ENDLESS RIVER

I spent 35 years as Bernie’s student, including the 20 we were a couple.

In that last stage, I had two different relationships to engage in, two different roles. Our biggest challenges came out of our life as a couple, two human beings working out how to live together under the same roof, with different opinions, wants, and needs. In that connection I think of what my friend Jeff Bridges, who’s looking forward to 50 years of marriage to his wife, Sue, said to me the other day: “Eve, you can be right, or you can be married.”

As usual, I nodded to myself and thought: Now why did it take me so long to learn that?

But there was no question about the teacher/student relationship. While I knew that there were things Bernie learned from me, in our day-to-day life together I never forgot that he was a Zen master. I watched him, listened to him (even while occasionally disagreeing), and reflected on his actions. It was an opportunity I didn’t squander.

There was always so much to learn from how he lived day to day: his jauntiness (reflected in the insouciance with which he wore his beret), his wild-eyed optimism, the way he blinked and moved his eyebrows up and down a la Groucho, all the while puffing on his cigar, the way he’d suddenly grow quiet and go to a place only he could see, though he left plenty of crumbs, big and small, for others to follow. In those last years, his radical acceptance of everything life threw his way.

I think of his morning routine for so many years, up at 3 or 4 in the morning, working till 6, taking a bath for an hour punctually at 6 (which included meditation), and by 7:30 he’d be dressed and going downstairs for that first car ride with cigar and Stanley the dog. The day-to-day discipline, sharp, undeterred focus, combined with his love of jokes.

After his bath, he’d come back to the bedroom, his hair like the Bride of Frankenstein’s, and say: “Eve, what do you think of my hair?” I’d give an appreciative scream.

But what I find myself remembering most of all is his deep faith. In what? In life, in dharma, the oneness of everything. I think of it especially now, when many of us get gloomy and pessimistic though we’re not in danger of life, limb, or lack of resources. Maybe it’s the cloudy skies or the bare tree branches, an ache around the left shoulder or too many headlines screaming Trump’s vision for this country, which to me evokes death more and more.

 It’s not that Bernie talked about faith, his entire demeanor expressed it. If you got too serious about something, he’d make a joke (Israel-Palestine being the only exception). If you were down he’d sing Bill Withers’ Moanin’ and Groanin’, or he’d turn Jewish and say oy! oy! oy!, but with such cheer it sounded more like the Australian cheer: Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi! when their teams play.

It’s like he knew something, though he’d qualify everything in his later years with: That’s just my opinion, man. Of course, he was completely at home in the present moment, but he also seemed to be seeing and hearing something else. Naturally, he loved the theory of multiple universes. Everything had a reason, and everything became a reason for something else, and it was the way the world worked. There was nothing wrong with it, even when great harm was done and suffered by various beings.

If he’d been a theist, he might have said that God doesn’t make mistakes, that nothing and no one is a mistake—and now, he’d add in his practical engineer’s voice, what do you do? How do you work with it skillfully?

Bemoaning life was not wrong, it was just a waste of energy. Over 35 years I’ve absorbed some of that, though without his natural buoyancy. He had his really dark moments, but he was not a depressive.

Some people wish they could see around the corner to the future; to Bernie, the future was right here. He loved computers, he was sure the Internet would help everyone experience our interconnectedness, and at the same time, when asked, he’d refer to the old sage: Nothing’s new under the sun.

Among all the grimy details and headlines that pile up, he discerned something (some may call it no-thing) that he knew intimately, with every ounce of his being (even as he’d say it was just an opinion), life vast and changing. Not the life as opposed to old age, illness, or death, much bigger than that. He was in joyful service to it all the time, even after half his body was paralyzed.

Drop off the body; the river of the world will never end.

Stately and grand: Nothing to show but the inner master.

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WHAT THEY WANT FROM ME

It’s been warmer than usual—we repeat this frequently nowadays—and today our gardener, who comes several times each summer to keep things going, pruned the apple tree in front of the house. I liked the shape she gave it.

When we first moved here, the tree gave no fruit. After we took down the oak that towered over it, small, hard, green apples arrived, and they’ve been arriving every summer, less hard and less sour every year. Last summer was the first time we actually ate them. They were still on the sour side, and delicious.

Let’s see what this summer brings.

Every once in a while, I feel a big doubt come up.  What is all this writing for, I wonder. Does anything change? Just how important is the expression of one woman’s thoughts, conundrums, feelings?

I also worry that a blog can be self-serving. It’s an expression of me, and even if you’re careful not to make it always about you (or your dog, or your housemate’s dog), it can still be my thoughts about our political situation, my upset over the Middle East, my sense of life and how to navigate it. I could be tempted to make of something small something very big, magnify my actions, promote an image.

