A RAISED FIST AND HALLELUJAH

Merry Christmas, everyone.

This is my last post from Israel, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem have no Christmas decorations or celebrations. No pilgrims or tourists. The airport is completely empty, as the above photo shows. It’s hard to appreciate the blankness of the gigantic space unless you’ve visited this country before, negotiated your way through various security lines in Terminal 3 and crowded shops and cafes in the circular plaza in the middle.

The stores and counters are open, but there are no people. El Al, the Israeli airline, is still the only airline flying in these sad, sad skies.

This afternoon I attended a memorial service for my uncle who died 12 years ago, and who basically saved the lives of his family during World War II, indirectly providing me with life some 5 years later. I put a small stone on his grave, as well as a small stone on my mother’s grave nearby.

My mother died more than a decade after her brother, but perhaps a small part of her died back in Bratislava, in Slovakia. The voice of survival at any cost seemed to have stayed in the same groove as it was back in 1944 and it affected all aspects of her life, including how she raised her children, her marriage, her friends, her attitude towards money. It was all confirmed by her participation in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 when they went through a life-and-death struggle 2 kilometers away from, of all places, Gaza.

Similarly, Israel continues to live out of October 7. It doesn’t seem to matter how many days and even months have gone by, and it makes very little emotional sense to the big majority here that the world has marched on, with newer news and headlines, other things to think about. Here, October 7 reigns, much as the American 9/11 reigned for a long time. 9/11 reminded us that we were not impregnable, that in fact we were vulnerable and implacably connected to everyone else in the world. That understanding brings a lot of tenderness to my  heart, but it scares many others.

Listening to the perpetual radio here, or watching the news, there’s a sense of siege: Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north. Imagine how Americans would have felt had, in addition to 9/11, we also had rockets coming in from Mexico and Canada.

From the outside, it’s hard to understand the dread and fear, a little like starting a pleasant conversation with someone standing on line at the supermarket without knowing in any way what that person contains inside. It could be grief, it could be rage, even homicidal intent. You can’t know till you get to know the person much deeper, and even then … Even then …

I am shocked by how the Israeli media presents events in Gaza. It’s not that the news doesn’t mention the thousands killed (though they do leave out the part about the one-ton bombs thrown on urban civilian areas), they even show brief montages of the destruction, of parents holding up a dead child, but it’s as if all this happened somewhere else. As if an earthquake they have nothing to do with struck a distant part of the planet and the ensuing devastation is merely a backdrop to Israeli worries and concerns, nothing more.

One or more newspapers quotes investigations by The New York Times or The Washington Post, and yesterday’s editorial in Ha’Aretz, the closest Israeli equivalent to the American newspapers above, demanded a stop to the mass killing.in Gaza, but it’s a very small voice. A bigger concern here is the growing suspicion that inflicting maximum death and devastation on Gaza may not be the best solution for getting hostages back. That Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Gallant’s assurances that they will destroy both Hamas and get the hostages back will not happen.

At this point in time, the voices casting doubt on this are fairly muted.  They go against the national mood; I think people worry this can happen but won’t voice it aloud.

A terrible reckoning is ahead, I think. Like some reckonings, it may bring about a change in consciousness—I think many Israelis are aware of this, too, but meantime they listen with horror to the news—not about hundreds killed every day in Gaza—but to their own losses. Eight soldiers killed in a missile attack on an armored vehicle, two the other day, three or four another day. In this small country, everybody knows somebody who’s lost people on October 7 or in the ensuing battles.

Right now, there are two nephews down in Gaza and one in the West Bank. When the names of those killed were released on the radio as we traveled in the car one night, my brother’s shoulders stiffened. It wouldn’t have been his boys, they always notify the family before making the names public, but his body freezes nonetheless.

I bear witness to the importance of bearing witness. Not to opinions, not to theories, but to the fear of losing family members, the gracious, angry hospitality of Bedouins, the exhaustion of the wives and mothers “in the rear,” as they call it.

The other day I walked on Via Dolorosa, where Christ walked bearing the cross. I thought of the pilgrims I’d see there, Filipino, Mexican, Colombian, getting down on their knees at each station as the pastor or priest read from the New Testament. Hallelujah! he’d call out.

Leonard Cohen, towards the end of his life, said that in encountering the world you can either raise a fist or sing Hallelujah. “I do both,” he said.

Family graves

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DESERT

Inside Bedouin tent

“I want to live in the desert,” Eid, Mukhtar of Khan al-Ahmar, says. “not in Paris or New York, not even in Tel-Aviv, but in the desert.”

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, comprising some 150 people, made international news a decade ago when Israel’s vaunted Supreme Court (which, notwithstanding the demonstrations in its defense before October 7, rarely sided with Palestinians) said it was legal for the prosperous Israeli town above it, Kfar Edumim, to evict the families. After a loud ruckus reaching even the International Criminal Court in the Hague, during which Eid testified in a US Congressional hearing, Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to go ahead with the eviction. For now, Khan al-Ahmar has stayed where it is.

