AN OPEN WOUND

All my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape. You have belonged to many of them. So have I. . . . The story of a family is always a story of complicity. It’s about not being able to choose the secrets you’ve been let in on. The question, for someone who was raised in a closed circle and then leaves it, is what is the us, and what is the them.

These words were written by Patricia Lockwood in Priestdaddy, a brilliant memoir of growing up in a Catholic family in the Midwest. And though her upbringing was so different from mine, when I read the above paragraph I sat up and thought, She’s talking about me. She’s talking about my life, the we of my family, the we of what it was to be Jewish in those days, and for many, what it’s like now.

Yesterday was Israel’s celebration of 70 years of independence. I was born there a year and a half later to parents who arrived from Holocaust Europe to Israel illegally (due to British blockade, going on to a refugee camp), and a year later were in a southern kibbutz fighting Egyptian forces in Israel’s Independence War.

It’s easy to forget now, given the superiority of their army, how vastly outnumbered Israelis were back then (almost everyone fought in the war, not just the army), under-armed, with no air force, with some 7 Arab armies vowing to annihilate them. My parents weren’t the only ones who were dumped from the boiling kettle of Holocaust Europe right into the fire of a war in 1948, with almost no military training of any kind.

No one saw an alternative.

So I grew up understanding in my bones the importance Israel had for many Jews as a refuge; in my family, Independence Day was a real holiday. It continues to have that meaning for many. Just the day before those celebrations a few German men approached Jewish men in Berlin and struck out at them with belts, yelling “Jew!”

But yesterday is also marked as the day of Naqba, Catastrophe, for Palestinians who lost their homes, villages, towns, and a way of life. So yesterday a small group of Zen Peacemakers bore witness to both: Israelis’ joyous celebration of claiming their home from thousands of years ago, and the Palestinians’ marking of Naqba.

There was also a joint memorial service honoring both Israeli and Palestinian families who lost relatives in this endless war between both nations. The government tried to erase the event by making it illegal for Palestinians to join the service, and Israel’s Supreme Court struck that decision down.

In some ways the fight is always about we. Who are we right now? Jews, Germans, Palestinians, men, women, Americans, survivors, refugees, asylum seekers? Not just one but combinations of several? And how do we maintain our local we’s, which are our history, religion, and culture, precious things after all, without the circle closing in on us, separating us from the rest of the world?

So I was deeply moved to read the words of the Israeli writer David Grossman at that memorial service, still dealing with the complex, indescribable pain of the death of his son 12 years ago in the Israel-Lebanon war. Just before receiving Israel’s highest prize for literature, he attested: It is difficult and exhausting to constantly fight against the gravity of loss.

It is difficult to separate the memory from the pain. It hurts to remember, but it is even more frightening to forget. And how easy it is, in this situation, to give in to hate, rage, and the will to avenge.

But I find that every time I am tempted by rage and hate, I immediately feel that I am losing the living contact with my son. Something there is sealed. And I came to my decision, I made my choice. And I think that those who are here this evening — made that same choice.

And I know that within the pain there is also breath, creation, doing good. That grief does not isolate but also connects and strengthens … We, Israelis and Palestinians, who in the wars between us have lost those dearer to us, perhaps, than our own lives — we are doomed to touch reality through an open wound.

Yes, an open wound, I thought. One that will never seal, never heal, one that you will remember first thing upon waking up in the morning and last thing when you go to sleep at night. But there is life there, not just death. From now on your arc will contain both life and death—viscerally, not theoretically as it is for the rest of us. It’ll ache and scratch, delivering frequent jabs to your belly, or suddenly, when you least expect it, the air will go out of the room.

Someone died, leaving you to bear witness, to live past their death. To realize, struggling and fighting every inch of the way against this knowledge, that living past their death is indeed possible. That this life will never be painless, perhaps not even happy, but still awake, alive, birthing and rebirthing again and again.

