FERRAGAMO SHOES

 

Today marks 60 years since the Dream March on Washington, DC, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

While that march was focused on race relations, he later added poverty and the Vietnam War to his campaign despite great misgivings by associates and advisers, who didn’t want him to deflect his charisma and oratory from racism. Being the prophet he was, he saw how race, war, and poverty were interrelated and was ready to lose many followers and supporters, especially well-meaning, middle-class, white liberals who agreed with him about racism but didn’t want him to question the basic underpinnings of our capitalist society. He also lost the support of Lyndon Johnson.

Where was I 60 years ago? What was I doing? Surviving teenage years, which were pretty fraught in my case. Maybe fraught in every case. Wish I’d been in Washington then. Wish I’d been open enough and less self-concerned, less self-obsessed, to see the enormous possibilities of that moment. To see not just the future beckoning but becoming part of that future, part of the movement.

I wasn’t married at the time, didn’t have children or a job. I had school, a family, no friends, and a high quotient of self-involvement. Maybe not much differently from other kids my age. Dreamed of records, books, clothes, boys.

Years later, the next generation would ask me enviously about the 1960s: OMG, you were there, what was it like? What did you do? Not much, I’d tell them, though I did smoke some pot and spent a little time in Washington Square Park. Went to Central Park the day after King was murdered along with thousands of others. Otherwise, very little. Surviving my family, I’d think to myself, not saying this out loud.

To this day I bear witness to how my mind can once again become self-absorbed, indulge in new versions of the same old familiar mental dramas. The pull of some urgent need to protect myself from something, anything. The pull of ancient feelings of inadequacy and fear.

The writer Rebecca Solnit remembered what it was to want things when she was younger and without much money: I eyed things and was spurred and pricked and bothered by the promise things make, that this pair of boots or that shirt will make you who you need or want to be, that what is incomplete in you is a hole that can be stuffed with stuff, that the things you have are eclipsed by the things you want, that wanting can be cured by having.

Reading those words, I remembered one of the great loves of my life: Ferragamo shoes. I wasn’t living hand-to-mouth in those New York City days, managed to cover a studio apartment’s rent and groceries, maybe kept $500 in the bank, no more than that. And one day I read some fancy man saying that the way you can tell if a woman is truly well-dressed is not from her clothes but from her shoes. Does she wear good, expensive shoes? If she does, then she’s not only stylish, she inhabits style.

My clothes came from the Salvation Army and, walking all over Manhattan like so many of my friends, I never worried much about shoes (though I refused to wear the sneakers that are ubiquitous on NYC streets). Soon, I became obsessed with Ferragamo shoes. They epitomized money and elegance. A woman who wore Ferragamo shoes knew what she was about. A woman who wore Ferragamo shoes could conquer the world.

I started looking for them—on sale, of course. I bought a pair of beige pumps in the 5th Avenue Ferragamo store for $150, my all-time most expensive shoes, nothing else even close to this very day.  This was in the early 1980s; 40 years later, equivalent Ferragamos are well over a thousand dollars.

But one pair wasn’t enough. At Saks Fifth Avenue I found 2 pairs, each for under $100, including a pretty pair of red pumps that were a size too small (the sale didn’t extend to a bigger size). I bought them anyway. The other pair was sandals.

I was sure they had everything I needed that I didn’t have. They would help me make the right impression. They would make me beautiful, sophisticated, fully in my skin. Instead, I limped around in those too-small red shoes to the office and onto subways, each evening thankfully taking them off and massaging my hurting toes. I did that for a few weeks till I finally gave them away.

The top-of-the-line beige pumps lasted me for several years and were very comfortable. I have no memory of what happened to the sandals.

But, as Solnit wrote, there was a hole there that wanted to be stuffed, and I looked to things to stuff it. Not friends, not family, not enlightenment, not vows, not the good of all beings, but things. Specifically, Ferragamo shoes.

That’s been over for a long time, thankfully. Now I know that the less drama inside, the more I can focus outside. The less-gnawing, consuming self-doubt, the less I worry about shoes (except to make sure they’re comfortable and that they match).

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ALIVE

Aussie nuzzled against my leg this heavy, humid afternoon, surprising me. She’s not the most affectionate dog on the planet. I was in the middle of something—am always in the middle of something, even when it’s the beginning or the end of something, it always feels like I’m still in the middle.

I put out a hand to pet the nape of her wet, black neck while still staring at the computer screen, she pushed her head deeper into my leg, and finally I looked down. There she was, head bent, searching for attention, which is the epitome of love. And there I was, staring at a computer screen, which I’d been doing for hours that day.

