I DON’T NEED ANYBODY!

“I’m off, Stanley,” I whisper at 4:45 am, bending down to kiss him on his nose. I’d just woken Bernie upstairs to say goodbye, and now I do this to the black dog lying by the dining table downstairs, where he prefers to sleep because it’s so much cooler than in the bedroom.

“Where ya going?”

“To South Dakota, for the Native American retreat.”

“Why?”

The answer seemed obvious 9 months earlier, but not now. Leaving is never clear.

Losing personal independence is probably no joy for anyone anywhere, but is there a culture in the world that hates dependence as much as our own, here in America? Is there a culture in the world that admires independence and rugged individualism more, which looks down so contemptuously on those needing food assistance and welfare support? I listen to parents express their enormous pride in how their children are becoming more independent, which often seems more important than how good, kind, or generous they are.

But personal dependence is ahead for all of us, if we’re lucky enough to age and get sick. Nobody seems to be ready for it.

Back when Bernie was in rehab after his stroke, I saw patient after patient yell at family members and therapists about not needing help. My own 90 year-old mother, contemplating 2 months without her Indian live-in caregiver, adamantly refused to get a substitute. “I don’t need anybody, I haven’t fallen once this entire year,” she says angrily. “You also haven’t prepared one meal, one cup of coffee, or gone anywhere on your own,” I remind her. She doesn’t want to be reminded.

Listening to our politicians, you’d think that the biggest crisis facing our nation is mothers and children and the elderly needing help. Aging friends spend less time reflecting on their lives and preparing for what comes and more in resentment and anger at how needy they’ve become, how reliant on family members or caregivers.

Needing help is ahead for all of us. I am grateful to the Man and Stan for accepting dependence with simplicity and grace. Bernie gets drinks, glasses and cutlery as he patiently waits for me to finish making dinner. He walks outside with someone always at his side and accepts help with putting on jackets or even with pulling the heavy blanket over his body. Not once, not once, has he complained or second-guessed what life has given him. He shows no nostalgia for his past, not once has he reminded me of the times when he was so fiercely independent, chomping away gleefully on his cigar. He has no interest in cigars now.

Stanley waits patiently for a butt lift to get into the car. He doesn’t say Don’t touch me, he doesn’t say I can do this myself leave me alone, I hate this. He seems as happy as ever for a car ride, a slow walk in the woods even as things have changed.

It’s getting harder and harder to take him into the woods. The cataracts almost cover his eyes and he slips and falls. Unlike when we walk on the road, which is clear and without obstructions, in the woods, where he’s unleashed and free, he’s more liable to trip over things. He looks back a lot to place where I am, unlike previous years when he pursued alternative trails, running down the slope for a drink of water from the creek or chasing smells, knowing our meeting place by the pools of water that gush down to the creek. Now he stays by my side. His days of independence are gone. We get closer and closer, the world grows smaller, and he moans in his sleep.

“Bye, Stan,” I whisper to him.

A LIBERAL DOESN’T EAT COOL WHIP DESSERT TOPPING

 

“Guess what, Bernie? We’re white.”

“Really? I thought so, but I’m colorblind, so who knows?”

“You know how you know? Because we have Stanley. There’s a big academic survey in the Washington Post that shows how different behaviors and things you buy can predict whether you’re white or not, and whether you’re liberal or conservative. For example, white people have pets.”

“I am not a pet,” says Stanley. He jumps out the kitchen dog door, then pokes his head in through the plastic. “I think you are very smart that you have me. I think you are very lucky that you have me. But are you white because you have me? Naah.”

“It’s probably the other way around,” says the in-house mathematician. “Because we’re white we have Stanley. Maybe they’re saying that white people have more money to spend on pets than non-white people.”

“Anyhow,” adds Stanley, coming back to the table, “I’m black. Are you still white if you have a black dog?”

“This is very confusing.” I read on. “It says: ‘The best predictor of whiteness was whether someone owned a pet—followed closely by whether they owned a flashlight.’’”

“Nobody owns a flashlight anymore,” says Bernie. “Everybody uses their phone.”

“Does that mean that nobody’s white?” wonders Stan.

“We have to figure out if we’re white or not,” says Bernie. “What else predicts that you’re white?”

“Has guns at home,” I read from the paper.

“Nope.”

“Approves of police striking citizens.”

“Nope.”

“As long as they’re not canines it’s okay with me,” says Stanley.