AN INTERVIEW WITH BERNIE

Photo by Rae Cook

“How did you sleep last night, Bernie?” I ask when he comes down to breakfast. “I came home and you were deep asleep.”

“How do you know? Maybe I just had my eyes shut.”

“Because I talked to you and you didn’t answer.”

“I talked to you, too, Eve, and you also didn’t answer. I turned around and you weren’t there. So I realized that I was talking to your residue.”

“Oh yeah? What did my residue look like, Bernie?”

“It was invisible,” Bernie said. “I talked to your invisible residue.”

“This is a stupid conversation,” says Stanley. “Could you hurry up and eat so that I could get your residue? I mean what you leave on your plate.”

“Dog, you have a one-track mind,” I tell him. “Food, food, food, food. Right now, you look like you’re waiting to have an interview with Bernie.”

“What’s that?”

“Lots and lots of Zen students have had interviews with Bernie over the years because he’s a Zen teacher, Stan.”

“You mean they wait to get the food off his plate?”

“No, no, Stanley, an interview is a face-to-face encounter where the teacher and student together explore the vast nature of reality.”

“Is there food involved?”

“Everything is involved, Stanley. The light, the dark, joy, sorrow, birth, death, who you truly are in this moment—”

“At this moment I’m a hungry dog—”

“And you’re asked to present that in a nonconceptual, direct way—”

“Right now I’m presenting it the best way I can. Not that it’s getting me much.”

“Stanley, you don’t get how lucky you are spending so much time with Bernie. You have the opportunity to have a deep and intimate exchange, to see in his eyes a recognition of something very important.”

“That I’m hungry?”

“And you have a chance to ask him the most important questions of life, like who am I?”

“A hungry dog.”

“You have to go deeper than that, Stan. Who are you really?”

“A hungry dog.”

“I mean the very essence, Stan, the jewel in the lotus, the treasure of this very present moment.”

“A hungry dog.”

“Don’t just come up with the easy answers, Stanley. This is a wide-open inquiry, answers just—

“He’s just put down his fork!”

“So what, Stan?”

“So what? Don’t you know anything? That means he’s getting ready to put the plate down on the floor for moi. You see, he dabs his mouth with the napkin, then around the edges of his beard (don’t know why he does that, I could do the dabbing for him), and then—FOOD!”

“Bell of awareness, Stan, bell of awareness.”

“No, FETA CHEESE OMELET! MY FAVORITE! Only there’s not much there.”

“He left you a residue, Stanley.”

“Pretty invisible, if you ask me.”

STRONG, STRONG, STRONG

I took Stanley out in early morning to avoid the upcoming rain and sleet. We got to the horses half a mile down the road, T and Gala. They were higher up the pasture, but both cantered down the slope towards me, knowing what I carry in my pockets.

Gala is the big boss. She paws the ground eagerly, waiting for my approach. But the fence is electrified, so I walk towards the wooden fence where there is less risk of harm from all that anticipation, Gala walking alongside on the other end of the fence, totally unbothered by Stanley, Stanley unbothered by her because he pretends she’s not there (what horses?). Her smaller brother, T, heads straight to the wooden fence.

But lordly Gala is first, as usual, so I give her a nice big Gala (what else?) apple. She bites into it and one-half falls outside the fence, which I immediately pick up and hold out to her. As she’s busy crunching away, T arrives, a little careful of Gala, and I give him his big apple. He holds on to all of it and turns away, knowing his sister will go after him if he asks for more attention.

So far, it’s the usual routine. Cold raindrops begin to fall and I turn back on the road with Stanley. I heard a snort and soft whinny, look to my right, and there is T. For the first time in all the months I’ve visited the horses he’s following us on his side of the electrified fence, which scares him. Gala is somewhere else, enjoying the last taste of apple and ignoring him for the moment, and he’s following us on the other side, looking intensely at me.