What are you thinking, a voice asked inside. What are you doing? Carrying on as if there’s nothing else in life but emails, punching words out on the screen, looking at updated headlines every few hours—when somebody‘s asking for attention! Somebody’s asking for love!

I turned to her completely, bent down a little, and stroked her entire back, played with the tips of her ears which she loves, and murmured again and again what a pretty girl she is.

Another voice tried to interrupt: Focus! Don’t let your attention wander! You just got a good idea for one of the couples in the novel you’re trying to write, it’ll disappear in seconds because your memory isn’t good anymore, and then where will you be?

I’ll be here, I replied silently. I‘ll be with Aussie.

Annie Lamott asked the question: How alive am I willing to be?

I want to write, I want to walk, feel, read, exercise, and eat a good meal. I want to attend the Stone Soup Café’s annual harvest dinner tomorrow at the Greenfield Commons or else finally watch the film Lakota Nation vs. United States. I know what I want to do, what the schedule calls for, how to prepare for this or that—but how alive am I willing to be?

In the middle of last week’s retreat someone called me over and pointed to a flower bush, I can’t remember what kind. But what we saw was the endless pulsing activity among flowers, bumble bees, hummingbirds, and a larger bird I couldn’t recognize, buzzing, humming, drinking, pollinating, not full of life, in life.

It’s easy to take time out to see green and red hummingbirds or to stroke Aussie. What about being alive in the middle of sadness, loss, pain, loneliness? In the middle of fear?

Before getting dressed in the mornings, I usually sit on the bed and do several bends to the floor to stretch out my hips and hamstrings. Henry, the small Chihuahua mix, finding a captive audience, brings his ball and puts it in my lap to throw.

This morning, as I bent down, I noticed he wasn’t getting up on his hind legs with the ball in his mouth to put in my lap. I looked down and there he was, seated on the rug, the yellow ball on the floor, his ears up and turned towards the open door, his eyes following.

I heard it, too. Lori, in the other room, was talking on the phone, discussing work with someone, and irritation had crept into her voice. I couldn’t hear precisely what she said, but there was no mistaking the tone of annoyance and the very small, but noticeable, rise in volume.

Henry looked at the door, listening, eyes wide open, anxious. The OCD Chihuahua who can’t stop bringing me toys to play with just sat there, listening to the voice in the other room. Nothing else mattered.

“It’s okay, Henry,” I told him, “she’s not annoyed with you.” He didn’t turn from the door.

When Bernie was ill, I didn’t always want to hear or see it. Not that he talked about it much; he never complained. But there were signs of illness everywhere: a cane, a wheelchair in the trunk of the car, a hospital stand that swung towards you holding tissues, a medical alarm, a pee bottle. An arm and leg that got thinner and thinner from losing muscle.

Much better to smile encouragingly, do extra loads of laundry, say it’s no big deal if he drops something. But it is a big deal. It’s nothing, and it’s a big deal. And my words to the effect of Don’t worry about it, meant to reassure him, were perhaps more for me than for him: Don’t look, don’t listen, put those things behind you. Keep on going.

How alive am I willing to be?

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REPEAT. AND REPEAT.

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.

Writer Ursula Le Guin wrote these words; I made a note of them because they resonated with me for years. I often felt little patience for the humdrum duties of daily life: walking and feeding dogs, cooking, cleaning, shopping, dusting, filling up birdfeeders, emptying dehumidifier in the basement, making beds, etc.

I have 1-2 wealthy friends who wax eloquent about creativity, their ability to do their artistic work for many hours during the day, and the rich, endless possibilities of following your calling. I think of writers who boast of writing 8 hours a day. You probably have a wife, I think to myself. Or you can afford to hire other people to take care of you, or at least to do the tasks that need to get done that you don’t want to do.

Bernie was pretty old-fashioned when it came to husbands, wives, and home. He offered to cook twice a week, but his meal options were few and consisted mostly of red meat, so after a while (I eat what I‘m given!) I took over the cooking. Similarly, I did most of the shopping, supervised cleaning, did laundry, the bookkeeping, and took care of dogs.

Indignation was of no avail. If he finally agreed to take over the bookkeeping, I’d find six months of bank and credit card statements on his desk, unopened. His solution for cooking was for us to eat out daily, which I rejected. After he turned 70 and Zen Peacemakers no longer owned the Farm, which had been a big burden for him, he clearly had much more leisure time than I did.