“Favors death penalty.”

“Nope.”

“Not confident in the executive branch.”

“I have every confidence in our President,” says Bernie. “What else?”

“Loves Grey Poupon mustard.”

“Feh, give me Nathan’s yellow mustard any day.”

“Now, listen to this, Bernie. Here are some predictors for whether we’re liberal or not. If we’re liberal, we don’t use Jif Peanut Butter.”

“Oh oh, I eat peanut butter every breakfast.”

“But not Jif, Bernie.”

“Good, I want to be a good liberal.”

“A good liberal doesn’t eat at Arby’s or Applebee’s.”

“I’ll eat anywhere,” sighs Stanley.

“A good liberal doesn’t eat Little Debbie snack cakes.”

“They must be delicious,” sighs Stanley again.

“OMG, Bernie, listen to this: A liberal doesn’t eat Cool Whip dessert topping.”

“WHAT! How am I supposed to have my chocolate pudding, naked?”

“I told you it’s not good for us to have Cool Whip dessert topping in our refrigerator, right next to the dishwasher that predicts we’re white.”

“A Greyston chocolate brownie without Cool Whip is like a Buddhist monk. Bald.”

“We’re getting rid of it this minute, before anyone finds out.”

“Just spray it on my dog food,” offers Stanley. “I’m black and I ain’t no liberal. Nothing freer than that.”

 

 

WHERE IS THE TANDOORI CHICKEN?

“I don’t have the taste buds I used to have,” says Bernie.

“Mine are intact,” says Stanley, circling the small dining table, as is his wont whenever he smells food.

I’m back home with the Man and the Dog. It’s Sunday evening and there’s the smell of coriander in the kitchen.

“For instance,“ continues Bernie, “remember how long it took me to like coffee and Diet Coke again after the stroke? Right now, I actually prefer the Coke without the fizz rather than with it.”

“Uggghh,” say I.

“And you know I can’t eat steak with my teeth the way they are,” he continues.

“My teeth are fine,” says Stanley, circling the table faster now.

“Easy, Stan,” I warn him, only he can’t hear me.

“And you know how I loved the fried chicken from Wolfie’s? Didn’t want anything else from there, only the fried chicken. Well now, I can’t really bite into that fried chicken anymore, can I?”

“My mouth works perfectly, thanks for asking,” says Stan in a pant. “My teeth, my lips, my tongue, my taste buds, the works—all work great, so just give me everything you can’t have.” By now he’s moving so fast he’s creating air currents. It’s getting windy in the kitchen.

“And finally,” continues the Great Man, “Indian food. Remember how much I loved Indian food, like this chicken with rice and dal? Only now it doesn’t do much for me anymore. Here, Stanley,” and he puts his plate down on the floor.

I have long ago stopped telling Bernie not to put his plate of food down by the table for Stanley. By now there’s no use anyway; everything I feared has come to pass. Stanley, who for 12 years never even imagined begging at the table, has become the world’s great culinary schnorrer, rushing around the table, whining urgently for us to hurry up and finish eating so that he could lick off our plates. It’s the worst thing to do if you’re training a dog, but I realized that Bernie loves to feed Stan.

Bernie had never been much of a dog lover, and certainly didn’t encourage anything like feeding a dog at the table. But things have changed since his stroke. Now he likes to pet Stanley’s back as he wolfs down the remnants on the plate, and there’s always something. Bernie insists on never finishing his food regardless of my remonstrances; he wants to feed Stanley.

That’s what he does now, but only after he looked up at me, a little ashen. “I forgot to leave him some chicken.”

Stanley sniffs the plate. “Rice? Dal? You think I’m nuts? Where’s the Tandoori chicken?”

“Stanley, your gluttony is embarrassing, “say I.

“I know you think I’m old, but I ain’t senile. Where’s the Tandoori chicken! Where’s the Tandoori chicken!”

“Control yourself, Stan.”

“Where is the Tandoori chicken!”

I’m back home all right. Just did some laundry, including Bernie’s gray zippered sweater, only to find that he left his used tissues in the pockets, so that when I get the sweater out of the machine the linings of the wool are full of tiny, white tatters of tissue. I get annoyed—how many times have I told him to please empty the  pockets before he puts things into the laundry bags! Just as I get pissed at Stanley for scampering round the dinner table and no longer letting us eat in peace.

Aren’t these the very things that we’ll remember about beings we love, human and canine both? It’s always the imperfections we recall, nothing else.