But its people go hungry. When we come there, we find World Food Program vans and UN cars at the entrance bringing in heavy sacks of flour, salt and olive oil. They’re not starving as families do in Gaza, but they have very little.

We spent a number of hours in two Bedouin villages with their leaders, including Eid above. Before greeting Eid, we met with Samir, head of a family of some 100 members further to the east of Khan al-Ahmar. You take the highway descending from the Mr. Scopus hilltop in Jerusalem towards Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, watching the herds of goats and sheep nibble their way through the hills, young Bedouin boys behind them. You leave the highway at the sign marking sea level, turn right, try to control the car as it lurches over stone and gravel, and reach a group of huts and caravans.

Pasture is the big question here. Samir welcomes and guides us into a large tent to sit on low cushioned sofas, thin, worn rugs at our feet, used for official guests. A son offers strong black Arab coffee and sweet tea, reminding you that Arab hospitality and the welcoming of guests is of the highest importance in that culture.

The Bedouins are divided into families and clans, and Samir’s clan for centuries spent the winters down south and the summers up in the Judean hills outside Jerusalem, always in search of green pasture. Since 1948 things have changed, then changed again after the Six Day War in 1967. Some members of his large family are in Jordan, others remain down south all year round, while Samir’s family remain all year in the Judean Hills. He speaks very good English.

“We can’t use the other side of the highway for pasture,” he explains, pointing up and north to the other side of the highway, lined with the same hills as the ones where we are now.

“Why?” we ask.

He shrugs. The army calls it a military zone, and the boys are barred from bringing the herds to graze there. Security is the big mantra here. That’s the answer to most why’s, no more explanation needed.

We ask why lots of times. Why here and not also on the other side? Why aren’t there enough teachers in the school for Bedouin students at Khan al-Ahmar? Why the lack of food? Why the constant threat of eviction?

Their answers are accompanied by shrugs. Some are bureaucratic in nature, reflecting how they’re stuck between policies of the Israeli national government, local Israeli town priorities, and the Palestinian Authority, which also has governing power here, specifically to do with health and education.

The big issue with Khan al-Ahmar is its proximity to the main highway. The Israeli government want to control that land with the possible scenario of annexing all of it and creating a big suburb of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority wants Khan al-Ahmar to stand firm, and prohibits them from moving even one meter into the hills though that would benefit their herds. Land is even a more powerful mantra than security.

It doesn’t help that the local Israeli inhabitants think of Bedouins as thieves, which riles Eid. “Go to the police station and ask if there’s even one formal police investigation of thievery against us,” he says. I’m reminded of European attitudes to another nomadic tribe, the gypsies.

If that’s not a complex enough tapestry, there are also clashes between Israeli farmers who farm the land and the Bedouins who use the land for grazing, reminding me of parallel battles between farmers and ranchers in the western United States 150 years ago.

There are some 3,000 Bedouins in the hills outside Jerusalem, all Muslim Palestinians who have grazed their sheep on these hills and valleys for hundreds of years. A few of their many children go to university and obtain degrees, but they find no jobs when they finish. Their families feel hemmed in on all sides.

I tell those who ask: “Being in Israel is like jumping into a bottle and then affixing the cap on top. You’re in a narrow and intense container, life and death all around, people feeling the glass walls of the container even as they fight each other for room and space.”

I remember arguing about Israel and Palestine many years ago with a former boyfriend, a Jew who was furious with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. “You don’t understand how close everything is there,” I told him, “you have to go there and experience it. You’re used to big American prairies, enormous plains and valleys, huge distances between cities and states. When you live in a place that is miniature in comparison, you’re elbowing for a fraction more land and air, for a fraction of more blue sky.”

Legally, economically, and socially, the Bedouins find themselves at the very margins. They’re illegal in Israel and would love to have legal rights (some of the Israeli hostages in Gaza are Bedouins), but they don’t care about national or statehood recognition. They want simply to be free to keep grazing their sheep, migrating from season to season.

They are besieged by political pressures on all sides, Israeli and Palestinian alike, but my sense is that somehow, they will find their way up and down the hills in search of food for their animals, will stay in their tents even as they connect with water and electricity, will continue to hide their wives when strangers are around.

They love the desert, and the desert takes care of its own.

Later that evening, after a day of rockets coming down on Tel-Aviv and central Israel, I had dinner with Iris and Tani Karz, members of Zen Peacemakers and peace activists for many years who live in a suburb of Tel-Aviv. Those impressions are for another post.

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IT’S JUST LOVE

December 21 was Bernie’s and my anniversary for some 20 years, and I think of that even now, here, in Israel.

I usually get stuck on his last words to me. He was in pain, having gone into septic shock (though we didn’t know it at the time), and as the first responders prepared to remove him from bed, take him downstairs and into the ambulance, he crawled towards where I was standing at the foot of the bed, talking to them,  and said to me, “I’m too much for you.”

