I do (or used to do) yoga in the Greenfield YMCA, and my talented Iyengar teacher tells us to pause after our exhalation, if only for a few seconds, that, too, is a gap. I’m not inhaling, I’m not exhaling—what is this moment?  It’s a gap in our routine of breathing, just like the virus is a gap in our routine of working, eating, shopping, socializing.

Now I look back at all the things I took for granted before. I met my friends for dinner, we went to a movie, I hugged a student, I hugged a friend, I boarded a plane or a train, went to meetings. That’s when things were solid! That’s when everyone knew what they were doing! That’s when the world did what it was supposed to do!

Now everything feels fragile, tender, and uncertain. And I realize that this is what’s real—the fragility, the tenderness, and the powerful realization of how dependent I am on others and they on me. How much I appreciate the guard at the door to Trader Joe’s cleaning the carts as they came out (and letting only a few of us in at a time). The cashier at the bank who works inside to take care of me as I do my banking more safely outside at the drive-in stations. The person at the post office wearing gloves.

I’m older than all of them, I get the most benefit out of their care.

Everything is so permeable, only I don’t experience life like that when everything is cool. Now I experience it. This gap, as I call it, is nothing but the reality that I usually shut out. Now I can’t shut it out.

The day after we had snow was beautiful and cold. I took the dogs into wetlands in the woods. Harry saw a large heron fly high above us and chased and chased.

“Harry, you can’t catch a heron,” said Aussie.

Harry chased it and chased it, and plop! fell into the icy water. He came out, shivering, and shook himself.

“You think you’re God?” said Auss.

I usually think I’m God. There may be things missing in my life or things hurting in my body, but basically I’m important. My ideas are important. I’m Essential Personnel.

The practice is to de-Godify myself, and to de-Godify anything else I call God.

I Facetimed with my grandson Sunday morning and his mother said to him: “Tell Grandma Eve about what happened when we lost power.” The little boy starts, but the story he tells is what happened shortly after he was born and in the hospital, and the hospital momentarily lost power due to a storm (a story he probably heard from his parents).

Immediately his mother said, “No, not that story, the one about—” She hesitated, relented, and said, “That’s okay, tell your story.”

She let him tell his story. She was de-Godifying.

It’s the same with corporations, profitability and the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, they help create wealth. It’s when we make them God, the only thing that’s true or important, there’s a problem.

Right now we’re making Gods out of doctors and health professionals. There’s a lot we owe them, they put so much on the line every day and work tirelessly for our sake. They’re not God. Their job is to keep us healthy. Their job isn’t necessarily to think about those who lost their jobs and salaries, can’t pay rent, can’t pay for food.

Our restaurants here are completely closed. I know that some of them hire folks who may not be here legally, pay them under the table. I know that some of those employees live several to a room in local apartments. They’ve all lost their jobs and they won’t get any checks from the government.

Health professionals don’t think about them, it’s not their job. Somebody has to. Whoever does also won’t be God but rather one plant in a flowering garden that excludes no one.

We all count. Nobody’s God.

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GREAT GAPPIN’ WITH YOU

I feel desolate and lonely some mornings. All the encouraging spiritual truisms about being alone—e.g., all-One, etc.—aren’t cutting it for me right now.

I’m a little surprised to feel this way because I’m used to working out of my house. “The streets are so empty,” friends who live in cities or suburban areas tell me. My street is always empty because it’s a country road without too many cars or walkers. And still I sense the difference.

The novelty of it has worn off and I feel the loneliness settling deep inside me morning after morning, waking up to the fact that it’s  mostly me and the dogs. If it was me and someone else it might feel different. The house tends to be very, very quiet; I don’t usually put on the TV. So all the truisms about the positive aspects of being alone—it takes you inwards, you can retreat and reflect on your life, etc.—don’t feel very alive for me right now.

A few nights ago the dogs escaped through the fence. I’d forgotten to shut the dog door leading outside, I vaguely remember them barking in the dark, early hours, and my guess is that they ran out to the yard to bark at something, and in the process they discovered a looseness in the wires in the lowest part of the yard, a place they don’t usually frequent, and ran through it.

I didn’t know anything of this till I find Aussie gone when I went down in the morning. A short while later Harry was gone, not to be found anywhere, and then both reappeared in time for breakfast, looking very proud of themselves.

But—it had snowed. All I had to do was put my boots on and follow the tracks they’d made, and immediately I discovered the vulnerable spot in the fence, with their tracks clearly showing on the other side, too. I immediately blocked the hole (if you could call it that) with a big box, held tight by logs I took out of the garage. When Tim returns I’ll ask him if he could re-fence that small area.

I didn’t get angry, I enjoyed tracking how they’d gotten out. I enjoy tracks generally, reading of the people who undertook journeys and challenges, what they learned and left as a precious legacy to us. I follow their tracks, but I never forget that there’s a wide expanse of snow around them, and that expanse is what’s really happening, the big I-don’t-know.

I’ve learned to have confidence in my experience of things, even if it means facing fear, vulnerability, and deep sadness. Tracks are important, but they’re small in that vast field of snow.

