THE PICNIC ON WEDNESDAY

Jimena’s porch full of gifts for immigrant children

On Wednesday morning I sent out a piece about Aussie searching everywhere for Trump votes. As it went out, I saw the first news about rioters breaking into the Capitol. When things subside, I may hear from Aussie about how she broke into the Capitol, too. For now, she’s quarantined and I tell her I don’t want to hear one word from her. I tell her, “It’s not funny, Aussie.” And then I remember saying this to Bernie a number of times, and he replied: “Something is always funny, Eve.”

After sending the post out I could do nothing but look at the papers online and then switch to TV. I rarely watch news on TV, but this time I couldn’t step away till after 10 pm, when the Senate voted to accept Arizona’s electors. I thought that that would be it, that the Republican Senators who said they would challenge other states’ electors would now be too shamed, or simply tuckered out, to challenge more states. I was wrong, and Joe Biden wasn’t certified the winner till 3 am US Eastern time.

The next day I could barely focus on anything. To a lesser extent, it’s still true. My finger has a tic and leaps off the keyboard to click on online newspaper outlets. “Focus,” I tell myself. I’m focusing, and among all the things grinding at my  insides, one hurts like no others:

How did rioters get into the Capitol with such ease? How did the police do so little, how were they so unprepared? How did they talk to them like pals? How did they do selfies with them? Where was the alarm?

Yes, some shepherded the Congress and Senate to safety, good for them. Some drew their guns. Others just stepped away and let the rioters take over, or else stood on the sides with no one taking command.

For the rioters, this was a picnic. They looked like happy kids on some big adventure, with just enough obstruction to make it a little challenging, but nothing serious. No shouted threats on bullhorns, no batons or guns, very little tear gas. They climbed up those walls as if they were on some outdoors tree-climbing course. They broke windows and clambered inside as if this was a movie. One woman did that and was shot and killed, and that is terrible. But—what was she thinking?

I stared and stared at the pictures, and always the same words flashed in my mind: And if they were black? What would have happened if these people were black?

Hours after thousands of National Guard came in, two hours after the curfew had set in at 6:00, people sauntered down the streets, laughed, high-fived, compared photos, posed for selfies. “Why aren’t they arresting them for violating curfew?” I asked my housemate, who was watching, too. “They’re treating this like it’s not even a minor disturbance.”

Where was the rush with tear gas, batons, and guns that we saw in American cities this past summer? Kid glove treatment doesn’t begin to describe the caution, the neutrality, and even the friendliness that some of the police exhibited.

If you were to say that they were outnumbered, overpowered, and faced limited choices, how did such a situation arise? Does anyone alive over the past year believe that if the people coming to DC to protest were black Americans, such a situation would have arisen? Could you imagine the high alerts, the quick authorizations, the thousands in riot gear? Could you imagine a Defense Department not authorizing the National Guard to rush out to the Capitol out of some perception of political correctness if they were going to face black people?

That is what I’ve carried in my belly since Wednesday.

I don’t think privilege ever punched me in the stomach as did those scenes on television. I watched and watched and watched, much as I’d watched and watched on 09/11 as those towers came down. As if a voice was whispering: Take this in, bear witness, take it all into the deepest places of your conscience, the depths of your heart/mind. Never forget.

I’m aware that there are major constituencies out there that have long felt neglected by the powers that be, their cries for help in the rural heartlands, on Main Street, and in factories rusting away unheard. I know that big money and corporate lobbies have ransacked the Capitol long ago far more effectively. But those are not the people described in the profiles of rioters; they described people who follow certain social media, who still think the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, whose hatred of liberals boggles my mind, and who have made it perfectly clear what they will do to perpetuate their vision of this country. Camp Auschwitz said a lot.

This is the last cry of privileged white males, some say. Demographics are on our side.

Maybe, but it’s a very prolonged last cry. The guns they carry are real and they are condoned by our legal system. Too many of our police see comrades in this sea of white faces breaking windows and wrapped in the American flag. I think they see them as recognizably white, people who’re a little misguided but don’t really mean harm, good guys who occasionally overdo it but are still good guys. When will they extend even half that goodwill to people with a darker color skin?

It’s not that I want the same violence that exploded in Seattle and other cities to happen here; that kind of police brutality goes nowhere. And good things are happening, too. Raphael Warnock winning a Senate seat in Georgia almost brought tears to my eyes. A black pastor from the famous church where King preached, what could be better than that? It’s as eloquent as almost any of King’s speeches.

Yes, demographics are changing in Georgia and other places, bringing the inevitable change to American society, a more diverse country where multi-culturalism isn’t happening just in some big cities but penetrating the heartland.

I thought all that when I watched television on Wednesday. And still I stared and stared, forgetting to blink. “Remember this,” a voice said. “Don’t ever, ever forget what they did here, and how police responded.”

 

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CONSPIRATORS

Leaves Under Ice

“They gotta be here somewhere. I just know it, they gotta be here somewhere.”

“Aussie, why are you going through the bin of paper recyclables?”

“You know why!”

“Scrounging around for food, Auss?”

“Votes! Votes! I’m sniffing around for votes!”

“But what makes you look for them here, Aussie? Donald was looking for 11,780 votes in Georgia, not Massachusetts.”