I believe it was his way of saying that caring for him, paralyzed as he was in half his body, was too much and he wanted me to have a life. It was his way of saying that he loved me.

In the ensuing years that memory brought up lots of guilt feelings in me. I wondered how much stress I’d shown, how burdened I’d seemed to him, how pressured for time. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wish I’d spent more time with him, let go of everything else and just spent more time with him.

But what I’ve often forgotten were my words back to him when he said, “I’m too much for you.” I pleaded: “It’s just love, Bernie. It’s just love.”

Pleaded for him to understand that because he was such a supremely independent man, so unwilling to accept help and be vulnerable; he was no longer his own man, as the stroke reminded him day after day. But care and attention are what we do for people we love. At times it feels complex, yes, but it’s also simple.

I was brokenhearted when he said those words to me and I replied as I did, I have no idea if he heard me or not. And I had no idea that he would be gone in less than 90 minutes from that exchange, dying finally in the Emergency Room where the ambulance took him, where they finally realized, too late, that he was dying of sepsis.

I think of that now, sitting here in my sister’s living room in Jerusalem. I remember Sami Awad telling me that he stopped his work of resisting occupation nonviolently and instead cares for his parents since he’s their only child nearby. He prepares all their meals, washes and cleans them, spends time with them. He took breaks in our meeting with him on Monday to check on them. “They’re napping,” he’d come back and say, relieved.

He’d stopped working locally, in Palestine, as well as his global involvement with other peoples, to take intimate care of the people closest to him. How rarely we do that in our Western world. How often we say, as Bernie implied, that we don’t want to be a burden on anyone. How often do we get the reply: “It’s just love. It’s just love.”

I thought of my niece, with whom I met yesterday. Her husband is in Gaza and she is home with 5 children. She’s not happy for many reasons, including the fact that she’s a feminist who’s raised a family with shared responsibility with her husband for child-raising, householding, and livelihood, only to see him swallowed up by the army while she stays back, all mother all the time. They go back to being warriors and we go back to being nurturers, as if nothing’s changed in all these years.

Another nephew returned from Gaza for a few days because his 18-month-old was hospitalized due to breathing problems. I saw them as he, his wife, and baby left the hospital, which means he is returning to Gaza today. I know this has its equivalences “on the other side,” as it’s sometimes called here.

It’s so confusing and overwhelming, the news every hour, the commentators, the terrible depression among activists on both sides who see dreams crashing all around, questioning the value of decades of past work. No expectations, no expectations, Bernie used to warn. Hope, but no expectations.

“It’s just love.” Even as they bemoan losses and defeats, even as they bemoan deaths and devastation here and in Gaza, and the lack of an optimistic horizon, there’s feeding, washing, healing, bathing, caring. Bernie had to learn to write again after his stroke, and he had to practice over and over again writing his own name. His hand was shaky and uncontrolled, and still he tried to sign his name—on documents, on rakusus, on cards, on books: Love, Bernie.

Even when it’s shaky, love is still love.

“How does it feel for you to be here?” my niece asked me, breaking one of our many silences.

“Like I’ve fallen into a bottle as soon as I landed,” I told her after a pause. “All of life is in that bottle. It’s intense and I often feel hemmed in on all sides. At times I look forward to returning home to feel freer, less uptight, walk in the wild wood. But there’s space inside the bottle., too. Finding it, feeling it, breathing it in—that’s my daily practice here.”

Walking in the Old City

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STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Nothing is more comfortable for me than staying with my sister, Ruth, in Jerusalem. Her guest bedroom in the back is quiet and I sleep well there. We’re very close despite our geographic differences, laugh at the same things, cry at the same things, love dogs, argue about television programs. I depend on her to call me out on voicing dogma (a/k/a Buddhist bullshit, as Aussie would call it), expressing abstract opinions, and spiritual bypassing. Our joint space is a zone of deep comfort, where past and present meet. She knows a lot about me and, despite that, always looks to spoil me. Hers is home away from home.

And then I go out with my brother, Mordechai, and venture into zones of less comfort. Yesterday we traveled to Tel-Aviv to witness two demonstrations by the families of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7.

The first took place outside the big Kirya, housing government and defense offices. Here were family members shouting slogans into megaphones in a cadence familiar around the world: “When do we want them back? NOW! How do we want them back? ALIVE!” More hostages are coming back in body bags or are reported to have been killed, and my sense is that more and more Israelis are questioning whether bombing Hamas and Gaza to smithereens is compatible with getting their hostages back, which the prime minister and army claim.

After that we went to the big plaza in front of the Tel-Aviv Museum, where at night the families come to process, meet, and get support for the return of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings, and children. I was struck by the long table with chairs, each seat with plates, cutlery, fine linen, glasses, and wine bottles. There were children’s toys in the first seats, and I wondered if they remove chairs every time they hear of more dead. The sun was setting, the sky turning mauve as the Tel Aviv skyscrapers lit up for the evening.

