WHO ARE YOU?

“What’s that?”

“I’m bringing Jimena boxes with Christmas toys for the kids. I filled up the trunk and put the rest on the back seat.”

“On my back seat!”

Last Friday afternoon I posted a list of Christmas toys for the children of immigrant families. In fact, I posted one Amazon list consisting of some 65 gifted and put together a Walmart list separately. Late Saturday morning, after getting up from our morning sitting schedule, I checked Amazon and there were only four gifts left, everything else had been sold out. Sunday morning the local post office left some 10 boxes on the front steps of the house. And by Monday morning the list had disappeared.

The last time I’d done this, getting school supplies for the same children, I freaked out when I saw the list had disappeared, sure that I’d done something wrong. Amazon informed me that if the list isn’t there, it’s because it’s sold out.

I’ve been bringing boxes to Jimena three days in a row, our deal being that I’d make up the lists and post about them, bring the boxes to her, and she and her husband and two boys would unpack them, recycle the cartons, match the gifts with recipients—and wrap them. Today I’m going over there with $750 in food cards as well.

I’m so moved by Jimena’s family. She works insane hours  in an area that is now coded red for covid. “Do the boys help you?” I ask her.

“What we like to do most is sit the four of us around the TV and relax,” she tells me. “So if one person is working hard and the others relax, that doesn’t feel good, so everybody helps the person who’s working and then we can all sit and relax together.”

We’re nearing the end of the year. I don’t celebrate Christmas much, other than wishing folks a Merry Christmas, but I feel I’m getting a huge gift this year, and that is a sense of unfathomable bounty all around.

One day last September, when Amazon delivered gifts of school supplies, I was out front when the truck came down the driveway. A uniformed young woman emerged and looked at me. “Who are you?” she asks.

“Eve Marko,” I tell her.

“I get it, but who are you? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever come down this driveway before—”

“I don’t often order via Amazon,” I apologize.

“—and now I’m coming down every day with all these boxes!”

I explained to her what we were doing and she laughed. She good-naturedly took out the other boxes from the truck and we waved goodbye.

Who are you? It’s the most basic Zen question of all. These immigrants, all of them undocumented, have a hard time understanding how folks from far away, including outside the U.S., send money to help them. They help each other; they got here because there’s a brother here or a sister they can count on. They give each other lifts in the few cars they have, so that 2 or 3 come at a time for food cards. But folks from far away? Why would they help?

Maybe because there is no such thing as far away. Across nations and cultures, our DNA is still the same. In addition, we can access a storehouse consciousness that is the total of all past experiences and actions, similar to Jung’s collective consciousness. That may explain why, regardless of our present situation, we can know what it is to worry about paying a grocery bill or meeting the rent, standing outside a store window and looking silently, knowing there’s no money to go in and buy something.

Things get pretty dire in winter. The nice relief bill they’re still negotiating in Washington (I imagine they’ll finally agree on something just so that they could finally go home for Christmas) won’t help these families at all. Who does? Local churches, the county’s interfaith council, wonderful (and often overlooked) civic organizations like the Elks and Lions Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters. And people like you and me.

The teachers in the local schools bought out the Walmart list. Jimena’s two boys bought four of the gifts.

Leave it to canine Aussie to remind me of the obstructions we put up to the flow of the universe. It’s my work, my money, my universe. It’s my back seat!

“I don’t know why you worry about them,” she says in the woods. “Do you realize that Donald’s neighbors in Florida don’t want him there? He’s going to be HOMELESS!”

“I don’t think so, Aussie. He’s got lots of homes, just not the White House as of January 20.”

“If he wasn’t white or blonde—”

“Ha!”

“—you’d be plenty worried. You only care about foreigners. Like Henry here, who’s stealing all my treats.”

In the woods, Henry comes running every minute for a treat. He’s supposed to get it only on recall or checking in, but he looks for one as soon as he jumps out of the car.

“Henry, this is an out-ing, not a treat-ing, get it?” snarls Aussie.

“No,” says he.

“On an out-ing, you run around and come back a few times for a treat. In a treat-ing, you constantly get for treats and in between you take a few steps.” She looks up at me and growls. “This is what happens when you don’t speak English.”

We’re preparing for a big storm. I brought up the battery-powered lamps, made a last delivery to the compost pile (it will probably be covered by snow and ice for a while), and filled bird feeders. I fill the birdfeeders and Aussie walks behind me, pouncing on those who feed on the seeds that fell to the ground. She’s already gotten herself a squirrel this winter.

“She wouldn’t get them if you didn’t feed them,” someone said to me.

That’s one way to look at it.

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IT’S THE QUIET ONES

The Electoral College is voting today and things suddenly look right in the world. People are more relaxed; the tight lines on their faces loosen into lips, even smiling lips, the eyes regain their glitter. They’re no longer slumped, their shoulders have risen about half a foot, there’s even a gleam on their faces.

We’re back, they seem to say. This country is back.

It’s Joe Biden’s message time and time again: We’re better than this. We’ll heal and things will be fine once again. We’ve fought for our democracy and we’ve won, now it’s time to go straight on.

As if Proud Boys marching on the streets of Washington, DC is no big deal.

As though a majority of House Republicans backing a claim of fraud that has been rejected at all court levels is no big deal.

As though states joining a motion asking for millions of votes to be thrown out by the Supreme Court is nothing at all.

