dharma monkey

embrace the monkey

19 July 2020
by Sean

‘No mask, no entry. Is that clear enough? That seems pretty clear, right?’

The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, has collected a series of oral histories from the COVID-19 pandemic. In today’s installment from his “Voices from the Pandemic,” we meet Lori Wagoner, a 63-year-old clerk at the general store in the small coastal town of Oriental, NC.

Lori’s story really struck me this morning. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it.

I often feel like we’re living through some kind of post-modern war without bombs or military hardware, where the pain from a raging conflict comes because we are turning on one another, strangers and family alike. Rather than relying on science, we have insidious conspiracy theories and selfish declarations of “personal freedom” and “mask acne” that are the cause of senseless suffering and death. And while there may not be literal explosives dropping from the skies, the weapons seem like they are nearly as lethal, at least on our psyches.

Lori is not alone. She is one of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Americans who are essentially stranded on the front lines, engaging in sometimes physically violent combat against her callous and narrow-minded fellow citizens because she doesn’t have a choice.

What on Earth do we do about this?


From the Voices from the Pandemic oral-history series
The Washington Post, July 19, 2020, Page A-1

As told to Eli Saslow
JULY 18, 2020

‘No mask, no entry. Is that clear enough? That seems pretty clear, right?’
Lori Wagoner, retail clerk, on trying to enforce a state requirement to wear masks

We tried our best to be polite about it. I’d frame it to customers like they were doing us this big favor: “Would you please consider wearing a mask?” “May we offer you a free mask?” “We sure do appreciate your cooperation.”

I’ll never understand what’s so hard about putting on a mask for a few minutes. It’s common sense. It’s a requirement now in North Carolina. But this is a conservative place, and there are only 900 people in this town. We try hard to get along. We’re a small general store, and we didn’t want to end up in one of those viral videos with people spitting or screaming about their civil rights. We put a sign outside — an appeal to kindness. “If you wear a mask, it shows how much you care about us.”

We found out how much they cared. It became clear real quick.

Wagoner put a shield over her register to protect herself from the virus. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)

I’m 63. I’m a lifetime asthmatic. I’d watch customers pull into the parking lot without their faces covered, and my whole body would start to tense up. Our store is on the Intracoastal Waterway, and people from all over the world dock in the harbor and come in here for supplies. It’s a big petri dish. I put a shield up over my register, and a few hours into my shift it was covered with spittle. We’d have 20 or 30 people walk by the sign and come in without a mask. I’d try to get their attention and point to the sign. It was a lot of: “You’re infringing on my rights. This is a free country, and I’m here to shop, so who’s going to stop me?”

Then the local sheriff went on Facebook and said he wasn’t going to enforce the state requirement because he didn’t want to be the “mask police.” So now what? I have customers who are breaking the law and putting my life at risk, and what am I supposed to do? I’m a freaking retail clerk. I ring up beer and boat supplies for 10 bucks an hour. I don’t want to deal with this. If I didn’t need the money, I’d be home working in my garden or visiting my grandkids. I don’t come into the store every morning looking to make some big moral stand, but when I see something that’s wrong, I can’t let it slide. I cannot shut up. I get stuck on things. That’s my biggest downfall or my biggest asset. So, fine. I’ll be your mask police. What choice do I have? I talked to my co-worker, and we decided to hang another sign on the wall.

“Thanks for wearing a mask. It’s the most patriotic thing you can do.”

That didn’t stop them, so we kept adding more. “Please be kind to us.” “We’re here for you seven days a week, and we didn’t create this situation.” “Masks are required for anyone entering the store.”

Wagoner put a shield over her register to protect herself from the virus. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)
Maybe some people took it as a challenge. I don’t know. But it kept on escalating. Most of our customers are supportive and respectful about it — maybe 90, 95 percent. But on weekends, we get dozens of people from Charlotte or Raleigh who come to visit their boats. Those places are virus hot spots, and they come here to have a good time and maybe they’re drinking. Some of them would see our signs, open the front door, and just yell: “F— masks. F— you.” Or they would walk in, refuse to wear a mask and then dump their merchandise all over the counter. I had a guy come in with no mask and a pistol on his hip and stare me down. I had a guy who took his T-shirt off and put it over his mouth so I could see his whole stomach. “There. A mask. Are you happy?” I had a lady who tried to tape a pamphlet on the front window about the ADA mask exemption, which is a totally fake thing. It’s a conspiracy theory, but it’s become popular here. She kept saying we were discriminating against people with disabilities. What? Why? How? None of what they say sounds logical. I can’t make sense of half the names they call me. They say I’m uneducated — uh, that’s kind of ironic. They say I’m a sheep. I’ve been brainwashed. I’m pushing government propaganda. I’m suffocating them. I’m a part of the deep state. I’m an agent for the World Health Organization. “How do you like your muzzle?” “Is this going to become sharia law?” “Are you prepping us to wear burqas?” “What’s next? Mind control?”