We also went to the big exhibition hall to see an exhibit of the Nova Festival, the music festival that took place on the weekend of October 7 near Gaza where Hamas killed so many young people who’d come to celebrate music and dance. In a darkened space, you could see actual videos taken by those same young people showcasing beautiful youth singing and dancing , a DJ putting on the music, the dry, brown trees, the music they played, what the sky looked like. There were the abandoned tents they’d found of those killed or taken into Gaza, their blankets, pillows, little stuffed animals even grown-ups like to go to sleep with. Tables were piled up with shoes, sandals, toothbrushes, even glasses, giving me a chill up my spine because they instantly remind one of exhibits at the Auschwitz Museum.

This was not a Holocaust, I tell myself. But all the reminders of life and death are there, and you can be forgiven for forgetting the dimension of time and generations, the passage of years, and thinking you’re witnessing the same thing time and time again.

This morning my brother and I had our old fight about religious Judaism and its role in the occupation of Palestinians; this, too, seems to survive the years. And after that we packed it in and drove to Beit Jallah to visit the Palestinian activist, Sami Awad, in his home. We had to go through back roads and walk through mounds of sand and rocks because the regular checkpoints to Bethlehem are closed. This comes at a time when Bethlehem’s economy zooms on account of Christmas pilgrims who come here from all over the world. This year there are no tourists and Bethlehem’s mayor canceled all Christmas celebrations in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Sami, founder of Holy Land Trust, is only 52, and over three decades has trained others and personally participated in non-violent resistance and interfaith dialogue, did joint programs with Israeli activists, speaking tours in the US and Europe, and provided leadership training to create new leadership in Palestine. He is a follower of Gandhi and has traveled all over the world; he recently returned from spending a month in the Amazon with indigenous tribes.

What is he doing now? He takes care of his elderly parents, who are no longer independent. Like so many peace activists, on October 7 he felt his work of 30 years had been a big failure. “We must turn the page,” he told me as we sat in his living room drinking the black Arab coffee I love so much. “We start from scratch.”

I feel as if what I’m writing here is a travelogue, going from this place to this place to this place, meeting this person and that person. There is more to write and say, but it needs time to take in, time for it to reach the marrow. That’s the time I need.

For now, I just quote Sami, who in some ways quoted Bernie: “We start from scratch.”

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WAVES ON FLAT EARTH

It’s now less than a week since dharma transmission took place, recognizing two new lineage holders in the gorgeous Green River Zen Center in Western Massachusetts; it feels like a world and age away.

Temperatures outside are in the high 60s and the sun in Jerusalem is a lot closer to the families, in Sabbath finery, walking from the synagogue back home for the Sabbath lunch. The sunshine glare bounces off the tall windows, so white I can’t see through them. The frigid blue air in Montague, always icy when skies are clear, feels far, far away. I sleep late because I fall asleep only around 2 or 3 in the morning, something I never do back home, and I benefit from the Sabbath hush that descends on this part of Jerusalem from Friday to Saturday evenings.

I think of one of the chants invoked by the two new teachers during the retreat:

Good people, carefully make an effort in the Way and meticulously practice.  Do not base understanding on texts, nor discern the spiritual on the basis of ordinary understanding.  Smash such distinctions as heaven and earth, worldly and holy, and personal and environmental karmic consequences.  Even if you move back and forth between the past and the future, there will not be a shred of obstruction.  Even if you exit and enter above to enlightenment and below in service of living beings, there will not be an atom of difference.  Paint divisions on empty space and raise waves on the flat earth.  Thoroughly see the Buddha’s’ face and thoroughly experience awakening and your bright original Mind.

Paint divisions on empty space. In this relaxed Shabbat morning, I still see how conditioned I and others here are by our identities, which often cause divisions. The radio in the background continually interviews people to get their opinion on the matzav, the situation, pouring the fuel of conjecture, suspicion, doubts, trauma, and opinion on the fires burning both inside and out.

I want to leave that enclave and find the empty space that contains everything, including divisions. Part of me wants to go to the desert in the south, down to the Dead Sea whose hotels we’re not frequenting this time because they’re full of refugee families from areas around the Gaza border to the south and the Lebanon border to the north.

I can’t go down there, but I don’t have to. Empty space is everywhere, including in the bright yellow picture my niece painted so many years ago of sunflowers falling over a yellow vase hung on the wall across from where I sit. Such a space doesn’t need my six senses to be recognized or experienced.

Raise waves on the flat earth. Jerusalem is full of hills. Usually, you’re either walking up or walking down, much of the time doing both. Last night, Ruth, my sister, and I discuss our brother walking over for dinner, then walking back home (he’s orthodox so he won’t drive).

“Getting here for dinner is the hard part,” she says. “At least it’ll be downhill when he goes back home.”

“First it’s downhill,” I remind her, “but to get back to his home on Palmach St. he has to go uphill again.” Years ago, I’d do the same walk when visiting my parents on Saturdays.

