Today I’m trying to juggle the despair I feel for the island of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands (which evacuated to Puerto Rico – did you know that?), with the happiness I felt all day yesterday as I sat w/ a dear friend & my family over a lovely brunch.
I have known since I was a very young child (8? 9?) that I’m privileged. Standing on one side of an iron gate to our villa, only blocks from the ambassador’s residence, I watched a young ViệtNamese woman – certainly not twice my age – tell me in the unmistakeable language of hands & eyes that her infant held close to her flat breasts was hungry. And she had no food. That was my first encounter w/ my own privilege.
These days, as friends & family from around the country drive or fly to visit us in our beautiful new home, w/wages they earn at secure jobs, I remember almost daily how rare this is for most of the world. Two of my three sisters have come to visit – one has come twice! The third is coming in two weeks. I live blocks from my healthy, well-fed grandsons & their parents. Tomorrow I will get in the car w/ my beloved daughter-in-law and go to a nearby pumpkin patch to gather pumpkins w/the four-year-old in our family. We have plenty of gas for such luxuries.
In Puerto Rico, there is no electricity. As a friend of a friend noted, this isn’t because the power is ‘out’: it’s because the lines are shredded. There won’t be power again until the infrastructure is rebuilt. Such an innocuous word, infrastructure: EVERY POWER LINE. EVERY water facility. Dams, and roads, and…
I can’t get my heart around what my head knows. In my everyday life, I’m looking forward to my sister’s visit. Basking in the time I spent w/ a dear friend who was here for the weekend. Figuring out what I’ll fix for dinner tonight. Anticipating an elective medical procedure fully covered by (admittedly crappy, but still extant) insurance.
But in this time of far too prevalent American refusal to care about our fellow Americans, I’m heartbroken for mothers, grandmothers, sisters. Women (& men) who have only the spectre of cholera to anticipate. The end of paychecks, because FEMA has commandeered all island fuel for hospitals. Meaning: noooo offices can open if they could otherwise. Hence, no $$. (You did realise that the currency of an American territory is dollars…??)
In this time of ‘fake news’ – so often perpetrated on us by our own government – I can’t forget that these other Americans, whose only ‘crime’ is being where a massive hurricane hit, are without food. Without water. Days away from a cholera epidemic. Living among the decaying remains of a thousand thousand drowned animals. A million million pieces of trash. Fecal matter floating in the water.
I hope that totally disgusted you. Because I know of no way, other than the words I’ve practiced using for decades, to wake America up. To outrage the status quo, so that we INSIST our government do something more. And please: don’t insult my intelligence w/ the ‘big ocean’ crap. EUROPE is significantly farther away, but they’re already rebuilding. Us? Who cares about brown folks who REALLY probably aren’t even Americans. Well,l French president Macron does. In the ravaged Caribbean, he was there less than a week after the hurricane hit. Our inglorious leader (I can barely manage to think his name…)? More than two weeks LATER: 3+ weeks AFTER THE HURRICANE STRUCK.
The population of Puerto Rico is about the same as my home state, Oklahoma. And let me assure you: the majority of that state where I’ve lived for decades, where I was born, could care less about sending their $$ to a place almost half of them don’t even realise is American. After all, that’s true at the national level. And I don’t think Oklahoma is any better.
I can also assure you that Oklahoma (& its legislators, please note) would NOT be ‘okay’ with the treatment Puerto Rico is receiving if the state was devasted by a category 5 tornado, a phenomenon much like Hurricane Irma. If the entire state of Oklahoma lacked any hope of electricity for the next several months, and cholera was in the water, and the children of the state were doing w/out asthma inhalers, food, medical treatment, et al…? The state would be in arms. Quite literally, I assure you. Like the guys in Florida who shot at the incoming hurricane…
I’m trying to moderate my visceral anger with my Buddhist tonglen. But truthfully? It’s almost impossible to breathe in my anger and breathe out peace. When (& if…) I succeed, it’s when I’m able to think of my anger as only a fraction — an infinitesimal nano-fraction of the 3.5 MILLION Americans — of the anger & fear felt by a thousand thousand parents, grandparents, siblings: … I breathe for them, hoping I can somehow take on their rage & grief.
What about you? How do you reconcile our privilege with the heart-shattering plight of Puerto Rico? I’d love to hear something I can actually do, besides just throw my privileged $$ at this horrific tragedy…
One of my sisters left her long-time FB account at least a month, maybe longer. She’s been on FB for years. A 2nd has muted several ‘friends’ & even family (as have I). While a third is cast-iron, and seems able to keep her sanity. Me? I recently unfriended — then refriended — my cousin. And yes: it was political: I unfriended him after he insulted one of my friends one too many times, ‘citing’ spurious ‘evidence’ from sources like Agent Orange (my current fave name for our ersatz president), Breitbart, and the worst of the alt-right idiots. Please note: my friend wasn’t blameless, but she didn’t start the ruckus. She simply took it to the next level.
And I can’t handle it.
It didn’t make me feel good to unfriend him; he’s family. But it did make me less angry than when he was constantly popping up in my feed saying crap that’s flat (verifiably) untrue.