“You take me for a dope? I know that this bin isn’t for recycling. Just look at all those papers and envelopes.”

“Aussie, that’s recycled mail. We’ve been recycling paper every two weeks for years! Are you taking stuff out of the bin? Stop that!”

“You think I don’t know the truth?”

“What truth, Auss?”

“The Trump votes from Georgia were never all counted. Instead, they snuck them onto a truck and sent them off to Massachusetts, where they get dumped or recycled. I know I’ll find votes here somewhere, I’m a Doberman, after all.”

“You’re a Dobie like I’m a squirrel, Auss.”

“See? Here! I told you I’d find votes!”

“Aussie, that’s junk mail.”

“You think I believe any of that?”

“It’s an offer from a credit card company.”

“What’s the heavy thing inside, eh? Answer me that!”

“Probably the credit card, Aussie.”

“And what’s this? Secret instructions from Jimmy Carter?”

“No, a fundraising letter from Habitat for Humanity, Aussie.”

“And what about this?”

“A letter from Medicare reporting on what they covered for my doctor consultation.”

““Medicare! I knew it. You can’t say Medicare without thinking of fraud.”

“You’re not going to find 11,780 votes in the blue bin in our garage, Aussie.”

“Don’t worry, we got all of New England covered.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Proud Pooches. We’re sniffing through trash barrels, recyclable bins, office cabinets, even the pockets of Bernie’s bathrobe.”

“Bernie’s dead, Auss!”

“So you say, so you say.”

“Aussie, you’re making a fool of yourself. Who thought of such a stupid idea anyway?”

“Who do you think? I told them that if they could bring me up in a truck from Texas and my ex, Harry, from Mississippi, they can smuggle votes up from Georgia.”

“In a truck that says Animal Rescue?”

“Clever, aren’t they? I told the Pooches that we got all it takes to turn this election around. If we can smell pot in airports, cancer in hospital patients and marrow bones in the freezer, we can smell out votes. We have our uniforms—”

“That’s an orange vest so that hunters don’t mistake you for a deer.”

“—and we have our motto.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“Live Free or Bark.”

“Aussie, put back that paper.”

“Even Enrique is helping us.”

“Henry? You enrolled Henry, the chihuahua you want to deport?”

“Just in case you’re conspiring in Spanish. We got all the languages covered.”

“What about Yiddish? When my parents didn’t want us kids to understand them, Aussie, they’d talk in Yiddish.”

“We asked Benny the Schnauzer to join but he demurred. Lousy traitor!”

“Aussie, this is embarrassing.”

“Haha! Found it.”

“Found what?”

“Cardboard! Flattened out. The evidence we’ve been looking for.”

“Flattened boxes, Auss?”

“What was in those boxes before they were flattened, eh? Tell me that!”

“Aussie, we have to flatten corrugated boxes to have them recycled.”

“Everybody knows there were votes in those boxes!”

“Who’s everybody, Aussie?”

“You, me, everybody!”

“Show me proof, Aussie. Show me one stolen vote!”

“I don’t have to show you proof, you know why?”

“Why?”

“Because in my heart I know I’m right! And the heart never lies.”

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. If you’re sending a gift to immigrant families, please note this on the memo line.

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A NEW YEAR BONE

On Sunday mornings, after breakfast, Aussie gets a big marrow bone. She got an especially big one New Year’s Day. Henry, too, though his is quite a bit smaller, to keep things in proportion. That buys us some quiet time before the morning whining to get going, go for walks and car rides, etc.

One of my favorite sounds in the world is the grinding of Aussie’s teeth against the hard bone behind me, with intermittent loud, lushy licks. If I was to turn around and watch, I’d see her start the operation by standing on her legs and sniffing at the bone, biting and pulling at some errant meat, and finally getting down on her belly to really do the job.

It’s a good time on Sunday mornings.

There are other sounds I don’t like so much, especially Aussie’s whining for no apparent reason. I know the Mmmm! sounds when she’s hungry and it’s time to eat, I know those sounds, accompanied by shiny eyes and a tail wagging furiously, telling me that it’s after mid-morning and when are we going out?

My old dog Stanley used to come up to my office at 5:00 sharp and start whining, and in that case, it meant: Okay, who’s cooking this evening? It’s time to make dinner. He’d walk and whine, walk and whine between Bernie’s office and mine; you could have set your watch by it.

And then there are the whines whose reasons I don’t know. Not so with Henry. Every single one of Henry’s whimperings has one message: There’s a toy in the neighborhood, why aren’t you throwing it?

With Aussie it’s different. She stands alongside my chair and goes into a high soprano Mmmm! I look down at her.

“What is it, Auss?”

“Mmmmm!”

“We just came back from a walk.”

“Mmmmm!”

“We just came back from the bank and they gave you a cookie.”

“Mmmmm!

“Lots of birds and squirrels for you to chase outside in the snow.”

She doesn’t budge. “Mmmmm!”

I watch the frustration begin to rise up inside. She’s not into ball-throwing or frisbee catching. I can’t let her wander on her own. Do you want a job, I ask her silently? Do you want to be a therapy dog? Do you want to have more to do in your life aside from starring in a blog? I can’t give it that much time, Aussie, I continue, it has to work for me, too.

