COVERING UP MISS COMPASSION

It’s evening now, the end of Memorial Day. We had rain for much of the weekend, which made life easier for farmers, plants, flowers, and gardens, and harder for children and people who love to go on walks.

“We need the rain,” we remind each other all the time, “the soil is so dry.”

But who’s the we?  When does everybody have the same need, the same want? Tt’s those moments when needs arise and I can’t fill them that require my attention. Loving attention. Tender attention. Not shutting my eyes, not crouching in a defensive mode (Do you know everything I’m doing? Do you know how tired I am?)

I remember well after Bernie’s stroke being confronted again and again by his needs that I couldn’t fulfill. His need for more presence from me, more physical touch. I did so much, but I couldn’t meet all those needs. I also wanted my own life, I needed meaning that wasn’t just defined by taking care of him.

Those moments were filled with such helplessness. But they also humbled me, as if they were saying: Take your place in the line of all those who can’t avert losses, who see gaps wherever they go. And pay attention to them. Tender, loving attention.

And now, it’s my turn to miss physical touch. Not sex, though that would be nice, but the feel of a body, an arm, a hand. Rolling towards a familiar body, the feeling of the chest hair, the contours of legs, body, arms. Warm, physical touch.

Get a massage, someone suggests.

Everyone knows how important physical touch is for infants and young children. Is it any less important 60 or 65 years later? When we become adults it seems to get subsumed under the need for sex. We’re busy going out and conquering life, reproducing our genes, imprinting as much of ourselves on the world as possible. Maybe it’s only after that that we admit to ourselves the need for touch for its own sake, flesh to flesh, warmth to warmth.

The Northeast has been cold this past weekend; I shut the windows and put on the heat, remembering how much Bernie complained at how cool I kept the house. I finally let myself admit how much I need the physical presence of other people. Sure, I enjoy talking to folks on phone and by Zoom, reaching out to invisible ghosts in the digital world who mean so much to me. But I want to return to basics, and basics include physical warmth, physical touch.

I had no idea I’d be writing this this evening, the words just jumped onto the page all by themselves.

I haven’t checked physics lately, but my memory is that our molecules are formed by atoms which bond with other atoms through a constant exchange of electrons. The things we consider solid are not solid, they’re bonding and re-bonding all the time. We’re permeable; we permeate others, and they permeate us.

Bernie used to lead a meditation in this way:

“Pay attention to your inhale. Now pay attention to your exhale. Notice that whenever you inhale, you are inhaling the exhalations of everyone else. And when you exhale, it’s your exhalation that others are inhaling. The air you breathe is everyone’s air, and their air is yours. The air they breathe has already gone through your entire body and the air you breathe has gone through theirs.”

Even our breath isn’t strictly our own. It’s been all over the world and we give it back to the world.

I covered up our Kwan-yin with a blue tarp. It’s silly, she’s made of wood, she’s rotting already, but we were going to get lots of rain and I wanted to protect her from it while we clarify if she could still be stood up, and more important, if she can keep standing.

You can always stand somebody up for a moment or two, you can stand up yourself for a short while. But how many of us stand steadily and reliably day after day? Of course, like her, we’ll fall back at some point, she’s old, she has a right to rest. But how I miss that gaze from afar!

I used to enjoy touching her, feeling the crevices and cracks, feeling how used she was. Our bodies, too, get used up. They’re tired from the daily grind of muscle and bone, the work of holding us up as we go about our business. Again, I often think of how Bernie had to put heavy black shoes on in order to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t go barefoot, he couldn’t put on slippers or sandals even on the hottest summer nights because his right foot didn’t work, he could only rely on those black, heavy shoes to keep him up. I’d hear him sigh a little as he sat up in bed in the darkness and bend down to put those shoes on to carry that fragile body.

We don’t find bodies that need to be held up attractive; it’s not what movies or TV show us. But, like Kwan-yin, we all need to be held up somehow. Some things, some people, hold us up. When they’re no longer there we realize they’ve always held us up, we were never alone, we were never really that independent, we depended on so many things, including on a warm body getting weaker and more fragile, an arm that lost its way trying to finding 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.

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SAFETY

We had a thunderstorm early Wednesday evening. The sky darkened even while I spent time with Jimena Pareja at her home meeting with undocumented families–my first time there since my return from Israel, and by the time I went home it was clear we were in for a storm. About an hour later thunder and rain began.

I looked for Aussie, knowing she had a fear of the thunder. She wasn’t downstairs. I went upstairs, asked my housemate; she hadn’t seen Aussie. We both went out to the back, where the rain was pounding, and called out to her: “Aussie! Aussie!” She wasn’t anywhere, and I was afraid that in her terror she’d found an opening in the fence and run for her life.

“Eve!” my housemate called out. “Come here.”

She was standing inside the closed garage, looking into my car, and there was Aussie in the back seat. She’d jumped through an open window into the front, then made her way to her seat in back and was sitting on her cotton blanket.

