HOW DO YOU CONNECT WITH A MASK ON?

I left my home yesterday morning, got up the driveway, a yellow alarm showed—Check Hybrid System!—and the car died. I called the Toyota service station and they suggested I have it towed, so I left the car on the side of the road and stood against the trees, waiting for the tow truck to come.

What a joy it was to have this unexpected time to see our road winding its way under an arch of trees. I remembered that years ago, when I used to work in Palestine and Israel in their dry summers, I’d come home to New England and have to cover my eyes. “Everything is so green here,” I’d tell Bernie.

Enormous trees leaned over the road, their thick limbs cantilevered in all directions, and I felt deeply served. I hadn’t counted on losing the car for the day, but had a deep trust that life was taking good care of me.

I’m going through an anxious time; I don’t know what’s up for me. My screenplay probably needs a big overhaul and I have to think about whether I wish to do it or not. It served me greatly as part of a mourning process, a familiar phenomenon. Writers write in response to their own lives, but taking the step from the personal to the public, from the confessional to the artistic, is a whole other matter.

I don’t feel a drive to come up with an answer. Nor  do I feel a drive to look at any of the other books, manuscripts, ideas, scenarios, notes, and all the stuff writers assemble over years. I’m used to being driven, and I don’t feel driven now, which worries me a little. My identity begins to break down. In Zen that’s a good thing; in life, so-so.

I get nourished on Tuesdays when I meet undocumented families in the area. I never expected to do this, but the world (you!) responded so I run with it, and I will continue running with it till I get a different message.

We have usually occupied a shaded bench on a main street corner, but a barber shop opened, with people waiting outside to be let in (some with distance and masks, some without), so we moved. But families know this corner now and they come one by one. The farming sector is opening up, I’m told, there are more hours of work but not as many as usual. Still no jobs in restaurants, cafes, B&Bs, hospitality sector. When the time of re-opening comes, not all will reopen.

We visited Flora (made-up name) who’d just given birth four days previously. The last week she’d arrived with a bulging belly; now there’s a new baby. There was a banner (Welcome Emma!), paper flowers, and a couple of balloons. We gave food cards and cash. Jimena put on gloves to hold the baby, who was big and seemed happy, cooed upon by her two sisters and neighbors.

Flora looked amazingly alert and strong, large-bodied with no trace of the large belly she’d had a week earlier. Resilience shone out of her eyes. She’d given birth in the midst of very hard times, but she was gambling on life. She had a 20 year-old in addition to the two girls and the baby. Behind her and ahead of her were thousands of more meals, thousands of hours taking children to school, thousands of wake-up and putting-to-sleep hours. There was no talk of the virus, of uncertain futures and looming risks. There was only life, and as we all know, life is a blessing.

I felt strange there, an American white woman, barely following the Spanish teasing and jokes. I never had children, rarely hold babies.

How do you connect with a mask on? How do you connect when all you see are eyes and eyebrows, no nose, mouth, chin, throat. Can’t tell nationality, can’t tell if you have good teeth or bad, whether you wear a nose ring or have a sore on your lips, whether you have a mustache or a beard. Can’t see all those things that are usually so important, part of our identity, part of what we present to the world.

And yet we do connect. Our eyes laugh rather than our mouth, we can see the laughter wrinkles below them and on the sides, brows rising in delight at the  sight of a new baby looking at us with blue eyes.

You can go maskless all you want, shake hands with strangers, hug, kiss, violate every rule in the rulebook. Does it mean your connection is better, stronger, more authentic? When you don’t wear a mask, is it for more connection or because that beard, mustache, nose ring, and good teeth are important to show the world, to remind people: This is who I am.

The service shop called to tell me that a veritable colony of mice have settled inside the car, chewing through wires, shorting circuits, and generally building a brave new mouse world. Hundreds of dollars to fix—if it can be fixed. If it can’t, I’ll have to call it quits, ask for insurance money, and get another car.

“Mice did all that!” I exclaimed.

“Afraid so,” was the glum answer.

And I had always taken such good care of my Prius, the only new car I ever bought. I was determined it would last till I die. “The best-laid plans of mice and men,” wrote Robert Burns. The mice lost their great civilization (“They escaped into my dealership,” the man told me), while I may be losing my car.

Time to lean back against the gnarled bark of another ancient tree and listen to what life has in store. “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I can’t remember who said that.

If you’d like to put food on the table of people like Flora and her children, you can use the Donate button below and please add: For food cards. You can also send a check to me, Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write food cards on the memo line. And thank you for your messages of support and encouragement that often accompany these donations, it’s a big boost.

And if you love householder koans as I do, please join us this coming Monday at noon US Eastern time here for an hour’s presentation of the koan: Christina: How Pathetic I Am!

 

 

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DOG POOP: A MAGICAL KINGDOM

“Quick, Harry, look who’s coming!”

“It’s Maggie!”

“OK, get ready to make your move!”

Maggie arrives once a month at our house, lugging cleaning implements with her. If she opens the front door by herself it’s no contest, the dogs are out before you could say Boo. But even when I open the door for her, filling the doorway and telling Harry to get back—Don’t even THINK about running off!—I move a couple of inches to make room for Maggie and he darts out between my legs.

It’s a diversion. I move the slightest bit forward—“Harry! Come back!”—and Aussie rushes out on my right, almost upending Maggie in the process. Together the two dogs make a dash up the driveway as fast as their legs can carry them, teeth gleaming, eyes shiny, and I can hear the Hee! Hee! Hee! from the road. From there they’ll scramble even further up the hill and disappear into the forest. No amount of walking and driving around will get them back anytime soon.