I walk over to him, surprised. While Gala is always more reckless around the electrified fence, T is far more apprehensive of it, as am I, and stays far from it. Why is he here now? He knows there are no more apples, my pockets are empty. He keeps a few feet back from the fence, but when I arrive he approaches even closer, keeping his head high, looking me straight in the eyes. What’s keeping him there, rooted to the spot? What does he see? What does he say?

Surely not what everybody else says.

You’re so strong, they say again and again.

I don’t want to be strong, I say back. Let me finally swim with the current rather than against it. Try surrendering.

People like you don’t surrender. You are a strong woman.

I don’t want to be a strong woman. Go find yourself a new role model.

Strong, strong, strong.

Get that word out of my dictionary, please. What I want to do is learn to melt, like the snow melting in the rain now.

You can manage so many things. That’s because you’re strong.

Get me off that island. That’s what being strong often is, my own little island with my own little name on it, hovering over waves.

Being strong is how you survived all these years.

I need to give in a little, bend my knee.

You ain’t bending.

Not even to myself? Not even to my needs? Whispers of the body, whispers of the soul?

A car comes down the road and I look out for Stanley, step away, and when I turn back to T he has also backed off because Gala the dominatrix is now heading our way to remind him who’s boss.

Stanley, too, hurries me on the road, happy to get away from his what-horses?. But in my mind I’m bending, bending my head against the hairs of T’s mane, hearing that loud heartbeat, warmed by the heat of that large, white body.

AND THAT’S SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU HAPPY?

“Look, Stanley, it’s summer.”

“I’m freezing.”

“I hung up the laundry outside for the first time, Stan. See it dancing outside? That means it’s summer.”

“I’m freezing.”

“And another thing, Stanley. Why are you sitting there facing the back door like that?”

“Because maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember that it’s time to take me to Leeann. You put my red collar around my neck and then just forgot about the whole thing. So I’m sitting here looking at the back door to remind you.”

“And you think your sitting there looking at the back door will make a difference, Stanley?”

“Yeah. That way you could ask me why I’m looking at the back door and I could remind you about Leeann. After all, you sit on a chair staring at empty space every day, there has to be a good reason.”

“No good reason, Stan, I’m not looking at anything with any purpose or goal in mind.”

“And that’s supposed to be good? Has it gotten you anywhere, like to Leeann?”

“It hasn’t gotten me anywhere, Stanley.”

“Has it gotten you any walks?”

“Nope.”

“Treats?”

“Nope.”

“Tandoori chicken?”

“Nope.”

“So what does sitting looking at nowhere get you?”

“Nothing, Stanley.”

“And that’s supposed to make you happy?”

 

CALL ME WRATHFUL STANLEY

Photo by Leeann Warner

“Stanley, you’re back!”

“I had a great time with Leeann and the pack, best day of my life!”

“I’m so glad to hear it, Stan. I have a question for you: Do you and the others ever talk about Donald Trump?”

“No, why should we?”

“You’re right, what a silly idea. OK, what did you do with Leeann and her pack?”

“Climbed hill and dale. Tried to kill a fox only Leeann wouldn’t let me. Never met a fox I liked. Showed my teeth to She Who Likes to Climb the Mountain—”

“Who’s that, Stan?”

“Kaya, Leeann’s dog. She likes to climb every mound of dirt and every tree trunk and lord it over the rest of us. Almost managed to shove Wabash off the Spaulding Brook bridge—”

“Who’s Wabash, Stanley?”

“Wabash the dumb collie. Every time we cross that bridge I give him a big shove with my hip to see him fall into the creek. You’d think he’d learn by now to watch out for me on that bridge, but what could he do? He’s a collie, they’re dumb.”

“Collies aren’t dumb, Stan.”

“Also outpeed Cilantro.”

“You peed more times than Cilantro the Beagle?”

“No, I peed higher than Cilantro. Stupid Beagle, thinking he can raise his hind legs higher than me. There was no contest, even with my arthritis. Growled so hard at Fenwick he ran howling to Leeann.”