The customer’s always right. We grit our teeth and try to accommodate the customer. We offer them free masks, even though they cost about a dollar. If the mask makes them uncomfortable for whatever reason, we say they can wait outside and we will be happy to provide curbside service at no extra charge. If that somehow offends them, we apologize and suggest they shop somewhere else. Then it’s: “My rights, my rights. Why are you trampling on the Constitution?”

My fists are clenched all the time now. I’m always on edge. I wish this virus were glitter so we could actually see it, because in my mind, it’s everywhere. I wear gloves to touch the merchandise. I wipe down everything. I put a table in front of my register so nobody can come closer than six feet. I sanitize my hands so much they must be drunk. We had three new positive cases on the same day in this town, but people can’t be bothered to put a piece of cloth over their face. The sheriff’s department is closed to the public because it has a bunch of positive cases, but they still won’t enforce the mask law. One day I said to my co-worker, “I need to leave the store right now or I’m going to lose it. I’m going to explode.” I ended up taking 12 days off. I had a dream that I was going around the store and physically moving people six feet apart, scolding them for not wearing a mask. I came back to work and decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore. I handed out these laminated cards that say: “Mask Exemption Override – There is no ADA exemption for mask wearing.” If a person refuses to wear a mask, I’m like: “Okay. Goodbye. Have a nice life, and thoughts and prayers if you get covid.” They’re selfish. They’re lemmings. I don’t know if the virus will kill me or if it’s going to be my rage. Sometimes I want to cut America into different pieces, and all these anti-maskers can live together, and we’ll see how it works.

A few weeks back, we put an orange traffic cone on the sidewalk out front to draw people’s attention before they come into the store. We taped up another sign. “No mask, no entry.” Is that clear enough? That seems pretty clear, right? But this big, burly guy walked past the cone and past all the signs, and he pushed the door open. I said, “Sir, can I help you?” I pointed to the signs. I pointed to my mask. He was probably in his late 30s, and I’d never seen him before. He rolled his eyes and ignored me, so I knew where it was going. I came out from behind the register to try to block his path into the store. I said: “Do you have a mask you can put on?” He shook his head like he couldn’t be bothered, and he said he just wanted to buy a drink. I said, “Okay, that means I will get your drink while you wait outside and I will bring it to the door.” But he’s still moving into the store, and I’m trying to stay in front of his path and keep him from going down the aisle. He said, “Come on, lady. I just want water. I have an ADA exemption.” I said: “I’m tired of this. Just leave the store now.”

He kept moving toward me, yelling, “ADA exemption, ADA exemption,” and now my body was starting to shake. It was fear and so much anger. Why is this my problem to deal with? This maskhole? This covidiot whose stupidity is putting me at risk? This isn’t what I signed up for. I’m trying to be the enforcer. I’m trying to corral this guy to the door, but he’s not backing down, and he’s getting more aggressive. He’s screaming about his rights. He’s yelling at me to call the police. We’re six inches apart. He yells out: “Social distancing! Move out of my way.” He’s screaming all kinds of profanity, and I’m screaming it back. My co-worker was yelling for him to get out, and another customer started yelling, and finally he stomped around for a while and then turned back outside.

We locked the front door and my co-worker and I went back into the storage room. We sat there and sobbed.

The next morning, I went to the hardware store to buy supplies. I can’t handle the constant tension. It’s rinse and repeat with all these daily blowups, and I’m starting to get paranoid. We installed a doorbell so we can keep the front door locked even during business hours, and I’ve got pepper spray up at my register. This is my job now. At least I’ll be ready.

25 November 2018
by Sean

A shared world

I imagine it is a question we should, collectively and individually, ask ourselves, perhaps much more frequently than we already do: what kind of world do we want to live in?

What kind of world do we want for our children, or for future generations?  Or even for ourselves…not just for now, but even when we are too old or too infirm to play an active role in society’s future direction?

For me, the answer to the question is deceptively simple: I want to live in what Palestinian-American poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye described as a “shared world” in her 2008 prose “Gate A-4.” It is a world where everyone, consciously or otherwise, recognizes the inherent state of interconnectedness that binds us.  It is a place where our actions are guided by the understanding that when one of us hurts, we are all affected…where we are all our proverbial brother’s — and the literal stranger’s — keeper.

