SWIMMING IN FULL-DRESS AND HIJAB

In my last post I talked about going to the Dead Sea for two days, and on the way there visiting my niece in a West Bank settlement. A well-off settlement, with schools, parks, and lookout points overseeing the desert. A year or so ago I attended a birthday party there with nieces and nephews and their children. We sat outdoors on a green slope overlooking a basketball court and, behind that, the desert.

Everyone was happy; no one seemed conscious of the fact that for much of the world, this is considered occupied land.

In America we also live on occupied land, but generations later, after waves of voluntary immigration from Europe and Asia and coerced ship journeys bringing Africans for the purpose of enslavement, who, other than Native Americans, considers the US occupied territory?

This is what Israeli strategists banked on: Let’s make the West Bank economically attractive for young families, they’ll settle there, their children will be born there, their children, etc., and we won’t have to worry about two states any longer.

By now I say they succeeded. But succeeded in what?

For several years I refused to go into settlements in the West Bank. Years ago, I told the same niece I visited on Tuesday that I couldn’t come there, it went against my sense of right and wrong, my hopes for a just peace in this land. Jews needed a home, I thought, but not this way. I imagined the Israeli strategists congratulating themselves on once again outsmarting the opposition, planning well ahead, sitting back, and watching their plans move forward unimpeded.

But whether it’s my sharp values or strategists’ plans, they seem to get upended by life unspooling day after day.

I spent two days in a hotel in the Dead Sea, a place that, what with the heat and salinity, causes you to slow down, even come to a standstill (or sits till) and do nothing. Here I am, closer to the center of the earth than any other place on the earth’s surface, closer to the heart. And the heart surprises.

Bernie and I brought different people to the Dead Sea, in addition to my mother. They included Peter and Maria Matthiessen, they included our Zen familiars Junyu and Tamiko Kuroda, as well as Bernie’s cousin George Plafker, Penrose Medal-winning geologist who related much about the enormously long rift under the Sea even as we drove alongside it. On occasion I’d see Israeli Arab families in the hotels as well, but very few.

This time, busloads of Arab women came down and stayed at our hotel. We encountered them everywhere—the lobby, the dining room, the Dead Sea Mall—and on the beach. One evening, going back to the room after dinner, I heard Happy Birthday sung in heavily accented English. I peeked into the club. Around one table sat a large group of older religious Jewish women, hair covered under hats. Next to them was an even bigger group of Israeli Arab women singing loudly in English, accompanied by a stringed oud.

We encountered them in the indoors pool of heavy Dead Sea salt water in the hotel’s spa. They went into that oily, warm water wearing black pants or leggings under long blouses or tunics, hair enclosed in a hijab. This is how they also went into the Dead Sea outside, joined by young Jewish women in bikinis. I was in the pool and noticed that a few had entered the adjacent jacuzzi, which already contained Jewish Israeli women.

“Where are you from?” one Jewish woman asked.

“Acre,” replied the Arab woman, in Hebrew.

“All the way up there in the north!”

And then they chatted. First, about their children, how many, who’s married, who has grandchildren. They compared notes about the Dead Sea, how often they go down there, for what event, who has elderly parents, who teaches school.

I watched how easily they spoke with one another. When two peoples live in such close proximity to one another, the mix  begins: language, music, culture, values. Israel prides itself on being part of the advanced West, but to my eyes, looking at things from street level, it doesn’t feel anything like the US or Europe, it’s too noisy, too clannish, too young, unruly, and passionate. It reminds me of nothing but itself, on the coast of the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic, just south of Mesopotamia where so much began.

You can plan from the outside, like the Oslo political accords, or like the Israeli strategists who drew maps, developed towns, allocated populations. Even now I know Palestinians are closed up in the West Bank and Gaza, unable to come to areas like the Dead Sea and interact with their Israeli counterparts.

But there in the Dead Sea, where you don’t run and don’t splash, where you slowly melt into mountains populated by mystics millennia ago, where great forces do their work under sediments of salt and soil and mock your efforts and manipulation, one learns humility and patience.

Big mounds of salt on rim and at bottom of Dead Sea

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BY THE DEAD SEA

My sister and I left Jerusalem yesterday mid-morning, made a stop to visit with a niece living in a settlement on the West Bank, and came down to the Dead Sea.

Settlement. That’s the political word describing it, no two ways about it. I gather there’s a tentative agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that in case a two-state solution can be reached, Israel will keep three areas of the West Bank in exchange for other territory given to Palestine, and her town lies in one of those three areas. But for now, there is no agreement, so settlement it continues to be.

She has a beautiful 3-story home overlooking the desert, the bottom of which is rented out to weekend vacationers while she lives in the other two with her husband and five children. They are among many young families that couldn’t afford to live in big cities like Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv, and the Israeli government, with subsidies and incentives, made it favorable for them to move into the West Bank.