“Who’s Fenwich, Stanley? Have I met him?”

“Fenwick the Greyhound.”

“The one they saved from the racetrack?”

“Yeah, and you should have seen him running away from me! He probably thought he was racing again. One growl freaks him out. That’s the trouble with those greyhounds, no savoir-faire.”

“You’re getting worse and worse, Stanley. Any day now Leeann is going to ask me to keep you home.”

“She can’t, she needs me. I bring action to the group, I bring stress and trauma. Without me there’s no edge! Call me Wrathful Stanley.”

“How about being a peacemaker, Stan?”

“Nope. Not much fun there.”

“Okay, Edge, what else did you do—for fun?”

“I grabbed Corky’s biscuit when Leeann wasn’t watching.”

“Who’s Corky?”

“A Yorkie. You know how she gives us treats? Soon as she turned around I grabbled Corky’s treat.”

“Stanley, you stole!”

“Dumb Yorkie puts a treat on the ground he’s asking for it. I taught him a valuable survival lesson! Now, if only I could deal with Minnie.”

“Minnie the Dachshund? Is she still chasing you around, Stan?”

“She won’t leave me alone! Follows me everywhere, yapping. I’ve tried everything: I’ve barked, snarled, growled, lunged, every form of subjugation and tyranny I could think of, and she won’t leave me alone.”

“You think it’s love?”

“Maybe I need someone to pay her off.”

“You mean, a lawyer, Stanley? We don’t have money for a payoff.”

“I’ll start digging up the back yard. Lots of bones there!”

TOUCHED BY JOY, TOUCHED BY PAIN

I woke up early this morning in the same way I wake up most mornings now: I blink at the light, peek over at Bernie (usually sleeping very soundly), at Stanley the dog (equally soundly), and want to go back under the covers, take shelter from anxiety, fear, and all kinds of heavy weather. But after 2+ years I’m used to all this, so I get myself up. Usually at 6. Getting up early is the key to the day, I’ve discovered.

A big change in my understanding of life occurred since Bernie’s stroke. Embarrassed to say it, but here it is: Life is suffering. If I thought I understood it once, it’s nothing like how I understand it now. The Old Man was right back then.

I only now begin to see how relatively carefree my life was for a long time. Setbacks? Disappointments? Lots. There was a tough childhood that culminated in a young woman who walked out the door, leaving behind an artless, openhearted child, went into the world strong-minded and independent, and didn’t look back.

The trouble is that turning your back on anything is a package deal. It’s not just turning away from harshness and abuse, but also from sensitivity and bright-eyed hope. Not just from woundedness, but also from the licking of those wounds. Only that doesn’t become clear to you till years later.

Meantime, life happens. Jobs, relationships, Manhattan, meditation, the path of Zen and service. Writing. And still it’s relatively carefree. No children. Low income but no worry about food or a roof over my head. Getting into a regular practice, making vows, setting goals, working towards them day by day. Does it get much better, much freer, less encumbered than that?

I think Bernie’s life was quite similar during our time together. He awoke by 4:00, worked, took a bath, got dressed, and would venture out into Bernie world wearing his tattered old Greyston Bakery denim jacket, cigar in his mouth, red beret on head, a loud sneeze from his naturally red nose announcing that he’s started his day, and his eternal, jaunty optimism. The man never complained about anything regardless of hardship and mishap.

And he doesn’t complain now, either, though the jaunty grin is no longer there because, I think, post-stroke his mouth can’t stretch that far.

As for me, I wake up each morning with fear that today, this day, I won’t cope. That I’ll buckle, that I’ll fall, so maybe it’s better not to even get up. And then I get up.

Here’s the cliché: It’s been good for my practice. The glass is broken, so I see more clearly. And what I see is that old teaching about suffering. It’s not that suffering’s not there and therefore I can breathe, it’s that it’s there and I can get up and still breathe.