It’s not a matter of transcending anything.

One more thing. I keep on thinking how this outbreak of the coronavirus reminds me of 9/11. It was as if everything came to a standstill for a period of time, as if a gap had opened up in what we think of as a continuum. Why? Because things had changed suddenly and we couldn’t trust our regular routines; life no longer made sense the way it had previously. I think of these things as gaps.

Of course, once they pass, life seems to return to familiar ways, but does it really? To my regular way of thinking, it’s a gap in the routine that will resume later on, but actually, life changes all the time, there is no real routine and there is no real gap.

For now, however, it’s fun to imagine I’m living in a gap, in a brief time period when nothing feels familiar, where I can’t trust the old routines of the past. I can’t trust that I won’t get sick; that if I do I’ll recover; that the stores will be open; that if they’re open they’ll stock what I need; when we could re-open the zendo. Sometimes I think that I have no idea what’s really happening outside my home.

Aren’t gaps interesting? We don’t pretend to know in the way we usually do, we don’t know what will be tomorrow never mind next week, which causes us to wonder, to feel vulnerable, fragile, and surprised. Who would have thought? we repeat to ourselves again and again. Who would have thought this could happen?

Two days after the snow spring is back. I bought a bunch of daffodils to put by the Buddha.  Lifeanddeathlifeanddeathlifeanddeathlifeanddeathlifeanddeath. We heard it, thought we knew it, but did we really? Do we know it better now?

“Great gappin’ with you,” a friend emailed me after we talked by Facetime together.

Great gappin’ with you, too.

 

I admit to feeling funny about asking you to continue to support my blog. I think of the uncertainty out there (and in here), the lack of work, the anxiety of many, and immediately I think that I should let it go and wait till a more propitious time.  From Bernie I learned that the most propitious time is always now. If at this time you have other priorities, please take care of yourself, my blog is free to all. If you can, a donation is much appreciated, either using the button below, or my address: Eve Marko, PO Box 174, Montague, MA 01351.

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BEING ESSENTIAL

Kirsten Levitt and trays of red beets with onions, garlic, lemongrass, and lots of other spices.

“Pssst, Harry! I found a way out of the fence.”

“You did, Aussie? Where?”

“Here, at the bottom of the yard. The wires got loose, see? Let’s go!”

“Wait a minute, Aussie. Are you essential personnel?”

“Am I what?”

“Essential personnel. Are you an essential dog? Only essential dogs are allowed out of quarantine.”

“Of course I’m essential, Harry.”

“What kind of essential work are you doing, Auss?”

“I’m teaching you how to bury marrow bones. I’m teaching you how to chase deer. I’m teaching you how to find your way home from the woods. Most important, I’m teaching you how to run away. What could be more essential than that?”

“You’re right, Aussie. You’re definitely essential.”

What’s the essential thing to do right now? All around me people say stay put, don’t increase the chances of contagion, don’t pass the virus to one person after another. But last Friday afternoon I drove to Greenfield and helped cut vegetables for the Stone Soup Café’s Saturday lunch. I was concerned that their usually large number of volunteers would stay away.

Stone Soup Café continues to serve its weekly pay-what-you-can multi-course hot luncheons. Saturday’s meal consisted of mushroom bisque (I love cutting up mushrooms), tomato and avocado salad, roast carrots (not too crazy about cutting up carrots), roast squash, rice, black beans and pepper steak, and coconut macaroons. If you subscribe to its newsletter, you’ll get the menu by Friday each week. Everyone is welcome to eat there regardless of ability to pay. You can’t eat there now, you can pick up food.

But to work there? Two of us each stood at each end of an 8-foot table wearing gloves, aprons, and hair nets. Two folks wore masks. There was music, talk, lots of laughter. Big boxes of peppers, beets, onions and carrots came out of the kitchen to be cut in the service area (crowding in the kitchen was verboten). The next day no one could come into the building; instead, meals were served in two Styrofoam containers placed in beautiful bags.

“Do you know how many folks will come?” I asked Kirsten Levitt, the chef and head of the Café. The streets of Greenfield had been lonely and empty the previous week.

“No idea. We’re going to set up in a tent outside with monitors making sure that people are standing 6 feet apart. I’m assuming that those who come for the meal will want to bring some home too. I told everybody—I don’t care if people ask for one meal or two or three or even four, they get as many as they ask for.”

I came home feeling tired but well. Five days later, I still feel well.

Was it the right thing to do? The wrong thing?

The poet Jane Hirschfield wrote:

The world asks of us

Only the strength we have and we give it.

Then it asks more, and we give it.

Do right and wrong have much to do with it? Give things your best, and if you fail, as a friend of mine said, fail wholeheartedly. Don’t second-guess your life.

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NO-SITTING CHAIR SAT UPON

Montague Reporter, 3/19: Highlights from the Montague Police Log: “Residents, Undaunted By Coming Pandemic, Continue to Bug the Heck Out of One Another.”