As though millions of people actively opposing the results of the election with absolutely no proof is no big deal.

It’s done, it happened, now we can go down the center in the same merry way we’ve done in the past. Life is back to normal.

I never thought I’d say that I miss the generations of presidential candidates who actually served in wars. Remember Robert Dole and his paralyzed right arm? Remember George H. W. Bush and his Distinguished Flying Cross? John McCain and John Kerry? John Kennedy? Their military service, when they risked their lives, was an example of patriotism, of devotion to country and its values.

It sounds so old fashioned now, who would have thought I’d grow nostalgic? That I would recall people who had an appreciation for the rules of the game, ready to play it to the very end to their own cost, swallow down pain and defeat, and go back to do more work?

It looks good for a Joe Biden inauguration on January 20, but I think it’s downright dangerous to ignore how so many opposed and continue to oppose the results of this election, questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. You might say that it’s only a relatively few fanatics who keep on repeating the mantra of Stop the Steal, that most don’t march on state capitals with guns or stab folks in back streets of our nation’s capital, that most Republicans back Trump because, after all, he’s their guy and they hate to see him lose, but they don’t mean anything bad by it.

Let me tell you, it’s the passive ones I’m worried about. Not the ones who advertise their intentions with photo ops, but the ones at home who pretend nothing terrible is really happening, they’re backing their guy because, well, he’s their guy, and isn’t that just what’s to be expected? They’re not doing anything terrible. They’re not parading down streets in big trucks and flags, but if he could get away with it, hell, why not?

Those are the ones I worry about. There are millions and millions of them, folks who aren’t about to fight to steal an election, but if a gutsy vanguard manages to do it, or a supreme court gives its vapid consent or an electoral college is manipulated (look at how they tried to push through Virginia’s Harry Byrd instead of John Kennedy in the 1960 Electoral College out of fear of what Kennedy would do for civil rights)—well, then why not? He’s our guy, after all.

What pisses me off in Joe Biden is that he’s too nice in the face of this unfolding disaster—and yes, even though he’ll win, this is a disaster and it continues to unfold, openly and actively; it ain’t going anywhere. People have learned and are learning that there are ways to discredit or go around elections, and that you can do it at no cost. No one is pointing a finger at you, no one is castigating your name for the ages. I don’t think this is just Biden’s persona, it’s also a strategy for how he wishes to move forward.

It’s not a viable strategy. At this point we need indignation, we need outrage. Other than Nancy Pelosi, who else is ready to yell to the highest heavens that this will not stand? Trump and his allies take all the airtime with their allegations of fraud, they dominate the news cycles, over and over again giving the message: Yes, you can steal elections—if not this one, then the next one, or the one after that. One day, you’ll win.

You might say: We’ve had enough indignation and outrage for a century, let’s go back to normal. Face it: Learning how to steal elections is becoming the new normal.

The birther conspiracy against Barack Obama was the first lesson. It was difficult to contest that election, so they tried to invalidate Obama’s presidency by casting doubt on his birth. They tried it with Kamala Harris. And now they’re trying it again, this time by casting doubt on the entire operation. They’ve upped the ante.

There are a couple of different views here. One says that the problem is the radicals on both sides, that both are angry, both don’t talk to one another, both are way too partisan for a middle America. Yes, there are radicals on the left side as well, but I don’t remember any concerted effort in 2016 to take Trump’s win away from him. A few hoped the Electoral College would stop him, but that was fantasy; no political leader participated in that scheme.

The second position is that after January 20 people will accept the results and we’ll be fine. But this is the second consecutive time that the validity of a Democrat president is being questioned. It’s the first time that a majority of Republican Congress people are actively participating. Why? If the Supreme court had given them a win, terrific. If not, they had nothing to lose. They didn’t wish to antagonize their boss, and most of their constituency doesn’t seem to mind pushing at the boundaries, trying to get what they can get. If they end up casting doubt on democratic elections, no big deal.

It’s great that Republican governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general and supervisors of elections have stood up for the fairness and soundness of their local elections, only to be reviled, threatened, and told to resign. But look at the national Republican leadership!

Ahead of us is one of those highway crashes that end holiday hopes for many people. If not in 2020 or 2021 then in 2024 or 2028, but not too far in the future. You have to be blind not to see it. Maybe we need that crash, I think to myself in despondent moments. Maybe that’s the only way we’ll get rid of an Electoral College system that had its origins in racism and protecting slavery.

Thomas Paine wrote: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,”

It’s not those carrying guns I worry about. It’s not those in brown shirt uniforms or making big salutes. It’s the rest of us quiet ones: the ones who say: Why not take it as far as it can go, after all he’s our guy, and the quiet ones on the other side who keep on assuring us that things will go back to normal on January 20.

It’s always the quiet ones.

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SPIDERMAN VS. DOC-OCK?

Nerf Zombie Strike Hammershot Blaster

Pillow Pets Paw Patrol Skye Stuffed Animal Plush Toy

I started making out a Christmas list of toy gifts for children while gritting my teeth. Come on, I said to myself, open up Amazon (not a great fan), open up the Toys section, and plunge into lists of a million toys I never heard of, in the most excruciating detail:

Lego Brickheadz Star Wars the Mandalorian (what is a Mandalorian?)