I opened the door and hugged her. She wasn’t shaking or shivering, she seemed calm and comfortable. I left the car door open and went back in, knowing she’d leave the car when the storm ended and enter the house through the dog door to the kitchen. I also knew that when the next storm came, I’d make sure the car door to the back seat was open so that she could run there, jump in, and feel safe.

It was moving to sit with her for a few minutes, feel both her fear and her tenderness. There’s something about that moment of fear and vulnerability when there’s no hiding, no pretending, no bullshit. When life has surprised me and I am seen in that place, when I let myself be seen in that place. The roles slide down like masks and there I am, at a loss, raw and defenseless.

Inside there’s always faith in the moment, that everything arises that should arise, but the armature has come down and there’s just me: Okay, show me what you want. Here I am, tell me what to do.

Whom am I talking to?

Next week Zen Peacemakers will offer an introductory session on the Zen Peacemaker Order, and I decided to look for a short video of Bernie to air on the segment. I started looking at my own videos of him, then those on the ZPI website, and finally on YouTube. Subtly, my energy began to dip; before I knew it, I was feeling forlorn. I realized that since his death I hadn’t looked at any video of my husband, didn’t listen to his voice not even once.

This was the first time.

“It’s 2-1/2 years since he died,” I told a good friend, “I didn’t think there’d be a problem anymore.”

There was no problem, just something that sank inside the minute I saw his face, the minute I looked at the jeans shirt he was wearing and the beige, padded Columbia winter shirt he liked to put on for extra warmth, which was probably hiding his suspenders. I looked at the flush in his cheeks when he’d been in good health, before the stroke.

One brief video really caught my attention. He was wearing a cowboy hat, of all things, so maybe he was in Colorado. A brook was gurgling in the background, and the water seemed to punctuate every word:

“What makes me most happy is when I encounter life or things where I’ve no idea what the hell’s happening. When I can honestly say, what’s the deal here? Then I’m at my peak. I’m full of life, it’s just: What’s going on?” He looks down at his cigar and says: “So I’d love to let go of my ideas of what’s going on and just deal with the question: What’s the deal here?” And he takes a puff on his cigar.

I’d seen Bernie defenseless and hurting, wounded by people and life, just like the rest of us. He didn’t like to be seen like that, he had his pride, people had looked to him for so many years as the one who had all the answers—even though he’d said again and again that he had no answers, that the practice was one of no answers.

We’re trying to get more help for a family whose mother was deported along with her 9-year-old son. The child had come across the border and had been sent for a few months to a children’s facility in Georgia, a little like the ones we read about. His family was finally called to meet him in New York. Father, mother, and two children went down to New York; finally, the family would be together. The father waited with two children on one side of the desk while the mother went to the other side to sign papers for her son, hugging him, and as soon as she did that ICE agents arrested her and accused her of smuggling the boy in illegally. She and the boy were deported that very day.

“The father told me,” Jimena said, “he was sitting just across the desk from his wife, the same distance I am sitting from you. He is sitting on one side of the desk with two children—they’ve been here for years—and she went to the other side of the desk to sign papers and hug the little boy. And they removed both of them from us and I haven’t seen her since.”

He’s working in the local farms and needs money to take care of the children while the mother is gone. We appreciate any help you could give.

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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LOOKING SOMEONE IN THE EYE

I’ve gone back to walking with Aussie and Henry in our woods. But I can’t get the Middle East out of my mind.

“How do I look him in the eye?”

That’s a question that I came across a lot when I was in Israel. The television reporter would interview a Jewish man in a joint Jewish-Arab city or town, where extremists from both sides yelled, rioted, beat up, and even threw Molotov cocktails at each other. A man would tell the story of how the building in which he lives, composed of Jewish and Arab-owned apartments, put up a barrier against extremists. An Arab neighbor removed the barrier so that Arab extremists could come in and burn up the man’s car.

In variations, this happened on both sides.

And the inevitable question comes up: We’ve been living together peacefully for many years, and suddenly he does this to me. When all this is done, how do look him in the eye? How does he look me in the eye?

“Even the dumbest dog knows you never look anybody in the eye for more than a second, it’s an invitation to a fight,” says Aussie. “Even Henry knows that.”

“We’re not dogs,” I tell her. “We’re humans. Looking someone in the eye is crucial both to see someone and also to  be seen.”

“You don’t have to see me,” Aussie says. “Feed me, take me to Leeann, and play with my ears. Keep the rest.”

I need the rest. Sometimes our roles hide us. Someone looks at me and sees an older woman (ahh, maybe she’s wise), a teacher (can’t talk back), a soldier (ahh, courage), a child (someone to be taken care of), a businesswoman (knows how to make money). We respect them, we listen to them, we even obey them.

But you know what I want? To be seen. Not in the clothes of some role, but as I am. And I want to see you as you are.

Bernie disliked the classical way in which students listened to a Zen talk, in which they looked down on the ground in front of them and took the words in, or let them words sweep over them. Every once in a while, someone who trained someplace else would come into the zendo when he (and later I) gave a talk and would look down on the floor just as he’d been taught. When that happens I don’t say anything, but I think: Come on, look at me. Let me look at you. Let me see the flash in your eyes, that living spark, person to person, not teacher to student or vice versa.