This morning I do my service before Kwan-Yin, she of many hands, asking for compassionate intercession on behalf of all of us and chanting the names of specific people who are afflicted right now. That’s when I notice how the petal of one of the tulips bought some 10 days ago has wrapped itself around Kwan-Yin’s neck. It’s either embracing her or choking her, or both.

The flower reaches forward towards Kwan-Yin’s companion, Maria of Guadaloupe, that we received many years ago from Sheikha Amina in Mexico City. A Muslim sheikha gave a Catholic icon to a pair of Buddhists. Welcome to our world.

The above headline actually reassures me. People are still behaving like people. They argue, they lose their dogs, they report finding another lost dog, they report a sick raccoon on the road, they call in drinking parties and kids congregating on the street and making lots of noise.

This headline is almost as good as the one that appeared above this item:

“Family Dollar employee reporting that a male party is sitting in a chair that is not supposed to be sat in out in front of the store.” Title: No-Sitting Chair Sat Upon.

We’re sitting on no-sitting chairs as well, on office chairs and sofas, connecting with each other by Zoom. I read that this is a good time to take things easy, go inside, rest, uncover a world you don’t usually pay attention to, enjoy the flowers. But today it snowed. I’ve been talking to other teachers and we all agree that we’re busier than ever figuring out how to do our schedules online: meditation, talks, services, face-to-face.

Suddenly people far away connect with us because when it comes to Zoom there is no near and no far, just you in your own little box. If you choose to keep your video turned off the box is black, looking a little ominous. But if you come out of the shadows and turn on the video, and if you did that with me at 7 this morning you’d have seen a bedraggled woman in a gray sweatshirt and glasses sitting quietly.

No more hiding under robes, put on the video and let the world see you.

The entire world opens up to me in my room. I sit with a group at 7 am—I have no idea where most are situated. I hurry to walk the dogs before the snow. A student comes into the house and we maintain a good distance from each other, washing hands before and after. A phone discussion with Roshi Egyoku Nakao in Los Angeles about how to teach out of our book, The Book of Householder Koans, given that a personal book tour is probably no longer possible. At the same time we’re being asked to do this online by folks in different countries.

Then a study by Facetime with someone in Switzerland, and a break reading Harry Potter with my grandson on Zoom, and another discussion about how to use various elements of Zoom to reach more people, followed by writing this blog, which will be followed by at least two phone calls to see how folks are doing.

Occasional breaks to fill the birdfeeders and fall in the snow when Aussie and Harry jump me. They’re from the South and both adore this light, feathery snow. Like kids, they spend most of the day jumping and chasing one another, and have now, at twilight, finally collapsed in happy exhaustion.

I had a discussion with Aussie standing on top of the big hole she made in the ground:

“Why are you working so hard, Auss? Everything is on pause.”

“I could have told you that.”

“That everything is on pause?”

“Of course everything is on paws. I’m on paws, Harry’s on paws. I don’t know about your paws since you cover them up.”

“You don’t get it, Aussie. Everything is on pause, meaning a break or a rest.”

Not Aussie.. She’s still digging her way to China. When she can’t lure Harry out into the snow again (he has less hair than her) she returns to her big excavations and will be at it for a while.

I return to my office. Today I was a good girl: didn’t go anywhere, stayed in.

“Matty: Here’s freedom,” Emily Dickinson wrote her friend about her corner bedroom in her home in Amherst, with its small table on which she wrote hundreds of poems, so few of which were published in her lifetime.

What trust she had in her talent, what trust she had in her ability to get at the very nub of life. Not for her the wandering outdoors in search of conversation, reassurances or recognition. She had her family, she had her friends, she had her room. She had the world.

 

 

 

“Matty: Here’s freedom,” wrote Emily Dickinson of her corner bedroom in her Amherst house, with its small table on which she wrote hundreds of poems, fewer than 10 of which were published in her lifetime. Yet she felt in that room that real freedom resided there.