Hot Focus Unicorn Nail Stickers Glow in the Dark Nail Polish (Wait, how old is this kid? Evelyn is 7? I don’t think I even noticed nail polish till I was 12)

Lego Disney Frozen 2 Elsa’s Wagon Carriage Adventure Building Kit with Elsa and Sven Toy Figures 116 Pieces.

Can you buy it if you can’t even say it, I wonder?

Some weeks ago Jimena and I agreed to put together a list of toys for Christmas, one toy per child, in the $15-$20 range. I would post it and ask readers to buy a toy or two for the kids. Jimena, bless her heart, put together an attractive handout in Spanish, which we gave out when we distributed food cards, asking for the children’s names, ages, and what precisely they wanted. Often, she would review each page verbally with the parents. I asked her why she did that, given that the handout was in Spanish, not English.

“Because so many are illiterate,” she told me.

“They’re illiterate in Spanish?”

“Eve, they’re lucky if they went to first grade before being sent to work,” she explained.

“About how many are illiterate?” I asked her.

She squinted her eyes in thought. “Maybe 40%, maybe more.”

A week later the answers come in (see above) and I sit down to compile an Amazon Wish List. This won’t take long, I think, I’m an old hand at this after making up the school supplies list last fall. Besides, I add stupidly to myself, they’re poor kids, they don’t know much about toys. Ha!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I know the kids have had trouble with remote learning and do lots of make-up classwork in English reading and writing (Jimena does this with them outside in the park in summer mornings), but THEY KNEW EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED. Not only that, they could copy the exact title with all the details, sometimes even the model number!

“Kids are kids everywhere,” I tell Aussie as I peer through the Amazon website, searching for arcana in the Toy Universe like Pokemon TCG Cards: Legends of Galar Summer Tin Featuring Zacian and Force 1 Techno Race RC Car. “I’m getting a headache.  I also can’t find Peppa Pig.”

She yawns from the futon behind me. “Peppa Pig shouldn’t be hard.”

“It has to be a plushie.”

“What’s a plushie?”

“Or Jinx Minecraft 11.5” Snow Golem Plush. Isn’t the Golem supposed to be Jewish? The Jewish Golem was certainly no plushie.“ I turn to face her. ”If that’s not bad enough, you know what else girls want, Auss? They want slime.”

“I love slime!”

“That’s because you’re a dog. When I grew up we were told to avoid slime at all costs, but look at this: Original Stationery Unicorn Slime Kit Supplies Stuff for Girls Making Slime.

“At least I bring my slime in from outdoors.”

After a while I started to relax. After an even longer while, I started to smile. Soon, I was positively luxuriating in the list, like in a bubble bath.

Before that a friend and I were comparing notes on how we hardly got any gifts when we were children: “You know what we got when we were kids for Christmas?” she told me. “There was a hole in one corner of the room where the wall met the ceiling, and our parents would tell us that Jesus came through that hole and put presents in our stockings. And you know what those presents were, year after year? Underwear and socks. And maybe a doll the size of a pencil .”

My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but if we had that’s probably what we’d have gotten, too, and been told to be happy with it. So in the beginning there was that familiar, old, stingy voice inside: I didn’t get any of this when I was a child!

But as I went through Glowcity LED Star Soccer Ball Size 5 Glow In the Dark and Nerf Rival Finisher XX-700 Blaster (Quick-Load Magazine, Spring Action, Includes 7 Official Rival Rounds!), my heart warmed up.

“You know, Aussie, it’s almost as if I’m the one getting all these things finally. I didn’t get many gifts as a child, and now look!”

“You really want Paw Patrol Jet to the Rescue Skye Delux Transforming Vehicle with Lights and Sounds at the age of 71?”

“Well, I’ve been into transforming vehicles for a long time, Auss.”

I finished a list of some 63 gifts on Amazon and another 8 in Walmart; the Walmart ones are being bought by the children’s teachers; the 63 I’m entrusting to the universe, to you.

“The kids might get something from charity organizations for Christmas,” another friend who’s worked in social agencies told me, “but they’re give-aways, you know? They’re not what they really want.”

I started researching and inputting this list feeling blue, and ended up with so much joy in my heart I was practically singing. I was reliving my childhood, only this time not just with underwear but with Kinetic Sand, Lego Marvel Spiderman vs. Doc-Ock (what kind of a name is that for a superhero’s arch-enemy?), and the one I loved most, Disney Frozen Musical Adventure Anna Sinning (Amazon finally informed me it was Singing).

If Bernie was alive he’d say that maybe, just maybe I’m letting go of my mind of impoverishment.

You can find the Amazon wish list here.

Please consider buying one or more of these toys for the kids. They average in the range of $15-$20, some are less and some are more but none more than $24.99. The kids range in age from 6 months to 17 years, children of families we’ve fed since April. Each wrote what s/he wanted, above (except for the 6-month old), giving two choices. This year they’ll get one thing they really want–and they spelled it, right? The link to the Amazon Wish List for Christmas is here.

Thank you for your kindness and generosity.

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THE THREE PENANCE

“Aussie, I just got off the phone with my mother. She’s pretty isolated, doesn’t see anybody, spends a lot of time in bed now that it’s cold in Jerusalem. She usually cuts our conversations short, but this time, before she hung up, she said: ‘Chavale, be well and healthy, and write something nice.’”

“Nice! Nice! Who wants to do anything nice?”

“You know, Aussie, I also used to think that nice is boring. I don’t think so anymore.”