And yes, I’m aware that in some human cultures, looking someone in the eye is considered disrespectful. Many years ago, Zen Peacemakers organized councils between Arabs and Jews in Israel. The group included some very feisty and activist Arab young women from Umm al-Fahm and Baqa el Gharbbiya, but whenever an older Arab man sat in the circle they’d say nothing. It was disrespectful to talk in his presence, they explained later to us, especially to voice disagreement. “You’re not even supposed to look him in the face,” one explained.

Sometimes I find the differences among us almost overwhelming, as if God is saying: “You think you know what I look like? Take a look at this. And at this. The arrogant (and Aspergerish) Elon Musk, mom’s caregiver, St. Swapna, who barely sleeps at night because my other doesn’t sleep at night, the porcupine that waddled across the road just as I was driving home, the shadow of an owl in last night’s moonlight followed by a scream.”

How do I look him in the eye? And what if it’s not him, it’s Him?

In a couple of hours, I will leave for my first meeting with Jimena Pareja to bring her food cards for immigrant (many of them refugee) families. I haven’t been able to do this in several weeks. She also asked for rent help for a man with two small children whose wife was deported, and I’m bringing her $750. She’ll give me more details then.

 

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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MOLL DOLL

“Who’s dat?”

“That’s Loony Luna, Aussie, your cousin, my brother’s dog. She lives on top of a big house in central Israel.”

“I don’t want no cousins. And who’s dat?”

“That’s Moll, Aussie, your Jerusalem cousin, my sister’s dog.”

“Like I said, I don’t want no cousins, including Henry. I want to be an only dog.”

“We all want to be only dogs, Aussie, but we’re not. There are always other dogs in the world, know what I mean?”

“If you’re referring to that spiritual bullshit about how we’re all one family, spare me.”

“Take a look at Moll, Aussie, who lives in a second-floor apartment—”

“Poor girl!”

“—and goes to a dog park twice a day.”

“What’s a dog park?”

“She’s a purebred Anatolian Shepherd, one hell of a smart dog and way more expressive than you are, Aussie.”

“Hard to believe.”

“Do you know how Ruth got her?”

“Do I want to know?”

“She saw an ad by a Palestinian-owned dog shelter in Bethlehem asking for Israelis to adopt dogs from the shelter, and she agreed—sight unseen. Sure enough, they come by one day and drop off this gorgeous and highly intelligent Anatolian Shepherd, whom she named Moll.”

“Did you say she never even saw the dog before she arrived? Isn’t that playing it a little dangerous?”

“I think my sister was surprised by the size of her. My point is, Aussie, here’s a dog that was taken in by Palestinians in the West Bank and adopted by a Jewish Israeli in Jerusalem.”

“So?”

“It’s hard to capture the give-and-take that’s always happening between different people and cultures living together—or trying to—in an area the size of one of our smaller states. Our Navajo Reservation is probably bigger than all of Israel, West Bank, and Gaza combined, and there are 400,000 Navajos on the reservation and almost 14 million in that area in the Middle East. All kinds of things exist there: domination, oppression, apartheid, religious fanaticism, anti-Semitism, denial of self-determination, even racism.”

“Could we stay in the Valley?”

“The point is, Aussie, that even in the middle of all that, other forms of communication and relations spring up. Green plants and even flowers grow in the biggest beds of thorns.”

“Since when do you garden?”

“We can’t ignore the oppression that goes on, but it’s never just one thing. Even single families can be complicated. Bernie and I used to work in Palestine and Jordan, supporting non-violent resistance, and come to Jerusalem to have Friday night dinner with my mother, a right-wing Jewish fanatic.”

“How was the food?”

“Good. The talk, not so much. Another relative belongs to an army unit that destroys tunnels in Gaza, while his rabbi father has worked for much of his life for a two-state solution and participates in lots of interfaith meetings with sheiks and imams. You see what I’m saying, Aussie?”

“That you have a crazy family?”

“That too, but also that life is never just one-dimensional. Even as we think that things never change, the earth does its thing, worms turn the soil, rain and sunlight come down, new life starts taking hold.”

“Again the gardening?”

“In a way, we’re all gardeners. And there are times, like during a drought, when we feel like giving up, throwing our hands up in the air and saying that nothing here ever works, nothing will ever grow. But even as we say that invisible processes are taking place,  working in their own way, biding their time. Even when checkpoints are closed a purebred Anatolian Shepherd like Moll arrives from a Bethlehem dog shelter into a Jewish home in Jerusalem.”

“Was she wearing a bomb?”

“Don’t be stupid, Aussie.”

“Did anybody check her collar?”

“She didn’t wear a collar then, Auss. She has one now with her name, Moll, and a phone number.”

“You never know, maybe they injected her with something incendiary and one day she’ll explode.”

“Aussie, you’ve been watching too many movies. Dog lovers on both sides wanted to save a dog, and they succeeded. Moll brought them together; that’s why I call her Moll Doll. Life has more tricks up its sleeve than all of us together, Aussie.”