In the early morning I sit, blog, feed the dog, plan the day. Go out in my bathrobe to refill the feeders because the birds are back though the earth is still frozen. It’s planning for company later on, designing a retreat schedule, householder koans, food, appointments, talks. And occasionally looking out the window and seeing the outside reflect my mind, calm or stormy.

Last night I sat on the bed and read a memoir excerpt to Bernie from The Sun. A nurse, Mary Jane Nealon, wrote in exquisite prose of how she visited homeless men in flophouses in New York City at the very same time that her own father was dying of cancer at home. This is hardly cheerful writing (in the past it was Grace Paley’s tales of the Lower East Side), but I knew Bernie would respond to that kind of remorseless compassion.

What do you think? I asked him in the end. His eyes grew a little moist and he nodded.

There have been plenty of missed connections in our life, but one connection has always, always held firm, joining us not just to life but to each other: being deeply touched by the joys and pains of the universe.

I remembered my friend, Edna Winston. One time I’ll write more about her, the illiterate Brooklyn Jewish woman who married the African-American president of the American Communist party, unionized the cafeteria workers at Columbia University, endured years of harassment by the FBI, became an alcoholic, recovered, and read a book a day for the remainder of her life on East 5th Street in New York City, a drug neighborhood in those years so she chose to live next door to the police station.

I was 30 when she died of lung cancer. I ran around to help save her job (thinking she’d be back), wrote her kids to come see her, and made short visits to Lenox Hospital. But I didn’t give her what she most needed, someone to stay next to her bed, talk to her, listen as she coughed her lungs out, tell her how much I loved her and what a difference she made in my life.

The child and teenager had known how to do that, but I’d turned my back on them when I turned my back on my past.

Luckily, Bernie is slowly recovering his strength. We even saw a DVD together last night. And in the early mornings I practice getting up not to a universe that’s empty and call that freedom, but to one full of dying planets, crashing meteors, red-hot gases and black holes, and the job isn’t so much to negotiate your way as to get as close as you can, get a really good look. Feel the heat blisters on your arm,. Bring upstairs slices of a blood orange or some grapes, even ice cream, and read aloud a memoir of a nurse who took care of homeless men in flophouses in New York City.

Fr. Greg Boyle wrote: I need to be reminded that most people out there carry far bigger burdens in a more humble and noble manner than I ever will; have forgiven far more; have contained far more; have had to come to more peace with life than I ever will have to. It is literally mind-blowing to live with that again and again.

 

 

HOME ON THE RANGE

I talked to a woman working for JetBlue yesterday, and the experience moved me deeply.

Bernie and I were supposed to fly to Sivananda Ashram, in the Bahamas, to participate in their Peace Conference. We have taught there annually for many years and love the place. This was the one teaching engagement Bernie wished to hold on to, wished to go for. I had bought 3 tickets because Rae, his caregiver, was coming as well.

Several days ago we canceled. He’s just too tired and weak, recovering from radiation treatments and cancer surgery very, very slowly. Luckily, our good friend, Roshi Genro Gauntt, will take our place, making for a wonderful conference. And there I was, stuck with 3 nonreimbursable airfares representing a big financial loss.

I called JetBlue and explained the situation to a woman at Customer Service. Nicely and courteously, she told me the money was already in a credit account to be used only as credit for other JetBlue flights for one year, nothing else was possible. This didn’t change even as I described our homebound life right now. So I asked to speak to her supervisor.

A warm, feminine voice came on and the woman introduced herself. I told her I was well aware of their fare restrictions, but things happen in life and I asked her to listen as I described our situation. And listen she did. Without interruption, without a word about rules and regulations. I appealed to her to please waive the restriction and reimburse our money in full, especially when we were spending so much now on medical care.