“What a dummy, Aussie. We do this every time Maggie arrives. Doesn’t the Boss ever learn?”

“You have to give her a little slack, Harry, she is kind of slow.”

Over and over I order Harry to go back to the living room when there’s someone at the door, and he obeys. But not when Maggie arrives. He’s found his loophole, the one time he could cheat, and off he goes, taking Aussie with him.

Which reminds me of Bernie. Bernie believed in cheating. “You can’t always do things 100%,” he’d say. “You have to cheat.”

A friend told Bernie that if Bernie would refrain from eating meat or fish for an entire year, he would make a major donation to Zen Peacemakers. Bernie agreed, and then added: “But you know, I’m going to cheat.”

“You’re going to cheat?” said the friend. “And you’re telling me that ahead of time?”

“Yup,” said Bernie. “I don’t believe in never cheating.”

Never was a word he didn’t like. So was always. If I would say to him You never do this or you always do that, he’d raise his famous, thick eyebrows: Never? Always? Life didn’t fall into neat categories like never and always, including cheating.

The dogs will come home when they get hungry. Though they run and run after prey, I suspect they don’t catch much. Besides, it’s going to be hot, so when they return, they’ll come in wet, proud, and happy after splashing in the river. No Aussie, come! No remote collar. Just running. Just free.

I look at the lilac bush outside and imagine their conversation:

“What’s that thing the Boss puts on her face when she leaves us in the car and goes into a supermarket, Aussie?”

“I don’t know, Harry. You’d think that if you go into a place with so much food around, the last thing you’d want to do is cover your mouth.”

I get the pooper scooper, an old one from some 25 years ago that has followed me from state to state, cleaning up after generations of dogs, and go look for dog poop. This generation of dogs goes way to the left by the tool shed, they don’t poop right under the freshly washed clothes hanging on our laundry lines like Stanley used to do.

Again, I think of Bernie. Once I accused him of not helping enough with the housework. He looked around him vaguely and said, “I’ll clean up after the dogs.”

He not only cleaned up after them, he dressed for it. To the usual jeans, Hawaiian shirt, suspenders and black sneakers he added a cigar, the cigar clipper, the lighter, the phone in the pocket, and a safari hat against ticks. He’d pick up the scooper by the back door and off he’d go, lighting the cigar, waving the smoke away, looking vaguely up towards the trees.

“Dogs poop on the ground,” I’d tell him.

But he’d be in the midst of some wild imaginings, envisaging a new project, a new building, a new way of looking at things, and he’d stare off into the wild, occasionally stepping into the very poop he was supposed to collect. “Oh, shit!” he’d say.

It would take him over an hour; he made of it art. He made art of fried eggs, the best breakfast I had anywhere. Nothing too hurried, nothing to speed through on your way to other, more important things. Dog poop was his magical kingdom.

“Time to clean up after the dogs,” he’d say to me, and it was off to the races.

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WHOM I FEED THIS MEMORIAL DAY

Fernando holding up a food gift card

On the morning of Memorial Day I call my mother. She lives in a bed in Jerusalem, Israel. She gets up for bathrooms and meals, but has been unable to get out of her home for a few months.

“How are things?” I ask her, anticipating a dull, tired answer.

“Chavale,” she says, “it’s so terrible how people talk. It’s so terrible what they do to each other.”

“You mean, on TV?” She watches a lot of TV, mostly news, and Israeli politicians aren’t noted for extending courtesy to their peers in front of TV cameras. Yelling and interrupting are the norm.

“I am so proud of my family,” she says. “I am so proud of my children and grandchildren that we love one another. Even if we disagree, we don’t have to be terrible to one another, we don’t have to fight all the time and nurse grievances and humiliate people.”

“Are you watching the news, mom?”

“How can people  talk like? I would be ashamed!”

She went on and on in this vein, and as I listened to her I remembered past family meals when she would give rein to explosive diatribes against Arabs and Arab-loving left-wingers, as she called them. I remembered her cursing out an Ethiopian Jew, a hospital parking attendant who wouldn’t waive a parking charge for her, denigrating not just him but also his family and people.

My mother had been politically right-wing for decades. When the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt by Israel as part of the agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (the latter no slouch when it came to right-wing politics), she proudly went to jail for putting up posters on Election Eve against the agreement. When I was there for the Sabbath she would alternate between disparaging comments about Palestinians (knowing I’d spent some time in the West Bank during the week) and a seething, irate, silence.

She’ll be 92 in a few months, and she’s not angry anymore.

“What good does it do to hate people?” she asks on the phone. “Instead of putting energy into argument, can’t we just help each other? Everybody  needs help, everybody needs something.”

I listened to her quietly, felt it was my heart talking. Why indeed? I thought of people I know who go on digital safari eagerly hunting for an even funnier put-down of Donald Trump, an even more down-and-dirty humiliation of those who wish to re-open their neighborhoods. I thought of new labels being bandied about. I thought of the energy being wasted on endless snipes, putdowns, and rants.

On media—on both sides—that’s making bucketfuls of money on partisan, gut-grabbing headlines that keep even the best educated of us us bobbing indignantly up and down like millions and millions of puppets. On how, in this country, a medical pandemic that has united the citizens of other countries has here sundered the body and thrown us away like so many body parts.

I talked about it with my  brother, who also lives in Jerusalem. The country is opening up. Individuals, of course, make up their own minds about how much they want to go out or not, but it’s not divided into principles: those who open up and those who won’t.

“We don’t have what you have there,” he told me. “We have huge political divides; don’t forget, we went through three elections before we could form a new government. But what you have is something deeper.”