But the frustration inside continues, mostly fueled by a suspicion that she’s not happy, that I’m not making her happy, that she wants and needs more than I can give.

But this isn’t about Aussie and me, it’s about life and me.

In so many ways I feel not up to things, including those I take on myself freely. In writing, I reach for something and instead cliches come up. It’s a big discipline to find new ways to express old things, some narrow arc of light that illuminates a bigger surrounding.

I can’t possibly respond to the different emails and texts for ideas, help, and support. I have a responsibility to my students, but the world is far bigger than that and multitudes raise their arms and call out, and I feel the limits of my own humanness.

It’s winter now and I’m confronted by immigrant families for whom this is the worst time because farms shut down. Whatever I do—$750 in weekly food cards, cash assistance to meet rent and utilities—doesn’t feel enough. I’m more alert than ever to how much suffering the poor and the elderly have had through covid; the rest of us, including me (am I elderly at 71?), make it through. I probably would have gotten more teaching income if not for covid, but I can live with ease with what I have. They can’t. And the wealthy have gotten far wealthier.

Since turning 70 I have felt a distinct change in my energy level. I sleep more than I used to and there’s not much creativity in the evenings. Bernie let go of so many things even before the stroke; the stroke took most of the rest, and death took what was left.

For the new year I wish myself an end to frustration. An end to expectations and the margin between them and my capacity. I wish for myself to get closer to the earth and nourish it, as do the Sawmill River under our house and the creek that meanders in the woods, rather than walking mightily on my two legs, head up in the sky. Dwell peacefully in my true proportions.

I’ll keep on supporting the immigrant families in our community. But the bigger piece is now more indirect, supporting the peacemakers, supporting the people whose turn it is to do the helping, those who often feel alone and despairing when there’s a call they can’t meet, like Mmmmm! I benefitted so much from my own teacher and husband, and even more from the big international sangha around me. They completely changed my life, and the best thing I can do is try to supply this to others.

Work with quiet focus. Give Aussie her walks and car rides, throw Henry’s stuffed monkeys for him to fetch, keep bird feeders full, and the heart open to the multitude of voices I can’t realistically respond to. Feel that gap, feel that space, don’t let frustration rise to take its place.

Enjoy the sound of canine teeth grinding happily against marrow bones.

A new year.

You can also send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. If the check is for immigrant families, please write this on memo line.

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A NEW YEAR FOR AUSSIE

“Aussie, it’s a New Year, a time of new beginnings, a chance to turn the page and start anew. What do you wish yourself for the New Year?”

“I want to live a completely unspiritual life in the new year.”

“What does that mean, Auss?”

“Let me tell you exactly. First of all, I want to be able to complain.”

“You complain plenty!”

“I don’t complain enough. You’re too stoic and spiritual about everything. You could get sick and have lots of pain and froth at the mouth, and all you’ll say is: ‘Life is good.’”

“That’s not true, Aussie, I try to be as real as possible.”

“As if you got much choice.”

“And life is good, Aussie.”

“Here we go again. Life isn’t good. Not with a foreign spy in our house like Henry.”

“Henry’s not a spy.”

“If a Chihuahua has a name like Henry, you bet he’s a spy. In the new year I’m calling him Enrique.”

“You know, Aussie, my father, the rabbi, lived till he was 90. As he aged and got sick, every time I asked him how he was his standard answer would be: ‘You’re not allowed to complain.’'”

“So much for rabbis. I’m complaining. I want you to put up a sign at our house: Complaining welcome here. Bitching even better.

“Okay, Auss, complain away.”

“Why do you hang the birdfeeders so high up? How am I supposed to get birds that way?”

“Noted. What else?”

“Why do you give me marrow bones only on holidays and Sundays? What’s wrong with the other days of the week?”

“Noted. What else, Aussie?”

“I’m through accepting life as it is.”

“So, what are you going to do, Auss?”

“Fight! Fighting is exciting, fighting is drama. Fighting life creates heroes—moi!”

“Fighting life also creates losers, Aussie. Life is always going to come out ahead.”

“True, but think of the fun I’ll have.”

“What else do you want for the new year, Aussie?”

“No more of this non-killing bullshit.”

“I assume you refer to birds?”

“No, I refer to the UPS man. And now we come to food. I don’t want no vegetables. I want raw hamburgers. And I don’t care where they come from, local, far away, pasture-raised or feedlots. I ain’t choosy, like someone I know.”

“Noted. What else?”

“Donuts and cookies. Anything with corn syrup, the more fructose the better. And one more thing. McDonald’s fries.”

“I thought you didn’t like them so much anymore, Aussie.”

“I want the old McDonald’s fries, the ones they made with hydrogenated oil. Those were great! The ones they have now are terrible.”

“And what else, Auss?”

“The most important thing of all. I want us to put up a sign at the front door: .”

“Impossible, Aussie. Don’t you want to be in your body?”

“Just as long as I’m not in Enrique’s body.”

“What about when you’re doing things like running? Don’t you want to know you’re running when you’re running? Resting when you’re resting?”

“Duh, I guess.”