 

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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THE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED

I came home yesterday afternoon, went out the door of my office, and immediately noticed two things: The smell of lilacs, and a fallen Kwan-Yin.

Seventeen years ago, we had four lilac trees, now we have two. Over the past 17 years they’ve suffered ice damage and fallen wires that have taken down their thin, brittle branches. The lilac season is short here, I wasn’t sure I’d return in time for it after my delay in Israel, but there they were, along with that unearthly, indescribable fragrance.

Then I looked to the left, saw a table, red chairs, new flowers, and a funny opening. Barefoot, I walked out there and she was down on the ground. Henry the Mixed Chihuahua looked up at me, eyes wide, as if to say: The apocalypse has arrived.

“It happened on Wednesday,” my housemate told me. “We all came back from a walk, Henry ran outside, and started barking ferociously. Now what, I wondered. Next thing I know, he comes running inside and up the stairs, his hair standing on end, his eyes all scared, and he barked at me like he wanted me to follow. So, I did, and found her lying like this.”

“What did Aussie do?” I asked.

“She peed on it.”

I’d been in good spirits till then. The flight to New York was squeezed tight but fine, I met a good friend for breakfast and then slowly headed up north. This was a small shock.

“Was there a storm yesterday? A strong wind?” I asked.

My housemate shook her head. “Nothing.”

She’s very heavy so we can’t lift her. I want to see if it’s at all possible to stand her up and keep her up, but I’m not very optimistic.

I’ve written about her before. Kwan-Yin found her place at the Montague Farm when Zen Peacemakers owned it and looked out at many Saturday meals cooked and given to community residents. She was given to us by a neighbor, a teacher who passed away. One of her students was a carpenter as well as a neo-Nazi. Once he asked his teacher if he could carve something for her, and she said: “Make me a Kwan-Yin.” Of course, he had to look up who Kwan-Yin was, saw she was the goddess of compassion, and carved her likeness in wood.

When we transferred the Farm to its next owners they didn’t want her around, so we brought her to stand in back of our home, where she immediately took in every critter in the area. Lines, wrinkles, and crevices widened over the years, but she never lost her smile.

I walk over to her every day to have a talk. “So, you’ve given up the ghost, eh? What’s the matter, job too tough for you?”

“It’s the chipmunks. They’re eating me alive.”

“What about Israel and Gaza? Blacks and whites? The people dying of Covid in India? What are we supposed to do about all that while you lie on the ground, helpless?”

“Leave me alone,” she says. “Compassion needs a break.”

“Have a good rest, girlfriend. But when you’re ready, get back up,” I say. ”Lots of wars out there.”

“You didn’t put me in a war, you put me in this beautiful back yard. I can’t do much for the folks in Gaza or the ones who cling to boats in the Mediterranean trying to make it to Italy. I can only do what I’m needed to do here. I don’t move around much, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Things are so critical in other places!”

“But I’m here, so here is where I work.”

“What’s there to do here, girlfriend?”

“Lots of critters need a home so they come inside me. Now that I’ve fallen it’s even easier for them. Lots of them need food, so they’re chewing up my body.”

“They can’t chew up a couple of trees? We don’t lack for any here.”

“Henry leaves me his toys, Aussie pees on me, I give shade to the daffodils.”

“You’re not needed in the Pioneer Valley, Kwan-Yin, you’re needed along battle lines in the Ukraine and in girls’ schools in Afghanistan.”

“I’m valuable wherever you put me. I’m valuable standing and lying down, I can do my work in any posture or position. I don’t need picture postcards of houses blown to smithereens or mothers crying after babies, I got lots of work right here in your own backyard. You hear me, Eve? There’s lots to do right in your own backyard.”

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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STANDING-ROOM-ONLY

saying goodbye

“I’m leaving tonight,” I tell my mother. “At least, trying to.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going home, mom.”

“Home?” she asks in bewilderment. “Did you eat something?”

There’s a silver lining to dementia after all. She doesn’t remember that I live in the U.S., which means that if I leave tonight, I probably won’t show up in her home tomorrow. No more I’ll miss you so much!, When will you come back? No more final gaze of parting, her eyes are milky with incomprehension. She feels something, she has some sense of loss. But it’s temporary; five minutes later she won’t recall that I said goodbye. It’s almost a relief.

But I still see her one last time even if she doesn’t see me. A quivering bird has nested inside my  body but not in hers.  Do I let go of that feeling if now it’s just one-way?

An old boyfriend would get angry whenever the name Israel came up in conversation. He looked like a Brooklyn hippy rabbi and loved smoking weed. Weed was sacred to him because a long-ago friend, Brahim, had introduced him to weed as ritual, as ceremony. He grew his own weed (in the back of our trailer) and rolled his own cigarettes. But Brahim, born in America, came from a refugee Palestinian family and my friend wasn’t about to betray Brahim, though he hadn’t seen him in decades.

On and on he’d rant about how sick Zionism made him, how he was ashamed of this Land of the Jews (he didn’t mean Brooklyn), how disgusted he was with those who automatically defended it. One day, when I couldn’t hear it anymore, I said: “You don’t understand how small the country is.”