What do we have here? Is it cultural? Is it geographical, i.e. rural vs. urban, heartland vs. the coasts? Globalists vs. nationalists? What have we wrought here, I ask myself. Since when have even the smallest actions—putting on a mask or not, going to a restaurant or not, raising a flag or not—become partisan political symbols?

I went to buy food cards this afternoon to hand out to undocumented families tomorrow, and on the way back, passing two local cemeteries, watched as cars turned in to pay their respects. There were small American flags planted by the graves.

I don’t care what Donald Trump did on this Memorial Day—golf, Twitter, a visit to Arlington—I care what I do. I light incense at the altar of Maria of Guadalupe and Kwan-Yin and vow to watch my words.  I light incense at the altar of a sitting Buddha and vow to watch my thoughts. I light incense at the altar of a standing Buddha and vow to watch my actions.

Soon I will start cooking dinner, but who am I feeding? Gods or demons?

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PROMISES OF MY BIRTH

“Why does the fruit fall from the tree before it has ripened?”

This is the koan that Roshi Egyoku and I will work with this coming Monday at noon, US Eastern time, on the Zoom network of Zen Peacemakers International (to register  for free, go here) . You can also order The Book of Householder Koans; Waking Up In the Land of Attachments from independent book stores or from Amazon. The Reflection on the koan starts like this:

“Our time seems to come whether we’re ready for it or not. Whether I’m eighteen or eighty, am I ever really ready? For that matter, am I ever really ripe? What does ripe feel like? Is it that I’ve fulfilled all my dreams? Is it that I’ve lived a happy life? Is it that I’ve aged gracefully, with a loving family beside me? Is it that the promises of my birth have all been creatively and joyously fulfilled?”

The promises of my birth. What were they? Only one that I remember, and unfulfilled at that: That I would be a great writer. That I would leave my restrictive orthodox Jewish home, build my own life, and write. No relationship other than the vaguest, sex-infused notion of a handsome knight in white armor somewhere in the periphery. No more about religion, I swore to myself. Nothing about God.

Nothing, for that matter, about helping people, trying to walk in their shoes, learning about lives different from mine. Just the lone woman scrounging novels together, that’s it.

Interesting to look back now on what an individualistic vision that was, drenched in misanthropy. I wanted nothing more than to be an island.

At least in my case, my life has surpassed my dreams. Through an act of grace, I started meditation practice. What act of grace was that? Failure. I failed in my first marriage, failed in publishing books, failed in locating my community, failed in finding my way. Nothing like failure, bless it, to turn your life around.

So, like so many others who couldn’t navigate their way out in the world, I went in. Looking back now, I can see how much I wanted to escape. But my teacher had no patience for any of that. Over and over he threw his students, kicking and screaming, out into the world, into neighborhoods that felt foreign to them, into connections that didn’t seem to connect, into the very problems of people and money and lack and disappointment that they had tried to escape by retreating into a quiet meditation hall with birds chirping their songs at dawn. Transcendence was not for him, and it wouldn’t be for us.

I couldn’t leave the world as I’d planned, first through writing, then through meditation. That was not going to be my life after all.

I write these words from an office with six windows (Bernie’s old office), giving me a view of green maples, elms, and beeches, and a blooming lilac bush brushing against the window. I have my isolation, I have my aloneness.

But just three days ago I photographed Fernando holding up a food gift card from a neighboring supermarket. Jimena and I sat on our usual bench on the street corner while folks came, one by one, to get a tarjeta. Some cash, too, to help pay down very high utility bills. Altogether, close to $1,000 in all.

Jimena directs traffic. As one comes to get a card, others wait in the corner. Not because of the virus (almost everybody’s wearing masks), but not to call too much attention.

“She blogs,” Jimena explains to a small woman whose home-made mask practically covers her face and who wonders where the cards come from. “Money comes from friends from todo el mundo.” The entire world.

“From Europe,” I correct her—how do you say Europe in Spanish? “—and all over this country.”

Pero no nos conocen,” the woman says. They don’t know us.

Oh yes they do, I want to say. Not because of what I write, but because people know in their gut what it is to be afraid for your children, what it is to feel that there’s no ground under your feet, how you don’t know where tomorrow’s meal will come from, whether you’ll lose electricity or not because you haven’t paid bills, how you might get kicked out of your home. You hear about others receiving help from the government but you’re invisible; they have too many people to worry about already, people who are real Americans, so they don’t worry about you.

She’s amazed that folks across the ocean get what that feels like. They don’t have Spanish names. I look at the list of names who together contributed some $1,400 dollars to a birthday benefit sponsored by Eef Heinhuis, a Dutch woman, to benefit Fernando and his family. Those names are Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, German, English, even Native-American.

Or the German members of a Zen sangha who adopted these families so many miles and cultures away. They also know. They know what it is to be human.

I used to feel self-conscious about handing out food tarjetas like a version of Santa Claus, but no longer. All I am is a messenger carrying the best tidings in the world, that regardless of where we come from and what we’re called, we recognize the essence in each other, and we know it’s our essence, no different.

No gift of newly picked asparagus this time, but the trust that said “Si!” when I asked if I could take Fernando’s photo.

I never wrote a great novel, but great means almost nothing to me now. I don’t have to be great in order to do good. Every once in a while, I muse that if Bernie was in my shoes he’d be starting businesses to help these families, redesigning the entire depressed town where they live into a vibrant, living mandala. That was him, it’s not me. I do what I do; great has nothing to do with it.

The fruit continues to fall; my time arrives again and again. I never feel ready, I never feel ripe.