Downhill and uphill. No avoiding them, not in this city.

I ask if it’s okay to go into the Old City because there had been stabbings there over the past few months. I love going there, not just to buy beautiful ceramics or smell Biblical spices, but because in that cluttered, crowded, cramped space full of old stone buildings and hundreds of stalls, your face enveloped by the folds of long Arab dresses on sale and hanging above the passageways where you walk down steep, primordial steps, the narrow, cool alleys curving between the stones—there is empty space. It’s there between the Haredi Jewish men in their black hats and coats hurrying to the Western Wall for prayers, in the black robes of Greek Orthodox monks hurrying to the Holy Sepulcher, and the jeans crowd of young men and women—Arab and Israeli alike–talking loudly to their phones.

So many waves crashing on the flat earth, so many divisions in empty space. Endless, endless landscape going everywhere, even as so much of the time we cling to the tiny stories told by a tinny radio voice coming from the bedroom in back.

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WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN

The first thing I notice upon arrival in Israel yesterday is the presence of hostages. Or their absence. The usually busy Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv is mostly empty because only El Al is flying in, no other airline. The broad declivity towards Passport Control in Terminal 3, the international terminal, is lined with photos of hostages, one after another, on both sides.

The streets are heavily postered, like the one above, and my brother informs me that in his neighborhood, empty baby carriages are left at the corners to remind people about the children, including babies, being held in Gaza tunnels by Hamas. The news is on full blast, the sounds of pings on mobile phone exchanging texts: Have you heard anything about — ?, referring to sons, husbands, or brothers fighting in Gaza.

I have lunch with my brother in the Aroma Café in his old Jerusalem neighborhood. We have frequented it for so many years that I know their breakfast menu by heart. We share the usual Israeli breakfast: omelet with salad and tehina, avocado, cheeses, whole-wheat bread, good coffee. He talks about going down to Hebron to study the Koran on Sunday mornings, followed by podcasts on Jewish studies, participating in high-level meetings with the military to curb radical settler violence in West Bank Arab villages.

We have grown accustomed to sharing our different spiritual path over the years, he in his religious Jewish mode, I in Zen Buddhism. At times I invoke Bernie, at times he does. The previous night we lit seven Chanukah candles on his menorah outdoors on the street where he lives. I join him in those songs—they’ve been imprinted inside long ago, when I was a little girl.

I start hearing more details about what was done to women on October 7 and what women hostages suffer in Gaza, according to the accounts of those who’d been released. The rumor mill is booming here, circulating stories with all the vengeance of hot summer desert winds. Rape, mutilation, gang rape, suicide.

“Are you sure about this?” I ask him. He shrugs. It’s a small country and he knows somebody who knows somebody who is closest to the person in question. There is no one who has not been touched here, who hasn’t gone to funerals, who hasn’t heard eulogies.

In the middle of lunch his phone rings. His son is calling; he’s just returned to base after 3 days in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank, where around a dozen “militants,” as the Israeli Defense Forces refers to them, have been killed. This is when our paths diverge. I think to myself that the IDF calls everyone they kill militants, and I don’t believe it. But my brother is pale as he listens to his son relate what they went through. “Let’s talk more later,” he suggests, and hangs up. He’s a father, after all.

“Do you hear from David?” I ask about his other son, who’s in Gaza.

Not lately. When they’re in Gaza they’re not allowed to use cell phones, but one soldier from each unit is the designated communicator and he sends out a text once in a while to let the WhatsApp group of families know they’re okay. Or maybe an old friend may have run into David in Gaza, exchanged a few words, and is able to call my brother or David’s wife upon arriving back home and say that he saw David and he looks good.

“When they announce that soldiers were killed, they let you know from what units and only 24 hours later, after they’ve notified the families, they publicize the names,” my brother tells me. “So every day I check the names of the units they mention.”

Last night, after arriving here, I watched a TV political talk show till late. I want to hear what commentators say, what concerns them, feel the pulse of the country. They are aware of the devastation in Gaza. One commentator, who’s been there, says it looks as if a tremendous earthquake struck the place, leaving almost nothing standing in the north. He speaks factually, without a hint of horror, or of any feeling at all, just an evaluation of whether the IDF is, in his words, “treading water” or meeting its twin goals of freeing hostages and getting rid of Hamas. So far, the nation wants to continue, but even in this holiday of lights there is gloom and depression.

Only rarely do I bring up what is happening in Gaza. I can do so with my brother and sister, but gingerly and lightly. For now, I’m in a room with one story and endless echoes of shellshock, rage, and despair.

I walk mt brother to his car; I’ll return to my sister’s while he goes off to take care of 5 grandchildren, giving respite to their overwhelmed mothers. It’s a crowded one lane road and we exchange a big hug in the middle of the street. A car honks.

“You’re hugging!” the driver yells angrily through the open window.

“What’s wrong with that?” my brother asks.

“You’re hugging in the middle of the street!” the driver says accusingly.