“I’m never nice. For instance, you just filled up the birdfeeders for winter and hung them outside, right?”

“Wasn’t that nice, Aussie?”

“It is, because now I can kill more birds.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“I ambush them. I hide out right around the corner behind your office, waiting for some of those seeds to fall to the ground and the silly birds to come down, and then I pounce. Got me three last year.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“Look at those dumb old chickadees and juncos, they never learn. I’ll beat last year’s record easy.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“Not the blue jays of course, they scare the hell out of me. They’re homicidal! When they come to the feeders it’s GANG WARFARE! I’m surprised they’re permitted to be out loose. It’s time to make blue jays illegal!”

“Can’t do that, Auss. Life insists on manifesting in all kinds of ways, not all of which we like.”

“Like blue jays! Like Henry the Illegal Chihuahua! Like all the other illegals you force me to meet on Wednesdays.”

“It’s your job to greet them nicely, Aussie.”

“I growl.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Speaking of greeting nicely, could you please change how you feed the birds? Instead of filling up a birdfeeder and hanging it up on the tree, just spill the seeds right on the snow, it’ll make hunting a lot easier.”

“I will not.”

“You’re supposed to be nice, like your mother said. Don’t you do Zen practice?”

“What makes you think Zen practice is nice, Aussie?”

“Everybody knows it’s all about being quiet, calm, and peaceful. And nice. Ugggh!”

“Aussie, being nice is important, but it’s not what Zen practice is about. In fact, it’s a sad thing for me that many people think of religions or spiritual traditions, like Zen, as though they’re sedatives. Instead of taking a Valium you do a little meditation and you feel restful and serene.”

“Like me!”

“Don’t get me wrong, Aussie, I think it’s important to slow down and be more aware, but there’s so much more to it than that. The clearer you see yourself, the clearer you see life, the more skillful you can be in your relationships with everybody.”

“I know, I know, the Three Penance: Not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving action.”

“Not Penance, Aussie, Tenets. Three Tenets. Zen practice means being alive and fully functioning. It gives meaning even when things feel meaningless, a sense of deep gratitude, a smaller sense of your own importance but a greater appreciation of the role you’re being asked to play, whatever it is.”

“I still think it’s too nice. Speaking of which, did I wish you a happy birthday or am I too late?”

“It’s never too late to wish me a happy birthday, Aussie. You know, we did a one-day retreat on the day of my birthday, but the next day I looked at my computer and saw about 150 birthday greetings, not to mention all kinds of texts and virtual cards by phone. They were so nice!”

“Nothing from me, I hope.”

“I admit, Aussie, that in the past I’ve sometimes poohpoohed those Facebook notifications you get of somebody’s birthday. I think I’m a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“Who’s he?”

“The great writer Charles Dickens created a character, a big miser who didn’t like anybody and anything except for money.”

“What about dead  birds?”

“But on Sunday I relished every single greeting. They make such a difference in these gray, lonely days of covid. Once again, I learned a big lesson about how good it feels to be recognized and acknowledged, you know? There’s a lot to say for being nice.”

“You’re not so nice. If only I could blog about you rather than you blog about me. The things I’d tell the world!”

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WAY OF ZEN

A good friend of mine went to college at Radcliff, Harvard University’s highly exclusive college before Harvard itself went co-ed. Some seven years after she graduated and joined the workforce, she called a headhunter for help getting a job. She reviewed her resume and was surprised when the headhunter told her she didn’t have the qualifications necessary for the job she wanted.

“But I have a Harvard degree,” she reminded the headhunter.

“Yes,” the headhunter said, “but then you had potential.”

I’ve remembered that story all these years, and especially now because I turned 71 on Saturday. I have no more potential, I thought to myself. Is that a relief?

Last week, for only the second time in over five years, I didn’t write three blog posts (excluding occasions when I had retreats and would write that ahead of time). As the weekend drew nigh, including a one-day retreat on Saturday, I realized I wouldn’t get to it and instantly felt bad, as though I’d failed the rules of the game.

There’s a lot of merit to walking away. I walked away for almost 24 hours this past weekend. After the meditation retreat on Saturday, I settled down with a novel and read for 5 hours till midnight—wow, what a treat! The next day I did basic housekeeping and dog-caring tasks, like taking Aussie to the local dog gathering, where she sat with her back turned to all the play and activity, along with her friend Misty the Great Pyrenee. I walked in three inches of snow in the back yard filling birdfeeders.

A beautiful poet  called Kineret Yardena wrote, in The Call:

Is it possible that not every call

is a call to completion?

Is it possible to finish something

walking away,

a prism of light

streaming behind you . . .

Like many writers, I have unpublished manuscripts in my office cabinet. I have unpublished poems and short stories. I would like to see Green River Zen Center continue to flourish in the Valley and to see the Zen Peacemaker Order re-energize and find its place in the world of presence and compassion.

I know writers who, at this time in their lives, do nothing but work to get everything they’ve written out of files and into publication. They’re answering a call for completion, but that’s not my way.

There is so much that is alive for me now. We are living in remarkable times and there is so much to uncover, so many new avenues: new books, new recipes, new songs, new games with at-home children, new footprints in the snow.

The coronavirus could be a big turn as we look at our lives and evaluate how we went through it, how we discovered what’s important and what isn’t. How we learned to respect again real connection and love, while at the same time appreciating the resilience there is in being on our own, albeit isolated at times, seeing the lights in the house up above and knowing they, too, are on their own, all of us apart, all of us together.