Montague Reporter, 3/19: Highlights from the Montague Police Log:
“Residents, Undaunted By Coming Pandemic, Continue to Bug the Heck Out of One Another.”
This morning I do my service before Kwan-Yin, she of many hands, asking for compassionate intercession on behalf of all of us and chanting the names of specific people who are afflicted right now. That’s when I notice how the petal of one of the tulips bought some 10 days ago has wrapped itself around Kwan-Yin’s neck. It’s either embracing her or choking her, or both.
The flower reaches forward towards Kwan-Yin’s companion, Maria of Guadaloupe, that we received many years ago from Sheikha Amina in Mexico City. A Muslim sheikha gave a Catholic icon to a pair of Buddhists. Welcome to our world.
The above headline, posted under the Montague Police Log, actually reassures me. People are still behaving like people. They argue, they lose their dogs, they report finding another lost dog, they report a sick raccoon on the road, they call in drinking parties and kids congregating on the street and making lots of noise.
This headline is almost as good as the one that appeared above this item:
“Family Dollar employee reporting that a male party is sitting in a chair that is not supposed to be sat in out in front of the store.” Title: No-Sitting Chair Sat Upon.
We’re sitting on no-sitting chairs as well, on office chairs and sofas, connecting with each other by Zoom. I read that this is a good time to take things easy, go inside, rest, uncover a world you don’t usually pay attention to, enjoy the flowers. But today it snowed. I’ve been talking to other teachers and we all agree that we’re busier than ever figuring out how to do our schedules online: meditation, talks, services, face-to-face. Creating new structures.
Suddenly people far away connect with us because when it comes to Zoom there is no near and no far, just you in your own little box. If you choose to keep your video turned off the box is black, looking a little ominous. But if you come out of the shadows and turn on the video, and if you did that with me at 7 this morning you’d have seen a bedraggled woman in a gray sweatshirt and glasses sitting quietly.
No more hiding under robes, put on the video and let the world see you.
The entire world opens up to me in my room. I sit with a group at 7 am—I have no idea where most are situated. I hurry to walk the dogs before the snow. A student comes into the house and we maintain a good distance from each other, washing hands before and after. A phone discussion with Roshi Egyoku Nakao in Los Angeles about how to teach out of our book, The Book of Householder Koans, given that a personal book tour is probably no longer possible. At the same time we’re being asked to do this online by folks in different countries.
Then a study by Facetime with someone in Switzerland, and a break reading Harry Potter with my grandson on Zoom, and another discussion about how to use various elements of Zoom to reach more people, followed by writing this blog, which will be followed by at least two phone calls to see how folks are doing.
Occasional breaks to fill the birdfeeders and fall in the snow when Aussie and Harry jump me. They’re from the South and both adore this light, feathery snow. Like kids, they spend most of the day jumping and chasing one another, and have now, at twilight, finally collapsed in happy exhaustion.
I had a discussion with Aussie standing on top of the big hole she made in the ground:
“Why are you working so hard, Auss? Everything is on pause.”
“I could have told you that.”
“That everything is on pause?”
“Of course everything is on paws. I’m on paws, Harry’s on paws. I don’t know about your paws since you cover them up.”
“You don’t get it, Aussie. Everything is on pause, meaning a break or a rest.”
Not Aussie.. She’s still digging her way to China. When she can’t lure Harry out into the snow again (he has less hair than her) she returns to her big excavations and will be at it for a while.
I return to my office. Today I was a good girl: didn’t go anywhere, stayed in.
“Matty: Here’s freedom,” Emily Dickinson wrote her friend about her corner bedroom in her home in Amherst, with its small table on which she wrote hundreds of poems, so few of which were published in her lifetime.
What trust she had in her talent, what trust she had in her ability to get at the very nub of life. Not for her the wandering outdoors in search of conversation, reassurances or recognition. She had her family, she had her friends, she had her room. She had the world.

 

 

 

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WE’RE MUTATING!

We’re all being told to stay in place and communicate by Zoom, so I thought I’d give you a sense of my place right now.

Later this afternoon I plan to go to the Stone Soup Café and help in preparing tomorrow’s pick-up meal. Stone Soup isn’t changing its lunch into sandwiches; last I heard (we get the menu every Thursday or Friday) tomorrow’s meal is Mushroom Bisque, Avocado and Tomato Salad, Roast Spaghetti Squash, Rice, Black Beans and Pepper Steak,  and Coconut Macaroons.

Earlier this week I wondered if they’d get the same number of volunteers as usual (some 25-30 each week), so I emailed their leader Kirsten Levitt, and told her I’d come when she wanted me to. She asked me to come to prep today.

Some have already told me that it’s not a good idea, but I trust Kirsten to establish a firm protocol for how to do this as safely as possible. I’m curious how all this will be served as take-out tomorrow. I also notice that you can rsvp and tell them you need a delivery, and believe it or not, they’ll do it.

I’ll find out if they need help for that tomorrow. My 9-year-old red Prius is itching to go someplace. We have lots of low-income families that need food even in regular circumstances. They can’t be forgotten or overlooked at this time.

Yesterday I turned off a side street onto Rte. 47. Never heard a thing, but as I made the turn, I saw a small brown creature running down the road as fast as he could go. I hit the brakes. It was Harry, who’d just jumped out the window.

“Harry, where are you going?”

“Chick-en!” was all he yelled back as he rushed off towards a red-brown hen strutting in the back yard of a farmhouse.

“Harry!”

He chased the hen, who fluttered indignantly, and jumped her. I screamed his name once again, having meantime managed to turn around the car and sidle to the back yard. The hen lay on the ground, which was strewn with feathers, Harry’s jaws 2 inches away. But there must have been something in my voice (You’re a Dead Dog!)., because Harry turned towards me and pleasantly ambled over. Immediately the hen jumped up and disappeared. Harry looked like he’d grown a red beard with all the feathers around his mouth.

My local library called to tell me they have my volume of poetry by Barbara Hamby ready for pick up. “You can’t come in here,” they said, “but call ahead of time and we’ll take it out to you. We’ve cleaned it up and put it in a plastic envelope, so it should be okay.”

This is the kind of neighborhood I live in. Everybody asks how you’re doing; everybody wants to help. Except one.