I grew accustomed to pining after less housework, dog care, and food preparation. Like those wealthy friends, I wanted to let the Muse have her way with me, where all I am is an unadulterated channel for whatever She sends my way, uninterrupted by the bing! of a kitchen timer, by Henry bringing a ball to play for the 80th time that morning, or a car that needs to be cleaned and washed.

I think of stories, like George Handel writing his Messiah in 24 days, weeping as the glorious notes fell from heaven dew-like, or the many creative types who say: I didn’t do this, it just came through me, know what I mean?

I think I do. But as the great Zen Master Eihei Dogen wrote in a famous fascicle, And there are further implications.

Recently, however, I notice that there is actually housekeeping work I enjoy doing. For example: laundry day, which is usually Wednesday. I strip the bed, collect towels, take things downstairs, pick up tablecloth and napkins from dining room enroute, and kitchen towel from the kitchen. Then my eyes scan Aussie’s various beds: The red couch cover in the living room? The small blue wool blanket someone had given her draped over the seat of the recliner? The sheet hanging over the futon in my office? Aussie has lots of beds. The blanket on the backseat of the car?

I actually like layering them inside the washing machine; I LOVE to hang them up on the outside lines during summer or else on the basement lines the rest of the year.

I enjoy sweeping. Not vacuuming, sweeping. Maybe because I hope that one day a splinter of marrow bone will jump in the air, hit a dresser, and I will have an enlightenment experience; an equivalent has happened to one of the Zen ancestors. But I think it’s more that I just like to sweep. I like the arm motions, enjoy seeing the dust and dirt collected in one or two spot, at which point I step back, shake my head, and say accusingly: “How come this house gets so dirty?” Aussie just walks off, tail doing its helicopter thing.

I like to roll the trash barrel up the driveway and put it alongside the blue glass/plastic and paper bins already waiting out on the road for collection early Tuesday mornings, and I love to return them by the end of Tuesday to their respective perches inside the garage. We got rid of a load; now we begin again. There’s a sense of following ancient rules, of turning the page, going back to scratch.

I’m well aware that for parents with young children, or those of us doing caregiving, just keeping up with the most minimal housework is a big challenge.

But I experience these things differently now. For years I was locked in by the entrenched idea that I didn’t like housework and was doing it under duress. Now I look back and shake my head. Who did I think I was? Was I really beyond the necessity of taking care of myself, body, food, home?

I am now aware that I really like putting flowers on Buddhist altars (I have five), monthly cleaning of my excellent 8-year-old coffee machine, emptying the dishwasher. I feel lucky I can do them, participate in my upkeep, keep my miniscule corner of the universe dust-free and clean. That’s the practice of this householder: Use what I need, dust or wash, put back in its place. Use what I need, dust or wash, put back in its place.

And repeat.

And repeat.

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AFTER RETREAT

WE’RE DOING OUR SHARE! YOU?

“Oh boy, Aussie, I just got my weekly marrow bone, and so did you. But it’s Tuesday morning!”

“So?”

“We always get our marrow bones on Sunday morning.”

“She was on retreat, Chihuahua, didn’t you notice? Couldn’t give us our bones on Sunday.”

“I don’t like this, Aussie. I’m a traditionalist.”

“No problem, just leave your bone on the rug on your way out. And why are you so neurotic all of a sudden?”

“Maybe I should go on retreat, Aussie.”

“Nothing will help a Chihuahua. But it does good things for her, and therefore for us. For instance, she’s not as neurotic as she usually is.”

“Wow. A Zen retreat could make that much difference, Aussie?”

“Let me enumerate the ways, Henry. She’s not checking her watch, computer, or phone all the time. She doesn’t get impatient, like she always does, say, when you scratch at the car window demanding she roll it down all the way, like you usually do.”

“You think she’ll ever open the window for me completely, Aussie?”

“Not as long as she thinks you’re dumb enough to jump out. And remember when we arrived at the conservancy for a walk, she let us out, and there was shooting from the shooting range? Usually she’d say: Come on, don’t be so afraid, let’s go! This time she just turned around and took us to the Farm for our walk. No scolding, no Jewish guilt. That’s when you know she’s been on retreat.”

“And what about all these treats?”

“After doing a retreat she’s always more generous. You notice how many treats she gives us whenever we ask for them, instead of saying Enough already! Go run! She’s so much more relaxed, more Bohemian-like, if you know what I mean: If we can’t go this way, we’ll go that way. If we can’t do this, we’ll do that. It’s all okay.”

“You mean, she becomes a zombie, Aussie?”