We need not just new vaccines but also new poetry, new songs, new dharma. At 71, I’m up for it (though I lack potential).

I called customer service the other day because I had to return a clothing item. The young man asked me for my email address, which is eve@zenpeacemakers.com, and when I told him, he said: “Cool! Do you teach yoga?”

“No,” say I, “I teach Zen.”

“Cool!” says he. “How’s business?”

“Great,” I tell him.

“Must be pretty calming, right?”

“No,” I say. “It can be calming, but for me it’s a plunge into the ocean.”

“Cool!” says he. “Never learned anything about the way of Zen.”

 

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A JUST-IN-CASE PARDON

“Jump! Jump!”

I hurry down the slope to the creek, which is as wide and white as I’ve ever seen it due to rain, conquering a couple of feet of soft ,sloping grass on each bank and rolling determinedly down to the Sawmill River. And there’s Henry, 12-pound Henry, standing on the rock above the water looking down.

“Jump! Jump!” Aussie yells again, circling happily behind him, ready to give him a kindly shove.

She did that a few weeks ago when Henry had trustingly followed her, walking gingerly on heavy tree limbs crisscrossing pools of water, and Aussie pushed him over with her nose, a wicked grin on her face. She howled with laughter while he indignantly got up on his small legs and hurried up to dry ground, rolling over and over on the leaves to get dry.

“Not so funny,” he muttered.

“Hysterical!” Aussie said.

Now I pull her away. She’s not going to throw him into the creek this time, it’s deep in places and the water is roiling around, all white.

“Just think,” says she. “If he fell in, we might find his body in the river as it curls right under the house.” She sighs. “I should only be so lucky!”

“Aussie, if you ever harm that little dog you’ll be in big, big trouble.”

“No, I won’t. The Donald will pardon me.”

“You’re right, that’s probably what will happen. He pardons lots of people.”

“Only those who’re guilty. And he prefers big guilt, nothing small, if you know what I mean. If you lie to people or call something fraudulent, that’s small change, he can’t be bothered with that. Throwing an illegal chihuahua like Henry into the river is big-time; he’ll issue a pardon immediately. They say he’s pardoning every member of his family except for Melania. What’s wrong with Melania?”

“She probably didn’t do anything criminal, Auss.”

“That’s too bad. It’s a badge of honor to be pardoned by the Donald. Watch me toss Henry into the river.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Aussie!”

“Watch me pee in the back seat of the car.”

“Not on your life.”

“I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING BAD, OTHERWISE I DON’T GET PARDONED! Maybe I’ll ambush some birds now that the feeders are out for winter. Got three of them last year. I bet Donald pardons me for that right away.”

“At least you’re planning to commit a crime to get pardoned, Aussie. I hear he’s thinking of pardoning people who haven’t yet been accused of doing anything wrong.”

“You mean a just-in-case pardon? Like just in case they’re accused of doing something wrong, only you can’t accuse them of doing something wrong because they’re already pardoned?”

“Something like that.”

“HE IS SUCH A GENIUS! Only the Donald could think of a contingency pardon. There’s only one problem with a just-in-case pardon.”

“What’s that, Aussie?”

“THE FUN IS ALL ABOUT DOING SOMETHING WRONG! If you get pardoned beforehand, why do anything, know what I mean?”

“This is getting too complicated for me, Aussie.”

“I want to drown Henry in the creek and then get a pardon from the President. Getting a pardon from the President without drowning Henry in the creek is no fun at all!”

“I wonder if he ever considered this, Aussie.”

“Probably not, golf is very demanding.”

“Maybe Donald is giving out pardons just for thinking about doing bad things, Aussie.”

“Thinking about doing bad things is no big deal, everybody does it. It takes guts to actually do them.”

“Think, Aussie. What’s positively the worst thing you can imagine doing without doing it and then get a pardon?”

“Ambush and kill every single bird, squirrel, and chipmunk in the back yard.”

“You’re pardoned!”

“Eat the entire roast chicken you made this morning.”

“You’re pardoned, Auss!”

“Get Henry deported.”

“Leave Henry out of it, Auss.”

“You said to imagine anything, right?”

“Right. You’re pardoned.”

“Jump out the open window of the car and run away to Leeann’s house.”

“You’re pardoned, Aussie.”

“Bite the vet! Kill Ruby the German Shepherd!”

“You’re pardoned, Aussie! You’re pardoned!”

“But this is no fun! Pardons are only fun after you do something and there’s a big whatchamacallit—”

“A trial?”

“—and you’re found guilty, and they’re going to kill you—and then you get pardoned! “

“I never thought of that, Aussie.”

“You know what I think? A Just-in-Case Pardon is for wimps. Just don’t tell Donald I said so.”

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WITHOUT INTENT

Yesterday I took Aussie to the weekly Sunday dog gathering in an adjoining park, only Aussie didn’t gather. All around her some 10 dogs of all shapes and sizes chased and jumped each other, pulling jointly on sticks or else chasing them into the water, while Aussie sat on the edge of the small promontory and looked out to the other side.

She’s not good with big, uncontrolled group. She’s defensive in the face of a group of dogs rushing out to greet her, almost all whom she knows. If there’s too much attention all at once she starts growling, clearly feeling some sense of trespass and even threat.