This is enough.

Let’s keep food cards going. You can donate any amount for this purpose by using the Donate button below and writing in the memo: Food cards. You can also send a check, and write Food cards on the memo line, to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Thank you for all you do.

 

 

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FINE DINING

It’s May, which means intoxicating scents and sounds. Which means that Aussie needs more training with a remote collar.

“Stop buzzing me! I’m only chasing that chipmunk!”

“When I see you lunge like that, Aussie, I don’t know if you’re rushing down to the creek below or starting a marathon. But you were a good girl and came back when I called you, so I’m giving you this.”

“Chicken? Not dog treats? Yum!”

“Aussie, every time you start running after some scent or animal and come back when I buzz, I’m going to reward you according to the level of difficulty. Since this was difficult, you’re getting chicken. It’s called Fine Dining.”

“Fine Dining, Boss?”

“That’s what your trainer calls it. When you’re being obedient, you get a treat. But when you come back in the face of a major temptation, you get chicken, which is Fine Dining.”

“Boss, watch me rush to the puddle, see? And here I come back. Fine Dining, please!”

“I don’t know, Aussie, that’s not quite it.”

“Okay, watch me pretend to rush after Harry, give him a bite in the butt, and when you call me I come back. Fine Dining!”

“Maybe this qualifies. After all, you do love to give Harry a bite in the butt.”

“I should get Fine Dining all the time. Lately we’ve been going on these short walks, and every minute it’s something else: Aussie, come! Aussie, far enough! Aussie, uh uh uh! Aussie, let’s go! Aussie this, Aussie that! I can’t stand going on walks with you anymore. I’m a grown dog and a great hunter.”

“That’s the problem, Auss. You’re conditioned, see? Your conditioning is to run after every scent in the world. Then you run and run, and don’t get back till midnight! Fine Dining is part of the effort to decondition you.”

“I just jumped up on my hind legs against that tree after the squirrel. You buzzed and I came back, deconditioned. Fine Dining!”

“Aussie, you’re not being serious.”

“Why should I resist my conditioning? My conditioning is me!”

“No, Aussie. Being a hunter is just one aspect, it’s not all of you. And I’m not asking you to resist your conditioning, I’m just asking you to soften around it, to—”

“I know, I know, let it go. I hate that phrase. There’s nothing wrong with my conditioning.”

“There’s nothing wrong with hunting per se, but there’s plenty wrong with running for miles and not coming home. Besides, Aussie, if you can let go of your conditioning—”

“I hate that phrase!”

“—then you’re free to respond to each moment. You’re free to act more spontaneously in the world rather than according to fixed patterns. Don’t you want to be free, Aussie?”

“No, I want to run. I just ran after Harry who was chasing crows, and I came back when you called. Fine Dining!”

“Just a dog treat this time, Aussie.”

“Only dumb dogs chase crows.”

“Maybe chasing crows is Harry’s conditioning, Aussie.”

“Oh, yeah? Does he look like a bird dog to you? Here he comes.”

Harry: “Hey  Boss, how come Aussie’s getting white chicken meat and I’m getting dog treats?”

Boss: “It’s called Fine Dining, Harry.”

Harry: “So why does she get to dine so finely?”

Boss: “Because Aussie’s being deconditioned. She’s in training not to run away.”

Harry: “I don’t run away.”

Boss: “True, but you never ran away to begin with.”

Harry: “Let me see if I understand this. Aussie won’t do what you ask her to do, so in order to get her to do that she gets Fine Dining. I do what you want from the get-go, and I don’t get Fine Dining. Is that it?”

Boss: “I’m afraid so, Harry.”

Harry: “There is no justice in this world! Where are you running to, Aussie?”

Aussie: “I’m only pretending to run, Harry, see? She buzzes me and I come back. Fine Dining!”

Harry: “This deconditioning is the biggest racket I’ve ever seen. I have a question for you, Boss. You know how every morning you sit in that chair silently by the window till I crash through the door to remind you to feed us?”

Boss (sighs): “You don’t need to remind me. You’re so punctual, Harry, I don’t bother setting an alarm.”

Harry: “Don’t you sit to decondition?”

Boss: “Why, Harry, as a matter of fact, you’re right. The thought patterns slow down, the mind settles. Things become more transparent and clearer.”

Harry: “How long have you been doing this, Boss?”

Boss: “At least 35 years, Harry.”

Harry: “And in all that time you never tried chicken?”

 

 

 

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50 FRUIT TREES

Our apple tree has begun to flower. For me, that’s the tree’s best time because its small, green apples have so far been wrinkled and sour. I take a bite every year and make a face; I can’t even cook them. Instead they fall to the ground, food for birds and animals. The flowers are gorgeous.

When we lived in Santa Barbara, California, our neighbor, a gardener, said to me one day: “Fall’s begun. Don’t you love it?”

I looked around, sniffed, and said, “How can you tell?”

You can tell in New England; it’s easy to get intoxicated by the seasons. Now, springtime, the birds wake me up every morning at 5. I open the dog doors and Harry and Aussie rush out, barking and sniffing at the tracks and scents of all the animals that had crossed the yard at night, when they were shut in and couldn’t protect the house from invaders. Fawns and cubs are out there, a newborn generation beginning its life, and slowly, slowly—for this has been a cold spring—the lilac buds are opening up outside my office window.

I don’t have to say much about fall in New England and even the cold winters are beautiful to my eyes: icy, white, vast.

But those are not the only seasons around here.

A friend, neighbor, and poet, at the age of 71, is planting 50 fruit trees. ”They’ll start growing soon,” he said, “but after a while I won’t be around to enjoy their fruit. It feels good to be doing this for the next generation.”