Still, I felt like I’d failed as a Buddhist. I know we’re supposed to ‘listen’ to each other. But what if what someone is spouting is pure poison? Do I have to listen to Agent Orange (my beloved’s name for president #45) spew vitriol about the Women’s March I was so proud to walk in, with my niece & grand-niece? Do I have to accept it? What about his clueless ‘tariff’ on Mexican imports?? Or the Republican Congressman who said folks could pay for the prohibitively expensive Repub alternative to Affordable Care if they just didn’t buy iPhones?? I don’t have a simple Buddhist answer for this one…
I wish I had a nearby Buddhist teacher. The pagans & Wiccans have a word for me: solitary practitioner. I read Buddhist books, websites. Talk about Buddhism to anyone who will listen (some would probably rather not!). And bumble along, trying to live by this truth, and that precept. Mostly I couple tonglen with a sincere effort to be kind & practice compassion. It’s probably not enough, but it’s what I’m able to do at this point. And breathe, of course…
If someone reading this has useful insights, I’d love to hear them. Because I can’t believe it’s okay to ‘accept’ the hate masquerading these days as ‘give him a chance.’ I will NEVER give hate, intolerance, and evil pretending it’s ‘for our own good’ a chance. I don’t think THAT is good Buddhism, either. If you espouse hate, you don’t get my cooperation. Period. If racism is your way to ‘unite’ people — against someone different from you — I will call you on it. The very Buddhism that counsels me to be compassionate also grounds my social justice work.
I did, however, refriend my cousin. After all, he’s family. Besides — I’m off FB for Lent. I can deal with it in April, right? In the meantime, I’m serious: how are you dealing with these virulently polarised times? Any tips?
My grandson is teaching me non-attachment. At three, he has weathered the ‘terrible twos’ w/aplomb: there were almost no tantrums, and ‘NO’ wasn’t his favourite word. Nor was it ours, really.
But like his father before him, he has slammed into three w/a vengeance. Not only is he in the midst of ‘terrible threes’: he also is deep into attachment to consistency. In this case, having his parents at his immediate beck & call, & doing things a certain way. Which means a lot of I don’t want YOU when I try to help him do pretty much anything. On a family vacation, where I had hoped to be useful, this is at best highly inconvenient. The other night, the child who begged for me to put him to sleep a year ago, howled like a wolf cub when I tried to read him a bed story. I want my mommy! I want my daddy! I DON’T WANT YOU!
It’s hard not to take that personally, I confess. But I’m breathing through it, trying to remember who’s the adult here. This sculpture by Alexander Milov is a perfect metaphor for the child Trin is, and the inner fragile child we each hold within the cages of our visible selves. Trin is deeply attached — Upādāna, the Buddhist word is: ‘attachment, clinging, grasping.’ Me too, Trin. But inside your howling wolf cub, and my howling grandmother wolf, are these two children who only want to be heard. Acknowledged. Loved.
An important detail: non-attachment is not unattachment. Unattachment has the idea of breaking attachment, which implies a negative. That’s not the case with non-attachment, which says — you can love deeply & profoundly. Just don’t cling & grasp. That’s not really (grown-up) love.
Trin’s too young to get this, of course! But I’m not. He’s teaching me how to do this, as I try to breathe through the whole I don’t want you!! The Buddha reminded us that we are all Buddhas — linked by our Buddha nature — and that we should bring this to mind when we greet each other. In other words? It’s not about hurt feelings (or won’t be eventually…). It’s all about learning. My own 3-year-old Buddha is teaching me.
I’m thinking of Ramadan (in progress through July 5th this year) — trying to figure out why it fascinates me, why I’m drawn to it. Lent, the Christian version, has never appealed to me the same way. Perhaps because no one I knew gave up anything of importance. What’s chocolate in the grand scheme of things…?
But Ramadan — you give up everything during Ramadan, at least during daylight hours. From dawn until dusk, you go without food or drink. Even in the hot desert and tropical countries of Islam, that includes water. Plus all luxuries — perfume, sex during the day hours, as well as (for many observant Muslims) TV, music, games… The list is long. A lot more of a sacrifice than doing without FaceBook…
So what does this have to do w/ Buddhism? Despite the fact that Ramadan’s self-denial is not part of Buddhism, the spirit of reflection, charity, and an attempt to be a better person is clearly congruent with the teachings of the Buddha. And to fast for a month of days? Surely that produces an empathy — feeling the straitened circumstances of the genuinely ‘without.’ Isn’t Ramadan — the discipline of hunger, of doing without, of being mindful of the ‘withoutness’ of others — also a kind of tangled, the Buddhist practice of compassion for all? During Ramadan, Muslims across the world fast in brotherhood. Small children (who are exempt) vie to join the millions of men & women around the globe who fast together.
Once when I was taking a class in meditation, we were just beginning to learn tonglen. We were asked to think of people for whom we would gladly suffer — family members, loved ones, heroes and heroines. And then we were asked to think of what really frightened us. I thought of what frightens me — losing my sense of self, becoming my fragile, mindless mother, as she lay w/out knowledge of past or present, much less future — and breathed for all of us who fear. It was one of the most important things I think I’ve ever done — utterly memorable. Sitting in a small room, I was part of a community dedicated to a common goal: compassion w/ others. Ramadan thus seems quite familiar.
So for me, Ramadan seems far less ‘strange’ than do many religious traditions. Communion, for instance — that seemed weird to me even as a kid. Eat the flesh and blood of your deity?? Yuk! Sorry if that offends anyone, but really? That’s cannibalism! Like I said — even as a child I didn’t get that :).
Of course, I also didn’t get why animals don’t go to Christian heaven. After being told they don’t (by my Sunday school teacher, no less), I figured right then — and told both my teacher and my mother — that I wasn’t interested in heaven if there aren’t dogs and cats and animals. (I haven’t really changed my thoughts on that… 🙂 )
So for these next few days, I’m trying to remember that around the world, vast numbers of people are doing without, so they can be closer to their best selves, and the very idea of holiness, what they see as God. Surely that deserves a moment of respect.