“It’s true, some of this let it go stuff makes Buddhists sound like zombies, Henry.”

“Sleep-walkers!”

“New Age.”

“Weirdo leftists.”

“Still, it’s nice to have her after a retreat. She’s quieter, pays more attention to me, more affectionate. She gave me a nice piece of chicken when she came home. The whole house feels calmer, Henry, don’t you notice?”

“Sure do. How long will this last, Aussie?”

“About 3 hours.”

“Only three hours?”

“You got a better deal?”

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DOGS AND RETREATS

“Go on, Aussie, you can go in.”

It’s almost 8 in the morning, dog feeding time. I opened my bedroom door a short while earlier, after meditation, and Henry has already rushed in to say good morning, jumping right on the bed for some quick petting (no, he doesn’t wait for an invite), then off again to retrieve a toy and bring it to me to throw.

A few minutes later, Aussie, who sleeps downstairs, comes up. She enters, approaches for a greeting and some strokes and scratches, then we all go to the hallway and the stairs to go down for breakfast. But Aussie takes a few steps towards Lori’s room and stands at the threshold. Henry hurries inside, and from there barks a warning. She’s not sure she can go in.

“Come in, Aussie,” Lori calls out from her chair inside her room. “Ignore the punk!”

With a little more prodding, Aussie goes in. She approaches Lori, who immediately greets her a good morning, strokes her, smoothens out her black fur, while Aussie’s tail waves fast from side to side. “She’s doing her helicopter thing,” is how Lori puts it.

Then we all go downstairs for breakfast.

I love to see Aussie showing people affection. You hear their reactions: “Aussie, you’re such a special girl. You’re so gentle. You’re so pretty.” She, of course, speaks back volumes but not in words.

Not everyone knows how to stroke a dog. I think Lori and I are pretty good at it. I let my mind go blank and instead, let my hands feel—not just the soft fur, but also the beating heart underneath. My hands register her calmness and quiet, the sensitivity she shows with her ears, the tips of which tremble, the tiny tuft of white hairs beneath her mouth shivering slightly. It’s her only visible testament to age.

People think it’s the dog that wants stroking, but Aussie and other dogs know better.  Me, too. This is about connection, and it goes both ways. They are getting hands-on petting, but the people get hands-on heart-opening. You communicate with a dog on their level—not with discussions or intellectual arguments, not with opinions, not with AI—but with touch. And if you’re lucky, you might also get a certain visceral sense: Yes, this is it. This is important. This is the baseline for my life. Love.

I think that’s why millions of people have dogs, for that offer of companionship and connection that perhaps they don’t get from other human beings.

In his remarks on the digital world and how we humans function (or should), the philosopher Charles Eisenstein wrote: “A pillar of scientific metaphysical ideology is that everything is measurable. From within the digital matrix, it seems that everything is. When I feel a breeze on my face and soil beneath my feet, when I watch a hummingbird hover and dart in the hydrangeas, when I wriggle in the ocean water or gasp in pain of a bee’s sting, I know otherwise. The way to keep the digital world sane is to draw from outside of it.”

Green River Zen Center is beginning its summer retreat this evening. The dogs won’t have much of me till next week, and I won‘t have much of them. Instead, there will be talks and face-to-face, the sangha has arranged things well.

Most important, what there will be is sitting. I am not a great maven on samadhi, my mind has always been so busy that it’s been a challenge, even after all these years, to settle into a nondual state. But I can say this: When I sit, I start breathing deeply, focusing on inhale and exhale. But soon, I feel my belly deflating. There is still the inhale and exhale, but the exhalation seems to get deeper and deeper with each breath, the belly on its own flattening more and more, till at some point there is nowhere further to go. Inhale and exhale go out the window; the awareness that is usually in the background is now at the foreground. Nothing moves, even as I continue breathing.

Different things will naturally arise over days of doing this. But when the awareness remains front, center, and all around, all there is, is attention. Single-focused, relaxed attention, which just may be the deepest act of compassion one can give.

Often my eyes tear up.

The blog will be on retreat till next week

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MOSQUITOES

Getting relief from mosquitoes

“I’m being very generous lately,” says Aussie as we’re trudging down the road in the humid heat of late afternoon. “I’m giving and giving and giving, nonstop. Truly!”

“I’m very glad to hear it, Aussie. What have you been giving?”

“Blood. My blood!”

“To whom? The Blood Bank of Western Massachusetts?”

“No, to mosquitoes. I’m bitten constantly, getting smaller by the minute.”