Many people think it’s only Israeli ideologues who live in the West Bank, but in truth, many young people find it economically viable, where they could have the American dream and own a home, as they’ve told me.  Over the years I’ve watched families take root there, their children unable to conceive that the home where they were raised could ever become part of another country.

We drove back onto the highway, flew down past the sign saying You are at sea-level, past Bedouin children guiding goats up the barren hills, feeling the temperatures climb steadily, a welcome change to Jerusalem which is high up and cold. Past the left turn to Jericho , past more left turns to the Bet Sh’an Valley and signs to the Allenby Bridge (closed to all but Palestinians crossing from Jordan to West Bank), till we reached the big service area at the very bottom before the right turn that takes us alongside the Dead Sea.

Traditionally we stop here, and that’s where I took the photo above. They made me fresh orange juice from half-a-dozen small oranges and I watched the peels collected carefully in a plastic bag. Compost, I wondered? I came outdoors for the warm, welcoming sun and watched those same peels being fed to the camel that happily pushed its head across the barrier to gobble them up. The place is completely staffed by Hebrew-speaking (and English-speaking) Palestinians, though the service area is owned by a nearby kibbutz.

I didn’t need the camel to know I was in the Dead Sea. It’s not just the lowest body of water on earth, it’s also the lowest point on earth, more than 1,300 feet below sea level. The Sea itself is ten times saltier than the ocean, so that you don’t swim there, you float naturally.

“Do not splash in,” I warned a friend of mine from Czech Republic years ago when I brought her here, but she ignored me, and instead of wading in slowly and carefully like everyone else, she threw herself in, getting heavy sulphury water into her eyes. She cried for the rest of the day.

We drove south, the Sea on one side and the Judean Mountains—where mystics roamed years ago and people lived in celibate spiritual communities and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls—on the other. It’s probably my favorite drive in the world.

We’ve come down here often, sometimes for an overnight, more often for two nights. Bernie and I would come down to one of the hotels on the Sea and bring my mother along for the weekend, a tradition for many years. Now it’s my sister and I. It’s an expensive couple of days, especially if you add massage or facials, but I never say no.

You feel like you’re closest to the center of the earth. If the earth meditates, then this place is its hara, its very center. Here—due to the desert dryness and heat, and the water’s salinity—is where things slow down to a crawl. You can’t splash into the water, you can’t swim fast, you can’t walk fast. The body gets sluggish, doesn’t sweat, while you sit and contemplate Jordan across the Sea. You’re warned to drink lots of water.

In a place so hostile to life, life abounds. You can identify the mountain canyons by the green plants and cacti that lie by their openings, flooded by infrequent Jerusalem rains that gush down those canyons from miles away. Rare herbs can be located in the shadows thrown by big rocks and hundreds of kinds of fungi abound in the seabed.

It’s part of the Jordan Rift Valley and lies on a fault line that over the eons separated the African continent from the Arabian. The cluster of hotels, big as they are, is small compared to the pull and push of tectonic plates that altered the earth over millions of years and continues to do that now. Here is where you sense the awful power of the forces carving up the world, the scale of which has very little to do with what we think of as the Middle East.

I was going to write about the people who share this hotel with us, Jews and Arabs alike. But I think I will leave this for my next blog. Right now, as the sun sets behind the mountains on the west, leaving the Sea and Jordan in a velvet dark, I feel called to bear witness to something way more vast and mysterious. Here, closer to the center of the earth than any other place on earth’s surface, I sense deep forces at work.

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THE HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET

My mother sits in her living room and contemplates the unfinished house across the street. Home construction here goes pretty quickly, but not this house. The exterior was finished a long time ago. We hear loud Arabic conversations from a few construction workers on the roof and a van pulls in and out of the adjacent alley, and then everything goes quiet. It’s been this way for over a year.

My mother contemplates the big unfinished house through the large picture window of her living room..

“The students are coming in any day now,” she announces. “I’ve asked for their list of classes. I, too, will give a few talks.”

“About the Holocaust, mom?”

“Forget the Holocaust, about other things.”

“What things, mom?”

“About how we treat each other. It’s impossible to go on the way we do. I want to tell them to stop caring about making money so much. Money, money, money, that’s all we hear about.”

Another day the house across the street becomes a synagogue.

“They made me the manager,” she informs me, “so I’m going around talking to people about what kind of prayers we should have there. I tell them we shouldn’t fight about the prayers, we pray to the same God after all. Most important, I talk to the mothers.”

“About what, mom?”