This morning, I railed silently at Joe Biden: It’s not that they dislike your policies, Joe, people just feel you’re too old! Four years ago, you gave us a sense that you’re asking for one term, not two, that you’d be a bridge to a new generation of leaders. What happened to that? Have you turned greedy? Have you, too surrounded yourself with people who won’t tell you the truth? The older you get, the less truth they’ll tell you.

I’m beginning to think that we should let AI choose our government. But I don’t think that another voice of indignation and disappointment is what the universe needs right now.

And maybe you’re one of the problems, says another voice. Too many of this Baby Boomer generation (I’m 74) is holding on, filling up the airwaves and bandwidths and making their opinions known.

And yet … And yet … Is there something more creative I can do here? More thought-provoking? More heart-opening? I inhabit certain interactions that may provide different perspectives. I’m Jewish and Buddhist, American and Israeli, writer and activist.

I’d like there to be an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, a release of hostages, and massive distribution of medical supplies, infrastructure, and especially food to the civilian population.

At the same time, my brother was in Dubai several weeks ago, where he’s always greeted warmly and graciously. But one Muslim leader said to him: “The Middle East is all Islamic; it always was, since the  beginning of the Ottoman Empire. You Jews are not Muslim, and one day you will be vomited off that land where you don’t belong.”

My brother said his piece, too, pointing out that Israelis are not colonizers, that they lived in that land long before Islam was born. But still, he sees his big job as listening, and it’s not easy. He flies back home and tells me what he hears, then goes back and does it again and again.

This time, spending a weekend in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he was able to tell his host about how afraid he was for the life and health of his son, who served in with the Israeli army in Gaza for a few months till his return home. And his host, a Muslim businessman, could listen and sympathize.

In Zen Buddhism we do interviews between teacher and student. Since I don’t care for the word interviews, I’ve adopted the term face-to-face that, as far as I know, was begun at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

In my early years with Bernie, or Sensei as we called him then, I’d done lots of interviews with him that were very formal, calling for full bows, ritual, lots of choreography.

One day, long before I became a teacher, he said to me: “Eve, do you know what people want from me when they come in for an interview?”

“For you to pass them on their koan?”

“They want me to listen to them. And Eve, do you know what else they want from me?”

“To confirm their understanding?”

“They want me to listen to them. And do you know what else they want from me?”

“No, Bernie, what else do they want from you?”

“They want me to listen to them.”

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JUST NOT MY MOTHER

The rainwater we had froze overnight, leaving small puddles of ice in the woods like the one above. I was captivated by the lines the ice made this morning. Within minutes, as it got warmer, the ice dissolved, but the step-by-step process was very pretty, before it all cracked and gave way.

Often, I wonder how to write about human suffering—losses, catastrophes, illnesses, heartbreaking disappointments—without invoking pity, without causing human beings to disappear indiscriminately into some big pit marked Unfortunates. Or Victims. Or Suffering Beings. Or Losers, as Donald Trump might call them.

I can blame the Buddha, whose First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. No such thing as gain without loss, hope without setback, joy without sorrow. When we do suffer, we suffer in different ways.

A couple from Guatemala came across the border, their town overrun by drug cartels. They managed to bring their two younger children with them, but the older ones didn’t want to come. Think of your own teenagers who have their friends, whom they don’t want to leave behind. Some months later a drug gang entered the family’s house in Guatemala and killed 18 people, including the two children who’d stayed behind and their grandparents.

Or the woman who cleans this house once a month. She’s here for over 20 years with her husband and son, and several years ago had another baby girl. But she left a grown-up daughter in Guatemala whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. She can’t fly down to see her because she has no legal documents, and the daughter can’t come up here. It’s not clear the two will ever see each other.

She always smiles when she comes here, but I believe that inside, the face is marked like the Ice above.

And smaller things. Like what? Sophia and her daughter, Elena, make it here after Elena gives birth enroute, in Mexico. Elena goes to high school and does well, has plans for a career, but the baby is not well so she leaves school to take care of her. They need a pediatrician but can’t get one without medical insurance, and the ER hasn’t been able to stabilize the baby.

And then the bureaucracy begins: If Sophia could work a certain number of hours at the local farms, she can get medical insurance. But the farms are closed right now, and once she does get the insurance, it’ll cover her and Elena, but not the grandbaby.

How do you tell these stories without exhausting yourself and your readers? People get tired and feel overwhelmed.