“Same for me, Aussie. It’s the rains, the flooding, and the continuing humidity. Usually, by mid-August mosquitoes begin to fade a bit.”

“Not this time. I’m taking my life in my paws every time we go out for a walk. Truly!”

“You’re scratching your eyes a lot, too. I think they’re attracted to the liquid there.”

“This is the worst summer that I remember, truly.”

“Still better than Houston, where you came from, Aussie. And what’s all this truly business?”

“Because I’m miserable and that’s the truth.”

“Your truth, Aussie.”

“Truly!”

Bernie and I had different truths about mosquitoes. Like H. H. Dalai Lama, Bernie had no compunctions about killing them. I would vaguely wave them away, not terribly concerned about bites, but he went after them with a vengeance. This summer, in particular, I’ve been remembering the crazy look he wore when going after them. There was nothing cool about mosquitoes, nothing to clown about. This was war!

Especially at night.

It’s 2 in the morning and suddenly the lamp goes on.

“Wh-what happened?” I ask groggily. I open my eyes and Bernie’s out of the bed, a rolled newspaper in his hand, looking like your worst nightmare of a lunatic come to rape and murder you in the middle of the night.

“A mosquito,” he growls. By now he’s at the foot of the king-size bed, head going from right to left like a pendulum.

A mosquito?” I ask. “You put on the light and woke me up for a mosquito?”

Too intent to engage in discussion, he patrols the room googly-eyed, teeth clenched, lips folded tight in that look of total determination that many people have seen over the years, staring at walls, pictures, and windows so hard he’s practically bug-eyed.

Wham! goes the newspaper against the bed. “Missed,” he mutters.

“Oh Bernie,” I say, in a perpetual tone of disappointment, and try to burrow under the pillow to hide the light from my eyes.

Ignores me. Wham! goes the rolled-up newspaper against the dresser. “Missed it,” he snarls.

Something clatters to the ground. “Is that my sewing kit?” I mumble from under the pillow.

No interest in my sewing kit. He continues to walk around the bed, batting the air. Wham! Wham! Wham!

“That’s a lot of fuss to make over one mosquito,” I mutter.

“It’s him or me,” he grouses. He circumambulates the bed, or at least three sides of it, head bent forward like a bulldog with a scent in his nostrils.

Wham! goes the rolled-up newspaper.

“Got him!” he exults.

“How do you know it’s a him?” I query from under the pillow.

He doesn’t answer, just sits down, lies back, turns off the light. Peace and quiet are restored.

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HAWAII

June Tanoue at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, MA

I’ve been following the fires on Maui with a sinking, sobbing heart.

Bernie and I flew out to Maui often, usually to visit Ram Dass. I haven’t spent much time on islands, but I have visited the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Big Island, and Maui, and the last is by far my favorite. For several years we had friends who offered us their time-share in Wailea, on the southwestern part of the island, in which to stay.

We brought my mother there once. She said it was beautiful, but I had the sense that the pace was not for her. She wanted us to travel every day as tourists while we, after working hard back home, needed rest.

You have to open yourself up to Maui, uncover and expose the pores of your skin to the generous air that you feel as soon as you land in Kahului Airport, unblock your eyes to take in the turquoise water and lokelani, hibiscus, and birds of paradise. It’s as if somewhere out in our polluted, confused world there’s a place not caught up in human dramas, industrial pollution, or bitter historical rivalries. As if karma has gone on vacation when we’re in Hawaii. Disagreements and opinions rear their heads as they do everywhere, but they don’t dominate. Something else always beckons in Hawaii.

Not that the islands don’t have their history of colonialism, of mass deaths of natives from Western diseases, peonage in sugar and pineapple fields, and tribal rivalries from before people who look like me ever arrived. The pages are written, but they’re not the main story. The long, many-voweled names, the languorous grace of dancers, the soft, warm stroking of wind and wave—they put all the craziness in perspective. Here, I often thought to myself, is how humans were meant to live.

In fact, in my very first visit to Hawaii in 1999, Bernie asked me if I would like to live in Hawaii, catching me by complete surprise. Live here, while the world goes up in flames? What about our peacemaking work? What about the cusp of war and violence in the Middle East where my family lives? Hawaii felt so far away from the rest of the world.

I have no idea if he was serious or not. It now occurs to me that perhaps he was seeking encouragement from me to live differently from how both of us, separately, had lived till then.

Now, even Maui is burning. The air is no longer so pure, what with the particles emitted by the wildfires. The charming one-lane highways that slowed you down when you drove from one town to another also slowed down the families trying to escape this past week, as well as emergency personnel.