“I tell them that instead of just bringing their own children to the synagogue, why don’t they bring the neighbors’ children, too? Maybe your neighbor has an infant at home and she’s up all night with the baby and can’t bring the other children to the synagogue, she has to stay home. Help her, for God’s sake! Bring her children, too, not just your own. Tell me, what’s more important than that? Do you think God cares about anything else?”

“Just be a mensch, Bernie used to say,” I tell her.

“Who?”

“I think you should be a rabbi, mom.”

She ignores me. “What’s nicer than inviting the neighbor in for some coffee and a piece of cake, talking about all kinds of things, helping people out? Believe me, when your life is over, you will realize how happy you were when you did that.”

Day after day, my mother worries that children go hungry, mothers don’t have enough help, and that all anyone cares about nowadays is money.

“And the way couples talk to each other! They knock on my door asking for my help and you know what I tell them? I tell them that nothing is as important as peace in the home. I tell them that they fight about trivial things, that even if some nasty words come to your mouth, restrain yourself. Swallow them back; one day you’ll be so glad you did. And they’re happy to hear this, they say there’s nobody like me because I help them so much.”

She continues to place herself in the center of all the action. She’s the one teaching at the university across the street, she’s the one directing the synagogue across the street, making sure that it serves the neighbors and that all children are taken care of. She has lots of money from donors.

“Come work for me,” she tells me. “I’ll pay you well.”

“I’m retired,” I tell her.

“You?”

“Mom, how old do you think I am?”

She hesitates for only a moment. “You should work till you’re 100, don’t stop.”

We have long conversations like this day after day. It’s hard to listen to, obsessive and repetitive as it is, and after an hour my ears are ringing and I walk into the bathroom for some quiet. Her Indian caregiver shrugs; for her it’s the rantings and ravings of a demented woman.

I think of the talks I will have with other people the rest of the day: How’s the coronavirus doing here?You’re moving to Jerusalem?Look at the price of gas!Do they have money for this new project?I don’t have any food at home except yogurtIt’ so warm today you don’t need your jacketSo far, no tourists for Christmas because of the CoronaShe fell, hit her head, had a brain bleed and is now in the hospitalMy son just split from his girlfriend!

And wonder what all this sounds like in God’s ears.

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CAMEL AND FROG

I finished unpacking in my sister’s apartment and only the camel and frog were left. They’re actually water cans with holes on top. You fill each one up to water your plants. I brought them all the way to Israel

Where did I find these, you ask? In a gift store in Cape May, where I spent a weekend last July. I saw the camel first and immediately envisaged it on the plant-filled terrace of my brother-in-law’s apartment, thinking: The camel will look good there. And when I spotted the large green frog I instantly visualized it under the row of plants on an outdoors ledge off my sister’s dining area and thought to myself: That would be perfect there. I bought them that weekend, kept them in my office, packed them for Israel five months later and brought them here.

By the way, they’re both sitting on top of a red skirt that I wore at my mother’s home last night for the Sabbath meal. In my family, you don’t go to those meals wearing perennial jeans; if you’re a woman you wear a dress or skirt, and if you’re a man you wear a pair of good slacks.

I unpacked the skirt, the camel and the frog, and was struck by a memory. A long time ago Bernie and I packed to travel to Israel. Bernie had 3 young grandchildren in Jerusalem. My valise contained gifts for my family; his did not. I looked at the few Hawaiian shirts he put in, a pair of scruffy jeans, suspenders, and very little else, and said: “Are you packing like a monk or like a grandfather?”

He thought about it, then said: “Where can I find gifts for the kids?” I directed him to a store in the nearby town, he went there and returned with three nice gifts for the kids.

The monk and the grandfather. The monk and the sister or sister-in-law. The monk and the daughter, the son, the family member.

Again and again, I bear witness to how much I can still be drawn to those old Buddhist icons of forest monks, carrying nothing with them but their food bowls for begging food and a few coins to cover their cremation when they die.

Even before getting involved with Buddhism, I enjoyed the simple life. I lived in a small Manhattan studio with few clothes in my closet (but lots of books). I traveled so light in those days I could pack and move all my possessions in just a few hours, so moving was not a big deal for me. I felt portable, light on my feet.

For years I felt perfectly fine living communally in one house with others, though I needed my own room. When Bernie and I left that arrangement and bought a house, it was at his urging because he could no longer stand living communally, he’d done it for so long. I didn’t mind it at all, maybe because I was raised in an Israeli kibbutz.

But the tension between the monk and the lay person, the monk and the sister buying gifts, remains. Is it wrong to espy something in a store, instantly connect it with a person you’re close to, and say: That would be a nice gift for them? There’s nothing essential about those articles, we can live perfectly well without them, but they’re well-crafted and attractive, somewhat utilitarian. Most important, they reflect a quality of attention you give to people whom you love. You know what colors they like, what clothes the prefer, what books they care about.