Aussie likes her boundaries; she likes her codes of conduct. For that reason she has the most trouble with puppies still learning the tricks. Not for her the constant jumping and running, she needs a slow, respectful approach, otherwise it’s as if she’s saying: Get away from me, peasant. Come back when you get a little more education.

Eventually she’ll identify one dog, usually her size or a little bigger, whom she’ll play with (her favorite lately is a large black dog called Cheddar), growling at whoever wants to join in the fun. And sometimes she gives up on the whole scene and sits aloof, contemplating nature, llfe, nothing. Many times I wonder why I keep on bringing a “nongatherer” to a dog gathering.

I finished the book Tokyo Ueno Station last night, promptly opened it back to the  first page and started reading it a second time. That happens very rarely. The book, by the Japanese writer Yu Miri, won the National Book Award for best novel in translation. It had come out in Japan six years ago and in English this year. It’s a small novel about a homeless man who died and now haunts Ueno Park in Tokyo, next to the railway station, where he spent his last years.

Originally, he’s from the area of Fukushima, and while the nuclear disaster there is barely alluded to, it casts a big shadow over the book. He has lived in poverty his entire life and he watches as his peers get ejected from the park whenever a member of the imperial family arrives, pulling carts with all their belongings elbow-to-elbow with other pedestrians enjoying the park, its zoo, monuments to the past and museums, gossiping about their families and homes that they didn’t have to leave behind.

At the train station people stand, waiting to get to their destinations, though you wonder if they aren’t going in eternal circles: “The train now approaching Platform Two is bound for Ikebukuro. Please stand behind the yellow line.” These announcements are repeated time and time again.

“Is this a depressing book?” a friend would demand whenever I recommended a book for her reading pleasure. She used to say this in an accusing way, as though depressing books were the only ones I cared about.

It’s a jewel of a book, I would tell her if she asked this question now. It’s beyond sad or glad. The writing is bewitchingly simple and yes, it does tell a story of the poor and dispossessed that’s as old as the hills. But it’s magical too, because the narrator, back from the dead, is still trying to understand the kind of life he lived. Isn’t that what we all do?

In a funny way, Kazu, the narrator, is completely selfless. He goes to work in hard, menial jobs in fishing and construction from adolescence in order to provide for his many younger siblings, managing to send some of them to college. When he marries and has two children, he still has to live away from home because the jobs are closer to the big cities, returning home twice a year for short periods of time (at some point he calculates that out of 37 years that he’s been married, he’s actually been together with his wife less than a year).

He sends back money every month, feeding his elderly parents, wife, and children, with the result that his children don’t know him and he doesn’t know them. A kind, even noble man who gives up his life for others, suffering the losses of life and doing everything right, hosting funeral ceremonies and honoring the Pure Land traditions of his family, he rarely feels an authentic connection to anyone.

He has never intended to be a good man, he feels he lives a choiceless life, doing what is expected of him as a son, a husband, and a father. He doesn’t know himself at all.

“I did not live with intent; I only lived,” he says in the beginning.

What is it to live without intent, without a meaningful vision? What is it not to be able to wrest meaning from our lives? In Kazu’s case, namely the severe hardship in which he grew, without meaningful job qualifications or education, living day to day in the meanest of circumstances—how could he imagine that there’s something other than survival possible?

I’ve met other people far, far more prosperous, who have no sense of what it is to live with intent. They roll from one stage of life to another—child, student, adult, partner, parent, old person, death—without intent, without some unifying story, without vow. At the end they feel as though their life was happenstance and wonder what it was all about. A close friend of mine went into deep cynicism as she got older, laughing at a lifetime that hadn’t been one of suffering, but rather of meaninglessness.

I watched Aussie sit on top of the small promontory looking out, a quiet presence in the center of havoc. Not for her joining the hustle and bustle, the socialization and play. I was pretty sure she wasn’t busy figuring out her life, but the picture spoke to me. Without intent, where are we going?

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HUMMUS FOR THANKSGIVING? UGGH!

It was a quiet Thanksgiving morning. I’m accustomed to hard-working Thanksgivings, getting up early to prepare the turkey and then standing on my legs hour after hour in the kitchen. Yesterday, in pajamas,  I sat down in the living room chair, cup of coffee nearby, and read a book. Wow! Now that’s what I call a holiday!

In the early afternoon we stood on line at Stone Soup Café getting our take-home meal. Aussie worried about the turkey.

“Why didn’t you order two meals instead of one?”

“There’ll be enough turkey for the two of us, Auss.”

“I don’t want no ethnic holiday, okay? No tacos for Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t think tacos are on the menu, Aussie.”

“No Japanese noodles or anything Korean.”

“Aussie, people celebrate Thanksgiving in their way with their own cuisine. Japanese people like Japanese food, Italians like Italian, Middle-Easterners—”

“Don’t even think of giving me hummus for Thanksgiving. Who are these people? Why can’t they get with the program?”

“Because there is no program, Aussie, that’s the cool thing about this country. There is no dominant culture here, see?”

“Anybody who messes around with turkey on Thanksgiving should go to China or Russia, see if they like it better there.”

“Not everybody likes turkey, Aussie. Some prefer roast chicken, some make a lasagna.”

“I can live with lasagna long as it ain’t spinach.”