“You’re also in the middle of the street,” my brother replies.

The driver cracks a smile. “OK, go on hugging for many years to come, may God give you that.”

“Amen,” we both chime back.

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NO VOWS TO AMAZON HERE

I’m writing this at Newark Airport, waiting for my El Al flight to Israel. El Al is the only airline flying there. If it’s anything like the last time I flew out of Israel when rockets came in, the plane will probably arrive in Israeli airspace further to the north than usual, then fly south and east to land in the airport immediately, rather than circling around as it usually does, all to minimize its time in the air.

But just in case I get too complacent in New Jersey, I was just kicked off the third floor because of “an emergency situation,” as the police said as they ushered us out of there. What emergency, nobody knows, but a Canadian fellow passenger informed me that there are lots of police with machine guns downstairs.

OMG, you’re not safe! someone may exclaim. Unlike many people of the younger generation, I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as safe space and therefore don’t believe anyone owes me that.

Several months ago, a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order from another country shared that what most surprised her when she came to live in the US was how scared people were here. She told the rest of us: “Here you are, living in one of the safest countries in the world, and people here are afraid all the time.”

We’re not so safe here if we’re not white, I thought to myself then. But she had a point. When there’s a fire, we can count on fire engines rushing over, loud sirens everywhere. Electricity works, water works, town administration works. FEMA tries to work. There are lots of other places that can’t count on any of that, so why are we so afraid here?

We finished our Zen retreat on Sunday. I also gave dharma transmission, recognizing two new teachers of the dharma. I can’t remember when I last felt so happy. I love my students, love my dharma successors. They have taken vows to perpetuate the Buddha’s teachings on giving no fear. How resonant that is for me now. As someone said to them, “You could have taken vows to Amazon.” Not these two.

For me, at least, there was a sense of milestone. I may or may not do more Zen retreats; if I will it will be jointly with others. I remember that when Bernie reached 70, he wouldn’t do a rigorous Zen retreat unless it was with others, especially me, and even then, by 6 in the evening he’d say, “I’m out of here.”

“What about the evening schedule?” I’d ask.

“Too tired,” he’d say. Instead of a retreat meal, he’d take himself out for pizza, and when I’d come home late, he’d be in bed, watching TV. “How was the evening?” he’d ask, yawning.

This last weekend I discovered what he meant. No, not pizza, just that I can’t muscle through the way I used to in the past, when I could see a long line of things to get done and I could call on reserves of energy and resilience and push through.

What I want to do in Israel is shut up and listen. Not an easy task for me. People in Israel, including my family, have gone through trauma and continue to feel the shock of what has unfolded, beginning on October 7. I have two nephews fighting in Gaza.

A psychiatrist friend said, “When people go through trauma, it’s hard for them to hear anything else, including that there’s tremendous suffering on the other side. When you say something like that, it feels to them as though you are invalidating their experience.” I’ve seen proof of that over and over again and I know my job. Just listen, listen, listen.

Of course, there are people who also hold other narratives and with whom I can be more transparent, sharing our joint horror at what is happening not just in Israel but also in the West Bank and Gaza. My brother has said he’ll take me to the West Bank to meet with some Muslim associates.

Even as I am so glad to be with my blood family, I am also very happy to be with my dharma family—not Buddhists—but dharma in the widest sense, that we’re all one body and that the ties connecting us are way bigger than the differences and the conflicts. There are Israeli activists and Palestinian activists, Muslim and Christian, who work for this even now, and I love them deeply, deeper now than ever before. I hope to write about them in the next couple of weeks, till I return home on December 26.

Thank you all very much for buying out our list of Christmas gifts for immigrant children. I hope to get photos of the wrapped gifts from Jimena and will post them.

There seems to be so much to do, right? But my heart is full of love for the people I sat with in the retreat and for the people I will spend time with in Israel. Last night Henry put Llama Louie on my lap.

“Not now, Henry.”

“Listen to what Llama Louie says,” says Henry.

“May all beings be happy,” says Llama Louie.

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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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

DUDDY-FUDDY

“Look at me, I’m running like the wind.”

“You sure are, Aussie. I begin a retreat this evening till Sunday afternoon.”

“What do you do?”

“Sit all day.”

“Who wants to sit all day? Does all this practice teach you to run like the wind?”

“No.”

“Chase deer?”

“No.”

“Jump out an open car window?”

“No.”

“Squeeze out through the fence and then run like the wind?”

“No.”

“I’m running out of the important things in life. Is there anything it does teach you?”

“It teaches me to get old, Aussie.”

“Most normal people do that naturally!”

“You’d be surprised, Aussie, how many people don’t get to get old.”

“You know why? Because getting old has no value. It’s the biggest waste of time.”

“There I disagree, Aussie.”

“I’m 6 years old and you’re 74. I’m in my prime and I’m stuck with an old duddy-fuddy like you.”

“What’s duddy-fuddy?”