Noticing these things is an act of attention; giving them is an act of love. But I don’t think they’re the acts of monks.

I’m often torn between abundance and simplicity. Both are instruments of beauty. How to negotiate our way through complex relationships and situations, attentive to wants and needs, wishing to honor family and loved ones, but do so without falling victim to the consumer culture that surrounds me? Can we do this while still maintaining simplicity?

The tension between the two is very alive for me. Bernie and I were in Rwanda with a few other Zen peacemakers some years ago, preparing for a bearing witness retreat three months hence. “Why don’t you be our treasurer for this trip?” he said to me that first morning. I would pay our bills. I agreed.

Only trouble was, the Rwandan Franc was very low in value against the dollar, so I ended up loaded with heavy rolls of Rwandan Francs that I carried in my backpack day after day. Bernie, on the other hand, didn’t carry a backpack; his cigars fitted nicely in his shirt pocket.

One day, over lunch, he waxed nostalgic over Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, the German Jesuit Zen master who was in Hiroshima when it suffered the nuclear bomb, trained in Zen and then traveled back and forth between Japan and Europe training others. “He traveled with only two shirts, one change of underwear and socks wherever he went,” Bernie said. “That’s my ideal.”

“Did he travel alone?” I asked. “Did he have an attendant?” I didn’t have to ask whether he had a wife.

Bernie shrugged. “What does that matter?”

Back at our cheap hotel I took out all the rolls of Rwandan Francs and handed them to him. “Your turn to be treasurer,” I said.

If you travel like a forest monk, you pack one way. But if you have a family with kids who hunger for presents from grandpa, if you want to give your family tokens of love, if you’re bringing 50 small crosses made from Bethlehem olive trees back to give to Catholic immigrant families,  if you’re building organizations and programs and need to put cash down for accommodations and food—then you pack very differently.

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PLACE WHERE I WAS BORN

Here I am, in Israel once again.

The words hit me at different times: When the United Airlines Dreamliner flies over the line dividing land from water over the Mediterranean; when the highway begins its circuitous climb up the mountains to Jerusalem; when I walk Molly, my sister’s Anatolian Shepherd, down narrow alleyways rimmed by trees that don’t lose their leaves, as ours have in New England, and instead arch over the paths, creating arboreal tunnels in the middle of a dense city.

That’s when I know I’m here, the place where I was born.

It isn’t home, though I have family here. And while I’ll be glad to go back when it’s time  for me to return to the US, I’ve lacked a strong sense of home all my life. Maybe because we were immigrants, maybe because we moved around a lot.

That lack stands out in this part of the world, where entire tribes and nations plant their flags in certain soil, call it home, and fight it out for generations. People take pride in living in the same homes their parents lived in. When a young Palestinian man marries, it is not uncommon for his family to add another floor to their house so that he can move in there with his wife and raise a family. Compare that to most American families, where it’s a given that children will not only leave their parents’ home but also their home town or city, even settle down in the other side of the country.

Home here often transcends generations. People point to olive trees planted four generations ago, a particular rock where a grandfather liked to sit, a garden, a grove of trees. Maybe home is made up of stories.

It feels quiet here. First, it’s raining. Winter has begun and the dark comes early. In addition, Bibi Netanyahu is no longer prime minister. Things feel more muted, like they did when Donald Trump left the White House. Less drama, less posing and haranguing.

I saw my mother for a short time last night after landing, and soon will go to be with her again.

“For how long?” my sister asks, trying to schedule things so that she could come to pick me up.

“A couple of hours?”

“What will you talk about all that time?”

It’s true, there isn’t much to talk about. She’ll point to the very big house still being built across the street and wonder when classes will begin. She’s sure it’s a university and maybe she could go there to take a course or two. It’s not a university; in fact, I was just told that Jerry Seinfeld is having a house built on that street, so maybe Jerry Seinfeld will live across the street from my mother.

She won’t be impressed. “Is he Jewish?” she’ll ask. For her, it will continue to be a university and she’ll wonder when the students will come.

We’ll go through the details of her life—her remaining brother, her grandchildren. After that we’ll run out of things to talk about, mostly because she can’t follow news, pandemic, or economy. She’s never understood my life and has no memory of Bernie, though she liked him. In the past she took up 90% of our airtime; she loved to talk about herself. Now she has nothing to report.

My sister is right, we’ll run out of things to talk about very soon. Instead we’ll sit down quietly, interrupted only by the same eternal questions about food: “Did you eat something?” “Are you hungry?” “Should we have lunch?” (it’s evening).

Swapna Santosh, her Indian caregiver, will bring me a glass of soda and occasionally hover in the doorway to see if we need anything. She lives there but stays out of the way when we come. She’s almost 42 and always beautiful. Her own family and child are back in India and she supports them with the money she earns taking care of my mother.