“Dogs, too,” says Aussie. “If Henry the Illegal Chihuahua tells me one more story of how he got here, I’ll kill myself. I hate suffering! What am I supposed to do about it?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it’s not up to me to end it all; I can do just a little bit—and that’s important. Last weekend I mentioned an unhoused woman who lived through a Tennessee winter in a tent, then came up here and spent a New England winter with her dog in a truck with a broken window. She’s begun working in a fast-food outlet, but still can’t afford much here. I have learned a great deal over the past years about working poor people, who work full shifts every day, also weekends, and can’t afford rents or medical bills.

I sent out some emails and posts. A nice man replied that he may have a place for her and the dog for a few months and asked that she call him. Two others wrote that while they don’t have a room for her, they can help in other ways, one by buying her the dogfood she needs, the other to help repair the truck window.

I find myself getting stuck on the big needs and overlooking the smaller ones that may be just as important, and more doable. Get some dogfood, fix he truck window, get some shelter from the cold and rains for a while. Later, something bigger maybe, like permanent housing and another chance at rebuilding a life. But small things are important.

On Saturday night I took out Jimena and Byron Pareja, not just to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary but also as gratitude for facilitating connection with our local immigrant families. Jimena told me that now, in her evening job supporting immigrant teens in their schoolwork, she brings in their parents. Why? Because since Massachusetts legalized driver’s licenses for immigrants (legal and not), their parents are taking road tests, but English remains a big roadblock. She has their kids testing them:

“What do you do if the tester asks you to turn right and park behind that white car? No no no, you don’t park right away, you first turn right and then park.”

“What do you do if he tells you to turn left? No, not right—left!”

“What lane do you drive on to turn left?”

“The kids get very frustrated,” Jimena chuckled. “You know what they say? ‘Get me another parent to work with, not my mother!’”

We laughed out loud as we shared a big strawberry margarita, toasting their work over many years. 180 people had come to celebrate their anniversary. Parties, laughter, food, a shared strawberry margarita, telling stories. Those, too, are responses to suffering.

Meantime, if you can, please donate to immigrant families using the button below. Do it in honor of Jimena and Byron Pareja. Thank you.

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THE BIGGEST ADDICTION

The Zen Peacemaker Order installed a second cohort yesterday at the end of a two-year program of study. The new members created their own personal plunges (sometimes known as bearing witness retreats), looking not only at the raw challenges of their own lives but those of other lives around them, and beginning or continuing the work that addresses those challenges and needs.

Folks from the US, England, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Australia and New Zealand all met on Zoom, and the Rule of the Order was recited in English, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, and German. Given our different countries, the installation had to be done on Zoom, and the ceremony was directed by the new members, which I so prefer over top-down planning. It’s like we’re telling them: Okay, you’ve graduated; now get to it.

Part of the ceremony showed Bernie sitting next to the chanter Krishna Das. I knew the scene not just through the video clip but because I had been there in person, so I used the opportunity to take a good look at Bernie, re-remember the clothes he was wearing (jeans, blue jeans shirt, black suspenders with pink piggies on them), saw the gestures of scratching his nose or the inner side of his eye that I knew so well. Most visible of all to me, the expression on his face when he hears things he’s heard many times before and still stands by them, always stands by them.

I know that feeling that comes up when you’re older, when you hear things you’ve heard lots of times before, old memories and expressions. Are they still new? Are they still vital and alive? I spent 35 years with and around this man, 20 as his wife, 35 as a student. Know the feel of the beard, the crazy eyebrows.

A few veterans spoke, one of them a friend and peace activist from Israel. She’s lost allies and friends in both Israel and Gaza. She remembered first meeting Bernie and how he explained that for him, making peace is making whole. In the Hasidic tradition, the vessel of creation is smashed to pieces and it’s the role of the Tzaddik, or Bodhisattva, to bring the pieces back together again.

I’ve heard this so often, since 1996, that it’s become a part of me; I’m no longer aware of it. But every once in a while, I hear it anew. Maybe because this friend was so broken by what has happened in the Middle East. After bitter disappointments you can feel your vows almost tearing you apart. What whole, you want to scream. And yet, she said, you don’t give up even in the face of the sudden urgency to objectify people, stay away, affirm separateness rather than wholeness.

You don’t need to start drinking or do drugs; the most basic addiction of all is the addiction to the self, as Bernie himself so often said, and when the world falls apart, when your world falls apart, staying inside a hard, fortress-like self feels natural. You look away, you feel good blaming the world and proclaiming: Not in my lifetime, it’s finished, I’m done. Our most basic addiction is to the stories and constructs of our life, to a skin that covers up terror, fragility and the gnawing admission that life cannot and will never be just how we want it.

Protecting myself in that way is the most powerful addiction of all.