“Henry, just because you’re an illegal Mexican chihuahua doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try to learn English. Duddy-fuddy is a person who can’t run like the wind. Duddy-fuddy is old-fashioned, unable to deal with new things, and generally useless.”

“I think, Henry, that the term is fuddy-duddy. And what do you mean, Auss, that I can’t deal with new things?”

“You messed up the Amazon list of Christmas gifts for all Henry’s friends.”

“Actually, there was a bug in the Amazon system, Auss, but I took care of it. I think there’s a real value in being old. I settle back into myself precisely because I can’t run like the wind. Can’t run anywhere, escape anything, rush from one marriage to another, one project to another.  Alone as I am, I’m not into taking cruises or joining travel junkets. Instead, finally, I sit still—and not just in retreat.”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“I’ve joined a stream, Aussie.”

“The sitting stream? Doesn’t sound particularly fast to me.?”

“The stream of all those who get old. Yesterday, my friend Jeff Bridges called to wish me happy birthday. ’You’re old, Eve,’ he said. ‘We’re both old!’”

“(Groan.) Why didn’t he talk to me? I LOVE the Dude. Doesn’t he want a dog?”

“He has one, Auss. And Aussie, he’s old, just one day older than I am. He’s who he is, I am who I am; it’s easy to think we’re individuals—don’t we always think that? Now I’m more aware that I’m like everyone else who’s lucky to get old, and that gives a different perspective on things. I’m with Jeff and others, all part of a stream. I always loved to be part of the stream of spiritually-based activists, and now I’m part of another stream as well, the stream of life, Aussie. What do you think of that?”

“Does Jeff like to run on the beach? I like to run on the beach. Or walk on the beach. His stream is my stream.””

Dear Readers, Thank you for buying Christmas gifts for the children of immigrant families. We started with almost 90 gifts and only about a dozen are left, including 7 $25 gift cards which mistakenly showed up as $50 cards earlier. That has been rectified. Please consider buying the rest so that everyone gets something for the holidays. Here is the List again. Thank you. And–the blog will be silent till next Monday.

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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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

YEARNING

Tomorrow is my 74th birthday, the first birthday in a long while which does not take place in the middle of our annual December Rohatsu retreat. We’re doing a more abbreviated retreat this time, so I won’t be sitting on my birthday.

“What are you doing on your birthday?“ people always asked me.

Year after year I’d groan and say: “I’m sitting.” Meaning, doing sitting meditation, the thing you do that first week of December. I groaned, but it was good-natured; I liked sitting on the day of the year that marked my birth.

In the early days I’d wonder, when starting a retreat, whether I’d be the same person when I got up at the end. Something big was bound to happen, right? “One ping! and I have forgotten all I knew,” Xiangyan in 9thcentury China wrote. With all his learning and sharpness, he hadn’t been able to fully penetrate and experience the nondual. He left the monastery and became a groundskeeper at an abandoned temple. Sure enough, while he was sweeping one day, a broken tile hit a bamboo tree, and the sound caused a great opening.

Retreat after retreat, I waited for that same ping! It’s bound to happen, I thought, and then I, too, would forget all I know, everything will be crystal clear and fresh as dew, and I won’t be the same anymore.

I’m not the same anymore because I’m almost 74 years old. Just when I’ve lost the desire to be different, I find that I am different after all. Enlightenment, as someone said, is a back-door affair. Perhaps for a few it comes in with a loud bang on the front door, all lights coming on out front, Lori, the two dogs, and me rushing forward to see what’s happened, like when the big bear Boris arrives at the house in midnight.

For me, it comes through the kitchen door that leads to the garage that leads to the back yard. It finds its way from the cold outdoors, maybe after having a how-do-you-do with Ms. Kwan-yin in the back, then over the wet, muddy, concrete garage floor, avoiding the blue bins of recycled plastic/glass and paper. Maybe then it’ll come through the dog door, avoid the row of boots and slippers, the few unwashed dishes in the sink, the food stains on the oven.

Chances are, it won’t avoid anything. Regardless, that’s how it seems to come for me, through clutter and travail.

Sometimes, it comes through glimpses and experiences of visceral suffering. I think about that lately because I plan to travel to Israel in 8 days, right after the retreat ends, and am told that grief, shock, and depression await there. But also, life. I’m sure of it.

I feel a longing inside. For what or whom? Maybe for myself. No, not for my True Self, or for that self that is nothing and everything; I’m too old for Zen jargon. Just for myself. If anything, the longing stands on its own, with no object in mind.

I’m surrounded by great books, a magnificent calligraphy by the great Zen Master Soen Nakagawa of prajna, emptiness, hanging in the living room, two talkative dogs, and a gorgeous red twilight over to the west. Each is its own thing, an object of beauty, but in the end, not more than a gorgeous book cover. Where’s the real thing? The real deal, as Bernie would say it.

“What are you doing on your birthday, Eve?”

“I’m yearning.”

“For what?”

“For myself.” Or just yearning.