He snorted. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Everything is different when it’s small. People stumble and they get in each other’s way. They want space, they want to leave, Arabs and Jews don’t want to look at each other again and again, it’s too close, too personal. Here we have so much space we think we could get away from practically anything. They know better.”

When things get crowded, they get intimate. The streets are jammed, cars  honk incessantly over missed green lights and the lack of parking (“Rega! One moment!” my sister yells at the rearview mirror whenever a car beeps her at the intersection), you can listen to your neighbor’s radio stations all day, and just last night we were in the dog park for my last play with Molly, the dog, when a car sped by and somebody screamed “FUCK YOU!” at the tip of their lungs.

I’m supposed to be a safe distance away tomorrow. I bought a new ticket on the only airline still flying here, and so far, it looks like I’m on my way. Tomorrow I’ll pick up a car that’s outstayed its welcome in an off-site parking lot, paying a week of late charges, and drive a long while to get to a house in the middle of woods. There I’ll sit at the computer and contemplate loud headlines about whether the CDC should have lifted its mask mandate or not, what the latest polls show, big letters about small issues, trying to make us believe that all our lives depend on whether there is another commission to study what happened on January 6 in the U.S. Capitol.

Give me a few days, and in that safe distance I’ll feel free to come up with my own self-important stories and indignations.

In one place, life is space; in the other, it’s standing-room-only.

I once gave a good friend of mine a beautiful, heavy, gold-plated necklace for her birthday.  She called me the next day. “Eve, I can’t wear it,” she said. “I like jewelry, but this just wears me down.”

It’s how I feel about stories. They can make us beautiful (“Mom, I’m going home.” “Did you eat?”), and they can also wear us down.

I arrived early at an empty airport and looked for a seat by the door.

“You can sit here,” a middle-aged blonde woman yelled in my direction . I sat down and thanked her. She then proceeded to shout into the telephone, a foot from my ear,  informing her fifty best friends that she was flying tonight after being delayed a long time. Then she looked at her phone, read the latest bulletin, and quickly pushed a few more buttons.

“Silvia!” she bellowed, “did you talk to Miki? There’s a direct hit on Sderot. Did you  hear from her? Okay, I’m hanging up calling her right away call you back when I know bye.”

My eardrum was doing its own rap song by then, so I moved to an adjacent seat.

She turned to me. “WHY DID YOU MOVE AWAY? THERE WAS A DIRECT HIT SO I’M CALLING MY NIECE TO SEE IF SHE’S OKAY SEE? DIDN’T MEAN BADLY BUT I HAVE TO FIND OUT THERE’S NO CHOICE I HAVE TO FIND OUT! YOU SEE THAT YOU SEE THAT!”

Yes, I assured her, I saw that.

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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TAKING OFF MASKS

Spending time in Joseph’s Vineyards, my brother’s home.

I go to the Jerusalem municipal courthouse in Givat Sha’ul with my brother to file guardianship papers for my mother. Standing in the queue next to us is an elderly, dark-hued man in summer work clothes. He speaks fluent Hebrew and tells the young woman what he needs, and my ears pick up that it’s probably an Israeli Arab—the way he pronounces h and a, the higher pitched nasal twang. The woman taking care of his case is much younger, and his tone is peremptory, demanding she put his papers in a manila envelope. She is surprisingly courteous and amenable, hardly the usual case.

It hits me how different are the two cultures trying to live side by side here, especially when it comes to gender roles. At one corner is a Western, European-based culture, women dressing and talking how they like. At the other end is a Middle Eastern culture, women wearing hijab and dressed modestly, speaking softly and demurring to elderly men.

AND THERE’S EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN, a wide range of family-based values and ways of being in which everybody finds their niche. In that range you’ll find super orthodox Jewish women covered from head to toe with 10 children in tow, and Palestinian women speaking eloquently and professionally about everything they want. There is no one way of being Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, or Jew..

Many years ago, after some Palestinian children were killed by an errant missile, I heard an Israeli man declare: “The only good Arab child is a dead Arab child,” and a few men near him chortled. But go to a hospital in Israel and you’ll see an orthodox Jewish midwife with hair covered helping an Arab woman give birth.

Hospitals are Israel’s true melting pots, with doctors and nurses that are Arab and Jew, some covering their heads with a yarmulke and some with a hijab, taking equal care of expectant mothers, children from the West Bank with cancer, sheiks with their fully covered wife at their side, soldiers, and folks who throw Molotov cocktails at each other from either religion. Many are fluent in both languages.

“The violence happening in the Holy Land today, especially in and around Jerusalem Is a result of the systemic racism, fascism, and apartheid that has been building up for decades. To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work needed to truly heal and move forward to achieve peace and justice in this land.”