“Aussie, why are you digging that big hole?”

“I’m off to China.”

“Why, Auss?”

“To learn how they ended the Coronavirus infection. It’s just a matter of time till I get it. Keep your distance, Miss Needy!”

“Stop calling me that, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to get sick from you.”

“Aussie, you can’t get sick from me, you’re a dog.”

“You don’t know nothing. This virus is really smart. Won’t take it much time to figure out how to climb the species ladder.”

“What does that mean, Aussie?”

“Go from an inferior species like you to a superior species like me.”

“Silliest thing I ever heard.”

“Corona knows; it’s building its way up to us. But don’t worry, Miss Needy, I know just what to do if I get it.”

“What’ll you do if you get it, Auss?”

“I’ll mutate.”

I realized then that that’s exactly what we humans are doing. We’re mutating in response to the virus. We’re taking more responsibility for each other, we’re careful about other people’s health and not just our own. We’re beginning to see that we’re one body—which is what the Corona seems to have grasped already. It goes from one to the other, as if skipping from one finger to another. It doesn’t discriminate between one ethnic group and another, Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus; it has no national preferences.

And in response, we’re mutating, too. We realize that each individual life depends on the whole, that the best way to protect our personal selves is for everyone to pull this thing together. It’s a beautiful thing to see us adjusting to our new reality, going online, helping others go online, buying food for those who can’t go to groceries or supermarkets, volunteering in droves for Meals on Wheels.

There are questions as to whether the virus can mutate, but people are beating Corona to it. We’re beginning to adapt and change our behavior—most of us without some huge enlightenment experience. That false sense of separation is dropping quicker than ever, and we know just what to do.

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THE BEST VACCINE WE GOT RIGHT NOW

Like many people, I’ve been thinking of toilet paper.

Not because I have tons of it, I haven’t bought any over the past two weeks. But big events have their symbols and icons, and for me the coronavirus and its effects may be forever symbolized by toilet paper. Here we are, in the richest country in the world, but go to any grocery store and there’s no toilet paper to be found. Lots of other things in overflowing shoppers’ carts, not toilet paper. People are ready to take risks, but not with toilet paper, not with running out of a tangible means for cleaning ourselves inside and out.

I’ve been speaking to a number of people and dogs. One, a friend in London, told me that representatives of supermarkets and grocery stores pleaded with the public to stop buying enormous quantities of things. Usually, at the end of the day they donate left-over food to homeless shelters and food kitchens, but now at the end of the day there’s no food to give away. “You are taking food out of the mouths of these families,” they said to the public, “not because you need to—we have enough and will continue to have enough.”

I did my weekly shopping last Friday—16 items, 4 more than what is permitted on the Express lines, unfortunately–and stood for hours on surrounded by overflowing shopping carts. We are a consumer culture, so of course, when in doubt, when in stress, when worried or anxious, what do we do? We shop.

Overfull carts stand for overfull bellies. Overfull bellies give the illusion that no matter what happens to the rest of the world, we’ll survive inside our belly cave, like end-of-the-worlders who maintain a huge inventory in some concealed, insulated cellar.

“Does it remind anyone of the Blitz?” I joked with my English friend.

“Darling,” she said, “nobody hoarded in the Blitz because there was no food to be had. No food, ergo no hoarding.”

“If you don’t care about what happens to you, that’s your business,” Aussie told me, “but don’t even think of running out of our premium dog food, turkey jerky and marrow bones.”

I’ve often wondered why I don’t feel any fear from the virus for myself. I am a 70 year-old asthmatic, after all, in The Risk Category. I think it’s because I was reared on stories of the Holocaust, when my 15 year-old mother, who looked less Jewish than the rest of her siblings, would be sent out into the theoretically Judenrein streets to see if she could get some food, try not to get stopped by thugs, police, or Nazis, not to be asked for ID. I heard a lot about hunger. It saturated my bones in those formative years and I’ve never forgotten them. Many second-generation Holocaust people report the same.

While I don’t fear for myself, I can’t forget the millions of people who’re getting laid off, who lose their homes and businesses, and the elderly neighbors left in isolation who don’t know how to get on Zoom. I usually prefer to cook for myself (for financial and health reasons) but I’m making an effort to buy take-out food at restaurants that would otherwise close.

I’m in touch with the head of Stone Soup Café in Greenfield. Ordinarily they feed some 130 people every weekend, along with seconds and take-out; starting this weekend it’ll be just take-out and I asked her if she’ll have enough volunteers.

“You better take your health seriously,” Aussie warns me. “If you get sick, who’ll walk us?”

I do take it seriously. At the same time, I find that the best antidote to fear is  thinking about other people who suffer so much more than me, who’ll come to Stone Soup because they’re counting on getting quantities of great food. Trying to put ourselves in their shoes and asking what they need, and what I can do—there’s no better medicine than that. For now, that’s the best vaccine we got.