We used to stay in Wailea, both in our friends’ rental unit and later in hotels (they were expensive and we always looked for bargains). I began to talk to native Hawaiians who found their cost of living zooming up because of mainlanders coming in and buying homes and condos. The food, across long distances, was expensive.

We didn’t often drive up north to Lahaina, which this week went up in smoke. It was charming but touristy. I believe we saw the movie Hunger Games there after walking along the old harbor and looking at boats coming in. Each visit making sure to sit on the thick, stubby branches of the famous banyan tree that was a meeting place for so many people.

If Hawaii‘s burning, what’s left for the rest of us?

My friend and teacher, June Tanoue, flew in from Chicago and stayed with me briefly. June is both a Zen teacher and a hula teacher. She was born on the island of Hawaii (called Big Island), and she took Bernie and me up to the great volcano of Kilauea years ago. We peered down at the red fires below as she told us the stories of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who resides, in one form or another, in Kilauea.

Later, June and her husband, Zen teacher Robert Althouse, lived with us here in Massachusetts for a year and June offered classes in Hula, which she had studied for many years. It was a great pleasure to see her again this week.

The Hula dances we did were always accompanied by songs, and the arm movements reflected the words, such as a tree moving in the breeze or cresting waves, while your feet kept basic time doing certain steps. June also knew a great deal about Hawaiian medicine and the healing virtues of certain bark, plants, and leaves.

But what I most absorbed during that year was the amazing female energy of Hula. Pele herself could be passionate, angry, even violent, but the dances commemorating her and telling her stories were both strong and gentle, compact and exquisitely graceful, painting body movements in the air.

I couldn’t help but compare it to other spiritual traditions I encountered—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism—that were so masculine in words, texts, and images. They often made gestures towards female energy: Catholics bring in Mary, Jews point to the Shechinah, Buddhists remind you of Mahapajapati, etc. To me they always sounded like tokens. Important tokens perhaps, but still tokens, something to show why the tradition should feel relevant to the other 50% of the world’s population.

When I danced Hula with June, heard her tell her stories and watched her movements, I felt like I’d finally come across a female spirituality that wasn’t perfunctory and superficial, but deeply grounded and lifegiving. The body’s movements reflected the cycles of life and the weaving of humans with rocks, trees, waves, and mountains, putting the homo sapien brain in its more limited place, echoing the timeless rhythms of nature.

Often when I heard women speak proudly of the inroads their religions had made accommodating female energy, I’d say (or think to myself): “Once you do Hula, you will finally understand what female spirituality looks like and what it makes possible.”

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LONELY

“Aussie, what’s going on? You’ve been glum all day.”

“I’m lonely. I don’t have friends.”

“I get lonely too, Aussie. I have some friends, but most aren’t close by.”

“I don’t have anybody to play with.”

“You have Henry the Chihuahua.”

“Like I said, I don’t have anybody to play with.”

“You have me, Aussie.”

“I’m lonely.”

“You saw Oreo the Poodle the other day.”

“He didn’t want to play, he just kept on going after the treats in your belt. I think that’s the reason he likes to join us, for the treats. Some friend!”

“What about Luna, who lives with the horses Gala and T.?”

“She barks too much.”

“What about Francoise, who lives at the other end of the road?”

“She’s French.”

“So?”

“I don’t talk French. I’m lonely.”

“Aussie, I think everybody’s lonely.”

“Dogs, too?”

“Maybe everything, not just dogs. Mary Oliver wrote a poem about sunflowers:

each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe, 
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy.”

“You want me to play with sunflowers? They’re only good for hiding rabbits.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re lonely, Auss. You see corn rows and hedges, groves of squash and sunflowers, and all you can think of is whether rabbits are hiding there. What might you find if you dropped rabbit hunting for a while?”

“Boredom. I’d get even lonelier.”

“If you gave all these plants and flowers more attention, you might detect some subtle movement towards you, some bond.”

“Do sunflowers bark?”

“Of course not, Auss.”

“Can they stretch their bellies down, leave their butts up, and wag their tail?”

“I doubt it.”

“Without an invite, I don’t play. Can they chase me up and down?”

“You know darn well they don’t do that. Sunflowers open up to the sun, the source of energy. You know, Aussie, I think that getting together with anything and anybody—trees, plants, sunflowers, even Henry—energizes us. Paying real attention to anything is a door into space and time. Can you enter that completely?”

“I’m lonely.”

“So am I, Auss. So am I.”