He opened my eyes to another sense of seasons. I have a season, too. When I die, is it over? What am I planting for the season after that, and the season after that?

The Native Americans say the ancestors are always with us. What kind of ancestor am I?

Every morning I walk out to do a service by our wooden Kwan-Yin, of whom I’ve written a few times. Built by a neo-Nazi student for his teacher, it arrived at the Montague Farm where we lived and worked once upon a time, and when we left, the new owners were ambivalent about retaining it, so we brought her to our back yard where she’s  been standing all this time. Tulips are now growing in her honor; Harry pees on them, also in her honor. And I’ve been noticing the sawdust that has piled up behind her.

“It’s probably the chipmunks living there,” Tim told me. “They’re eating at the wood, which is soft by now anyway from all the weather damage.”

We’ve known for a long time that Kwan-Yin is being carved up by the weather; we also know that she’s so fragile it’s impossible to move her. But this pile of shavings is new. I see it each morning and think about the critters taking shelter inside her, her body hollowing and hollowing as a result.

On the one hand, she’s had her season. At the Farm we celebrated Buddha’s birthday in front of her with food and tea offerings. She gazed down on the Saturday lunches cooked for the community (the progenitor of the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield), dozens of families from all walks of life coming into a circle to introduce ourselves and say grace, children playing ball in her shadow.

Then she came here and watched over Bernie through his illness and death, watched over me and two generations of dogs, not to mention the wildlife, finally giving her body over in order to become their home.

One day she’ll collapse, or rot. But will her season end? We won’t be able to use the sodden wood in the fireplace, but critters will continue to live inside the crevices and between the wood logs. The dogs haven’t touched the sawdust but other animals will. In one form or another, her season will go on and on.

Your season will go on, too, as will mine. Bernie himself didn’t believe in reincarnation. “What remain are the results of your actions,” he used to say. Some of us will leave books, some new, thriving institutions, some fruit trees, and some teachings and memories, that will become almost a physiological part of the next generations. Even as new seasons begin, what ends?

 

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ASPARAGUS

Lest snow two nights ago

The streets have more cars now. Massachusetts is still locked up but more and more people are leaving their homes. I park by the bench where Jimena and I always meet. A line of people waits a block away to buy ice cream, wearing masks and maintaining distance. Jimena’s not there; a man is there with a brown paper bag, muttering.

“Oh oh,” says Aussie from the back seat. “Don’t go there.” She hates men.

Harry whimpers: I’ll go! I’ll go!

By the time I get out of the car the man is gone. A woman and her small daughter are already waiting at the corner and I ask in Spanish if they’re waiting for tarjetas, food cards. Si. We wait for Jimena to arrive, but this is my chance to practicar mi espagnol. Her name is Grace (made-up), her 8-year-old is Manuela (not my oldest, she explains, the one in the middle).

“How many are there?”

“Five.” And then adds, “No mas.” No more. “Y usted?” And you?

“I have no children,” I tell her, “but my husband had two.”

She ponders that awhile. “Why not?”

How do I summarize a life in my 2-word Spanish mumblings? “Demasiada occupada.” Too busy. Not much of a reason, I know.

Jimena’s arrival spares me from further philosophizing in Spanish, and we go on with our business, which is giving out tarjetas, food gift cards from two supermarkets, to these families. Since those first days in April when I wrote about the need for food by undocumented families, we—mostly you, dear friends—have altogether given food cards and gifts worth at least $6,800 over 5-6 weeks and I have close to another $4,700 in the bank account. Jimena believes we’ve fed 90 families; I estimate a lower figure, 50-60. Still a lot.

At first, I wanted to go slowly. Jimena and I needed to build trust and transparency in our own relationship. At first it was only food; then it became help with rent, paying of utility bills, cash to an abused woman who’d put out a restraining order against her husband and now needed help, etc.

By now we all know that this is going to go on for a while; Massachusetts restaurants, hotels, and B&Bs aren’t opening up soon, the colleges are closed through the summer as are the schools, they won’t hire anyone back very soon and the farmers are cultivating a lot less. I’m now comfortable enough to urge Jimena to tell me about special cases where cash is needed quickly.

Sure enough, Carmen (made-up name) arrives holding a beautiful little boy in her arms. After she picks up a food card and leaves, Jimena tells me that the boy is autistic and Carmen’s husband just left them. Carmen needs money. I give her an envelope with cash and she hurries after her.

Usually we plan this ahead of time, when I ask Jimena to make a list of people she knows who need extra help in addition to food cards. I now make a mental note to myself to bring more cash anyway, because things will come up even as we sit there.

“Oh oh,” I hear Aussie from the car.

The man who sat on the bench earlier reappears and wants to sit down again, though this defies keeping distance. Jimena says okay. We wear a mask, he does not, but he’s also eating a big ice cream sundae. I’m jealous.

He asks Jimena her name and she tells him, he asks mine, ditto, and I ask his. “Greg,” he says.

Jimena and I stiffen. It’s not great to call folks to come and pick up tarjetas if he’s sitting right there.

Greg surprises me. “I’m leaving my place real soon,” he says. “Do any of your friends need some furniture?” He’d watched us do our work, he knows who our friends are. Jimena provides a phone number.

He then tells us that he drinks (I could smell the liquor) and that the ice cream sundae is his first food in two days. “They’re kicking me out because I went back to drinking,” he says. “I need to find another program that’ll take me in. But I can’t stop. I’ve tried, but I can’t stop.”