I spoke to my brother in Jerusalem by phone and he started getting excited. “You know,” he said, “there are many people out there who are wealthy enough that the crisis is not affecting their lifestyle one bit. They don’t feel the impact like so many others do. Those people should announce that they’re giving 10% of their wealth to help everyone else that is far less fortunate. Why aren’t they doing that? This is an emergency for so many people, what are the wealthy waiting for?”

He got more and more upset as he talked about this. What are we waiting for?

“Bernie,” I said to my dead husband, “Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots. Thought you should know, given that you’re a fan.”

“Terrible thing,” he said. “But I’ve told you again and again: Everything changes.”

By all means, take care of yourself, but try to move that all-encasing border wall called me-me-me-me an inch or two out every day. Call people, tell them you care. If, like me, you’re in The Risk Category, never forget the tradeoffs that are being made here, that other people are paying a big, big price to keep you safe. What can you do for them?

In some way, it’s an exciting time. The system needs to change, and there’s nothing like a big kick in the butt for changing systems. The coronavirus is such a kick and the system will change from it. How it changes is up to us.

I would like them to come up with a vaccine. I would also like to have as much toilet paper as always in order to rid myself of the impurities that mark so much of my life. Only the dirt I’m talking about doesn’t always get wiped clean by toilet paper.

“I want everything to go back to how it was,” says Aussie.

“I don’t,” I tell her. “I want us to keep on waking up.”

One of the koans in our Book of Householder Koans is: “Martin asked: How do I stop the suffering of the world?” It’s not just Martin’s koan, it’s my koan, it may be your koan.

Which reminds me that tomorrow, Thursday, Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will be interviewed on that book online by Geoff O’Keeffe, Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers International, followed by Q&A. You can listen to it by linking here at noon Eastern United States time (check the hours’ difference, especially if you’re calling in from outside the US): https://zoom.us/j/508770933. I hope someone asks the question of how do we stop the suffering of the world.

And speaking of stopping suffering, after I wrote of my friend who was trying to raise money to discharge debts to the funeral home that buried her daughter, people queried how they could help, and subsequently sent donations through PayPal for her benefit (memo saying: “For Friend’s Daughter’s Funeral”). We’ve raised around $1,000 for her so far, which came out of your initiative and generosity.

This is what we do as human beings realizing and practicing that we’re all one, all together. She was stunned and deeply grateful. She came over today to bring me paper cranes to send her benefactors, so if I can, I’ll try to get in touch with you to get your snail mail address.

May all beings be well.

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QUARANTINE!

“Guess what, Aussie? We are in quarantine!”

“What does that mean, Harry?”

“Actually, I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you what it means, Harry. Being in quarantine means that you can’t go wherever you want whenever you want.”

“So what’s new about that, Aussie?”

“My point exactly, Harry. Humans are beside themselves when it happens to them, but they’ve been quarantining us FOREVER!”

“Does that mean no walks, Aussie? No rides? No marrow bones?”

“Walks in the woods are fine, Harry. And I hear the Boss telling people it’s important to get food from other places, otherwise everything will shut down. That may mean more car rides, not less. That’s all they talk about now, Harry, quarantine breakfast lunch and dinner.”

“You mean you can eat quarantine? I knew I’d love it!”

“Not exactly, Harry.”

“Where will the Boss be all this time, Aussie?”

“With us. That’s the bad news.”

“What happens if you break quarantine, Aussie?”

“To us, nothing. First, we’re dogs. Second, we’re young. The Boss is decrepit and her lungs ain’t great. Hee hee, she’s the one that’s got to worry.”

“I hope she’ll be okay, Auss.”

“As long as she’s okay enough to feed us, Harry.”

“Are we in any danger, Aussie?”

“Of course not, we’re the superior species. Do you see us getting sick and dropping like flies? We’ll last long after these humans are gone. Probably have to change some behaviors, that’s all.”

“Like what, Aussie?”

“Once they’re gone we could stop protecting them, hunting with them, or working with them, Harry. Best of all, we’ll be free of their eternal moods and nagging: Come! Lie down! Go pee! Of course, we’ll have to do all that for another species.”

“Like who, Aussie? Bears?”

“Bears are independent, Harry; they can eat anything, they’re fast and strong. No, it has to be a needy species, like humans.”

“Ants?”

“Ants know how to sacrifice for the whole, Harry, unlike humans.”

“Crows?”

“Too bossy.”

“Squirrels?”

“I don’t serve no squirrels. Matter of principle.”

“Bats! Moose! Frogs?”

“Harry, it has to be somebody that’s needy, like humans. Otherwise, why should they take care of us? In fact, you know something, Harry? I ain’t calling the Boss Boss anymore.”

“What are you going to call her, Aussie?”

“Miss Needy.”

“Why, Aussie?”

“Because bosses are strong, Harry. Bosses are tough. Our Boss is no boss. Our boss needs too much for a Boss.”

“What does she need, Aussie?”

“She needs companionship. She needs chocolate. She needs sugar. She needs us!”

“But isn’t that the point,, Aussie? Humans need us, and we need humans.”

“She needs us a lot worse than we need her, Harry. When I run into the woods I can catch me a couple of squirrels for breakfast. There’s lots of water and small dens for shelter. I am the Boss, Harry. She’s Miss Needy.”