The above is a post written by  Sami Awad, a peace activist based in Bethlehem, whom I love and admire. It’s hard to tell quite where Jerusalem ends and Bethlehem begins; the two territories merge one with the other. At least, they did till Israel built a big wall to separate the two—for security, they said, with passport control and young Israeli soldiers manning and womaning the passport controls. Cultural sensitivity is  not a prerequisite in the Israeli army, so I’ve watched these young 18-year-olds talk impudently and arrogantly to the elderly Palestinian men with their special permits. They have guns and back-up so they don’t worry, and I want to warn them about karmic consequences of bad behavior, only I prefer they don’t look at my papers too closely and see that I’m violating Israeli law when I cross over to Bethlehem.

Racism, fascism, and apartheid. These are the words we use to label things, and we have to use words to describe what’s going on, to write newspapers and books, posts and emails. So, I agree with Sami, we have to name things for what they are. In the landscape of words and concepts, there is racism and apartheid here (fascism I’m not so sure about). There are rules and laws that clearly discriminate between Arabs and Jews, only the tip of the icebergs of distrust, fear, arrogance, and anger that seem to reign supreme.

But, as Sami said: “To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work.” To dismantle the structures of oppression is one thing; to actually see the Other as yourself, as we say in the Zen Peacemakers, is something else.

My nephew, David, a young, orthodox Jew, studied Arabic and now teaches it to Israeli Jews. He also teaches Hebrew to Arabic students in East Jerusalem and facilitates meetings, in Arabic, between his neighbors and the Bedouins living close by. He was distraught when I saw him.

“It’s as if all our work is for nothing,” he said, talking about the riots, burnings and killings taking place inside Israel proper. “I don’t know who they are anymore and they don’t know who I am.”

That’s where the work lies, I thought to myself. So who are you, behind the label of Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, soldier and militant, behind David, Eve, Sami? The only way you’ll find out is in what is truly sacred in this place–its intimacy.

The great Zen master Soen Nakagawa would say to his American students: “I’ll take off my mask if you take off yours.” That is my work.

 

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HAMATZAV

My mom’s sleeping. She never realized that I was supposed to have been gone by now. She lies in bed and a small noise wakes her up: “Did you eat something?” she asks and shuts her eyes again. I can hear Saint Swapna gurgling softly on the phone to her family in India. They’re anxious about her here, she’s anxious about them there.

And me? I’m trying to get home. Canceled. Canceled. Canceled. I’ll be rebooking once again soon because my latest flight, due to leave on Sunday night, is canceled. This time I’ll try for the European airlines, see if I can go home through there. If you think getting a covid test prior to a flight is hard, try to get a covid test before a flight that’s canceled, rebook and get a second covid test, and when that’s canceled rebook and get another covid test.

“Till there’s a ceasefire nobody will fly,” my brother tells me reassuringly. And there isn’t going to be a ceasefire anytime soon.

My niece is the heroic one, with four little children, pregnant with a fifth, and a husband who came home from an elite unit that’s working “somewhere out there,.” as they say here He’s home for the weekend, scheduled to leave on Sunday, unless he’s alerted to come earlier. “Come for dinner,” she instructed my sister and me, guests number 13 and 14. “Only place that you have to watch out for is before the tunnel on Mt. Scopus; they’ve been throwing rocks on cars.”

She’s not the only one speaking with semi-nonchalance about The Matzav, the situation. Still, she didn’t wish to drive herself with her kids through that. Years ago, when she was a young girl and suicide bombers were blowing up buses, her parents cautioned their children to take basic precautions, but they didn’t prohibit them from taking buses. The Matzav was the Matzav, it was what it meant to live in Israel. But now she has children and insists on keeping her children a lot safer.

Israelis pride themselves on their stoicism. Two-thirds of the schools closed, but not the other third. People who’re not in the South and Center go to work, though the streets at night are quite deserted.

Still, after last Monday’s rockets to Jerusalem, which were fairly symbolic in nature, we are safe here. Hamas has no wish to inflict casualties on the large Palestinian population here, never mind a catastrophic hit on the Al-Aksa Mosque. So, Molly the dog gets walked, my sister goes shopping, I go to visit my mom, and we’ll visit my niece for Shabbat dinner this evening, tensing up a little before the tunnel, but not much. Normal life. Normal activity.

“Look at that beautiful university across the street,” says my mother yesterday.

“Mom, I think it’s a luxurious private home that’s still under completion,” I tell her.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, “they already asked me to teach there.”

“Teach what, mom?”

“With my life, you don’t think I have something to teach?” she says indignantly.

At this point in my life, I feel like I’m the opposite of her. I don’t have a clue what to teach; I don’t have a clue what to say.

It’s so easy to get into stories and principles. I had my principles from Day 1 here. I loathed the occupation, was sure it was wrong. I thought the efforts to undermine a 2-state solution were wrong. I watched Israeli settlers speeding through checkpoints while Palestinians waited in a line a mile long, late to work, late to school, and said: “That’s wrong!” “So many checkpoints,” Sami Awad used to say, “you can’t get into 3rd gear or above anywhere around Bethlehem.”

I felt that the way Israel treated Hamas and the Palestinians under its rule was wrong.

Right, wrong, apartheid, discrimination, oppressor, oppressed. Wisdom, enlightenment. One concept follows another follows another.