“So, let me see here. For the new year, Aussie, you want to bitch and complain, daily marrow bones, raw hamburgers, lowered birdfeeders, old-style McDonald’s fries, no mindfulness in the house, and renaming Henry Enrique. Did I miss anything?”

“And fighting life every single day!“

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INSTEAD OF BEING SCARED, GET SCARY

 

I watched Henry after the big snowstorm that hit us in mid-December and that was washed away on Christmas Day. We got some 16 inches of snow, not the most by a long shot (we’ve gotten as much as 3 feet), but enough to deter a small Chihuahua mix like Henry from venturing out.

Never having had a small dog before, I love getting to know Henry, who belongs to my housemate. He camps outside my door in the morning, whimpering till it opens, and then hops on his back legs like a meercat for his hugs. Aussie, on the other hand, sleeps downstairs till late. He walks with us in the deep woods, usually positioned between Aussie, up ahead, and me, and if he gets too close to a cold stream evil Aussie , with her two coats of fur, pushes him with her muzzle right into the freezing water and grins happily. He, a short-hair dog, shakes himself indignantly but continues to follow her. He has learned a lot from Aussie.

This time, the snow was deep. Aussie, originally from Texas, loved it. It was cotton-soft and light, she scampered in it for hours, scaring away the squirrels and creating deep indentations with her paws. Henry, however, stopped in his tracks at the garage door. He had a short path shoveled for him for excretory purposes, but outside was a winter amusement park that he didn’t know how to negotiate. Sixteen inches of snow is no small matter for a dog that weighs 12 pounds.

I was standing there, looking out at both of them, when Henry had his eureka moment. He watched Aussie running off in the snow and suddenly jumped into one of her tracks, bounded over the deep snow onto the next deep paw print, flew over the snow till he landed in the next, and kept on doing that all across the yard, jumping from one deep indentation to the other, hurdling over the in-between high snow like a horse.

After that, Henry had no more problems with snow. We went into deep snow in the conservancy nearby and he did the same across the wide, snowy meadows, flying over the snow from one of Aussie’s paw prints to another, having a blast. When he got home, he shook himself off, ran upstairs, jumped on the bed and went straight to sleep; he was a tired little dog.

Sometimes we’re most creative when we  encounter obstructions in our path. Most of us, I think, wish that our lives will go like a sitcom, predictable and a little giggly. They don’t, and that’s when they get interesting. Our individual creativity is challenged, we’re asked to come up with a different approach, the more unique the better.

It’s as if life is laughing at me and saying: I threw this your way, let’s see what you come up with. Show me what you got. Sometimes we need muscle and perseverance, and sometimes it’s a lightness and agility of being, like Henry, dancing from one of Aussie’s pawprints to the next, flying in the air.

That’s when I get that life isn’t about eliminating hindrances and obstructions; it could be about befriending them, studying them, and coming up with a new idea: I wonder what I could do with this. Henry could have gone back indoors and gone to sleep till spring, letting Aussie have all the fun. Instead, he worked out a whole new sport, and was happy and proud of himself.

You don’t have to wait till spring or the end of covid to renew yourself; you can do that right in the middle of the cold.

I remembered Bernie’s surgery to remove his squamous cell carcinoma from his brow, right on top of his protuberant nose. It had looked like nothing at all for a few months, but he insisted on waiting with the small surgery in order to be able to fly to Poland for the annual retreat at Auschwitz, and by the time we got there it had gotten really big and ugly. We got home and went straight to the hospital where they put him into full anesthesia to have it removed.

I was told it wouldn’t be a big deal, but when I entered the recovery room, I came to a standstill. His face was half bandaged up like a mummy, the bandages were bloodied and what was visible of his face was swollen and bruised. His face was horrifying.

I ran off to get some new meds for him, and when I returned his bandages had been changed but there was no missing the blood at the edges. His face looked like something out of a Halloween horror movie. This was just 10 days after Halloween.

He got into his wheelchair, saw his face in a mirror, and shook his head in disbelief.

“There are lots of kids in the reception area downstairs,” I told him. “Should we go scare them?”

This cheered him up. “Yeah!”

Down we went in the elevator, people edging away from us when they saw him in his blood-rimmed bandages and the dark purplish bulges. When we got into the big waiting area of the hospital, he swung into action. I wheeled him through and he began to growl softly as we passed the people coming towards us. They went the other way, staring in shock, and a few kids hung close to their parents.

“Stop doing that,” I  laughed. “You’re scaring them to death.”

He had such a good time.

I left him inside the main doors, went to get the car, and brought it to the front. When I came back in, he was sitting right in front of the doors as people came in, growling and snarling, his hands up in the air as if ready to pounce.

“Bernie, what are you doing?” I said, hurrying to get him out of there before someone called the hospital police.

He brought his hands down wearily and leaned back into the wheelchair. “When I’ scary, I’m really scary!” he said with some satisfaction.

We got into the car and drove home.

 

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SO WHAT’S NEW? NOTHING.

I lit a tall stick of incense today for my uncle who passed away some years ago. His name was Simcha Singer. The ch is soft, as in my Hebrew name, Chava. Simcha means joy.

My family, like others, has lost people over the years, but many of the cousins of my generation, on the maternal side, feel they owe a special debt—in fact, their lives—to this uncle.