He mumbles to himself for a few minutes. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I feel like crying. Finally, I say: “Greg, get your act together. You’re a nice-looking man, you can change things around.”

“Nice looks aren’t everything,” he tells me, “though the two of you are beautiful.”

A couple of minutes pass and he leaves, thanking us. Jimena takes a big breath and goes back to making phone calls inviting folks to come.

They are mostly concerned about what will happen to their children’s schooling, and Jimena, bless her heart, hands our pages with arithmetic notes and problems to a little girl and asks her to start working on them.

A woman arrives, sees me, and says in Spanish that she had freshly picked asparagus for me and forgot it by the door. “Would you come to my home to get it?”

“You bet,” I tell her, and when eventually I leave, I drive over to her home and knock on the door of a second-floor apartment. Three small, bright-eyed children are playing a game on the floor. Their mother shows me two bunches of asparagus that had been picked by her husband that very morning, still warm. “Just give me one,” I tell her, and she does.

I drive home, one hand on the warm asparagus next to me. If it’s a gift to give things to people in need, and an even greater gift to get things back from them. Jimena and her husband want to cook me a meal and I can hardly wait.

“Don’t forget to bring us along. I love Mexican food,” says Aussie with a sigh

“They’re not Mexican.”

“Whatever,” says Aussie.

This coming Monday., May 18, at 12:00 noon US Eastern time, Roshi Egyoku Nakao and I will talk again about householder koans. We’ll deal specifically with Andrea: Nothing, about a woman who wanted to help refugees in her home city in Germany but didn’t know what to do. You can register for it here. It’s free, but take care! You never know what it may eventually inspire you to do.

And if you want to donate for food cards, please use the button below and write on the memo: for food cards. Or else send a check with those words on the memo line to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351.

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A MADE-UP DISEASE FOR MADE-UP PEOPLE

An acquaintance of mine, gathering writings from local people about what they have learned from the coronavirus epidemic, asked me to write something. This is what I wrote:

I ask a friend of mine a question: “What do you think about the virus?” Only he’s not like other friends I have. He’s not a Zen Peacemaker or even a Buddhist, no graduate degrees, he’s not middle-class, comfortably sheltering in place because s/he could work from home or has an income unrelated to location-based work. He has no pension or 401(K) that would evoke the stock market. He’s just a friend.

“Four of my friends have died in the past 3 months,” he tells me. “At least a third of my friends or classmates are gone by now, died from illness, violence, opioids, or suicide. I don’t worry about some made-up disease happening to some made-up people far away, I’m too busy worrying about what’s been happening to my family and friends right here.”

He’s 40. He doesn’t live in New York City or Boston, as I once did. He’s pointing to friends and family right here and now, whose deaths continue unremarked by newspapers, television, or government..

When Donald Trump won the election in 2016 I read a lot about how so many of us on the East and West Coast—elites is what they called us—had missed the heartland of this country. Those of us living in the big cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and Atlanta—were so busy flying over the rest of the country that we had lost touch. People in rural America and small cities and towns felt ignored and even looked down upon by media, big business, big universities, and by the culture generally, and Donald Trump was their revenge. Not because they believed in him per se but because he promised to disrupt a system that wasn’t working for them.

Some of this resonated for me, some didn’t. I myself live rurally and appreciate the farmers I meet and whose farm stands I stop at to get my greens, tomatoes, and corn. But honestly, I don’t meet many.

In addition, our situation here is different due to 5 excellent colleges (including one large state university) that attract bright, affluent students and urbane, cosmopolitan professors. Stand on any local movie line and you’ll hear the same kind of comments and analysis—that combination of intellect and sardonic wit—that will remind you of a Woody Allen movie.

Those five colleges/universities are the biggest employesr in the region. If not for them, we’d be in a lot of trouble.

What I have gained most from the corona is seeing clearly who suffers. Not those who died or even got sick—we have remarkably few numbers of them—but those who’re seeing their livelihood go up in smoke, their savings gone, lining up to get food from pantries, abject failure staring them in the face. The undocumented families calling to find out when Jimena and I will give out food cards again (this afternoon, as it turns out). The shuttered doors of stores and restaurants, many of which won’t re-open, bringing to a crash the struggle, hopes, and hard work of their owners and employees.

They are not from big cities and universities, they are from here. That’s all I can talk to—not New York or San Francisco—but what I see here.

And then there are the others, those who obey the rules and shelter in place, who at times wake up depressed for lack of company or discombobulated, not recalling what day it is, but who don’t get scratched too hard. They shake their heads about the economy, feel bad for those who suffer. But they love the slowing down and the time for meditation.

They are vigilant against all risks and think that those in the rest of the country who reopen early are stupid and ignorant—I have heard those words often—that they have no respect for science and doctors, and are obviously Republicans and supporters of Donald Trump.

The divide of 2016 has become much more visible due to covid. Many people here don’t understand why it’s always the people in cities who dictate the shut-down of an entire state, especially their own areas that haven’t suffered much from covid. It reinforces their beliefs that the decision-makers who affect so much of their lives live in some far-off planet with no understanding of what their lives are about: A made-up disease for made-up people.

And I begin to pay attention—to them, and also to people around me, progressive, many of them Buddhists who vow to save or serve all beings. Their lack of real empathy and understanding shocks me. The chasm that separates those of us living week to week, bill to bill, who couldn’t afford a $400 emergency before the virus never mind now, and those of us who want everyone to just stay home till it’s safe to go out again, stares me in the face as never before.