And we go on.

This morning, I got a text from my brother in Saudi Arabia (Saudi and Israel have no diplomatic relations but he, as a dual American-Israeli citizen, flew there). He was there to continue his talks with Muslim leaders. He wrote that he shared the hotel elevator with a young 15-year-old Saudi boy wearing a Ronaldo t-shirt. He asked my brother where he was from, my brother said: “You’ll never guess!” The boy said: “Italy, US, Ukraine, France, Spain.” My brother finally whispered: “Israel.” The young Saudi’s eyes opened wide, and he hurried out of the elevator at the very next floor.

After that, my housemate told me of one of her clients, a woman from Tennessee who is unhoused and living in her truck through this cold winter with a broken window. She has a dog with her and therefore can’t go into shelters, and do I know someone who could rent her a room for $500 a month. Rents here are so off the wall that working singles simply can’t afford them. I’m looking into it.

At 7:30 am a 15-person crew, all Latino and Latina, came to take down our 35-year-old roof and put in a new one. They finished by 1:30 in the afternoon, leaving the yard, the gardens, and the apple tree just as they found them, pristine. The two dogs freaked out from the horrific noise, and I took all of us to two good friends who housed us for half the day, including preparing a terrific lunch.

So many threads run through us all the time, our lives nothing but a fabric of those threads. They bring needs and wants, as well as gifts of kindness, humor and generosity, culminating, at 4 pm, with new members installed into an order of whole-makers, connecting, bridging and bonding across vast distances, and not giving up.

How fortunate I am in this life!

“Are they gone?” Aussie asks, looking fearfully as we drive down to the house.

“Who, Aussie?”

“The racketeers.”

“Who?”

“The racket-makers.”

She’s sleeping now after a long day of scary noises, peace and quiet restored. For now.

Next week we begin with the third cohort of some 44 people from various countries, and two years from now I hope to attend their installation, too.

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IMPEACHMENT

“Aussie, go take a nap.”

“Uh-uh.”

“Henry, stop throwing Norman the Narwhal around and settle down.”

“Claro que no.”

“I beg your pardon? What’s gotten into the two of you?”

“Henry and I met for a confab, held a vote, and decided to impeach you. It was 2-0, unanimous.”

“Say, what?”

“You’re impeached, Senora.”

“Done. Kaput. Lock up the office and go.”

“Excuse me, but aren’t you the one that calls Henry the Illegal Chihuahua? Illegals can’t vote, Aussie.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that. Nevertheless, I am a full-blooded American dog, I can vote, and I just gave you the boot.”

“What does that mean?”

“You can’t tell us what to do anymore, Senora. You have no authority in this house.”

“Not that you ever really did, hee hee hee. You know all that obedience training we did to get our Good Canine Citizenship certificates?”

“That was just to fool you, Senora. We pretended to obey, but all the time we were planning a coup-d’état.”

“What’s with all this impeachment business, dogs? Republicans want to impeach Biden, they’ve already impeached Homeland Secretary Mayorkas, though he didn’t go anywhere from what I could see.”

“You’re the ones who started the impeachment epidemic. You know what you did to the Man—a record two impeachments! Not a bone of sympathy anywhere; at least we get a bone on Sundays. The Man? Nothing 7 days a week. Not a scrap of pity, not a sliver of compassion. Well, two can play the same game. Or three. You’re impeached, finished. You’ll make history—not a lot of dog owners have been impeached by their own dogs.”

“But what’s my offense, guys?”

“Let me count the ways: Kibble. Only 2 hours of walks a day. Only 2 days with my guru, Leeann. Turkey once a year on Thanksgiving. Steak only on my birthday. A fence around the yard—”

“You get through that fence whenever you want, Aussie.”

“An unmaintained fence. Too many snow and rain days with no walks. Endangering my health and wellbeing!”

“When?”

“Taking me for walks close to shooting ranges.”

“There are shooting ranges where we live, I can’t help that.”

“Making me wear bright orange. You know how I hate orange!”

“That’s for your protection during hunting season, Aussie.”

“Excuses excuses. Go get a lawyer.”

“Nothing you have said is an impeachable offence, Aussie.”

“You haven’t heard Henry yet. Go, Illegal.”

“Not throwing Norman around for me to retrieve.”

“A hundred times a day is not enough?”

“Closing the door on me in the mornings.”

“When I do meditation.”

“Sleeping with me, interspecies cohabitation.”

“Only when Lori’s not here.”

“Talking to me in English, a foreign language.”

“I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life. Dogs don’t impeach humans.”

“Patriarchy! Hierarchy!”

“Snarky barky! Malarkey!”