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DEAD BONES

This is Sunday morning at our home:

Lori and I feed the dogs at around 8. I’ve already taken out the marrow bones (big for Aussie, small for Chihuahua Henry) the previous night to defrost. Lori, who’s the first one up, has already made sure to put them away inside the refrigerator, otherwise Henry, who recognizes Sunday morning better than any wall calendar, won’t eat his breakfast if a marrow bone is in a 100-mile vicinity.

When they’re both done with breakfast, I take the bones out; in the winter I’ll microwave them for a minute. As in everything, Aussie’s first. I hand out her bone and she gingerly takes it between her jaws, turns around and goes to her rug in the next room. I hand Henry’s small bone to him. He, less gingerly, grabs a hold of it and runs upstairs.

I then pick up a book to read or study with my coffee in the living room. The bone ritual will take about an hour, which means an hour of no-dog time. Very precious.

On her rug, standing up, Aussie licks the bone a few times, turning it round and round with her nose, removing and chewing whatever small meat is on it. When it’s stripped to the bone (sorry!), she goes down on her belly and gets down to some serious licking and gnawing, trying to wiggle her tongue into the marrow to get it out, making loud, smacking noises.

Her relationship with the bone is one of historical rivalry. Will the marrow elude her or not? She gnaws on it with Putin-like determination, sending missiles of tongue into the long bone, pummeling it into submission.

After a half hour’s battle, she gets up, circles the vanquished victim a few times, and goes out the dog door to pee.

Meantime, Henry, who finished his bone war ages ago, is standing in the shadowy hallway, looking on patiently. On her way out, Aussie makes sure to growl at him. The message is clear: God help you if you so much as take one step towards what‘s left on the rug! You’ll either die or be sent back over the border, not to Mexico but to the cartels.

Henry stays put.

Aussie returns, circles again, sniffs and touches the bone with her nose just to make sure there’s no smell of her small rival, moves the bone around some more, and finally goes back on her belly and resumes her gnawing. But it’s a more thoughtful, almost serene gnawing she does now, the kind we do after we’ve killed somebody, asking ourselves: Was this worth it?

Here and there she takes small breaks, looking up in the air, tongue out, engaged in reflecting on the bone and life in general: Is this something, or nothing? To gnaw, or not to gnaw? Is this bone done? Am I done? Is our relationship complete, or are there loose strings still lying about?  And besides, what do I want to do when I grow up?

Meantime, Henry continues to lurk in the shadows. Patiently, doggedly (sorry!), he waits. Eventually, he knows, she will finish this weekly meditation and go outdoors to lie under the sun till her walk, and that will be his chance. He’ll grab the big bone, almost as big and heavy as he is, and lug it upstairs. His tail will dance in the air as if he’s just scored the treasure of Monte Cristo. He’ll lay it down by his bed, proud as could be. She hasn’t left him a morsel but he doesn’t care, just licks the stripped-down bone and gives it the final death bite with his tiny teeth.

During the ensuing week, the bone will find its way back downstairs for the sole purpose of destroying the harmony of the house. Henry will go back to it, Aussie will jump on him, jaws looming high, he’ll cry out and run away, and she’ll take it up again, back on her belly, taking her stand for private property regardless of the property, not too different from some locals here who will be waving the flag of private property long after we destroy the land.

At some point the bone will make it to the back yard, where someone will bury it. There, underground, it will find hundreds of its peers taking their revenge by barely letting the grass grow, waiting to be discovered by future archeologists who will wonder what kind of slaughterhouse we ran here and what sacrifices we offered to our gods.

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PRAYER

Each morning, armed with an incense stick, I go to the back to have a talk with Kwan-yin, the Asian goddess of compassion. I’ve done my meditation, fed Aussie; now it’s Kwan-yin’s turn. I used to chant for years, reciting the names of people who were ill or just needed help. Now, I pray.

Rather, I should say that I lean into my heart to find what’s there. There are people I pray for, words don’t necessarily do the trick. Instead, I quietly stand before her and lean inside, listening rather than speaking my request. Listening to Henry breathing softly at my feet (he loves to accompany me to Kwan-yin with his ball), the bird calls, creak of trees with their drenched roots, but behind all those is silence. No requester, no requestee, stillness bigger than anything. Sometimes I find words, sometimes I don’t.

Still, a message is sent. A message is received.

 In the winter of 2014, Bernie and I flew out to South Dakota to prepare for the big Native American retreat due to take place the following summer. Genro Gauntt, who had dreamed of and pushed for such a retreat for years, only to see it postponed again and again, met us at the Rapid City airport. We picked up a Lakota friend, Tuffy Sierra, drove to the Black Hills, and stayed the night in Deadwood.