You don’t have to send gifts or even cards, though I’m deeply grateful for good wishes. What you could do is buy Christmas gifts for the children of immigrant families who live here, most of which are undocumented.

As I’ve written before, the farms were flooded this past summer, sweeping out not just seeds and soil but also the farm jobs these families desperately rely on (the water table is still very high here). Now starts the bad winter, all farm work ended for the season. I’ve already given Jimena Pareja a check for someone’s rent as well as $1,000 in Walmart gift cards for families who’ll struggle in the week of Christmas to New Year, when schools are closed and school breakfasts and lunches won’t be available. These things matter to them in ways that many of us can’t understand.

Therefore, there’s usually no money for Christmas presents for children. Here is an Amazon list of what the children requested. Almost all are in the $20-$30 range, none above, a few under $20. A few are gift cards, a few are electronics, and the rest are eye-poppingly gorgeous—dance mats, nail polish sets, tie-dye kits, bright yellow trucks, and even a few glittering bracelets and necklaces. What’s not to love?

Yes, I know there’s inflation, but Jimena and I have tried to keep prices low. So please, buy a gift or two for one or more children. Their yearnings are as important as mine and maybe yours. They’re children, after all. We’re all children.

The gifts will automatically be shipped to Jimena, and she and her family will then wrap them up beautifully. Please don’t add my address for shipping, I won’t be around to pick anything up. Everything on the list will go automatically to her. Here’s the list once again.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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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.

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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

A NEW INVOCATION

Hunting season is always a good reminder that there’s no such thing as absolute safety. We don our bright orange vests (Aussie’s lost two already) and go into the woods. She hunts out the scent of two deer and runs after them, goodbye Aussie! Twenty minutes later a big buck crosses the road ahead of us, three minutes later a black-and-orange figure gives chase. “He’s got a big head start,” I tell a barking Henry by my side.

Hunting season implies lots of shooting, and both dogs get skittish, but this morning there were no shots with temperatures in the low 40s, which is warm for us. Eventually Aussie returns, her orange vest still on but wet and dirty—she splashes through endless ponds and brooks when she chases deer. I leash her, and we walk back to the car.

It was my first outing since Tuesday. I got a bad cold for a few days, which brings on its own sense of fragility. I couldn’t get out of bed before 4 pm. But now, Friday, the energy is coming back. I am grateful to Lori, my housemate, who got cold remedies that made a big difference. Those, and the refuge and comfort of sleep.

From Bernie I’ve learned that every situation calls for practice. The bigger the challenge, the more you have to take time to check in with yourself. When the brain or the emotions go crazy, check your breath, it doesn’t lie. Even if, like me, you have asthma, unless you’re in the middle of an attack the steadiness and depth of your breath, your ease of inhaling and exhaling, tells you a lot about your state of mind.

Last night I tuned in to an interview, sponsored by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, of the veteran Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein, who talked about the similarities between writing poetry and meditation. I enjoyed what he said; mostly, I enjoyed his presence. I’d spent a little personal time with him on a few occasions, but not for years, and seeing him on the screen reassured me.

His is a very different presence from Bernie’s, in some way a different life. Goldstein is private, usually sticking to the teacher-student structure. He speaks in detail of meditative states and knows all the various facets of meditation practice, including traps and obstructions. He’s given to writing, living alone, and doing solo retreats. I appreciated hearing him express an open curiosity about everything, especially strange and unforeseen feelings.

Bernie was into taking action: developing one program after another, organizations galore, acting and speaking spontaneously with an emphasis on not-knowing, letting go of the grim, tight clutches of the self. He taught by example and was almost always in groups of people. “You want to really learn,” I heard him say very early on, “you live with your teacher. You see the whole person then, and you learn from everything.” You might say I did that. And while in those last decades of his life people didn’t usually live with us, they worked with us day to day, which was almost as good.

Teachers teach differently; students learn differently. Goldstein’s presence soothed me. He reminded me of how good this practice has been to me, how familiar, like family, the refuge and confidence I have found in it. It’s a cure for many things, including discouragement and depression. The strong back I’ve cultivated for decades actually holds me.

Also, gratitude for the compassion that I find in this world. For a long time, and especially over the last few months, I trudge off each morning, a stick of incense in my hand, to see Kwan-yin in the back yard and make requests: Heal him; take care of her; take care of Israelis; take care of Palestinians; cure this person or that, give strength to these people, etc.

And one morning I walked out there and said nothing but thank you. Thank you for the goodness in the world, which is infinite. For people’s kindness and care in difficult times, for the exceptionally bright nights we’ve been having this past week, for the heat in the house, for my eye doctor taking care of my vision, for the texts inquiring how I’m doing, for the butternut squash I have warming up in the oven, the turkey broth I made from last week’s Thanksgiving turkey that soothed me when I was sick.

Stop asking for more all the time, I tell myself. Open your eyes to what’s already here, always available.

               Donate to My Blog                    Donate to Immigrant Families

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

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

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