This morning I put orange vests on both Aussie and me. Deer shooting season starts now and we’ll have to be careful till the end of the year. We went to the Montague Farm, from which we enter the woods. The Zen Peacemakers once owned this property. Once we left it became a wedding banquet facility, and now I found out that it’s being sold again. While Aussie looked up the road towards the woods, I talked to the current caretaker.

“Do you think the new owners will let me continue to walk in the woods above the farm?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I told the new owners that you’re the steward of the woods, the only one who really walks there aside from the hunters now. They won’t say anything.”

But I wonder. I’m hearing about big plans: taking down the 18th century farmhouse which isn’t up to code, building some small cabins instead, enlarging the teacher’s cabin, lots and lots of ideas. I wish them luck, but after 18 years I have a sense of this land. It’s stubborn and seems to know its own mind. I’ve seen lots of grand plans falter here, including the Zen Peacemakers’, because the land didn’t cooperate. It was too wet to sustain homes, too many deep tree roots through which to build pipes, protected wetlands at bottom inhospitable to habitation, etc.

The land lets you know how much you can do, and if you’re smart you listen.

I’ve already met the new owners and will soon ask them explicitly for permission to enter the woods from the Farm. There’s no reason for them not to give it, I won’t be in anyone’s way. Still, after walking here for 18 years with two generations of dogs, the land may decide it’s enough. The person may say the words, but inside I believe it’ll be the land talking.

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THANKSGIVING

“Aussie, what are you doing with your food in the living room?”

Aussie’s food bowl is aways in the laundry room, her usual dining venue. Yesterday morning I had some roast beef gravy, so instead of putting her dry food in the bowl I put it into the plastic container with the gravy and put it on the floor of the laundry room. After a few minutes I noticed that it was unusually quiet. Aussie was not in the laundry room. I walked into the living room and there she was on the rug, food bowl between her paws.

“What are you doing with your food, Aussie?”

“I’m on guard duty. You know what the problem is, don’t you? Once you get good food, you have to protect it from everybody else! I just know Henry is skulking around, ready to steal the meal as soon as my back is turned, lazy Chihuahua!”

“He’s lazy? And what, pray tell, do you do to earn your food, Aussie?”

“I take you on walks every day! I accompany you on your drives and growl at you to stay awake. I lie on the futon all day protecting the computer screen that’s at the other end. I went with you earlier today to meet those families you love so much. I let the kids pet me, I grin and smile though I can’t understand a thing they’re saying. Let me tell you, I work hard!”

“Aussie, you’re being tight-pawed.”

“These are hard times. Speaking of which, what are you cooking tomorrow? I don’t smell anything in the kitchen.”

“I’m not cooking, Auss.”

“What? You’re not cooking! Thanksgiving’s the day I don’t move from the kitchen floor.”

“Aussie, after 21 years of cooking, I’m not cooking this Thanksgiving.”

“You’re lazier than Henry. What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to line up and get our meal from Stone Soup Café tomorrow.”

“You mean, with the poor? We’re not poor!”

“I  know that; I’ve already paid for our dinner and added a donation.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“At first, I thought I’d buy some prepared Thanksgiving food, but I received a notice from Stone Soup that they’re doing lots of Thanksgiving meals and packing them in boxes to take home. So tomorrow you and I are going to stand on line, masked and 6 feet apart, and pick up our meal.”

“It’s going to rain!”

“Good, we could use more rain, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to stand on that line. All those veterans with their emotional support dogs wearing silly bandannas! I’m from Texas. I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

Poor Aussie! I was thrilled to receive the email from Stone Soup. Nothing I like more than to stand among the community, wait my turn, thank the volunteers and their incredible Executive Chef and Director, Kirsten Levitt, for providing hundreds of big Thanksgiving meals to anyone who asks for one. It’s on a pay-what-you-can basis, and whenever I’m there I feel like I’m taking my turn in the give-and-take of things.

I just returned from giving out $750 more in food cards, cash for Anselmo’s rent for next month (he still can’t work after falling off a roof some 5 weeks ago) and rent and Internet for Marisol, still with her son in the hospital where he went through kidney surgery today, along with a gift someone specifically sent for Floriana who’s taking care of Marisol’s other children. That’s over $2,600 that came from people from all over. I’m so lucky to take part in all this.

At the same time, it’s easy to give. When I used to fundraise for the Greyston organizations in Yonkers, knowing the rush and urgency of our financial needs, trying over and over to get foundation staff on the phone, I used to fantasize that one day I’ll work for a foundation and start giving out money, rather than asking for it all the time.

I don’t feel like that anymore. Tomorrow, at Stone Soup, Aussie and I will be the ones receiving. And if I didn’t have any money, I’d still be receiving those delicious meals. I’ll stand on line with many different people laughing and kibitzing, edging closer to the tables where they’ll ask my name and whether I ordered a turkey meal, a vegetarian meal, or a vegan Thanksgiving meal. Pretty terrific, isn’t it?

Next to me will be different people, some of whom can’t  put down a penny and others who probably made bigger donations than I did. It won’t matter, what will matter will be the receiving, getting to the front of the line and accepting the box of food. Aussie will hold up her head and sniff happily, and I’ll be able to thank everyone.

From joy to bewilderment: Yesterday, Donald Trump finally made a 1-minute public appearance to announce that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had gone over 30,000, “a sacred number” according to him. Sacred means different things to different people.