How to describe him? He was born two years ahead of my mother to a poor Jewish family in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia. The brother and sister, two siblings among 11, with a mother who could give but little individual attention, hung out a lot together.

He looked down from the roof when the Nazis entered Bratislava in the middle of the night in 1944 (the second time they came in), woke up the family, and took them into a rarely used room in the very back of the basement of their apartment house. Once they were safely inside, he shut the doors on them and piled up wood, boards, and thrown-away objects so that  it would look uninhabited. Other families from the building rushed downstairs into the basement proper, were discovered, and sent to Auschwitz. No one discovered the family behind the hidden door.

Rather than taking shelter, my uncle, around 18 at the time, leaped from roof to roof and knocked on as many windows as possible to tell people that the Nazis had come in and to save themselves. There are some funny stories about those hours, too, that I won’t detail now.

He had planned for the Nazis’ arrival for a while.

“I tried to talk to Abba (Dad) about it but he never liked to listen to me, he had other favorites among his sons,” he told me many years later.

He had met a non-Jewish construction worker who had a cellar in his house. That’s where the family hid out. The cellar was so low, damp, and crowded they could only sit huddled inside, unable to stand. They were finally discovered by the Nazis.

“I think it was a Jewish man from somewhere else who joined us for a short while,” my mother remembered. “We were found right after that, they knew exactly where to go to find us. They probably caught him and promised him his freedom if he’d tell them where he’d been, not that they ever had any intention of keeping their bargain.”

It was often my mother who was sent out to get food because she was more Aryan looking, but her brother also sneaked out though he looked as dark and Jewish as could be. Their toddler nephew, his mother killed at Auschwitz, was being hidden and raised by a non-Jewish woman in the country, and she insisted on being paid monthly. Month after month, regardless of what happened to the family, one of them had to get to her and make that payment.

My uncle was caught more than once, even tortured, but he had a way of evading his captors. Once he was put on a train to a concentration camp, and as soon as the train pulled away, he started whittling away at the heavy wooden door, trying to create an opening big enough to escape through it.

“The others there were afraid of the guards,” he remembered. “I told them I had to pay for my nephew; besides, we had nothing more to lose.”

The story of that escape is even more bizarre, complex, and inspiring than I can relate right now. Books and books can be published about the heroism of people who were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. My mom is no slouch in that department, either.

When I was a child, I looked at him as a hero; I think we all did. It was hard to believe that this thin, diminutive man had done so much; we felt we owed him our lives.

It took my uncle a long time to settle into his own life in Israel. He had a family but not a particularly happy marriage. He opened up an appliance store which made money and bored him, so he tried many different things, investing in various companies, and even traveled through Asia as an arms dealer, purchasing American weapons abandoned in Vietnam and selling them to other bidders.

There was a time when he dreamed of leaving everything and everyone, going away to Argentina, and starting anew. There was always that restlessness about him, searching the horizon for new ventures. But he stayed put, went to class, and learned how to be comfortable with computers.

The final stage of his life was characterized by a small series of strokes. My mother, who adored him above all other men, couldn’t understand it. “What’s wrong with him?” she’d say. “Why doesn’t he do something?”

But he was through doing things. He was a grandfather, a family patriarch, and I think he found happiness there.

According to my count, he died some eight years ago. Time goes by and it’s hard to keep track. The marker on his grave acknowledges the sacrifices he made to save Jews from death.

Between him and my mother, I feel I’ve lived in the shadow of heroism and self-sacrifice from the time I was born. Given the stories I grew up on, Mother Goose and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales paled in comparison. Children’s stories and books had no interest for me. I was proud of this family. You read and watch TV about courage, I used to say silently to the other kids around me, but our family’s the real thing.

I grew up wishing I could prove myself as they had. I’m very, very lucky not to be challenged in that way. I know what a blessing it is to have daily, uninterrupted routines.

“So, what’s new?” my mom asks in our daily phone calls.

I try to comb through the day to find something to entertain her, but finally I say: “Nothing, mom. Nothing’s new. We’re closed up, just like you.”

“Why?” she wonders, because she can’t remember.

Nothing’s new. What a privilege, how special! Even with covid around, there is no enemy with boots and guns at the door, no deportations, no need to hide. Others experience that—it’s why I help immigrant families—but that’s not my karma right now. No need to feel afraid. I miss certain things, and at the same time relish the ordinary routines of daily life: get up in the morning, shower, sit, coffee, greet the dogs, check the news and emails, look at the calendar to see what’s up for me that day, get to work.

Is there a greater blessing than that?

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THE WORLD KNOWS

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I sit here in a darkening Saturday afternoon, the day after the holiday. We had a spectacular rainstorm on Christmas Day. It began with a sprinkling on Christmas Eve and relentless torrents for most of yesterday. Aussie insisted on going out and dripped water all over the floor each time she came in; there was flooding everywhere, and practically all the snow—15 inches of it— disappeared by end of day, including all the snow surrounding the apple tree in the photo. I was grateful we didn’t lose power.

Here we are, I thought to myself, closed in by covid, and now closed in even more by the rain. Not only don’t we see family and friends, we can’t even go out to walk or play outdoors.

