Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 25, 2007—May 29, 2007

I entered what follows in a different space online from “dharma gleanings,” because I find myself now writing from a different space. I’ve decided to include the entries here, although what I write may not be about insights as much as about process, and I may write it in a different language. We’ll see.

May 25, 2007
I want a space to write about what happened the other day when I went to the San Diego Disability Action Coalition march and rally, because it is like a stone I want to keep in my pocket.

I had been going to the SDDAC annual march and rally for several years, representing The Old Women’s Project, marching with Mannie and Janice and our great puppet POWER, and the last two years I was part of the planning committee and spoke at the rally. Each time it was a high for me—I’ve wanted to connect disability issues and aging issues for decades, and it made me happy to be able to speak to those connections. Being with the people on the march, those in their wheelchairs joined with the domestic worker’s union whom I’ve also supported, in my Old Women Are Your Future t-shirt, felt very rich.

This time, because The Old Women’s Project has dissolved, because I’ve chosen to no longer be an activist in the same way, I was not part of the planning process. I sent a contribution, guilt money I suppose, and explained that both OWP and myself are not active at this time, adding that I hoped attend as an individual.

And so I did. And felt how different this experience was, felt impermanence up to my eyeballs, the more so perhaps since the march and rally were almost identical to those earlier ones.

Standing with the little crowd during the rally, I was quietly aware of the changes. I felt my separateness: even though I had come to give my support, I was no longer an activist among activists, I no longer believe in the same way that marches and rallies are appropriate responses today to this suffering world. But at the same time I felt connected in a new way, through my greater ability to share their suffering, including—dare I say without sounding patronizing—their ignorance of the forces that create their suffering, which felt like our ignorance, the world’s ignorance, our human condition. So I felt sadness, sadness at being an outsider, where I had been an insider; and sadness at everything they did not see; and a much larger sadness at the world’s pain, expressed in all the actions I’d been part of, had helped to organize, in front of this Federal Building—all the senseless cruelties including of course the insanity of war.

Naming these sadnesses for myself came later. When the rally was over and I went to catch my bus home, I simply felt like a great container for sadness, a container as large as the world, a sadness vaster and purer and simpler than any I could recall experiencing before, with not the slightest need to change it or to “cheer myself up”. It was not depression, it was not the anguish that has motivated me in the past to activism out of the anguish of my child self. It felt precious to me like a living thing, though without any need to hold onto it or examine it, as I did after it had passed. It felt like the gift of reality.

It was later, reading Choygam Trungpa, that I recognized it as the open wound that is compassion. I was feeling compassion for myself, as someone no longer able to be a part of a circle that had been meaningful to her; compassion for the struggles of the folks in their wheelchairs and the domestic workers and the many more people they represent; compassion for their ignorance of the causes of suffering; and compassion for the vast pain of the larger world, much of that pain caused by the suffering of others that blind them, us, to our interconnectedness.

May 29, 2007
How strange that the Saturday after the experience at the Disability rally, I found myself in a very different kind of activity. The two days shed light back and forth on each other.

When Bettina and I were on the desert some months ago, we saw along Highway S2 two men filling the blue containers marked AGUA that are packed with gallon jugs of water for people crossing the desert in the hot months. We stopped and I spoke to them for a minute, asking if there were some way we could be involved in this work. They gave me the web site, and I corresponded and spoke with Laura. Finally I learned that the next Saturday morning at eight the “water station” group would be meeting in the Ocotillo Cafe before going out to fill stations, and that I was invited to join them. I did, spent a long day under the hot sun with them, preparing our equipment and hauling it onto trucks in back of the old Ocotillo Motel, filling the stations back of Plaster City, setting up new ones on the desert near Yuma, and finally ending at a soup and salad dinner with them in El Centro. It was a rich time.

I had just read an interview with a Catholic nun, deeply engaged in issues of human rights, deeply “political” though she rejects the word for herself, who makes distinction between activism and action. For me this difference in words clarified that not to be an “activist” does not make one passive; that action springs from one’s deepest source of connection with others. I could see then that the march and rally were activism, and that I may be finished with that, but that action can still move and energize me and meet my need not only to feel, but to affirm, my connection with others. Out under the desert sun with others who were working, unseen and unrecognized and on most of their water runs, not even, usually, enjoying the good company of others, who were not even participating from the desire to “be good people”, but simply and without fuss to meet a simple human need that needed to be met— I saw their unassuming Buddha natures, which warmed me quietly more than the sun. All day I felt myself flowing, without check or interruption, as though we were together in a dance.

We laughed together, but there were many elements to my joy. As we talked—easily, openly, without the kinds of judgments that can arise when people meet for the first time and “feel each other out” (“I like this about him, I don’t care for that about her”)— I learned that the lanky, talkative, funny, self-deprecating man who had begun this operation eight years ago is a Republican, from a deeply conservative family, had grown up hunting, had been to Iraq working on the armored vehicles there,—he decided to do this work simply because it needed to be done. None of his story created for me the slightest hitch, and was a part of the richness of the day. Laura, his Republican wife, confided to me that she has a beloved gay brother. Instead of the separations expressed in activist marches and rallies (from “Fuck Bush!” to the more high-minded separation of “Not in My Name!”) our action brought us into the possibilities of connection.

The rally on Wednesday, the water stations on Saturday, seem to me like a pair of bookends for the week, belonging together and supporting an understanding.

I knew, of course, that setting up those stations was not simply action, that it was incidentally a form of activism, since anyone driving along the highways could see the great tanks of water and be reminded that the people crossing were real people who, like the rest of us, become thirsty in the desert heat, can fall onto the burning sand and die of that thirst.

And of course I know that any lines of demarcation between action and activism are never sharp, that the march and rally probably also had elements of action for some of the participants—water, perhaps, for the thirst of their isolation or non-confirmation.

Still. I can’t know, since my sloth and torpor seems often to be an incapacitating stupor, what I will be able to do from now on, but it is clear to me that whatever I am able to do will be closer to my day with the water station than my morning at the rally.

I am sending my much-loved Marge Piercy poem—which I gave to Mary Tong, Mike Wilzoch, Richard Barrera, and of course to Bettina— to John and Laura, and I copy it here because it is filled with the spirit of Saturday.

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the muck and the mud to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put into museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

So often in my life I have yearned to be one of those people, and felt that because of my attention disorder I could not be, lacked the sure strokes, the simple competence required to do what has to be done. On Saturday I didn’t hesitate, did what I could, not hating myself for what I couldn’t. And that perhaps, whatever my gifts or limitations, will be what I do now.