This morning I read a column by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times entitled: Even in a Pandemic, the Billionaires Are Winning. He quoted a study by the Institute of Policy Studies tracking the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.  “On March 18, … America’s 614 billionaires were worth a combined $2.95 trillion. When the markets closed on Tuesday [yesterday], there were 650 billionaires and their combined wealth was now close to $4 trillion. In the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, American billionaires’ wealth grew by a third,” or one trillion dollars in just 8 months.

In that same timeframe, over 20 million people lost their jobs, Congress is in no hurry to pass a relief bill, and evictions are going to skyrocket smack in the middle of winter once the new year begins.

On this Thanksgiving eve I can’t let myself get into rage, especially witnessing the kindness of so many people. Still, any fool can see where this is heading.

 

 

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COLLABORATORS

Funny things can happen as you get older, as you accumulate assets—a home, a car, bank accounts—and a family, as you pass the peak of your career. Maybe you lose your capacity for outrage or your passion for doing good. Maybe you lose your hope for a better world.

The thing is, it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in the light of day, but so slowly you can miss it.

This came up for me in reading Anne Applebaum’s August article in the Atlantic Magazine on how the Republican leadership became Donald Trump’s collaborators. You can read it here.

As I frequently wrote, Trump himself has not been so interesting to me given his mental state; of far greater interest is his interaction with other, saner people, and specifically with how he managed to convince well over 70 million people to vote for him. Many people have mental illness, but not seventy million. And yes, I get he was a symptom of something systemic, not a cause.

Applebaum explored how Republican Congress people and senators became essentially collaborators and colluded in his efforts to sabotage democracy, his politicization of the coronavirus, and the corruption he brought into the office.“It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes.”

Mostly, with small lies. It started with Trump’s insistence that the number of people who came to Washington, DC for his inauguration surpassed all previous ones, and especially Barack Obama’s. That was his reality, and he demanded that everyone adjust. If the National Parks Service had different figures, clearly theirs were wrong and should be changed. If they had photos showing something different, clearly those photos were wrong and should be doctored to show his version of reality. It was bizarre and laughable, something we expect from heads of state who get 99% of the vote time and time again for 30 years.

But, as Applebaum showed, it was precisely the smallness of it that made it work. It’s no big deal, Republicans could say. We have this new guy who wants confirmation that he’s the most popular guy around. He’s an ass, but if that’s what it takes to make him happy, what’s the big deal? It’s  not like we’re talking policy or big world decisions, right? We accommodate him on this small thing and start on the right foot.

But that wasn’t the right foot, for it didn’t stop there. It never does. Then comes his refusal to put his holdings in trust, he brings his family into the new business (i.e., the White House) even when there are conflicts of interest, he pardons former allies who go to prison, etc. One compromise leads to another to another to another. He misuses his power as president to dish up dirt in Ukraine about Joe Biden and his son. It’s slow and gathers momentum. Senators and Congress people who usually love to talk to reporters learn to make a quick exit when asked questions about this, hurrying down the hallways to duck for cover, remain strategically silent, or solemnly utter smoke screens in the Sunday talk shows.

The longer they do this, the more we wonder: When will they make a stand? What will finally push them over the limit? But as Applebaum shows, it gets trickier and trickier because, after you cave in on your basic values and principles for a long time, what’s finally the straw that breaks your back? In fact, why should there be anything to break your back when it’s held up this long? And if you’ve lied all this time and finally decide to speak your conscience, what’s that going to say about your past lies and evasions? How do you reconcile it all—because we want to, don’t we? We want to put together all the parts of our story, all the parts of ourselves, into one coherent whole.

In the end, it might be easier not to take a stand at all.

Hard to believe it started with a small lie about how many people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration.

What amazes me is that Anne Applebaum wrote her article a couple of months before the election, a couple of months before Trump’s blatant attempt to steal it, colluded (to this day) by a majority of the Republicans in the Congress and Senate. For me, it climaxed early, when two Georgia Republican senators demanded that their Republican State Secretary resign due to irregularities in the voting process, for which they had no proof. They were ready to toss one of their own to the wolves because he wouldn’t collaborate.

Joe Biden is no radical; he was a senator of long standing, someone who liked to work across the aisle and didn’t hew to radical ideologies. You’d think Republican senators would place a call to congratulate him, maybe go out on a limb and say they look forward to working together. These things were once so standard nobody thought twice about them.

You realize what courage it took for Mitt Romney to be the only Republican senator to vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump. He may have disappointed Liberals by not backing other things, but he stood alone in that Senate chamber and that took guts. He also congratulated Joe Biden immediately after the election. Basically, he decided not to be in thrall.

Applebaum reminds us how many people in history were ready to stand up to some fat-headed honcho with far greater risks and in much more brutal circumstances than these Republican leaders.

And me, I ask myself. What do I shut my eyes and ears to? I don’t think it’s blatant lies, but am I losing my edge? It’s not hard to do that in the face of a pandemic that lays waste our health and safety, it’s not hard to ignore the little lies, the small stories I tell myself: I’m older now, how dedicated do I have to be? Why maintain that alertness and vigilance? And as for my vows to serve and save all beings, well, those are clearly impossible.

They were impossible before, they’re impossible now. So what’s new? From Bernie I learned a practice that is edgier and more costly than anything I’d ever imagined. A new relationship with life, draining and replenishing all the time across the years. A love worth protecting at all costs.

 

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