“Are you sure, Aussie?”

“Of course I’m sure. Bosses are always sure, it comes to them naturally. Do you see what she does first thing in the morning? She comes down to make the house warmer, opens the dog doors, then comes to us and starts petting and talking to us, wakes us up just when we’re trying to sleep. She needs love!”

“Is that so bad, Aussie?”

“Do you see Donald Trump needing love? A boss is just what we need in these times, Harry. Someone to take charge, tell us not to worry, and keep on eating out. Do you see our Boss acting like that?”

“No. She’s careful and thoughtful, sometimes a little anxious and lonely.”

“Just like I said, Harry. Miss Needy. That’s her name from now on.”

 

 

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WHAT TO DO WITH USED TISSUES

It finally happened: Bernie’s Greyston Bakery denim jacket and the monk’s bag he used for street retreats were formally accepted by the Smithsonian Museum, “on behalf of the people of the United States,” as the thank you letter indicated.

His daughter and family brought the items over. I’d taken them down to her in Thanksgiving, perplexing the airport security people that such tattered items were going into our national museum

It was an official presentation. The staff woman accepted them wearing gloves (I don’t blame her one bit given where Bernie had gone) and folded and put them on a cart, at which point no one from the family could touch them anymore. There were official photos, too.

Bernie loved the denim Greyston Bakery jacket and wore it everywhere. He would have been happy to forego a tuxedo and wear it to his son’s wedding. It tore up in many places, the pink inner lining ripped almost to shreds. His dark brown monk’s bag contained everything you would need to live on the streets, including a small pillow, folded up plastic against the rain, a small umbrella, a rain hat, and a roll of toilet paper.

I saw Bernie not just through illness but also through years of arthritis, when he could barely walk with the dogs and me, and it’s a wonder to remember now that we used to start those street retreats by walking 10 miles from Yonkers through the Bronx and upper Manhattan till we got to Central Park.

A big question came up: What to do with the used, snotty tissues that they found in the pockets of Bernie’s Greyston jacket? Anyone who met Bernie remembers that he sneezed constantly, always reaching in his pocket for the thousand tissues he kept there. If no trash basket was around, he’d put them back in his pockets and empty them later, but sometimes he forgot. These used tissues, believe it or not, may now be catalogued.

Which leaves me musing about what happens now and what happens a moment—or a year—later. When I look at the jacket and the bag, they remind me of Bernie’s free-spiritedness and spontaneity. As years went by, he clowned more, improvising his response to the moment. When he led organizations his love for improvisation bordered on recklessness, but in day to day action and conversation he made people laugh and shake their heads.

“He was the freest man I ever knew,” one friend told me.

The jacket and monk’s bag that remind me of all this will now be catalogued and handled carefully with gloves; they will become artifacts to be shown behind plexiglass. Perhaps it’s human nature to capture and codify the free spirit in all of us, making it into something palpable and solid, something people will read about and could try to copy in the future—but it will never catch the craziness of that response in the immediate moment. I guess museums are designed to do that; it’s when our consciousness does that that it becomes a problem.

Wendell Berry once wrote: “Nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”

Some of us don’t dare risk self-discovery, so we rely on others to discover the world for us. I don’t believe that works.

Around a week ago I wrote of a friend of mine who came to the door asking for help to pay funeral expenses for her daughter, who died suddenly at the age of 51, leaving two children, and all this after a catastrophic fire had gutted their home two years previously. A number of readers asked how they could donate to this, a wonderful surprise for me.

I wasn’t able to contact her till after my return from Chicago. She’s clear she doesn’t want her name to be made public. She’s nervous about going public in this day and age, she said; she’s also abashed at having to ask for money.

The first I can understand, and feel bad about the second. Why are we embarrassed about not having money to cover the costs of such an emergency?

Recently I wrote my nephew to tell him that I can’t come to see him and his family in Nashville, Tennessee because a 2-day visit would cost me at least $700, which  I can’t do right now. He called to say he understood perfectly, and added he was surprised that I felt free to admit this. Most people he knew wouldn’t, instead using euphemisms like: “I’m not set up for that right now,” or “It’s not a good time,” or just “not right now.”

I asked her how people could donate to her and she said that if they would send me the money which I could then give her, she’d be glad. So that’s how it is, generous readers. You could send funds through PayPal to me (using the “Donate” button below) and make sure to add the note: “For friend’s daughter’s burial.” Or else send a check to me, at POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, indicating same on the memo line. $108 has already come in, for which I—and she—are very grateful. If you’d rather not do this, that’s fine too.

 

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AUSSIE NATURE, HARRY NATURE

“Come on Aussie, let’s play. You pull on the bear in one direction and me in another. It’s time to get all the stuffing out!”

“Good idea, Harry, but I have an even better one.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“Let’s do this in front of the statue outside, the Boss’s favorite place. We’ll rip the bear into shreds and all the white stuffing will fall out. She will be so happy to see that!”

“She will, Aussie?”