She, too, isn’t home. But whenever I see her I feel connected to that family of villagers in central India, far from the big city, the father and mother who farm the land, the husband who worked in Qatar to make money but is now back in India, jobless though he’s a licensed electrician, and the little girl that never sees her mother.

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CALL YOUR MOTHER!

We  finished retreat yesterday at mid-day.

That same day was my 72nd birthday, and as always, I recalled what Roshi Joan Halifax told me many years ago: “On your birthday, call your mother. I know you’ll get lots of birthday greetings and wishes from friends, family, and students, but it was your mother who worked so painfully hard many years ago to give you birth, so call your mother.”

I’d done that every year, so yesterday I got into the car and called my mother, certain that she wouldn’t remember a thing. She hasn’t remembered my birthday in a number of years. But this time, to my great surprise, she herself said, “It’s your birthday!” and laughed as I asked her to think back to all the labor she underwent that day—and all the labor she underwent afterwards because, as we both well knew, I wasn’t an easy child.

We talked only briefly—we usually talk only briefly—but it was very heartwarming. And this time she’s glad because she knows I’m coming to visit her. I plan to travel tomorrow night to Israel, restrictions notwithstanding, to see her, my brother, and sister. The latest Covid restrictions are stringent—a series of covid tests (starting this morning) over the next several days and at least 3 days of quarantine, depending on test results.

To tell you the truth, this morning I felt somewhat unwilling to go through all that: getting down to Newark Airport, a long flight wearing masks, and all the testing in the Tel Aviv airport followed by quarantine. Just printing out all the documents necessary is a little daunting.

At the same time, I am so grateful to be alive, and who should receive that gratitude more than my mother? For most of my years we didn’t see eye to eye. We’re both strong and stubborn (I inherited those qualities from her) and she didn’t approve of my life in Zen practice and social engagement. She got a kick out of Bernie—he saw to that—but by now doesn’t remember him at all. She has dementia, so now she and I finally have only one common language, and that’s the language of love.

It took me three tries to fill out Israel’s covid form to get approval to fly there, and I could feel the familiar sense of anxiety and rush coming up, the old feeling that time was running out. And then I paused and thought to myself: Time isn’t running, you’re the one running. At this time, more than ever, you need to slow down, take care, support people who struggle with fear and anxiety, with their sense of love lost. You’ve gotten so much love, you need to give this back again and again to those without.

Maybe, to echo my mother’s situation, this pandemic is humanity’s form of dementia, in which we’re encouraged to forget our usual ways of doing things, our avarice, our greed for more and more things, more and more content for our ever-grasping minds, and the anxiety that these foment, and rest in something simpler and more basic. Rest in love. Remember what is important: caring, giving, service, and presence. Show people that, in essence, there is nothing to fear.

We had a marvelous 5-day retreat with a pretty intense schedule. I loved my co-teachers, Roshis Genro Gauntt and Fleet Maull. We were all different, with different emphases in our talks and face-to-face; they are two men and I a woman. But it’s that difference that makes it so much fun. The essence wasn’t different at all, but our lives and therefore our teachings are different. I felt a deep appreciation for all the great Buddhist teachers over 2,500 years on whose shoulders we rest, and enormous curiosity about what the coming generations will bring.

Buddhism has changed radically since it came to the West a very short time ago, encompassing householders and lay practice, bringing in women teachers, now opening up to people of color and of different gender orientations, and getting more and more engaged in the challenges our world faces. I’m deeply grateful to Bernie Glassman, my husband, who understood long before others did that Zen practice, while retaining the essential, excellent practices that came to us from India, China, and Japan, would change a great deal in the West. He welcomed that opportunity with all his heart.

A microburst hit us one night during the retreat—we’re getting more and more of those in New England—and the following early morning I rounded the bend driving to the zendo and the car hit a heavy branch that had fallen across the road. The branch snagged on the undercarriage of the car and pulled out a long, heavy plastic object. This morning a service man at the garage looked at it and told me it was safe to drive to Newark Airport without it, and after Christmas they will re-install it.

Life isn’t a bowl of cherries, it’s full of risks and sharp objects. The important thing is to know what’s important and what isn’t and proceed accordingly. So I will start my travel tomorrow. I hope and plan to blog from Jerusalem before I return on December 23.

Our little Henry, Aussie’s Chihuahua nemesis whom she constantly wants to deport, has taken sick. Soon I will go out to our rainy Kwan-yin and, with chant and incense, invoke her compassion for that sweet little dog.

Thank you all for your gifts to children in immigrant families. 82 of them will get what they asked for, what a blessing that is! Thank you to Jimena for distributing the gifts you bought, and to my housemate Lori who will make sure those gifts are in Jimena’s hands even as she works full-time and cares for two dogs I leave behind at home.