We’re doing this not just for our health but for everyone else’s, some say. It doesn’t wash. If you have your eyes open you’ll notice how many people became ill and died because they were admonished not to go to doctors or hospitals. If you have your eyes open you’ll see the faces hiding inside their homes, knowing their life work creating a business is over. If you have your eyes open you’ll see the increasing gap between verbally-gifted children who do fine with distance-learning and those who struggle to follow what’s going on on-screen—provided they even have a screen and WIFI, and provided English is their first language.

If you have your eyes open wide enough to read the news, you’ll know that they’re upping the estimates of children who’ll starve to death JUST DUE TO COVID-RELATED SHUTDOWN OF THE WORLD ECONOMY from 200,000 to over a million worldwide. You’ll read of Chinese factory workers sent home because factories—yes, the very ones making cheap goods that so many of us like to belittle—are shutting down and workers go home to impoverished families who now have no one to put food on the table.

You’re doing this for me? Open your eyes. You want me to be safe? I don’t want to be safe and hide out, I want to open my eyes and keep them open as much as I can. That’s my Buddhist practice.

If you really have your eyes wide open you’ll remember that, as someone said, a live saved is really a death deferred. Like many, I admire Governor Andrew Cuomo’s inspiring work on behalf of his state and have listened to his press conferences, but when he says that he’s not ready to compromise over a single life I find myself disagreeing with him. Whether we like it or not, tradeoffs have to be made. Tradeoffs are made all the time, moment by moment, day by day. And as I wrote in a blog post a few weeks ago, I don’t want children to starve so that I go on living.

Yes, I  know the spiritual aphorisms about how if you save one life you save an entire world. But that goes for people living in favelas in Brazil and factory workers in Indonesia as much as it goes for me. Their lives are as important as mine, perhaps even more so because I’m 70 and have lived a rich life. It’s been good.

What about my 40 year-old friend and his friends who can’t find work, who can’t earn a livelihood, who see the horizon closing in on them day by day? What about the death of so many others—not from covid, but slower death from hunger, disease, lack of medical care, lack of nourishment, lack of hope?

There are crazy people wherever you look, but generally, people are not stupid. They know what they need and they know damn well what risks they’re taking by going back to work. What choice do they have? What choices have we left them, insulated as we are in our educated, spiritual, Zooming bubbles

We didn’t start sheltering in place when covid started, we were sheltering in place long before that, unconcerned about how technology and global trade pacts eliminated factory jobs and rural stores, eliminated family farming and local stores, narrowing the horizons for so many people while we uttered progressive platitudes and wrote indignant letters to the editor about the antics of Donald Trump and those who vote for him, sheltering not in place but in self-entitlement and blindness.

We all have our walls, myself included. Covid has made them unmistakably visible if only we would look. If only we stop being each other’s made-up people.

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WHERE YOU SEE A YARD, I SEE A FENCE

There are days when I feel there isn’t much to say. It’s all been said, a voice murmurs inside, why bother? Even the dogs aren’t talking much, except for Aussie, who talks all the time.

“Why am I back in training?”

“Because when I take you off-leash anywhere, Aussie, you run.”

“Of course I run. It’s May! There are new-born animals to chase, fawns and bear cubs—”

“And bear cub mothers!”

“Nature created all these new animals for only one reason—so that I could chase them.”

Yesterday she ran in the Montague Plains, returning after 20 minutes panting happily, dirty and wet from wading in a puddle. She had obviously chased a scent for a long time, loping determinedly after some animal or other. She won’t catch it, but that doesn’t matter; her instinct, her soul, is to hunt.

“And you stop me! You won’t let me be me! You won’t let me follow my path, you won’t let me go on my hero’s journey.”

“Aussie, you have one of the biggest fenced yards in town!”

“Where you see a yard, I see a fence.”

I won’t let her run. I’d flirted with the idea, but got burned out. True, she never got lost, always found her way home, was never hurt. We live off a country road and she sticks to the woods where the animals are, avoiding people, avoiding cars and homes. But she’s young, and in a lifetime of running freely in the woods something will happen.

And yet, deep inside I sympathize with her. After all, she’s a hound and the smartest dog I’ve ever had. She wants to do what she was bred to do, what’s in her very marrow. All the liver/cheese/chicken treats in the world won’t change that.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, I thought about my mother. Her mind is slowly fading; rare are the phone calls when I’m not told that she’s afraid to go out because someone will try to assassinate her, that my brother is being interrogated by the police, that the violence “out there” is so great that her only safety lies in burrowing in bed and staying put. This at a time when Jerusalem was completely locked down for the coronavirus (it’s opened up a lot since then).

I was her oldest child, an in-your-face rebel, a lover of Ayn Rand who wanted to follow her individual path like Howard Roark, only with a lot less confidence, a lot more insecurity.

My mother, too, wanted to follow her heart, but it was a torn heart. She was raised in an East European orthodox family; she came out of the war with the feeling that nothing was more important than religion and family. God didn’t matter much, she wasn’t sure she believed in Him anymore, but religion and family were everything.

But as the years rolled by she discovered she also wanted things for herself. She wanted to write stories and study. She wanted to be a businesswoman and make money, she wanted respect. But she never learned how to go about these things, how not to be deterred by early failure, how to seek alternatives, how to stay the path even when it goes sideways.

“No one ever encouraged me,” she told me sadly several years ago as I was visiting her, both of us lying in bed together. “Nobody ever encouraged me.” And she had no faith in doing things alone.

Her feelings towards me were mixed. She was angry at the choices I made, the Zen practice, the plunge into a life that seemed unstable and unpromising of middle-class security. Till I was 50, she never gave up hope on reforming me. And yet, even then, I had the sense that secretly she admired me. She knew I’d gone my way, not hers or somebody else’s.