When I was finished she simply said: Of course I want to help you. You have so much on your hands! Can you stay on hold while I try to do this? I said of course. She came back twice apologizing for the delay, and when she came back a third time she said: Mrs. Marko, I just succeeded in transferring those funds out of the credit account and back to the ticket, from which they’ll be credited to your credit card in 7 business days. When I thanked her profusely—I had been so worried about the financial loss—she simply said, Just take good care of your family.

It’s hard for me to describe how moved I was. There was no argument, no institutional voice wagging a finger and reminding me that rules were rules. She had actually listened to me. Regardless of the outcome, there was a genuine human being on the other end of the phone, someone who not just listened but also believed, and then responded.

Remember how it feels to be heard, to have your life witnessed, to receive acknowledgment for what you are going through.

And if you remember this, I wish to tell you that in July of this summer the Zen Peacemakers return to South Dakota to spend more time with our Lakota elder friends, Manny and Renee Iron Hawk and Violet Catches. They, along with Genro Gauntt and Rami Efal, have developed an itinerary taking us to Fort Laramie (where the infamous Treaty was written) and Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse was killed. Violet said that Crazy Horse is not just a great warrior from the past, but also someone who will return in the future, a little like our own Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of a time to come who has taken vows to endlessly return to help suffering beings. The journey will continue to Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge, to stay in that field below the cemetery where so many were killed, much as we stay for days on the grounds of Birkenau in Poland during our retreat there.

But the itinerary, beautiful and devastating as it is, is not the thing itself. For me, the essence of the retreat lies in listening, and especially listening to the Lakota elders who speak of the past as though it’s present, as though it’s right now. Who bear witness to how they grew up, of the addictions and temptations they and their families faced, of the sacrifices that were made, the tears wept, and the deaths grieved.

It’s sitting in Violet Catches’ battered station wagon and hearing instructions her grandmother gave her many years ago on how to listen to a stone. It’s watching Manny’s grin (How can he smile so much in the face of all this?) and hearing him translate from the Lakota. It’s watching the silent communication between Renee and her daughters and realizing, in shock, what was here a few hundred years ago, what had been trampled and leveled, and what is trying to survive and flower once again, like our own early crocuses waiting for glimmers of sunlight.

Sometimes people ask us what they can do for us. Bernie and I can’t travel as we used to and help to develop and attend these retreats, but you can. You can continue to go to places of loss, connect with the people, bear witness, and help.

These elders are showing us something, pointing the way to a different way of life that honors a great mother we must never disown. There are so many ways to honor her, but one important way is to listen to all her children, especially those we destroyed and tried to make mute.

They are not mute. They speak to us not just of the past, but also of prophecy. It’s up to us to listen. Please come. Check out the link on the Zen Peacemakers’ site, read the details, call if you have questions—and come.

STANLEY’S FAVORITE FLOWERS

“Look, Stanley, the first tiny crocuses of spring!”

“Oh good, something to pee on. Finally!”

“They’re so brave to come out right by the patches of snow, Stan. They predict another 3 inches of snow tomorrow, and still the flowers are out.”

“An act of faith and guts. Do you have any idea how I hate to pee on mounds of snow? I’m told there are dogs out there who pee against cars. Ugggh! Who raised them?”

“After a winter that feels like the Ice Age, the snow is finally receding. Say hello to the land, Stanley!”

“Hello, earth. Hello, earth. Hello, earth. This is stupid. You know my favorite flowers to pee on?”

“Who cares? You made it to your 14th spring, Stanley. Or is it 15th?”

“I’m the Sage of Montague. Not the Man, not you, moi! I do pee a lot, though.”

“So tell me, Sage, how do you stay happy? I mean, you’re old, the joints creak, it hurts me to see you hopping down the stairs sometimes, you look more like a bunny than a dog.”

“The carpet on the stairs holds me.”

“You crashed in the garage yesterday, Stan, jumping down from the car.”

“The garage floor caught me.”

“And you have such a hard time when you get up from a nap, Stanley.”