No matter how we look at it, this past year is still pushing us inside and inwards all the time, we can’t seem to avoid it, as if it’s saying: Don’t look out, look in. It doesn’t matter what you resolved or wished for 2020, your job is to stay inside.

I think of two things:

The first is my religious Jewish family, which, of course, never celebrated Christmas. More important, they tried to render it as invisible as possible in our home. It wasn’t considered good form to even say Christmas in the house, and while we never had much occasion to mention Jesus Christ, his name too was almost never mentioned. Not prohibited, just not considered proper..

For Jews, Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s biggest holidays, come with a lot of baggage. Historically, those were the times when Jews living in Europe and Russia during the Middle Ages and well into the European Age of  Enlightenment feared for their safety and lives. It was very common for Christians to go to church for worship, leave, and find joy not in a good holiday dinner at home but as a mob descending on the local Jewish community or ghetto, starting a spree of violence that often ended in plunder and murder. There are many documented cases of priests inciting their congregations to kill the Jesus-killers.

A strange way to celebrate the birth and later resurrection of a savior.

So, it’s no surprise that even a couple of centuries later, many Jews who’re still cognizant of that history—and especially religious Jews—view Christmas with suspicion. A good friend of mine, a Jewish woman who loves to cook for and celebrate holidays, wrote me that she doesn’t celebrate Christmas out of the resentment she harbors for  Christianity.

For years I had a hard time wishing people a Merry Christmas, even after they first wished it to me; I felt I was betraying my people who locked their doors in terror all those years ago when the church services ended, holding their children close and hoping that this year, at least, it will go by with no harm to them.

But, here I am, years later, and I appreciate the birth of a great spiritual leader and warrior. We had a very quiet day yesterday, but when my housemate invited me to join her in a Christmas dinner here at home a few days earlier, my immediate response was: “What can I make?” As a result, we had a magnificent dinner, I hadn’t eaten so rich in a long time: a roast beef, scalloped potatoes, snap peas, a berry crumble, wine. The dogs gathered by the kitchen stove, sniffing happily, causing us to trip over them. We worked out who had the oven first and in the end we filled up the dishwasher.

The rain pelted away: Stay indoors, stay inside. Don’t get distracted, don’t try to escape. Stay in.

And I remembered another Christmas holiday many years back, long before I married Bernie, when I lived in a cabin on my own. A good friend arrived for the holiday and I was very grateful for her company. We had a good time throughout.

In the middle of the day my brother called to ask how I was doing just as Linda  went for a walk outside. I told him I was hosting my good friend, he asked how that was, I said it was terrific, and then added: “You know, sometimes she talks too much.” We laughed, but even as I said those words, I knew it wasn’t really the case; Linda talked when we were together, but when I wished to be alone, she gave me lots of space. And still I said those words.

When she returned, I saw that her mood had changed. She’d left the house full of cheer, and she returned disgruntled. Immediately I thought: She heard what I said about her. But that couldn’t be, I then thought, she was nowhere near the cabin when I talked on the phone, not to mention that I talked in Hebrew to my brother. But something had changed in her, at least for a time, low spirits in the place of the high spirits she had when she’d left.

We became cheerful again a little later, but I thought to myself: She heard something. The leaves whispered it, or the birds, or the clouds. Somehow, she knew.

Why had I said those uncalled-for, unnecessary words about her?

Years later, Bernie told me he didn’t believe in secrets. “If you really see that we’re all One Body, then the world knows,” he said. “It may not know the details, but it knows something.”

I remembered this yesterday, and how sure I was that somehow, she knew. I thought of the unnecessary things I’ve said over time, and how the world always knew.

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ALL THE VOICES

“Aussie, what are you doing?”

“Digging my way to the White House. I don’t have much time, Donald is losing his home in less than a month. I think this is the quickest way, I just have to dig deep and then turn south. Get there in no time.”

“He’s trying hard not to have to leave, Auss.”

“Of course. The White House is free housing, for God’s sake!”

“I never thought of it like that. You know, Aussie, people kill for a rent-controlled apartment in New York.”

“Presidential homelessness is a national scandal! He’s lucky he has me to tell the world how great he is.”

“No, Aussie, he has me to thank for that.”

“You!”

“You see, Aussie, I hate to tell you this, but I’m the one who comes up with your voice.”

“You do not. It’s my voice, it’s all me.”

“I give you your voice, Aussie. You don’t talk.”

“Of course, I talk! I talk your ear off.”

“Aussie, every single thing you say comes from me.”

“I talk. You can’t understand a word I say, but I talk.”

“You know what’s interesting about this voice that’s both your voice and my voice, Auss? All these things are in me. Who would think that I would consider going to live with Donald Trump in the White House?”

“I don’t see you digging!”

“Or that I would call Henry names and want to deport him—”

“He’s a foreigner, for God’s sake, a Chihuahua!”

“Or make fun of people and dogs who’re not like me—”

“I LOVE doing that!”

“Wonderful, Aussie.”

“What’s wonderful?”

“When I give you your voice, it lets all these other voices come out—and I didn’t even know they were there! That’s the gift of creativity, Aussie. You never know what’s in you till you start playing or writing or dancing, and suddenly you can’t believe all the voices that have been in you all the time.”