So much is being done all the time for our benefit!

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KEEPING THE WORLD IN BALANCE

“Aussie, what are you going to do when I’m away in retreat?”

“Ambush squirrels.”

“You rarely have much luck with that, Auss.”

“You took out the birdfeeders for the winter so I know just where to sit when those varmints come out. That’ll teach you to be away from us.”

“Oh, Aussie, it’s not like you eat them or anything like that.”

“Who’d want to eat a squirrel? It’s not kosher. Look at it like this way: You’re going to do good, so I’m going to do bad.”

“I fail to see the connection.”

“Everything has to be in balance, see? You’re Yin I’m Yang. Call me Aussie Yang. In fact, I encourage you to do as much good as you can, that way I can do lots of bad.”

“Huh?.”

“You Zen Buddhists always talk about Bodhisattva this, Bodhisattva that, doing good for others, blah blah blah. The way life works is, the more good you do, the more bad I do. Thus, we are always in balance.”

“You know, Aussie, people bought out the Christmas gift list for immigrant children. Some 82  gifts have been bought and they’re already arriving in Jimena’s house by the dozens.”

“Why not here? I love to chase the Prime driver.”

“I knew I wouldn’t be home to receive them. A few come here, and Jimena’s husband comes to pick them up. I’m telling you, Aussie, people are so good it’s hard to believe.”

“That’s great. When people are good I spring into action. Ambush squirrels, snap at Henry the Terrible Chihuahua and make him yelp, steal food from his food bowl, break out of the yard and chase deer—”

“It’s hunting season, Aussie, we have to be careful.”

“I’m on a mission to restore balance to this world after you and all your do-gooders bought out that list. I’m going to terrorize everybody who walks on the road and make a mess in your bedroom. Leave it to me, Aussie Yang will singlehandedly keep the world in balance.”

I called my mother to tell her she won’t hear from me till Monday. She didn’t seem alarmed in the least. Her words to me were: “I beg you, Chavale, help people. Do your very best, it’s what God wants from us. It’s easy to think you are more important than everybody else, so okay, maybe for you, you are a little bit more important than everybody else, but just a little bit. Don’t forget, the whole world is ours, so do everything you can for the world, ok, Chavale?”

Okay, mom.

The blog will be on retreat till Monday.

You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. 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.

A NEW VENEREANT IN TOWN

“Aussie, what’s wrong? Here we are at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and you’re flipping out!”

“Of course I’m flipping out. You took me to a Covid testing site! Am I supposed to thank you?”

“I thought you’d enjoy getting out of the car, Auss. And now a nice young man from the cafeteria wanted to play with you and what did you do? You growled.”

“Get me out of here! And don’t even think of getting those swabs into my nostrils, I’ll bite the technician.”

“Aussie, you’re going way too crazy.”

“There’s a new venereant in town, haven’t you heard?”

“Variant, Aussie. Venereant sounds like a sexually-transmitted disease.”

“And maybe it is. I mean, look at all these college students! Do you know what they do night and day?”

“Aussie, that’s not necessarily how Covid gets transmitted.”

“Get me out of this Campus Center! You’re endangering my life, I’m calling the ASPCA.”

“Relax, Auss.”

“I want to go home!”

“I know, Auss. Lori and Henry are coming back, too. They’ve been gone for several days and you were glum the entire weekend, except when you romped with Florence the Border Collie.”

“Don’t remind me! I should never have gotten near her! What was I thinking?”

“You’ll be happy to see Henry—”

“No, I won’t. He’s coming back from Boston, the home of all venereants. Don’t let them come in! Lock those doors! It’s just you and me now, you and me against the world!”

I feel sick to my stomach when I see airport photos of all those flights in and out of Africa cancelled. Not just south Africa, that was the first day, but now it’s all of Africa. Social media gets busy pumping out innuendoes catering to our worst xenophobias about the Dark Continent, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Even as we keep millions of vaccines reserved for those Americans who refuse to get vaccinated, we send very little to a continent where less than 5% of the population has been vaccinated. Not out of choice, out of lack.

Fear and hysteria rear up their heads all over again.

Not for me. I’m going to teach at a Zen retreat with my two friends, Roshis Genro Gauntt and Fleet Maull, starting Wednesday (hence the covid test I did earlier today). Mostly, we’ll sit. It’s the retreat celebrating Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment 2-1/2 millennia ago. When he sat under that tree all night, vowing not to get up till he saw the basic truth of life, was there fear all around him as there is now?

The stories tell us that Mara, the Lord of Delusions, sent one delusion after another to intimidate him, including delusions of disaster, catastrophe, and monstrous terror. It’s said that the Buddha sat through them all, not shrinking away in panic, not turning passive or resistant, just completely engaged and alive. Ready for anything.

That’s how I’d like to sit starting Wednesday evening. With openness and curiosity, giving no-fear. A small group will be there, too, with others coming in via Zoom. The place is big enough to maintain distance and I imagine we’ll spend some time outdoors (though tonight it’s supposed to go down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit).

There is much to do ahead of time, and in these years I find myself reluctant to get up too early. But get up I will, and I know that once I get through the door and into the car in the icy, pre-dawn mornings, then out of the car and into the zendo, once I sit, really sit, feet on the ground, head straight up to the dawn star, there will be no fear at all. I’ll find the heart of my heart and rest there till mid-day Sunday, which will be my 72nd birthday.

Heaven.

I’m thrilled at how the Christmas gift list for immigrant children has almost sold out—and there were gifts there for some 80 children. I believe 7 are still left, so if you’d like to buy a holiday gift for a young immigrant child for Christmas, please do that here, at this link. The gifts are arriving at the home of Jimena this time because I won’t be around to receive them and bring them to her. These Christmas gifts make the children happy. What more could anyone want? Here’s the link again.

Many, many thanks to all of you.

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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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.

THERE IS ALWAYS A MESS

Happy Days of Thanksgiving, everyone. Not just one day, but all the days of your life. The leaves above have kept their color though night temperatures are in the 20s.

I was thrilled to open up the Washington Post a few days ago and find on the front page of their digital edition this article about a soup kitchen. Not just any soup kitchen, but the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield, which some of us began in Montague many years ago before it moved to Greenfield.

When it was in Greenfield, Green River Zen Center used to sit on Saturday mornings and then proceed to the Café a few blocks away to help with the cooking, setting up, and serving. The writer doesn’t mention the council that followed the meals, where people could share, from a very deep place in their heart, the challenges they faced day by day.

The vision was dignity and egalitarianism. “I want a place where you sit and eat delicious food and you don’t know whether your server is an ex-con or a millionaire because everyone is treated with respect and dignity,” Bernie said again and again.

This article highlighted people with hard backgrounds of homelessness, addictions, and prison who found a refuge in the Café, and then turned around and made it a refuge for others.

I think we started this almost 15 years ago. People can turn their lives around, one meal at a time. Yes, we need food (when I cooked there years ago I saw farmers bringing in fresh organic produce they’d harvested that very morning), but we also need each other. We need to see respect in each other’s eyes and share.

The Greenfield community came together around the Café. Volunteers, local businesses and social services, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and a couple of amazing leaders (looking at you, Ariel Pliskin and Kirsten Levitt) not only made it work and kept it going,  but most important, maintained the vision that had been at the inception. I wish Bernie was around to hear what has happened from that vision; in some shape or other, he knows.

A reader complained that I was writing too much about immigrant families who’d come here illegally, not to mention that they don’t speak English. That’s true, too many of them are barely literate in their own language, never mind English, since they dropped out of school by the age of 10 to help their families, if they attended school at all. I highly doubt they were able to go to night school to study English before coming here.

There’s such a disconnect between our lives and theirs. This is not the place for me to recapitulate what it was like for me to come to this country as a young girl (legally), only to say that even at the age of 7 I knew in every bone in my body that the American children I met had no idea what it was like to grow up in a different country where there were enemies at the border, food was rationed, and anxiety reigned.

When I hear stories of what these families have gone through to come here, young boys and girls crossing hundreds of miles on their own, foraging for food, worrying about safety, I’ve often asked myself how their parents ever let them undertake such a trip: Didn’t they love them? Didn’t they want to protect them, as do other parents? Those stories give me a small measure of the poverty and want they left behind. As dangerous as the trip here was, they had nothing to lose because back home terror, poverty, and hunger were a certainty.

Can I tell you these immigrants are perfect, that they lead model lives with love and integrity? Absolutely not. I hear stories of husbands leaving wives and children behind, domestic violence and abuse, not to mention that covid affected their children much as it has affected others. “The kids now coming into 8th grade are still sixth-graders emotionally because they lost at least 18 months of social learning and interaction,” said one teacher. They do Tik-Tok, too, and the parents are called in for urgent conferences with teachers just like everybody else.

If it was just a matter of helping wonderful people, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity? But it never is like that because people are people. That’s why the role of the Bodhisattva is messy, not clean. There are no clear perpetrators and no clear victims, no villains and no righteous martyrs. In the middle of the mess, we chart our course.

Farms have closed down with Thanksgiving and ahead of farmworkers here is a cold, dark winter. I’m grateful to be called to help. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be asked to stretch and witness lives lived vastly differently from mine. Wednesday evenings with Jimena and the community help my own self-centered walls recede a little bit each time, opening up the world beyond my small life, helping me see something beyond my own narrow horizons. I’ve helped them—you’ve helped them—but they have given me infinitely more.

On that note, Christmas is coming, so once again, here is an Amazon wish list compiled by children for a gift they’d like for the holidays. When parents have limited choices on how to spend meager funds, children can’t count on gifts. Please open this link and find something you’d like to buy for 6 year-old Danny (Bubble Mower for Toddlers), Reyli (Light-up Soccer Ball), 4 year-old Daniela (Lulu Achoo Doll), 5 year-old Marisol (My Sweet Love Happy Twin Play Set), and others.

When I open these up I feel transported to a brave new world of color, fantasy, hope and yearning. Here is the link again. Please choose the gift(s) you can afford for children who have so little. Who knows whether such gift-giving won’t yield the same far-reaching results that Stone Soup Café has achieved till now?

May all our hopes and wishes be fulfilled in like manner.

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.
 

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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.

HUMANALITY

“Aussie, don’t you want to jump up on the bed and stay all night?”

“Absolutely not! What do you think I am? I come from Texas. In Texas we don’t go for humanality.”

“What’s that?”

“Think of bestiality. Think of inter-species miscegenation. Disgusting!”

“I wasn’t thinking of that, Aussie. I just like to feel your fur, hear you breathe. You sleep so quietly.”

“You don’t. Besides, I have a warm woolen bed right on the floor, and when I get restless I have a sofa, a lounge chair with a soft blanket, and a futon with 4 pillows downstairs.”

“You know, Auss, we’re not absolutely one thing or another, we’re a lot more mixed than that. That’s what makes us so interesting.”

“Oh no, don’t tell me. You’re changing your pronouns.”

“I so far haven’t added pronouns to my name, Auss.”

“You’re going to add It to your name. Not just she/her, but now she/her/it. Please please please, do not become a dog. Trans male or trans female, no problem. NOT TRANS DOG!”

“Why, Auss? Gender and sexual identity are more fluid that many people believe. Why not species identity?”

“Okay, go transition into a goldfish.”

“Don’t you think I’d be more comfortable as a dog, Aussie?”

“Do not become a dog! There’s only one dog in this house, and that’s me.”

“What about Henry?”

“Henry the Terrible Chihuahua doesn’t count. And neither do you. You’re a human, I’m a dog. Biology counts for something.”

“It’ll be kind of fun, Auss. Who says we can’t transition between species? Especially between humans and dogs, who are already so close?”

“I do not want to transition into humanhood.”

“Really, Aussie? You never once felt like inside you’re really a human?”

“No. And you can’t become a dog, either. Don’t think about meds, don’t think about surgery. Nothing you do could ever make you like me.”

“You know, there’s a famous story about a man who wakes up one morning to discover he became a big cockroach overnight, Aussie.”

“What happens to him?”

“He loses all his friends and he dies.”

“See? Forget this trans thing between you and us, it won’t work.”

“We’re all on the spectrum of being, Aussie—”

“You as a human, me as a dog.”

“–but basically, Aussie, we’re not just any one thing. In fact, the more intimate we become, part of me flows into you and part of you flows into me. That’s how it was with Bernie and me. As we got closer, I became more like him and he became more like me. That’s probably true for you and Henry the Terrible.”

“You know how much flows from Henry the Terrible into me?”

“How much?”

“Nada. Nobody wants to flow in and out of Henry the Terrible.”

“Aussie, you’re a flesh-and-blood dog, but that’s not all you are. On some level, we’re all one.”

“Don’t give me that one business. I don’t care what you do—chemicals, drugs, surgery—there’s no way you’ll ever become a dog. Even if you do, don’t even think of going out to pee in the yard. That’s my bathroom, not yours. Besides, you won’t fit through the dog door. Hee! Hee! Hee!”

“Okay, what about your transitioning into human?”

“Why should I do that? Answer me this: Who has more legs?

“You do, Aussie.”

“Who has better eyes, ears, and nose?”

“You do, Aussie.”

“Who’s younger and prettier?”

“That’s got nothing to do with anything.”

“Who’s smarter? Who trained whom to feed us, walk us, water us, and give us a dog bed, a sofa, a lounge chair with a woolen blanket, and a futon with pillows to sleep on?”

“You did, Aussie.”

“What could possibly interest me in becoming a human?”

“Pasta for dinner?”

“Eating pasta with tomato sauce automatically disqualifies you from doghood.”

“Ben & Jerry’s Phish Phood Ice Cream, Aussie?”

“When you’re a dog, you’re careful about chocolate.”

“Thanksgiving turkey tomorrow?”

“Maybe I could be persuaded.”

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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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.