“I’d be dead without area rugs.”

“You used to eat so much and now you’re not finishing your meals, dog.”

“I leave it to you and the Man to add some chicken from last night’s dinner.”

“And you’re slowing down on your outings with Leeann, Stan.”

“Luckily those dogs leave me alone, all except for Minnie, silly dachshund. She bugs me all the time, never takes no for an answer, what can you do, life’s not perfect.”

“Stanley, you need a butt lift to get into the car.”

“I have the butt and you give the lift.”

“You’re deaf when I call you, Stan.”

“A little trick I learned.”.

“You can barely see T and Gala, the horses.”

“What horses?”

“You run into things on account of your cataracts, Stanley.”

“Thank God for walls, they always reorient you.”

“Aren’t you worried about death, Stan?”

“No, there’s always somebody like you ready to worry for me.”

“Floor, walls, rugs, Minnie, invisible horses. Lots of love there, huh, Stanley?”

“Yeah, except for Minnie. Phlox.”

“What about phlox?”

“They’re my favorite flowers to pee on.”

 

 

 

ARE WE NUTS?

Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, Zen Center of Los Angeles

When I was in Los Angeles last week I heard that some 12% of the students in the University of California system are homeless. I couldn’t believe my ears. College students are homeless? Graduate students, too?

And then the Washington Post today reported that over one-third of all students in our country don’t have three stable meals a day because they can’t afford them, and a similar number don’t have regular housing. A few go to shelters; others sleep on a friend’s sofa, or in their car if they have one.

I discovered that Amherst College, a fancy college right in my own backyard, lets students who can’t afford to go home stay in dorms during summers. That’s nice, I thought, and then remembered a few times when I was invited out to lunch at the Amherst College cafeteria, where the food is organic, the roast coffee Italian, where milk comes not just from cows but from soy, coconut, and nuts of all kinds, and where lots of main courses were dairy-free, vegan, or vegetarian. I thought the price of lunch was very reasonable considering the quality, and now I realize how many of the students can’t afford to eat there.

All this came out on the day when a 20 year-old young man was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence. Some 4 years ago he drank too much, hit a group of people on the road leaving four dead and one in his own car completely paralyzed. His successful defense was called Affluenza, being raised with such entitlement and affluence he had no idea of right and wrong. He didn’t serve a day in prison for those deaths but rather for probation violations.

Tell me, are we nuts?

I live in my own kind of oblivion, in a house on a road 1.5 miles long with only a dozen houses on it. The only street people I see are those jogging, walking dogs, or else Tan, the Thai Buddhist monk in his saffron robes. I look out in search of deer, not folks without homes.

I like to walk the streets of Greenfield if because I know that close to the Co-op people will sit and ask for money. I’ll ask them their names, how they’re keeping warm at nights, where they’re sleeping.

I go to the Stone Soup Café because the woman from Ukraine next to me, speaking in heavily-accented English, will tell me about her struggle getting treatment for breast cancer, at some point opening up her blouse to show me what happened. Her husband misses their farm back home where they had a big tractor, and though they didn’t have the choice of foods they find at the Big Y, every morsel they once put in their mouth came from the food they grew and the animals they kept. The Café is nice, very nice, she says in a daze. We’re all children of the planet now, but she misses the yellow field of wheat that lay right under her own two feet.

The world world world calls, implores me to look, listen, see, bear witness, another life and another life and another life, all needing care. It’s not up to me to do all that, that’s arrogant, but to remember even in the middle of Passover’s liberation, Easter’s resurrection, and Spring’s rebirth the cold blisters on the lips of a man sitting on the pavement, the scars instead of breasts on a woman’s chest, and an Ivy College student sheltering inside a freezing maple sugar shack and eating vegan whole-wheat dumplings thrown into dumpsters.

I’m a writer, I have imagination, I read newspapers. More and more, this life is beyond me. What’s left is to go out to meet it, say hi and shake hands.