When you’re in the middle of these things—and I’m not in the middle—principles fail you. Suffering is suffering. People go down to shelters, sleep there with their families night after night, rockets explode all night and people are afraid for their children.

We watch TV a lot. Over and over again, the  spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces tries to reassure the skeptical journalists: “We’re the strong ones. You see what they did to us? We counter that with 10 times more force. We took down their senior commanders, headquarters, internet infrastructure, buildings–we brought that down, so don’t worry. You can trust the IDF, it’s doing its thing, it takes care of us.”

Those declarations fall on deaf ears. Yes, deep inside, Israelis have terrific trust in their army; they know it’s among the best in the world. They and their children have all served in it. At the same time, you can’t get past the existential dread that’s here: here it is, happening again, bombs and rockets and sirens and children crying and people dying.

Long ago I met the Israeli writer David Grossman, who said that Jews in Israel see Auschwitz everywhere. “I don’t know how long it will take.”

This time it’s even worse because of the unrest inside Israel itself, Arabs and Jews facing off each other, stoning, burning, cursing, and even lynching. There is no Hebrew word for lynching, they use the English. A Jewish man was killed on his way to synagogue in Lod? He was lynched. An Arab driver was taken out of his car and beaten to an ounce of his life? He was lynched. An interesting legacy of our own, thank you very much.

They know—I don’t have to remind them—that the scale in Gaza is overwhelming, that what happens on that side is way worse than what happens here. My pregnant niece is bound to wonder what it’s like for a pregnant woman to be unable to get to a hospital to give birth, what it is not to be able to provide safety for your children. People aren’t animals, they’re fully aware that on that small strip of land by the Mediterranean, the densest place in the world, there is horror and destruction.

But there’s also a sense of deep hopelessness and fear: We don’t know what to do. We know those are human beings, but we don’t trust Hamas and there’s nothing more we can do.

Zen truisms come up for me, especially that Zen is about giving no fear. And if and when I manage to get home, a safe distance away, I’ll be tempted to come up with spiritual solutions, with axioms and stories from the past.

But right now, the principles just slip off me. I see how small the story of right and wrong is, how it doesn’t capture the neighbor yelling into the phone about terrorists, the tiredness of hearing explosions in the distance even if they’re not coming straight at you, hearing a siren and wondering if it’s a local ambulance or the warning about incoming rockets, giving you one minute to get to a shelter.

It’s nothing like Gaza, but suffering is suffering. It doesn’t lend itself to comparison (Ours is more than yours!); you’re in the middle of misery. You do what you can, usually it’s closer to home. You walk your sister’s dog, she takes great care of you because you have a cold—what would I do without her?

And though I’d like to get home, I know in my gut that home for me is wherever there is suffering. And for that, I don’t have to rush back to Massachusetts.

I haven’t asked for money for undocumented families in a long time. if you can help, please do so. Thank you.

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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NOT COMING HOME

 

School girls lining up to enter the Old City on Jerusalem Day.

I’m not leaving tonight, as planned. American airlines are not flying in or out of Tel Aviv for a couple of days, first flight out is  Friday night and that’s what I’m on. But nobody knows if it’ll really happen.

“You suppose El Al is flying and only American airlines are too wimpy?” I ask my sister.

Stupid question. I watched last night as the television showed rockets flying over the airport. Do I want to sit inside a plane while that happens? No, sir. My brother-in-law flew to NY last night and ended up in a shelter 7 stories underground, and finally managed to leave. I’m not so lucky.

There are occasional explosions from far away, no siren warning us of incoming rockets. Tonight is Eid-el-Fitr, the last night of the Ramadan, and fireworks are to be expected, but this is way different. After the initial 7 rockets aimed at Jerusalem on Monday early evening, Jerusalem has escaped the onslaught of rockets coming from Gaza and hitting the south and central parts of Israel.

My brother took a walk with his wife and two missiles hit an uninhabited field not far from them.

I got upset. “Why are you taking a walk outdoors when all the warnings ae to stay in?” When the sirens go off, instructions are clear: Go down to the shelter. If you don’t have a shelter, go into the building’s staircase but avoid the ground floor. And if you don’t have a staircase, stay in an inside room with as few window panes as possible.

The Israeli forces show videos of how their Iron Dome downs missiles. One missile meets the other in mid-air and explodes it, and it looks like a video game. Those are probably the explosions we hear all the way here.

We watch TV endlessly, and the Israeli army makes optimistic announcements and videos of the buildings and Hamas commanders that are going down. But journalists are demanding to understand why is it that with all this damage done in Gaza, Hamas is still succeeding in sending rockets into Israel. Also, how is this going to be different from other battles with Hamas?

There is absolutely no talk of cease-fire.

But for many people, what is happening inside Israel, between Israeli Jews and Arabs, is by far the worst. This is the first time in many years that Israelis see Israeli Arabs rioting in the cities, burning cars, throwing rocks, stones, and Molotov cocktails, rioting especially  in Lod, where a curfew has begun but is not yet enforced, Bat Yam, Tiberias, and other cities. Whereas yesterday Arab citizens rioted against Jewish citizens, with police presence scant, now they ae rioting not just against police but also against Jewish counter-rioters. We can see people with Israeli flags walking the streets, attacking Arab passers-by, attacking mosques.