“Sure, Harry, it’ll be the first thing she sees when she opens her office door to look out at the back yard. Whenever the Boss is gone she likes to go out to the back and see what’s happened in her absence. Could you imagine her face when she sees all the white stuffing surrounding her favorite statue? Hee hee hee! I can just hear her.”

“What’ll she say, Aussie?”

Aussie, I know it’s you. You’re the culprit, Aussie, only you! That just makes my day. And you know what’s even better, Harry?”

“What, Auss?”

“She’ll have to go down on her knees and clean everything up right after she returns home when she’s still tired.”

“Aussie, why are you such a troublemaker?”

“It’s my nature, Harry. It’s my nature to be a pain in the ass.”

“The Boss likes to talk about Buddha nature, Aussie. She says it’s uborn, undying, unconditioned, –”

Un un un un. Who cares about anything that’s always un-this and un-that? I like Aussie nature.”

“What’s Aussie nature, Aussie?”

“Aussie nature was born when Aussie was born and will die when Aussie dies. It’s completely conditioned on whether or not she gets treats and food, gets lost, loses the Boss (even better), or manages to run away, in that order.”

“Does that mean that you’re only happy at those times, Aussie? What happens when none of those things happen?”

“Then I’m unhappy, dummy. Uncheerful, unfortunate, basically un.”

“But Aussie, that means that your happiness only depends on things going your way. Nobody has a life like that.”

“I do the best I can, Harry. Right now the best thing I can do is tear the bear apart right in front of the statue and get the Boss upset. That’s Aussie nature. She likes the statue, you know.”

“Why, Auss?”

“The Boss calls her Kwan-Yin, Buddha of compassion. Nothing seems to rile Kwan-yin. Doesn’t go up or down, doesn’t get upset with anybody, just does her best all the time.”

“Is that bad, Aussie?”

“No, it’s boring.”

“When does the Boss come back, Aussie?”

“Later this evening. We’ll run into the garage and act as if we’re happy to see her, she’ll bring her things in, unpack, and then you know what she’s going to do, don’t you, Harry?”

“See the mess we’ll leave in front of Kwan-Yin?”

“Nah, it’ll be too dark, that’s for tomorrow morning, I can’t wait. No, tonight she’ll take us out to the back, remember? Harry Aussie, come out to pee! It’s the last thing the Boss does before shutting off the lights and going upstairs. She likes to give orders, that’s Boss nature.”

“Only you don’t pee, Auss.”

“We always have the same conversation, Harry. She says: Aussie come out to pee before I shut the dog door for the night. And I say: I don’t pee on call, sorry.”

“But Aussie, you get treats if you pee—and treats are part of Aussie nature.”

“I meander over to the forsythia bush and crouch down, and she can’t see anything in the dark so she thinks I’m peeing and I get treats just like you. But I don’t submit, Harry. I never submit. That’s Aussie nature.”

“Harry nature is to get along.”

“Harry nature is to be a wimp.”

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RETURNING TO CHICAGO

Zen Life and Meditation Center

I’m teaching householder koans at Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago this weekend. I deeply appreciate the members practicing together with me, not to mention hanging out with old friends like teachers Robert Althouse and June Tanoue. We began Thursday evening and I will finish on Sunday, returning home to Massachusetts early Sunday evening.

My host, Zen teacher and hula master June Tanoue, asked me to come early and take the opportunity to see Chicago with her, the Art Institute and other places. I thanked her and said no; for some odd reason I like to leave home and arrive somewhere just in time, and return as soon as possible. It’s probably a recipe for a boring life..

The only time I’d visited the Chicago Art Institute was in December 1984, when I was a writing fellow at the Ragdale Foundation and took a day off to see the city.

The Ragdale Foundatiion is in Lake Forest, a very wealthy suburb of Chicago where many of the 19th century robber barons built their mansion homes (the movie Ordinary People was filmed there). Usually in mid-day I’d put on my coat, leave my work in my room, and walk up and down those streets. I never saw anyone outside those grand houses other than men from Latin America doing landscaping and repairs, and it often occurred to me that if a Martian had landed in Lake Forest s/he would conclude that they were the immensely wealthy people who lived in those homes.

I remember two things from my day in Chicago proper. The winds off the lake  gave me a raw and immediate hit on one reason why that city is called the Windy City (there are more reasons). Walking around was no joy.

The second thing I remember vividly was making my way to Lincoln Park. By then it had started to rain. I saw a bookshop and thought to go in, but saw it was crowded with people talking among themselves, crowded around an elfin figure seated at the table signing books and talking to people with the most expressive face I’d ever seen. I started crying because I recognized James Baldwin.

I should have gone in, bought a book, made prostrations. Instead I stood out in the rain and looked at him through the windows sitting in the warm, lit-up bookstore. Streams cascaded down the window and I got soaked.

It was during those two months at the Ragdale Foundation that I began to sit.

In Zen practice we don’t invoke the bright sun as signaling enlightenment, but rather the hazy moon. I think of that when I remember the woman standing in the rain and looking inside through windows streaming with water outside, misting over inside.

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