The next day we drove around the Black Hills, the most gorgeous area I’d ever seen in the US mainland. After that, on to the Pine Ridge Reservation and, for the first time, saw Wounded Knee in a freezing twilight, guided by a boy wearing only a sweater and sneakers, more holes than fabric.

The next day we met Birgil Kills Straight, traditional leader and medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, in Kyle. Birgil had known about the retreat for a long time, but he was cantankerous that day, by turns ambivalent and sometimes truculent, berating the wasicu—us—for various things, broken promises from the past to now.

Given Genro’s insistence that we get Birgil’s blessing for the retreat, the meeting wasn’t auspicious. We were looking to lock things up, invite many people, arrange to build some retreat infrastructure at a secluded site in the Black Hills, and Birgil refused to say anything positive, his foot tapping the floor, his knuckle tapping the table. It didn’t help that his hearing wasn’t good.

As we left, somewhat discouraged, he invited us to a sweat lodge ceremony at his home. Sweats are used for purification, helping us sweat out bad toxins and energies, restoring stability and balance. We were exhausted after cramming so much into a few days and were flying home early the next morning, but Genro said that we can’t refuse.

Birgil had a small sweat lodge outside his home. I put on a skirt, but the only top I had with me was a burgundy-colored, long-sleeved turtleneck. By the time we’d arrived, a small group of men had already heated up the stones in the firepit. Birgil invited us in. As the only woman there, I sat to the very side of the circle.

The door was shut, Birgil said prayers, water was poured on the rocks, the steam rose. In minutes my body was wet through, the turtleneck top drenched. Perspiration doused my face. I’d been sitting for a number of years by then, but not like this. What am I doing here, I wondered.

Birgil said a prayer and the door was opened, mercifully cooling us. He said another prayer, then barked: “Marko!”

I looked up, not understanding what was expected.

“Just say a prayer,” Genro whispered.

Me? Not Bernie, our great leader? Without thinking much, I did so. I have no memory of what I said. Birgil then nodded towards Bernie, who did the same, followed by Genro, who gave a longer prayer than either of us.

The door was closed, more water was poured on the hot stones in the firepit, and even more steam and smoke arose than before. If I had thought the first round was hot, I couldn’t summon the words to describe how I felt now. My clothes clung to my skin, which felt like it was burning. My eyes began to tear. I settled down, and now, for the first time, settled in.

Inside hot, outside dripping wet, unmoving. Eventually, there was a silence behind the heat and the wetness. Tried to stay with it, all the time feeling like I was burning up, almost disappearing.

The round ended, the door was flung open to blessedly cool air. Birgil muttered some words in Lakota, then “Marko!” Again me? By now I knew what I had to do, so again I offered up a prayer, this time for thanks. Again, he asked Bernie to follow, then Genro.

The doors shut, more water was poured on even hotter stones, and we began the third round. I’d been told that when wasicu joined the Indians for a sweat, the Indians took pity on us and didn’t heat it up as strongly as they did for themselves. But for me this was practically intolerable. The breath seemed to stay in my lungs, as if I could no longer exhale, burning my insides. My eyes were so filled with tears that I closed them, feeling hot eyelids.

But for some reason I went deep inside more quickly this time, smoke in my nostrils. My stomach felt deflated, as if withdrawing from the heat, but something else was there that had nothing to do with heat or cold. And from there, words emerged.

At the end of this last round the doors opened, and once again Birgil Kills Straight, after intoning his prayer in Lakota, barked: “Marko!” And this time I expressed the prayer for the summer’s retreat, for the healing of the Black Hills and the Lakota people, and for opening the hearts of everyone who would be attending.

When we left the sweat lodge, the sky was black and clear, holding up many stars. My clothes were soggy even in the freeze outside. I felt like I’d lost half my body.

“Why did he call on me first?” I said to Genro. “Why didn’t he call on Bernie? Not to mention that I’m a woman.”

“Maybe he forgot his name,” Genro said with a laugh.

We flew home the next day, uncertain about whether the retreat will happen or not. But the morning after we arrived in Massachusetts I took our two dogs into the woods, and though the dogs were nowhere to be seen, a stag ran towards me from deep inside the forest, running by me with just feet to spare.

The retreat took place that summer, with Birgil in attendance, and has continued every year, including this summer.

Birgil Kills Straight died in the winter of 2019. Deep respect and appreciation to him.

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

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