My sister took Molly the dog to the dog park at 10 at night, and as she was getting the dog out of the car another car passed by and a young man threw a couple of full orange soda cartons hard at her.

I have lots of thoughts about all these impressions, but this is not the time, things are moving way too fast. This is the time to maintain some steadiness and bear witness as much as possible. Take in as much as possible.

Announcement of more rockets coming in in 20 minutes, at 9:00 pm.

Happy Eid-al-Fitr.

 

 

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MORE VIOLENCE

smart

My sister took me to get another covid test before flying home on Wednesday night. We drove close by to an outdoors testing site that’s just 100 yards away from a Palestinian village, either in or close to East Jerusalem, with two drive-through bays where you’re tested without getting out of your car.

By the time we left the house, we already knew about the demonstrations in the Old City. It’s Jerusalem Day, as it’s called here, celebrating the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A loud, inciting mass demonstration was scheduled to begin at the Damascus Gate (the gate to the Old City most usually used by Palestinians, unlike Jaffa Gate used by Jews) and making its boisterous way through the Muslim quarter to the Wailing Wall. They’d be going up to the Temple Mount if they had their way, but police had already said that was out of the question.

They finally canceled the demonstration and told people to get to the Wall from the Jaffa Gate.

We found the testing site quickly, manned by three Palestinian men, one dressed like a spaceman to administer the test while another examined documents. They worked quickly and efficiently, we were out of there in some 5 minutes flat, but not before a group of young, rambunctious Israeli boys, holding Israeli flags, came down the hill and into the site, going through the second bay. Just moments earlier we’d seen them at a big memorial that I’d never seen before, and now here they were, proudly holding their flags as I shot their picture through the car window.

“Take a good picture!” they yelled, posing. “A good picture!”

I clicked. On the other side of the car the Palestinian medics said nothing.

“It’s like a fist in your face,” I told my sister.

But everything here is in your face. Israel is a very small country, no room for polite maneuvering. Elbows and backpacks into your sides, old Jerusalem alleys masquerading as streets. You have coffee in a café at a table near the cashier and are hit half a dozen times by a skateboard held by kids on line. There’s no reason to take it personally; there’s simply little space.

An old friend of mine used to get furious with the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. From his small, far-away house in rural California, he’d inveigh angrily at the Israeli army and government, the complacency of those who didn’t care.

“Mitchell, I’m not defending anything,” I’d tell him on the phone, “but the country is so small. Everything is so up-close and in-your-face there, it makes a big difference. It’s hard to understand that from here.”

Bernie, too, used to get furious. In all the years I’d seen him, the Israeli behavior towards Palestinians triggered him in the way very few things did. He’d turn sarcastic, which he rarely did, starting with sardonic comments about Bibi, the prime minister, and then getting into serious anger. People learned not to bring up Israel because once it entered the room, it didn’t leave for a long time.

Once I, too, would get into a rage. Inside the family we’d argue and bicker. Most of my family was right-wing, and especially my mother, who long ago was put in jail for putting up illegal placards against the Israeli return of the  Sinai to Egypt.

But outrage and indignation no longer find a home in my heart. Anger was a regular resident, but now less so. Upsets, yes, but they’re one-shot deals and fade quickly. I feel like I’ve lived through a lifetime worth of outrage and indignation, kept on that diet by daily devouring Israeli and Palestinian media, not to mention Al-Jazeera, and I’m not clear what good they did.

I think the Trump years, too, emptied me of those things. I knew from the election of 2016 that I could stay angry for at least four years, or I’d find another way. Helping indigent undocumented Latino families was one thing I decided to do with the beginning of covid. And there were other ways, too.

Mostly, I sharpened my listening rather than my all-too-acerbic tongue. Here, in particular, the country is so small. It’s so easy to get ignited; it’s so easy to explode.

Here is an update full of small contradictions:

Last night I actually took my mother to the local synagogue where they held special services in honor of Jerusalem Day.

Yesterday, my niece, Noga, walked to her car after teaching in the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University and was hit by a rock. Physically, she’s fine.

At 6:00 pm this evening I was out in the dog park with my sister and her Anatolian Shepherd, Molly. Suddenly loud sirens went off, and then several loud explosions. “It’s the first time I’ve heard alarm sirens like this in Jerusalem,” my sister said. Everyone took out their phones to listen to what’s going on, and yes, a number of missiles had been shot by Hamas in Gaza towards Jerusalem.

Hamas promises more rockets at 9 pm, another 20 minutes. “We do have a shelter, you know,” my sister says, but no one makes any move to go there.

My nephew, David, facilitates a meeting between Jewish residents of his town in the West Bank with the Bedouins who live in the valleys. He invited me to join, warning me that there’s no real road, we’d have to climb down. I was going to join up, but he canceled the exchange due to events this week.

Everything is up close and in your face.

 

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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