“You were like that from the time you were a little girl,” she used to say.

We find ourselves resting in so many mixed messages from our mothers. Go out and win the world/Be safe. I want you to be happy/I want you to make me happy. I want you to be strong/I want you to be careful.

I could never resolve these dualities, but I did find a way to rest in them, make them one of the puzzles of my life in which pieces didn’t fit. By now that’s fine with me. It’s when all the pieces fit that I start worrying.

So of course, there’s Aussie.

“Here, Aussie, chase the ball!”

“What am I, an outfielder?”

“Don’t you want to run?”

“After deer, not a tennis ball.”

Harry runs after the ball.

“Okay, Aussie, chase Harry!”

“I don’t chase Harrys, I chase wildlife.”

I shake my head, looking at her beautiful, intransigent face.

“I’m trying to keep you engaged, to give you exercise and fun!”

“It don’t work inside a fence.”

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A STORY ABOUT LOVE

I stare at the cover page of the printout I just picked up from Staples.

Script Title:

Written by:

Name of First Writer:

Based on, If any:

It’s the cover page of the screenplay I finished yesterday. The above categories are still blank because I forgot to fill them out. Still no title. It was written by me, and I am the first writer (Hollywood screenplays often have numerous writers). As for based on, if any, I guess it’s based on my life. Or the questions of my life.

Half a year after Bernie died, I called up an actor friend of ours and told him that I had an idea for a movie he should do.

“I think you should do a movie about an older couple that has worked together for many years till a big stroke finally cripples the husband. The wife continues to work as well as take care of him. Often she asks herself what happens to love now, when you’re surrounded by illness and the prospect of death, when partnership becomes dependence and two lives, once so entwined, become different one from the other. Love is still there, but it’s changed.”

“And?” he asked me.

“She falls in love with another man, with whom she has a passionate affair, but the question about what comprises love at this time remains. Does it include lovemaking or caregiving? Is it about sacrifice and loss? Is it about fun? She has choices to make, decisions to reach.”

It had commercial potential, I told him. “I know that most audiences in movie theaters are very young, which accounts for why so many new American movies are tailored to them, but I think folks our age (he’s my age) would pay to see a movie that asks these questions.”

I told him I never had an extramarital affair nor did I fall in love with anyone other than Bernie, but these were the questions I asked of myself when he was ill, this was the story that appeared in my mind—not like a novel or a short story, all of which I’ve written, but as a movie. “So that’s the movie I think you should make.”

He said: “You may be right that it has commercial possibilities, but you have to write the screenplay.”

“I don’t write screenplays,” I told him.

“Write this one,” he said. “Get the First Draft software, which everybody uses for screenplays.” That was it.

Why not, I thought to myself. I was still somewhat in shock, functioning but not present. I couldn’t go back to old writing projects, couldn’t find myself, so why not?.

I started writing the treatment that April, and completed the screenplay yesterday, a year later.

I wrote scenes during which I wept. I couldn’t sleep some nights. At times I had to take a break away from the words on the screen. I made final edits to The Book of Householder Koans, gave myself long breaks to teach, take Bernie’s ashes to Auschwitz, get sick for 5 weeks this past winter. And went on.

I had to do a lot of research, too, because I made the couple in the screenplay astronomers. One evening last fall I drove to the MIT Haystack Observatory and Radio Telescope two hours away for one of two evenings when they open to the public, writing notes, asking questions, watching how they maneuvered the gigantic radio telescope towards the stars (thrilling!), and drove home, elated, in an incredible storm.

I also attended a brief workshop on screenplay writing, and the woman who gave that workshop will review the screenplay.

She may tell me it’s the worst thing she ever read, hardly a screenplay (“You’re writing a screenplay, not a play,” a friend had warned me early in the process), that it won’t work at all. In that case I may never even send it out. What I hope she says is that it needs work, and here’s how to fix it. In that case I’ll make revisions and then send it out to my actor friend.

Once I do that it’ll be out of my hands. Something will happen, or it won’t. I don’t plan to hawk it myself, Hollywood is not my world. I am aware that only a very tiny percentage of screenplays ever become films. If that happens, fine; it’s also perfectly fine if not. I didn’t write it for Hollywood, I wrote it for grief.

There are so many things we do with grief. We walk it in the forest, on-leash or off; we look up at stars and see grief instead; we sit with it, plant it with flowers in the earth, clean house with it, pause to make room for it in lots of phone conversations. Surround ourselves with pictures of it, go down to the basement and drown in its books and photos, under the pretext of creating some order or cleaning things out.

We can also get creative with it—compose songs, paint, dance, write a screenplay. Things come up you never imagined, dialogue, jokes, the squint of an eye—they will disappear into forgetfulness unless you put them down on a living page, in service of a story about love.

It feels like the end of something. Already I feel a little nervous, wondering what now? What will drive me now? Now that it’s done, I feel, I can die content. There was a call, and I responded.

Only it’s not completely over. “I haven’t written the last scene,” I warned the woman I will bring this to tomorrow. Which is strange, because usually, when I have the characters and story all worked out, the end is pretty clear. So why haven’t I written the last scene? What have I yet to decide about love?

“Is it a happy ending?” a friend asked me.

I hesitated. “It’ll be a good ending,” I told her. “A rich ending.”

I think I know what it will be but I’m not 100% sure. Till the last minute, make room for the unexpected.

Take a few days to regroup. Do dumb things: bookkeeping, packing up books in the basement, packing up pictures. Let my mind stray here and there, unconsciously rake in life’s suggestions. Be open to nothing, and everything.

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