“From the road to the river—”

“We will not forgive ‘er.”

“From the river to the road—”

“We will be unbowed.”

“And always love pie a la mode.”

“Okay, got it. No more authority. No more Aussie, get over here! Or Henry, stop throwing Norman into my coffee!

“You got it. Now, go get dinner.”

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MULLAH NASRUDDIN

“Aussie, come out and play. Hurry! Sky is blue, sun is shining, and it’s warm outside!”

“Shut up, Henry, you’re disturbing my sleep.”

“Come on, Aussie, let’s chase each other, let’s have fun. Llama Louie says it’s important to have fun.”

“Would you stop quoting that stupid lama? How do you trust anyone that comes from Tibet?”

“Aussie,” say I, “I think Henry’s Llama Louie is a llama from South America.”

“Even more reason not to listen to him. The world is ending and everybody knows it, so excuse me if I snooze.”

“But Aussie, Llama Louie says that the world isn’t ending. He says that all of us have more self-knowledge and understanding than ever before, that we appreciate friendship and love more today than yesterday, that there’s more beauty—”

“I know, I know, and enlightenment is just around the corner.”

“No, Aussie, Llama Louie says that enlightenment is here right now, all the time. We just have to experience it.”

“This is what we chanted in our Saturday retreat day, Aussie. Now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it. But it’s always here and now.”

“What about there and later?”

“Aussie, don’t be such a spoil-sport.”

“Do you see what’s right in front and all around you, little Mexican twerp? 30 wars around the planet—I take that back, 31 counting our war, Henry—”

“I don’t fight anybody anymore, Aussie. Thanks to Llama Louie, I’m now into nonviolence. I’ve become a pacifist.”

“That’s what happens to all cowards, Henry. If you don’t feel like fighting for what you believe or putting your life on the line, if you prefer to eat sushi and drink beeswax, sage, spinach, and tarragon tea, you become a pacifist.”

“Aussie, Llama Louie says that life is beautiful.”

“Tell him to go back to Mexico, Henry.”

“I don’t think there are llamas in Mexico, Aussie.”

“Get back to reality, Illegal Chihuahua. Living things are dying all over the planet. There are more homeless refugees, more species dying off, more bad air. Things are getting so bad that soon they’ll put dogs back to work.”

“That’ll be great, Aussie!”

“Mixing with sheep? Smelling stinky luggage? Tracking down more illegal chihuahuas by the border? One at home is enough. Anyway, we’ll probably all be dead before then from too much heat, too much cold, the house will fall into the ocean—”

“There’s no ocean here.”

“—or the desert will swallow the house—”

“No desert, either.”

“and the trees will come down on our heads because they hate us by now. Worst of all, they’ll stop making Doggie Dog Dog Open-Range, Grass-Fed Liver Patties with Organic Feta and Thyme. The only good thing on the horizon is the return of Donald Trump.”

“Aussie. Llama Louie says that we can’t fall into pessimism. We must go on, find beauty where others find ugliness and life where others find death.”

“I’m going back to sleep. Call me when it’s over. Or rather, call me when we’re over.”

“Henry’s right, Aussie. Ever hear of Mullah Nasruddin?”

“Oh no, an Arab?”

“Mullah Nasruddin is sitting on a donkey facing backwards. ‘Mullah, why are you facing backwards?’ someone asks him. He says: ‘Why don’t you ask the donkey?’”

“Huh?”

“What do you get out of the story, Auss?”

“That Mullahs are stupid?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That donkeys are stupid?”

“Anything else, Aussie?”

“That Henry’s stupid?”

“Aussie, what I like about the story is this: The world may be going in a particular direction. Maybe it’s giving up hope, going under the blankets, moans and groans about doomsday. But some of us keep on looking in a different direction, Aussie. We see that every moment is new, we are open to infinite possibilities, and always looking to be of service.”

“Maybe you’re stupid. You’re the one looking backwards.”

“Backwards, forward, sideways, who cares, Aussie?”

 “Come on, Henry, let’s go out and play. The Senora’s nuts.”

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

BIG ROOM, BIG WORLD

Each morning, I wake up in a big bedroom that once accommodated two, and the first thing I feel is somewhat intimidated by its size. Behind the full-size bed (it used to be king-size) is the Medicine Buddha, on the side between two windows one of Mayumi Oda’s paintings of Kwan-yin. An altar and chair in the corner by the window, and standing on the floor on the opposite side is a terrific Peter Cunningham photo of Bernie and Jeff Bridges in a New York City restaurant celebrating Bernie’s 70th, Jeff sitting and playing guitar while Bernie looks over his shoulder. Never hung it up because I ran out of wall space; you have to give Peter’s photos the space they need. Yes, a TV screen on the dresser after his stroke that I never use, and a walk-in closet of which half is empty, the other half sparse.