I took a van from the parking lot to the Hartford airport last week on my way to Los Angeles. Said hi to the driver, asked him how he was doing. He said: I’m just going in circles, living the dream. Like in “Groundhog Day.”

Circles? I asked.

You know, to the airport and back, airport and back.

But in the end of the movie the Bill Murray character doesn’t mind that things keep on repeating day after day, he even seems to like it, I said brightly.

Only I’m not at the end of the movie, lady, the man said.

FEMALE THINGS

Photo by Yudo

I sat on the porch of the abbot’s house at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, having just taken off my socks because the day warmed up. One of her students arrived and, looking at my feet, took a photo.

I laughed and told him the story of how, long ago, I did a 3-month retreat with the founder of the Center, Maezumi Roshi. Everyone wore full-length robes of some kind even in the heat, we were all correct and spiritual-like, except for one Swiss woman who wore bright red toenail polish, very visible under neck-to-ankle black robes. Finally a senior student couldn’t take it anymore and reprimanded her.

“But Roshi likes my red toenails!” she said in dismay.

Since Roshi was boss, that was the end of that.

Light shines on things from the outside; we look at them, like them or dislike them, appreciate them or judge. But light also shines from the inside of everything, aiming straight at me inside. That’s the light I want to see at all times, even if, say in the case of rattlesnakes, I decide to keep a distance.

A short meditation robe is composed of different pieces of fabric that are cut straight, hemmed and sewn together. In our family we feel free to use fabrics of different colors, often given to us by people representing different strands of our lives. All the fabrics are throw-aways, things of no value people would usually cast off.

When I made my second such robe back in 1996, a friend sent me the red felt hat worn by his partner. Dying in the AIDS ward of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, his partner, Anthony, threw a Christmas party for the entire floor, patients and staff alike, and wore a Santa Claus hat. That was the hat his friend sent me, bright red. I cut off a piece and put into a bucket with other pieces I’d received, into a dye meant to darken the fabrics but not make them black. The red was so strong it reddened the dye, as well as all the other fabrics I had there. The entire robe, called a rakusu, tended towards the red for many, many years.

How much I love small, decorative, female things: rings on the fingers, a wild blue streak across someone’s blonde hair, a bright pink scarf across a black sweater, toe rings and ankle bracelets, and make-up, make-up, make-up! Just like the words say: make yourself up. Start from scratch, imagine how you’d like to be and what you want to look like. Give yourself a new name for the day.

There’s a way to meet life headlong, as if there’s only one more minute left out of your remaining lifetime. At that point there’s no half smiles but loud and wacky laughs, no averted glances but eye-to-eye. No more saving myself up for some future, for when things have changed or for the light at the end of the tunnel.

I admire women in their 90s who get beautifully dressed, put on make-up and wear jewelry. They take the trouble. They don’t fool themselves about their wrinkles, skinny arms and legs, bloated stomachs, and puffy eyes. They know damn well what they look like.

Nevertheless, they edge into a pair of silk pants or a white frilly blouse, choose their favorite bracelet or a rhinestone brooch because it adds color. They look critically at their wispy hair and, most crucial of all, add lipstick. Those last days and months ache in the joints, you lost much of your taste for food or are half-deaf, and often don’t feel like getting out of bed. You’ve seen it all, have done it all, and soon that life form you call me will be gone. And still, they make themselves up.

“It’s no use, I’m still decrepit,” my old friend Margery used to tell me when we’d go out and I’d compliment her on how she looked. But she’d straighten up a little more as she pushed her walker forward, then decide she didn’t really need it all she needed was a cane, she’d pick up her bag and insist on paying for dinner. And she couldn’t help herself, just before getting to the door she’d look in the small, pewter-framed mirror atop the small glass table in the hallway and push back a little curl behind her ear.

“Oh, what’s the use,” she’d say, with a big smile.