In “Gate A-4,” Nye describes a situation at an airport that my experience tells me is quite common — a passenger who doesn’t speak everyone else’s language is unable to effectively communicate his or her concern about something upsetting.  Through a gesture of simple kindness, Nye describes how the upset passenger’s grief and a stranger’s intercession transformed into a gift that revealed the beauty, simplicity and sheer power of interconnectedness.

Gate A-4

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well — one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — from her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Copyright © 2008 by Naomi Shihab Nye.


9 October 2016
by Sean

An antidote to politically inspired cynicism

yesThe November 2016 edition of Lion’s Roar magazine was sitting in my mailbox this morning.  “Hope & Healing: Buddhist wisdom for a troubled time.” Perfect timing as we enter the final 30 days of the political campaign, which has made it feel as though the entire country is slowly drowning in cynicism.

I took the magazine in the house and then walked over to the corner market.  On a rail outside the door, someone had scrawled “LOVE ALL SOULS” using a paint pen. Handily the most redeeming graffiti I’ve seen in a while.

I came home, had a quick lunch and then picked up Lion’s Roar, which opened at the center, right along the staples.  There, in the midst of a collection of short writings about how to be a good citizen in troubled political times called “We The People,” sat this gem of a teaching by Karen Maezen Miller, a priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.

You Make All The Difference

Be generous with your attention, that you might dispel the loneliness and isolation that divide us.

Be generous with your time and money. They go furthest when freed from your own hands.

Make room for all the people — even if they’re the majority — who don’t think or act like you. Make an enemy of no one.

Be humble. Let others speak. Let others rant. Give argument no mind. Your opinion alters no one’s. Be humble.

Have abundant patience and trust, knowing that things change in ways you cannot predict. Recognize hate as fear, greed as poverty, and ignorance as our common plight.

Have faith. Spread cheer. Do good. With an open heart and clear mind, vote. Everything you think, say, and do, however small, has a monumental consequence. Your influence is boundless, so take infinite care.

You make all the difference in the world. Give it all you’ve got.

Take a moment and then read it again.  Pause.  Breathe.  Read it a third time, letting the words slowly seep into all those places inside that are starting to harden because of the non-stop exposure to cynicism and fear and distrust, and everything else that creates a sense of “other.”

Sometimes we need to be reminded in a very specific way of our potential.  Today, I needed these exact words, an antidote to the last 36 hours in America.

18 September 2016
by Sean

‘Dare to seek understanding’

Back in late July, I decided that I would no longer make political posts via Facebook.  As the national campaign rhetoric heated up, I found my posts were expressing, and in some cases furthering, the fear that has been the basis for most of the political discourse in our country today.  As we started moving through the summer, I found the increasingly cynical tone of other people’s social media posts to be distressing, and it became too easy for me to view people who disagreed with me as “other.”

My final political post was a share of an article that was quietly making the rounds — a piece from the Urban Confessional titled, “How to Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson from the Republican National Convention.”  In it, executive coach and author Benjamin Mathes summarized his experience at the RNC, where he set out to simply listen to people:

The truth is, if our love can hold space for paradox, tension, and disagreement, there’s room for all types of beliefs and opinions.

Division is a choice.

Life isn’t a Facebook feed.

Our love, our listening, must bring in, not edit out.

Dare to listen, dare to be quiet, dare to seek understanding; in the end, it’s the people we need to love, not their opinions.

With these words in mind, I give you what is sure to be a controversial read from today’s Washington Post. The Cooleys allowed a Post reporter to get a very intimate look at their life in Winder, Georgia, where Jim Cooley is known for the fact that he carries an assault rifle to his local Walmart store.

Now, here’s the difficult part: put aside all of your feelings about guns, and what you will read is a story about a man who is struggling to feel safe after he encountered some extremely difficult circumstances in life. Do I agree with the manner in which he has responded to those challenges? No, not at all, but that’s not the point. I feel as if I have had, in the spirit of Benjamin Mathes’ call to “dare to seek understanding,” a very intimate listening session with the Cooleys.

With the current political climate and my own views on the topic of guns, I have to admit that it’s not easy to view Jim Cooley as “another me.”  But as a Buddhist who works to ground my heart in compassion and equanimity, that’s exactly what I have to do — I have to dare to listen, and dare to be quiet, and dare to seek to understand.

3 December 2015
by Sean

The ‘sparkling smile of primordial buddha’

“In the space where thoughts of sadness are groundless and rootless,
One meets one’s own mind as the sparkling smile of primordial buddha.
The laughing dance of the little boy with cheerfulness and insight,
Liberates happiness and sorrow in the dharmakaya space of equal flavor.”

— Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, in a letter to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche‘s introduction to “Brilliant Moon,” the autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche