HOW TO OPEN UP HEAVEN

I spent much of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with a friend in the New York suburb where she lives. As she drove us around I looked at the people coming in and out of the synagogues that pepper her neighborhood. I had grown up like her religious neighbors and could recite the schedule of the day:

Now the men are coming to the synagogue;

Now the women with their little children;

Now the mothers bring the children back home to feed them lunch even as they continue fasting along with their husbands who remain in the synagogue;

in mid-afternoon they walk home to rest;

they return around 4 for the final services, which will only end when it’s completely dark, and then they will go home, happy and satisfied, to finally break their day-long fast.

There was a pang in my heart as we passed a park where children played across the street from a synagogue, guarded by three policemen in brightly colored vests. We didn’t need that when I was young.

The twilight hour came. I sat in my friend’s living room and knew that even then the final prayer of Ne-ilah was being offered, the last chance to talk directly to God, with many bows and prostrations. Full prostrations are common in Buddhism, rare in Judaism, but on the Day of Atonement they will go face down on the floor, the men in long white robes called kittels. White for purity.

How does one be pure, I asked the darkening sky through the window.

Many years ago Sensei Tetsugen Glassman entertained questions on the dharma. I raised my hand from the back of the zendo and said: “Every morning we chant a dedication: May all karma be resolved and the mind flower bloom in eternal spring. How does karma get resolved?” What does one do with the baggage of not one lifetime, but of many many? The never-ending responsibility of past actions, harm done and gotten, the endless deeds?

Sensei didn’t answer my question.

Years later, in the midst of marital squabbling, the same man, now Bernie, said to me: “You have so much vajra energy, you’re always trying to figure things out!” He did not mean that as a compliment.

By now I know that purity is not something to figure out. Aussie has more purity in one rush after a ball, in one 6 am nuzzle of my face—Get up! Get up! Get up!—than any idea of mine. Unfortunately, you are not a dog, Stanley used to remind me. Nevertheless, I am pure, I wish to tell him posthumously. Just like you, just like Aussie.

What is our practice? Life as it is, Bernie repeats again and again. Just life as it is, nothing more.

There are many Hasidic stories about this special twilight time of the Day of At-one-ment. A famous one relates to the time the Baal Shem-Tov, Founder of Hasidism, led the congregation in prayer on such a day. But his fellow Jews eyed him nervously because he was praying more and more urgently, looking anxious and unhappy. Are his words not reaching heaven, they wondered. If the pleas of this holy man, the holiest of his generation, don’t reach Heaven, what is there to do? Trepidation overcame them.

Twilight came, and the Baal Shem-Tov prayed more intently and devotedly, prostrating himself repeatedly, but they could see from his demeanor that he knew his prayers weren’t being heard, and the fear in the synagogue grew palpably.

In that congregation was a peasant boy, poor and illiterate. He never came to the synagogue other than in these holy days, he didn’t know the holy language, never studied, and couldn’t pray because he couldn’t make out the words in the liturgy book. He’d been shunted off to the very back, ignored by the others who were devotedly reading the prayers. But he felt the need to talk to God, to express joy and sorrow, beg for forgiveness, beg for his life, only he didn’t have the words. This welled up in him all day, he could no longer remain silent, so in those last twilit moments he took a breath and, with all his heart and soul, gave out one loud, extended whistle.

For a second the congregation was struck silent; the next moment they jumped all over him, ready to tear him to pieces over this sacrilege. But the Baal Shem-Tov called out to them to stop, and now there was a smile on his lips. He said: “This entire day my words couldn’t penetrate heaven, neither could yours. Everything we learned, everything we quoted, all our prayers—none broke through and I thought all was lost. Then this boy whistled. His whistle went straight to the Divine Being and opened up Heaven for all of us.”

I DON’T TRUTHT MEN

“Eve, tell her to stop barking at me. She always barks at me when I come down to dinner.”

“Hey, Aussie, silly dog, don’t bark at Bernie, he’s a Zen master.”

“Lookth funny to me.”

“You should have seen him when he had no hair.”

“He’th a man. I don’t trutht men.”

“Neither do I. But do you hear me barking at them?”

“I wouldn’t trutht thith one for a minute. Thomething really crazy there.”

“Yes, well.”

 

All my life I’ve heard voices, and I’ve believed them.

My mother used to tell me, You live in a dream world, you don’t live in the real world. Then came Zen, which said that even the real world is a dream world, so I stopped worrying.

The same is true for stories. When I first started writing stories a long time ago I’d wag my finger and tell myself: Write your stories, but don’t believe them. Don’t ever believe them, ever, ever, ever.

For the rest of my life I’ve believed my stories.

It’s not just dogs that capture the voices in my head, other things do, too. When it’s people that capture the voices in my head is when I get confused. For example, Bernie has been speaking loud and clear to me since 1985 and I’m still not sure whose voice it is: His? Mine?

 

“So what’s your voice, Aussie?”

“I don’t know. I gueth I’ll find out.”

“Aussie, do you have a lisp?”

“Of course I have a lithp, I’m from Texath, ain’t I.”

“I think you’re becoming a voith-carrier, Aussie. I mean a voice-carrier.”

“Ith that a good thing?”

“Of course it’s a good thing, Aussie. There’s nothing wrong with any voice. The world is one big universal choir, and in that choir you are never out of tune, never too high-pitched or low-pitched, you are always singing perfectly.”

“Thankth. Can I loth the lithp now?”

“Lose the lisp, Auss? I just told you, there’s no problem.”

“If thereth no problem, I want to loth the lithp.”

“You’re cute with a lisp, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to be cute. I want to loth the lithp. Now.”

 

 

AWESOME AUSSIE

“Who’s the dude sitting by my grave?”

“Aussie.”

“Aussie?”

“Our new dog, Stanley.”

“Your new dog! What’s Aussie?”

“An Australian cattle dog mix, Stan. Australians call themselves,Aussies.”

“Clearly standards have plummeted since I died.”

“It was Bernie’s idea to call her Aussie.”

“Does she like it?”

“I don’t know, Stanley. She’s afraid of Bernie.”

“Oh no, another Zen student!”

“Now now, Stanley, Zen students haven’t been afraid of Bernie for quite a while. Aussie was afraid of Rami when he came to the house, and when I took her to the Farm she was afraid of John. I think she’s afraid of men.”

“How old is this dummy?”

“Aussie is one year old, Stan.”

“And she’s already afraid of men? Well, that’ll teach you”.

“Teach me what, Stan?”

“That’ll teach you to find someone new so soon after I died. I’m not even cold in my grave and off you go to the shelter, making eyes at every four-legged creature you meet.”

“In the past, Stan, I’ve always waited a lot longer before I got new dogs. But things are different when you’re older. You’re aware of time going by; these may be the last dogs we have. Even grief changes. Instead of suspending activity, you go on. You keep on doing, keep on living, you adopt more dogs, go back to the woods with them, but they’re not replacements for those not there, if you know what I mean.”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“The older you get, Stanley, the more of life you have under your belt. The more of life you become. You’re not gone, Stanley, just because Awesome Aussie is around.”

“Awesome Aussie? Puke! Puke! Puke! I’m ashamed to have such an unworthy successor. I can just see it on the lineage chart: Stan the Man, Zen Master of Montague Mountain, Deaf Listener, Blind Wall-Gazer, Penetrator of Marrow Bones, followed by his successor, Awesome Aussie. No! No! No!”

“Give her a chance, Stanley. You were no prize when we first got you.”

“At least I was good looking!”

“Give her the benefit of the doubt, Stan. You were young once.”

“I was alive once.”

“She’s new life, Stanley, new life blooming and flowering. Aussie will mature, she’ll settle down, she’ll learn what’s what, she’ll learn what’s not. She’ll be every bit of a Zen dog that you were.”

“How is that going to happen if she won’t get close to the Man?”

“Maybe she’ll want a woman for a teacher, Stan. Like me.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

GONE, DOG, GONE!

“Don’t you dare get a puppy!”

“Stanley, you’re dead and gone, don’t tell me what to get or not get.”

“You’re too old for a puppy.”

“I am not! Get away from me, Stan, you’re gone, dog, gone.”

“You’ll have to train them from scratch—“

“What do you think I did with you?—“

“And they’ll chew on everything and destroy the house.”

“I need new beginnings, Stan.”

“You’re going to be 69 and you still need new beginnings? You need to grow up. Speaking of which, have you gotten around to beautifying my grave yet?”

“Why do you care about that? You’re dead, Stanley! Gone gone! I don’t even know why I’m talking to you. Since you asked, we received bulbs for lilies and tulips and other seeds from your many fans. Rae has already planted grass. We’ll plant the flowers soon.”

“Don’t hurry, all the time in the world.”

“You sure are talky for someone that’s dead, Stanley. Or as my friend Barbara said, ‘You died and forgot to lie down.’”

“What about the Main Man?”

“Bernie?”

“No, Buddha. Doesn’t he say somewhere that when people call to him he is always there, preaching the law on Vulture Peak?”

“He says that in the Lotus Sutra, which was actually put together long after he died, Stanley.”

“And I’m talky for someone that’s dead? I’m the one who died and forgot to lie down?”

“You’re not the Buddha, Stanley.”

“What’s true for him is true for me. Stanley has died, but when you call out to him, him being the sweetest, most generous, responsive, loving dog that ever lived, what does he do?”

“He talks and talks and talks.”

“The woods are my Vulture Peak!”

“I hear you talking everywhere, Stan.”

“My supernatural powers. How could I not respond to you, suffering human that you are?”

“You’re gone, Stanley. Gone, gone. This morning I sat and watched the flame from the candle get thinner and thinner, till it was extinguished and all that remained was a little smoke rising into the air, till that, too, disappeared into thin air. Gone, gone.”

“Tell me, when you had steak the other night, didn’t you think of me?”

“I did, Stanley. I remembered how you used to run around the table like a windstorm in anticipation. You lost all your training in old age.”

“I was in hospice! You don’t train dogs when they’re in hospice. And tell me this, when you leave the lamp on downstairs overnight, aren’t you doing it for me?”

“I do, Stan.”

“And when you do the service in front of Kwan Yin in the mornings, don’t you look past her to my grave, the same grave you have left bare of decoration?”

“I do, Stan.”

“So what’s this gone gone business?”

 

THERE’S NO ONE LIKE YOU ANYWHERE

Last weekend I took myself back to the woods and retraced Stanley and my 14-year old walks there, ending at the pools. The weather got cool. There was also lots of shooting at a neighbor’s shooting range, a harbinger not just of fall but also of deer-shooting season that begins right after Thanksgiving.

A large grove of very tall pines, just above the path going down to the pools, lord it over the smaller trees. They swooshed in the wind and their needle leaves muttered: “Aren’t you missing somebody? Where’s your companion?”

“He’s dead.”

“What does that mean?” they demanded.

“You know, dead, in the ground.”

They consulted, then got back to me. “Our life is in the ground, in our roots. Our life comes up from deep in the earth.”

“Well, that’s where he is.”

“Too bad,” they said. “He had a big shadow. And he was interested. Sniffed, scratched, chased out the chipmunks that hollow out our trunks, loved to sniff at the tops of our roots.”

“He also peed on them. Not much nourishment there,” I said.

The treetops swooshed and the leaves whirled: “We’re big, we could handle it. You, on the other hand, don’t look like much. You don’t sniff, you don’t dig, you’re not dazzled by the sounds and smells around us. You walk between us like a shadow.”

“Hey, I’m not a dog.”

“You miss the point, human.”

“What’s the point?”

“You humans are not interested. You don’t see us.”

“Of course I see you. You’re the tallest thing in the woods, how can I miss you?”

They couldn’t be bothered to reply, so I went home and thought about it.

Tell me, who among us humans doesn’t want to be seen? Who among us doesn’t want everyone to look deeply into them, see what made them how they are today, read the story, witness the questions, the endless quest and struggles, even the failures?

There are those who hide from the world, hermits and recluses who stay in huts in the pine groves. And there are those who always try to put their best exteriors forward, afraid to reveal anything that smacks of frailty or indecision, afraid to show their real selves. But even they still have a desire to be seen, not to be isolated or alone.

Milan Kundera wrote: “What is unique about the ‘I’ hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual ‘I’ is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered.”

I go to bed with someone in order to be uncovered. My fantasy candlelight dinner is to sit across the table from someone, have him look into my eyes, and hear him say: “This is the woman I see. I see this about you, and this, and this. I see what has brought you to this moment. You are not perfect; at the same time, there’s no one like you anywhere.”

Am trying to emerge from stinginess. How? By doing my version of sniffing at the roots of something. Reflecting back to someone what he or she is doing, how unique it is, how it captures who they are for me. Being specific, and giving praise. Giving devotion not just to the formless, but also to the formed. Reminding him, her,, and me that if and when they die, that mold will be broken, that life form lost forever, no replica to ever return.

 

WHAT’S THE REAL DEAL?

“What is that thing doing near my grave?”

“Don’t get so excited, Stan. It’s a crow dying on the grass. I called the wildlife rehabilitators and they say that lots of crows are dying from West Nile Virus.”

“Oh, how I wish I was alive again so that I could chew it up!”

“Stanley, you want to come back to life to kill something?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“I remember how you used to get a gleam in your eye and a sneaky grin on your face, Stan. That’s how I knew you were up to no good.”

“Remember that squirrel that got stuck in the bird feeder and the feeder came crashing down? I rolled that sucker up and down the lawn, practically gave it a heart attack. One of the greatest days of my life, only you had to come running outside yelling like a banshee and picking up the whole thing, squirrel dangling right in the air like that. Dumbest squirrel I ever saw.”

“You practically chewed its tail off, Stanley!”

“I would have chewed everything off if not for you.”

“I had to unscrew the entire feeder to get it out, and it ran off. You know, Stan, you have fans out there who think you were terrific, but I know the nasty bully you were. I know the real you.”

“How could you know the real me?”

“I spent the most time of anyone with you, Stanley. I walked with you, I trained you, I sat down by you, we had lots of conversations.”

“You’re a human. What could you possibly know about being a dog?”

“What could you possibly know about being a human being, Stan?”

“Not much, only that you’re olfactory retards. I don’t even think you know the real Man. And he probably doesn’t know the real you.”

“No doubt about that one. But Stanley, I watched you for almost 14 years. I looked, I studied, I listened, I noticed.”

“You know what I’m doing now? I’m rotting away. Getting thinner by the moment. Remember all the worms I loved to trample on the ground? They’re getting their revenge as we speak.”

“That’s not the real you, Stan. You’re still around, somewhere. Sometimes I could hear the plastic dog door billowing, as if something hopped through it.”

“The wind.”

“The guest room door opens, Stanley. Remember how you loved to open that door? Or I go out at night and there’s something dark there in the shadows by Kwan-Yin.”

“A bear. Or another crow. And as for the old lady, she’s rotting away, too. More chipmunk condos inside her than in any tree. Sorry, I know you don’t like saying good-byes, but me and the old lady are fading as we speak. That crow, too. And do everyone a favor, when it’s dead don’t leave it there, otherwise whatever bites it will get sick too and spread the virus. Put it in a trash bag and into the garbage.”

“Oh Stan, this can’t be the real you talking.”

“Who said anything about the real me? It’s just a new disguise.”

“Really, Stan?”

“You’re a disguise, too. We’re all disguises.”

“I am? We are?”

“Sure. When you put down one disguise, another disguise pops up. Like that sick crow over there. One disguise after another.”

“So if we’re all disguises, Stanley, what’s the real deal?”

SHTUYOT

I talked with someone in New York the other day who asked, “So how’s Bernie?”

“Bernie continues to amaze me, “I told her.

Yes, after all these years—and I’ve known him since 1985, though not as his wife—he continues to amaze me, perhaps most of all after his stroke. This incredibly active and imaginative man had thought nonstop of new ways of doing things, making creative connections, and living—positively living—for new projects and programs. When we’d go anywhere and he’d be driving, it was common for him to start talking about something till I’d interrupt to point out that he’d slowed down to 10 mph and there was a convoy of cars behind us. After a while, we both agreed it was better for me to take the wheel.

Then he had a stroke, and he stopped. He was paralyzed in the right side of his body and couldn’t talk. But almost immediately, the man who hated and avoided exercise at all cost began to exercise every day. Once fully paralyzed, he now walks sturdily inside the house with his cane and a little slower in the back yard (there’s always someone at his side outside). He speaks clearer and stronger than he has in two years.

He continues to plunge. Not into massacres or concentration camps, not into the streets, but into illness and age, into slowness. Into needing help. The man walks his talk—literally.

His memory is something else.

“I can’t remember what it was I was trying to forget,” he says over lunch.

No answer. I don’t know what to say and Stanley, who could be depended upon for comments about everything, is no longer around.

A friend visited here for several days and told us that pure cocoa powder is the best thing he’s discovered to help his memory. “I can tell the difference if I don’t take it even for one day,” he said. He mixed it up with coconut oil and put it into Bernie’s coffee, then showed Rae exactly how to do the same, so that Bernie could remember better.

As soon as he left B instructed Rae not to do that, ever. “I just have one cup of coffee in the morning and I don’t want to ruin it,” he told her.

“What about remembering things, Bernie?” say I.

“I don’t mind forgetting. You know what I always say, the reason Zen masters are always in the moment is that that’s all they remember. Beside, the trouble with the cocoa thing is that if it brings back memory, you don’t have a choice of what to remember and what to forget.”

“Don’t you?” I say. “There are things people choose to remember and things they choose to forget.”

“That’s true,” he concedes. “But that’s no reason to drink something that’s going to make you remember everything.”

“For example,” I think out loud, “you don’t want to remember shtuyot.”

Shtuyot,” Bernie explains to Rae, “is the Hebrew word for nonsense. I learned it from Eve’s mother.”

“On the other hand,” I say, “you of all people may want to remember nonsense.”

He nods. “Nonsense is very important,” he says.

“Why, Bernie?”

“I forget.”

 

SITTING WITH REMBRANDT

I went down to New York City to see my brother, and after breakfast we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He went off to one of their new exhibits. What do I do at the Met? I go straight to Room 630, the Rembrandt Room, and sit with Rembrandt.

Behind us are paintings by Vermeer, not to mention two clusters of viewers, each led by excited, madly-gesticulating guides, one speaking in Russian and one in Japanese. I sit on a comfortable bench and look at Aristotle Gazing At a Bust of Homer (I do my Eve Gazing At a Painting by Rembrandt), and at the Woman With Pink.

With Pink refers to a pink carnation that’s in her hand. So many people say that men shouldn’t write about women since they can’t possibly understand them, that whites shouldn’t write about people of color, that no one should write about Native Americans except Native Americans. I still remember the hoopla when William Styron wrote Sophie’s Choice and many Jews, led by Eli Wiesel, reprimanded him, a Southern Christian, for writing about the Jewish Holocaust.

But here’s Rembrandt painting in billowy detail a woman with long, precious earrings, bracelets around her wrists, the many beads around her head with the exquisite, tiny locket over her forehead, the gorgeous folds of her incarnadine dress, obviously from a rich family—and what is she thinking? What is she feeling? What’s in her eyes? Is she sad, a girl weighed down by dress and jewelry?

He sees everything, paints Aristotle looking at the humble bust of Homer. The philosopher, too, wears sumptuous black clothes with a special belt of gorgeous stones given him by a statesman or king, but what does his face say to the small, white head of stone? You said it all, didn’t you? I may be famous, I’m feted and honored, admired the world over, but you, teller of tales, said it all. You were blind, wandered from place to place, and earned a meal and occasional shelter by telling stories of a man who left his wife and family for glorious war and then couldn’t find his way home. All my philosophy is as nothing to your tales.

He catches them all—and especially himself in those great self-portraits—at a time of apprehension and frailty, of seeing their true proportions in the turning wheel. Those moments don’t just belong to them, they belong to me, too; it’s not in silk and diamonds that I find my kinship with others but in doubt, and the step that wavers before going on.

WHO IS MISS EGO?

“So, do you miss me already?”

“Of course, I do, Stan. But not just you.”

“What do you mean, not just me?”

“Of course I miss how you cuddled—“

“Good.”

“—and how you smelled, Stanley—”

“Wasn’t that wonderful?”

“—and how you ran up the stairs after coming from your outings with Leeann with such happy, excited eyes.”

“Those were the days!”

“But Stanley, where’s my alter ego?”

“Who’s Alter Ego? I don’t remember anybody like that coming to the house.”

“You know, Stanley, my alter ego, my other voice, the other Eve, I miss her too.”

“Who the hell misses her?”

“I miss her, Stan. I need her. Who is going to be that other voice?”

“Who cares?”

“I do, Stanley. You see, I have this one voice that comes out most often, but there are all these other voices, too, that don’t always get expressed. That was you, Stan.”

“It was?”

“It turned out to be you, Stanley. The dog who laughed at me, mocked my pretensions, made fun of Zen shmen, stole food from the Man, peed on everything in creation.”

“And here I thought I was such a good dog.”

“You were a dog with attitude, Stanley. You were cheeky and full of chutzpah.”

“I told you I was a good dog. But I still don’t get it. Don’t you miss how we put our heads together and nuzzled?”

“I do, Stanley.”

“Who taught you how to stop using those superfluous hands and use your head for nuzzling?”

“You did, Stanley.”

“Who tried to teach you how to sniff deer turds only you failed miserably?”

“You did, Stanley.”

“Don’t you miss seeing me sprawled on the sofa in the mornings when you come downstairs?”

“I do, Stanley. In fact, I still leave a light on for you even though no one’s there anymore.”

“Don’t you miss how I looked out the window of the car? I knew you were admiring me in the sideview mirror.”

“I do, Stan.”

“How about how I emptied all your trashcans in the bathrooms when you weren’t around? Don’t you miss finding the toilet rolls and used Q-tips all over the floor?”

“Actually, no, Stanley.”

“So who is Miss Ego?”

“Alter ego, Stanley. You were the voice of wicked fun and irreverence, you scoffed and capered and wisecracked, you didn’t care for not-knowing but you loved not-seeing, you made fun of my sitting—“

“Who sits and stares at nothing? Sitting and looking at the door to remind you it’s time for our walks, that I get. Staring at the car to remind you it’s time for a car ride, that I get. Sitting and looking at treats, ditto. Sitting and staring at the wall? Nah.”

“The point is, Stan, you died and took my alter ego with you.”

“Where could I have put it? I don’t think anybody’s lying here with me.”

“An alter ego is another personality that’s often hidden away, Stanley, and I miss it.”

“I thought you miss me.”

“I miss you, too. But Stanley, it’s nice to get to know all our alter egos, all these personalities we have that we don’t usually meet up with.”

“You mean there are more Alter Egos? How many more are there?”

“I don’t know, Stan. Probably lots.”

“Just how many dogs do you plan to get?”

ICONS AND CONNECTION

Bernie continues to walk without feeling the ground under his feet.

When we were last at the Taub Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 2017, I asked Edward Taub, known for his work in neuroplasticity, if Bernie will ever be able to feel the hard surface under his feet. Taub said he didn’t know, but Bernie would be able to walk even without feeling it.

I think about that as I do my fast morning walk, apples in hand for the horses. I, after all, do feel the road under my feet. Some people call it resistance, others something to rely on. My yoga teacher says that the floor is the best yoga prop of all.

For me, it’s the most basic connection. When I trust the earth. I trust myself. Feel the ground under your feet, I’ve said to countless meditators.

But Bernie can’t, at least not on his right side. Connection on the left, lack of sensation on the right.

What makes for connection? Many men fixate on women and think that’s what it is. The scary ones stalk us, talk us up on buses or in restaurants, even while standing in a bank line. But even the non-scary ones look at us hungrily, asking, demanding, needing. We become icons in their eyes, icons of giving/withholding, loving/withdrawing. It makes us feel powerful, doesn’t it? But what does it have to do with real connection?

For all the passion one might find there, what you won’t find is connection. You can’t connect with an icon. You can worship it, admire it, write sonnets for it, but you won’t connect. For real connection you need a human being, not an abstract symbol.

To people who loathe him, Donald Trump has become an icon of greed, narcissism, mendacity, and thievery. Very often, those same people love and admire Barack Obama; they miss him, cite him as a great historical figure, the soul of an open, embracing culture.

Trump and Obama have become icons; in neither case is any real connection being made.