The room feels too big for me, first thing in the morning. The world feels too big for me, too.

I then wonder what it would feel like to wake up in a smaller bedroom, something that fits one person, the walls closer in, the windows and door narrower. Wouldn’t that be more my size? More manageable at this time of life, as they say it? More handleable?

Bernie’s world was huge, and he had no fear. He didn’t understand other cultures or other languages—Brooklyn English and silence were pretty much what he spoke—but wherever he went he felt right at home. In 1997 he was even considering moving out of the United States. We could develop the Zen Peacemakers anywhere, he’d say. He gave some consideration to Poland, where his mother was born.

“I can’t speak the language,” I told him.

He didn’t worry because he could speak every language.

But some cultures he couldn’t get used to. Around 2009 or 2010 the Zen Peacemakers sponsored a safari in Tanzania led by Peter Matthiessen, with profits going to benefit the organization. We did what we were supposed to do, got khaki pants and shirts, decent sunglasses, and packed relatively little because we’d be moving a lot. Everyone else brought excellent, expensive camera equipment.

It was very memorable, as you can imagine. In the days we’d go out in several jeeps, each containing a driver who doubled as a guide, instantly pointing out the flora and fauna, and providing detailed explanations of habitats and habits, what to look for, what to watch out for. I remember the jeep coming to a screeching halt one day when the driver pointed out the highly dangerous Green Mamba slithering its way across the road. Peter, who loved snakes, instantly jumped out to take a closer look as the driver pleaded with him to come back.

That first night out in camping tents (fancy, with showers whenever you wanted them and coffee brought to you before dawn), we had a sumptuous dinner prepared by the staff in a large dining tent with a long table, linen tablecloth and napkins.

Where were the African guides? They sat separately outside, plates on their laps by the fire.

It’s the way it’s done, they explained to me when I asked why. The clients inside, the staff outside. Even the guides we depended on so much, those who’d demonstrated college-level knowledge of zoology, geography, and wildlife biology? The personable, good-natured black men taking such good care of the whites? The ones I’d love to ask about their families, their studies, how they knew so much?

 This is how it’s done in safaris, I was told.

Finally, our last dinner, a festive occasion on our last night together. People were invited to make comments about the safari, most of which were very positive, till it was Bernie’s turn.

“We shouldn’t be eating separately from the guides,” he said. “We’re together all day, they share all their knowledge with us, we should be eating all together.”

“Bernie, it’s the tradition,” Peter remonstrated from where he sat at the head of the table. “I’ve done this for many years, this is the tradition. It’s what they’re used to.”

“I’m not used to this,” said the guy from Brooklyn.

Peter was clearly irritated. “Bernie, it’s not helpful to come here and use a sledgehammer on long-term customs and traditions. People don’t appreciate it.”

It ended pretty much with that, and we went on.

Several years later, after his diagnosis of leukemia, when we visited him at his home for the last time, Peter told Bernie he’d been right that evening about the seating in the safari,

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NOT GOING ANYWHERE

One morning I came to light incense for Kwan-yin, the goddess of compassion, and found a branch lying neatly at her feet. It had to be Henry, the small chihuahua mix, who always loves to bring branches for you to throw. Maybe he was hoping Kwan-yin would throw it for him, and maybe she did. It was a sweet gift to put there..

On Monday, Presidents Day, I watched a webinar put together by OPIS (Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) which featured four peace activists, two Israeli and two Palestinian, speaking about what they’re experiencing and doing in this dark and violent time in their history.  One had lost his parents on October 7. Another’s father had been killed by the IDF. Still another’s family had lost their property in Jerusalem.

The webinar was inspiring and deeply moving, especially at this time, because most of the participants were young and saw this present moment not just as catastrophe but also as a huge opportunity for change. They’re clearly ready to pick up the mantle of an older generation of peacemakers. You can see the video of that webinar here.

The words of one stood out. May Pundak co-leads A Land For All with her Palestinian counterpart, Dr. Rula Hardal. I’m paraphrasing what she said:

I’m doing this work for me, not on behalf of anyone else. I’m doing this because one day I woke up and realized: There are two nations living here and nobody’s going anywhere. I don’t have a different home, so don’t tell me to go to Europe or the United States. The Palestinians don’t have a different home, either. If they’re not here now they’re living in refugee camps or in Gaza (Palestinians living both in Israel and the West Bank almost all have relatives in Gaza). NOBODY’S GOING ANYWHERE, SO WHAT ALTERNATIVE DO WE HAVE TO PEACE?

May Pundak’s father, Ron Pundak, helped write the Oslo Accords many years ago and led the Peres Peace Center till his early death. Now the next generation continues the work.

Her statement was so simple, so sensible, and most important, so realistic.

All around me, people say that action towards peaceful co-existence is unrealistic given the extreme bitterness and trauma people have undergone. My brother was recently in Dubai speaking with Muslim leaders. Before leaving, he told me that he doesn’t tell too many people in Israel where he’s going because they’ll say he’s crazy. When he returned, he told me that his counterparts in Dubai told him that they didn’t tell anyone they were meeting him and his work partner because they’d be told they were crazy.

The financial support he depended on for day-to-day living has evaporated because supporters feel his work may be unrealistic. But tell me, who’s being unrealistic here? Who’s being impractical?

I’ve long ago run out of patience with those who say that people who work for peace and social and economic justice are starry-eyed idealists who don’t know how to put one foot in front of another. You want to see the results of those who’re being “realistic?” Take a look at the Middle East right now.

What choices do we make in our life? Short-term gain vs. long-term? When we think that the most important thing is to take care of ourselves and nothing else is practical, where does that leads us?

I recently had lunch with a friend with a long-time business career, working in big corporations almost his entire adult life. He’s taken care of his family, providing for their needs, and lives a comfortable retirement. I appreciate that life; who are we if we don’t take care of our families?

But tell me, was he more practical than Bernie or me or so many others who work to take care of ourselves, our families, and this entire One Body? We’re free to make decisions about what to do with our one life (and are very fortunate to have that), but please don’t label those who live one kind of life realists and the others pie-in-the-sky idealists.

If humanity doesn’t burn up and go extinct as scientists worry, we have those idealists to thank. If we actually take care of the gang warfare in countries like Haiti or Ecuador, if we find a way to bring peace to Ukraine, it’ll be because of those activists, along with governments and corporations who also have a role to play. Bernie always said that we need everything and everybody; he refused to jump on the corporation-bashing train so many progressives ride.

The bigger the problems, the more help we need from all sectors of life. What I object to is the framing of one side as unrealistic and the other as realistic. We are all in this together because we have nowhere else to go.

This is true everywhere, not just in the Middle East. Even before New Year’s Eve, when Henry was attacked by a neighbor’s dog, she and I had an ambivalent relationship because her German Shepherds were never fenced and would rush at whoever walked on the road. As I spent 4 hours that night in the veterinary hospital, she called and screamed in my ear.

But we’re both living on the same road, in the same town, in the same state, in the same country, on the same earth. We’re not going anywhere. Can I afford to carry that rancor with me? Can she? We have to find a way to make up because each of us is needed to do something no one else can quite duplicate. We bring our own tastes and flavors to this enormous life, and—WE’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE.

Peaceful co-existence is the most practical goal to work towards. See the webinar here, it’s very moving.

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ON PRESIDENTS DAY

Aussie on ice

Lori and Henry were gone this weekend, leaving just Aussie and me in the house. I went out to dinner Saturday evening. Putting my coat and boots on by the door, I noticed how she looked at me, instantly grasping that I was dressed differently, intent on going out without her (Aussie stays!). Suddenly it hit me how vulnerable she was, how dependent on me. What if I wasn’t coming back? How would she get food? Who would be there for her?

And with that, my own vulnerability hit as well. I’m in good health, but if the car skidded, we could be dead in a minute flat. Or ill, or disabled.

Feeling strong and independent is so foundational to this American culture. And why not? There are no missiles hitting our cities as they do in Ukraine or Israel, no bombings to endure like people in Gaza or, more sporadically, in Pakistan or Iran, no lack of food or drinking water. We celebrate Presidents Day and make this a long weekend, focusing not on courage or principle—who is our counterpart to Alexei Navalny of Russia?—but on store sales and sleeping late.

Several days ago I worried about whether I’d be able to read books again. That fear was gone by morning, but when I walked in the woods the following day after snow in a gorgeous forest with only Aussie for company, I made my way with both confidence and simultaneous reminders  to be careful on the ice, not to slip and break a leg, not to sit or lie on the ground with pain and cold with no one around to help and no cellphone signal.

What would happen to Aussie if I didn’t come back from dinner? She has a dog door to get out to the yard, and if she’s hungry enough she’ll go through the fence and wander in search of food, someone will find her and bring her to the shelter, where they’ll feed her.

Aussie will be okay, but let’s face it, ultimately, we all take our chances. Maybe not the chances Alexei Navalny took, returning to Putin’s Russia after attempts on his life, but the very nature of our life is powerlessness in the face of life’s contingencies.

This doesn’t bring up fear, but rather the incredible sweetnesses of day-to-day. There’s a pivot I can make, not focusing on what’s beyond my agency but on the undeserved joy I get from calling my sister on WhatsApp and laughing with her—all for no money down, from a few tablespoons of a lemony rice pudding, from the smile I got from a woman who helped me move a 50-pound bag of birdseed earlier today.

When I face my own powerlessness in the face of complex conditions, I turn away from the losing proposition called control, which means fewer shoulds, fewer deadlines, fewer finish lines. Instead, the present moment becomes so alive! And why not, given that it’s the only thing I really have?

Vulnerability brings me self-liberation, but only if I make that pivot.

Over lunch today I described to someone the joy Bernie had from our Italian coffee machine. He had loved his cappuccino for many years, and when he had his stroke, he wanted to still be able to make it for himself. We bought a machine that ground the coffee and steamed the milk, but still needed handling (the ones that do it all cost $3,500). I wrapped a book in a plastic envelope and put it under the steam wand, and he was able to rest his cup on it while using his one good hand to manipulate the buttons and dials.

He loved showing off how he could make his own cappuccino. That coffeemaker is still around, and there isn’t a morning when I don’t relish not just making my cup but also remembering the joy it gave him. He had to give up doing baths (couldn’t get safely into the tub), but he could make his own beloved cappuccino.

Just like he could slice his own bagel. How? Because we had a guillotine on the counter which he could operate with one hand.

Aussie comment: “A one-handed Marie Antoinette, only she was the bagel.”

I can’t tell you that he loved life once he was paralyzed in half his body, but he loved those moments.

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SEASICK

Walking in the Plains

The American artist Rockwell Kent once wrote: “These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.” He was living in the northernmost regions of Alaska at the time, doing his art and surviving.

I would like to see my soul expand even when lots of things are happening.

I had cataract surgery on my left eye. Even as Byron Pareja, Jimena’s husband, drove me home, I could already see how much farther and clearer I could see. Came home, collapsed for two hours, wrote, did laundry, and in evening time I picked up a book and couldn’t read. Everything was a blur.

My condition of keratoconus complicates things a bit, I know that up front, but instantly I felt unmoored. What’s happening to my vision? Have I exchanged improvement in distance vision at the cost of my near vision? Will I be able to read books again?

I’d been told by my highly-trusted surgeon that it would take 3 weeks for the eye to heal, and that during that time the vision will change not just from day to day, but even at different times of the day. I knew all that, but Wednesday night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, kept awake by the winds outside, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t read books. I’d read before going to sleep all my life, what will happen now?

Night voices whispered: There is Kindle, after all. You’ll get one and magnify the letters; they’re lighter than books, right? But it’ll mean looking at another screen again. Or I’ll get books on tape, I thought. The libraries have decent collections, I’ll do the best I can with what they have, not the worst thing in the world by a long shot, other people go through so much more.

I fell asleep at 5 in the morning, woke up a couple of hours later, opened my eyes, looked towards the window, and knew that everything had changed. No blurriness, in fact the eye was better than ever. I picked up a book and knew that, yes, things were still healing but I was going to read my fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in books, real books, for at least a little bit longer.

Later that day, driving back after a reassuring follow-up with the surgeon, I wondered why I’d freaked out so much. Granted, surgery made me tired, worn, and achy. Lying back and letting a laser do its thing on your eye requires some surrender. When you get home you find your eyes listening to someone else’s orders, not yours.

When I was 12, a doctor told me I was going blind. I’d been prescribed a pair of glasses, but he found that my vision was still deteriorating. They hadn’t discovered keratoconus yet, a condition I would later remedy by wearing contact lens. Fear of going blind has lurked in my mental backstage all these years, though I’ve been able to see very well till now, at the age of 74.

I shook my head. After all these years of meditation practice, and I could still freak out over nothing! Zoom up and down like an elevator, lie awake with anxiety, crack a few cynical jokes to myself.

When that happens, you can actually feel yourself contract. It’s as if you’ve shrunk two sizes, your body curled up, shoulders hunched against your head, the world dwindling down to the size of a blanket, not an inch more. You’re aware of it, you understand what is happening, you shut off your brain and take deep breaths, but you seemingly can’t shake off the blanket.

The next day there was joy, but I look askance at these radical ups and downs, dependent as they are on ups and downs. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s words: “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”

And becoming the ocean can’t be conditioned on those times in life when nothing much happens, as Rockwell Kent said, in the outermost frozen, numbing reaches of Alaska.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.