“It’s my voice!. You’re an idiot.”

“Even the voice that calls me an idiot is my voice, Aussie.”

“It’s my voice. I love calling you names.”

“It’s all my voices, Aussie, all infinite expressions of life. And you know what? My liberal voice is yours, too.”

“Can’t be. I’m no idiot.”

“Aussie, since we’re all one we have all the voices in creation inside.”

“I don’t want to hear no silly dharma.”

“Being creative helps us remove certain barriers so that we could express things we wouldn’t ordinarily, Aussie, see?”

“I think you’re hearing things. Your entire brain is rotting away, you’re forgetting everything. Remember how you lost the bag of walnuts? I love walnuts and you lost the bag.”

“I didn’t lose it, Auss, I misplaced it.”

“You looked for it everywhere, including the freezer, and where did you find it? In a Cheerios box. What are walnuts doing in a Cheerios box? And, oh great master of all voices, let me remind you of the car wash.”

“Please, Aussie, don’t talk about it.”

“Not a voice you like to hear, right? I mean, who the hell leaves the back window open inside a car wash?”

“I had no idea. I turn around and see you looking at me overjoyed, and I say: ‘Aussie, how did you turn so white?’ And you say—”

“’Because I’m covered with soap suds, dummy!’ Only then did you realize the window was completely open.”

“All that water came in and drenched you, the car seat and the car rug on the bottom. A terrible smell for weeks!”

“Coolest car wash ever. What a stink.”

“Where’s Henry, Aussie?”

“I hid him in the Cheerios box. By the time you find him he’ll be—”

“Aussie, I’ve never seen or heard such a grumpy, hateful, spiteful Christmas spirit as what you’re embodying on Christmas Eve.”

“Just another one of your voices!”

So, here’s another voice: A Merry Christmas to all. Fill the absences around the table and in your heart with da light; find space in emptiness; do some good for others. Nurture and love yourselves as the vessels of all God’s voices. Much, much love from Eve, Henry, Jimena, immigrant families, Donald, Aussie—

“Not me!”

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PERSISTENCE

That’s an apple in the photo, the sole surviving apple of our apple tree. It has survived, among other things, 16 inches of snow the other day. “Now, that’s persistence,” a friend told me.

Today would have been Bernie’s and my 20th wedding anniversary. We lived together for two years before that and  neither of us was in any hurry to formalize things. I think it was Maria Matthiessen, Peter’s wife, who first asked why we didn’t get married; that’s how it got put on the table.

Bernie left the time to me and I chose to get married on the winter solstice. At the time, we lived in Santa Barbara, California, and the winter solstice didn’t feel dark and cold as it does in New England. Here is where the winter solstice feels magical, here is where it feels like a big deal: the days are short, gray on top and white below, and the dark encroaches by mid-afternoon. But I love the dark. Rumi encourages people in his poetry to stay up and see the divine, the Lover, in the dark. The closest I get to meeting that invitation is at this time of year.

And part of that includes Bernie, and it also includes my friends and students who practice with the light and dark, who dance with them day in and day out. The birds cavort around the birdfeeders, spilling sunflower seeds on the snow and flying down to eat them, unaware of Aussie crouching around the corner of the house, waiting for her chance to pounce.

“If you didn’t feed them, she wouldn’t kill them,” someone said.

“If I don’t live, I don’t die,” I said back.

Only who wants to live like that? If I don’t walk, I don’t feel the arthritis in my left knee. If I don’t cook, I don’t mess up the vegetable pizza. If I don’t write, I manage to avoid cliches. If I don’t love, there’s no loss. But who wants to live like that?

A friend told me this story:

He was walking through the San Francisco airport on his way to his flight when he saw a Buddhist monk walking by, wearing the saffron robe so well known in southeast Asia. My friend said he was moved to see the monk because years back he also felt the call to become a renunciate. That was not the direction life had taken him, he had work he loved, he had a family, he was traveling. That moment he felt a deep gratitude for the monk who was not just living his life of a monk, but also the part of my friend’s life that had wanted to be a monk.

“He was living my monk life for me,” he told me, “and I suddenly felt full of gratitude to him for doing that.”

The story doesn’t end there. He then boarded the plane and got into his seat, watching as other passengers boarded as well. Down the aisle came a young, handsome, well-dressed man with a pretty woman on his arm. The young man had the look of pride and self-satisfaction of all fortunate men with pretty young women on their arm, aware of the looks he was getting. And my friend felt a tinge of regret there, too, because there were years when he’d wanted such a life, full of promise and even swagger, with pretty young women hanging on. And his life didn’t go in that direction either, it took him into a long-term marriage with children.

He realized that here, too, this young man was living the life for him that he’d wanted long ago. He didn’t have to regret anything. He didn’t have to fuss over the fact that he hadn’t become a monk or that he wasn’t flying places with beautiful young women in attendance, other people were living that life for him so that he could live his own life. And this time, too, he was full of gratitude to the young man.

I’ve made choices and they’ve brought me to this moment of sitting in my office and working at my computer, blogging, getting the plan for the winter intensive in shape and into newsletter form, preparing documents for going online in January with the Zen Peacemaker Order, the screenplay revision. Thinking about a Christmas dinner not with Bernie but with my housemate, a lovely person. Taking the dogs out for a walk and going to Home Depot to get wires to hold up the insulation in the basement. Looking at the birds feeding happily, and Aussie just as happily hiding in ambush.

So many lives I didn’t live that others are living for me. People in couples, people with children, people in beautiful clothes with lots of leisure  people who haven’t yet found out about loss and empty spaces. So much gratitude to them for living like that, so many wishes to them to live their lives and find meaning and joy in them.

I’m the luckiest woman in the world, living so many different lives.

So here I am, towards end of year, asking you to support my blog. I feel a little constrained in this, since I seem to ask so much. Usually, it’s for immigrant families who have little, but this time it’s for the blog. I spend money on it, getting technological help. Without the blog I’d have no platform to ask money for the families. Without the blog I wouldn’t be able to respond to folks who reach out to me. Without the blog I’d be just talking to myself, which I’ve excelled in much of my life, wasting silly words on just one person.

My mother told me something the other day and I said, “Mom, I never heard you say this before.”

“That’s because it’s stupid.”

“No, it isn’t, mom.”

“Yes, it is. Let me tell you something, Chavale. Anybody can say something smart. To say something stupid—now, that’s smart.”

I could have sworn Bernie was talking.

You can support the blog by using the button below. If you prefer to send a check, you can send it to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Thank you very much.

 

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MYSTERIOUS CONNECTIONS

I think a lot about my mother. The good news is that she has just been told to make an appointment to get the covid vaccine in Jerusalem. The bad news is she has to move.

She will turn 93 in July. Like many women, she wasn’t left with much money when she divorced in her early 60s, couldn’t afford to buy an apartment in Jerusalem, and rented instead. In 30 years, she’s moved about 3 times and has lived in this last apartment—old, dark, and in need of repair—for some 15-20 years. There’s nothing to be done here because the landlord’s mother, who lived in the same apartment long ago, wants to move back. So, my mother has to move.

Sometimes she understands what is happening, sometimes not.

Over the past few months, since the Jewish festival of Sukkot in early October, she sings to me on the phone this Yiddish song about a sukkah, a hut that religious Jews build for the Sukkot festival, in which they eat (and some even sleep) for the duration of the week’s holiday. Here is an abbreviated and very loose translation:

I made myself a small sukkah from cheap wood,

The roof from branches,

And there I sit in Sukkot.

A cold wind blows through the cracks

But the candles manage to stay lit.

My young daughter, pale-faced, brings in the food

And says fearfully: “The sukkah is about to fall!”

“Don’t be silly,” I tell her, “and don’t worry.

The Sukkah has stood for 2,000 years already,

A very long time.”

It’s now the same conversation every time I call my mother: “Chavale, I just remembered a song from my childhood which you’ve never heard before.” She starts singing, and when I join her, she’s perplexed: “How do you know it?”

Because you’ve sung it 1,000 times already, mom, I groan to myself.

But one day I suddenly remembered the Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage, by the 8th century Chan master, Shitou Xiqian:

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap …

The person in the hut lives here calmly,

Not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.

Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.

Realms worldly people love, she doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world …

I sat with this a long time.

Recently someone told me that people should put more effort in investigating their family trees and clarifying their roots, even going back hundreds of years. I told him that not all of us have that luxury. In my family, large branches were hacked off during the Holocaust; I can’t track anyone down beyond my  maternal grandparents and my paternal grand-grandparents, and of them I know very, very little.

There’s a sense of loss there, an empty space that has caused me to feel fragile at times. Without a knowable ancestry, where lie my roots?

I heard a sudden echo between the ancient Chinese poem by a Chan master and the Yiddish song about a Sukkah that my mother remembered from her childhood. It’s almost become her theme song, especially now that she has to leave her home. Everything feels so temporary, like a grass-roof hermitage that can blow away any moment

Shitou wasn’t worried.

The middling or lowly can’t help wondering:

Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,

Not dwelling south or north, east or west.

Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.

And my mother, for now, also isn’t worried. Maybe later, not now. She seems to take refuge in old memories of a poor yet happy childhood. At times I’ve had little patience for those Yiddish songs from a world gone by, but really, it’s barely a blink of an eye ago in the long run of things and has a mysterious connection with an old Chinese mountain monk.

It’s a koan, which my dog Aussie is busy investigating,

“Aussie, get into the car this minute. “

“Ugh ugh.”

“You’re embarrassing me, Aussie.”

I pick up Aussie from Leeann, who takes dogs out for outings. At the end all the humans come to pick up their dogs from the outdoors enclosure where they’re waiting, much like picking up kids from school. The other dogs all run to their respective humans, tails wagging wildly in joyous reunion as the two then proceed to go to the car. All except Aussie, who goes to the front of Leeann’s house and sits back on her rump.

“Aussie, we have to get home.”

“This is my home.”

“No, it’s not, Auss. My home is your home.”

“This is my true home,” she insists. “My favorite friends are here, my favorite snacks are here, and Leeann is here, my favorite person in the whole world.”

“No Aussie, Leeann’s home is a temporary home, it’s not your real home. There’s a big difference between a temporary home and your real home.”

“Now I know exactly how Donald feels.”

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