ABOVE IT ALL

In southern Tel-Aviv, or Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel-Aviv, once the only part of Tel-Aviv before the northern sections were added, you hear many languages under the hot Mediterranean sun. You meander among dusty antiques and buy rolls with Bulgarian cheese and olives in “the best bakery in Israel,” you bump into people and compete for parking spaces, make reasonable offers and threaten to leave while shopkeepers keep on talking, keep on hawking.

This is not the old city of Jerusalem, with its Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter, everyone living in their own corners. When Catholic monks in brown habits cross paths with Greek Orthodox monks in black habits or with Jewish Hasidim in wide-brimmed hats and long black coats in the cobbled, narrow streets that crisscross between the ancient walls, they look straight ahead as if no one’s there.

Not so Jaffa, or southern Tel-Aviv, which gives me a gritty sense of humanity: sometimes on top of the world, sometimes at the very bottom, different colors skin and voice intonations, different hair and clothes and food, competing for attention, for money, survival at all costs.

And then there are those who only want to be above it all. That’s what I thought of when I saw the ugly big buildings constructed just south of Jaffa and looking out to the sea (see below) above the port. Multi-millionaires live there, with enormous apartments high up in the air, looking west towards the setting sun, west towards the sea, high up over people’s heads. How nice to keep company with the birds and air currents, to feel more kinship with the clouds than with the messy humans below.

A SECOND-CLASS BUDDHIST

Photo by Ruth Bar-Eden

“I’m taking you to a spa in the Dead Sea,” my sister told me.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Spa: short, three-letter word capturing the essence of indulgence: a sauna, a pool, a Turkish hamam, another pool of warm, oily Dead Sea waters, a massage, and a late lunch overlooking the lowest place on earth, the mountains and Judean desert on one side, where mystics for thousands of years wandered, Jordan on the other side, and in the middle, the Dead Sea. The Essenes lived here, men and women monastics who wanted to get close to God. Some say Jesus of Nazareth walked here.

Those mystics, who took shelter in caves from the blazing sun, who had to search for hidden springs for water, were kept company by ibex and took precautions against snakes, did not go to the Ein Gedi Synergy Spa. They were not offered a host of teas and Italian coffee, lightweight bathrobes and flip-flops. They didn’t need signs to tell them to maintain silence. At dawn the sun came up over the Hills of Moab, where the Biblical Ruth came from, turning everything pink, and at night the purple Judean Hills invited them into their dark embrace. Like the Buddha, they renounced everything. Owning nothing, they felt closer to God.

All my life I’ve felt a close affinity with this place and its mystic inhabitants, have come back again and again, brought friends, husband, and Japanese roshis, not to wander the desert but to guesthouses and hotels. Yesterday, to the Synergy Spa.

We Western Buddhists have to own our life, own our choices. And what we’ve chosen is to have: a home, a friend, a spouse, a partner, children, a job, a livelihood, credit cards. Our practice isn’t to renounce and exclude, but to have and let go. To reach for something knowing it’s changing even as we reach for it, to love someone as we grow nimble in the art of losing him or her, to include everything in our field of awareness including those we rue and regret, to embrace life fully and very, very patiently.

I can’t spend the rest of my life feeling like a second-class Buddhist because I chose to have rather than to renounce, to say yes rather than no. But our teachings, our koans, our roots all lie in that world of No. Once we fully face that and examine the effects of that conditioning, we could start consciously making the turn to Householder Zen, Householder Buddhism.

I always think of Bernie here. I’ve been a lifelong admirer of Gandhi, who possessed his loincloth and eye glasses and not much more. “You have a mind of poverty,” Bernie used to tell me. “When you have money, have it. When you don’t have money, don’t have it.”

Being here in Jerusalem with my folks, especially my brother who is examining new paradigms in modern Judaism, I appreciate what family is for us, the importance of giving care, the wonders of vacations, breaks, and even spas. Appreciating my body, the fragrance and variety of foods, the beauty of hand-painted Armenian tiles in a store in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City—do these things automatically translate to self-absorption, possessiveness, greed? To being a second-class Buddhist?

NOT BECAUSE OF GOD

My mother 80 years ago

“Do you have thoughts about your 90 years?”

“I have lots of thoughts.”

“Then just write them down, mom, write them down.”

I’m sitting with my mother, helping her write what she will say in two big parties commemorating her 90th birthday. The first will take place after Shabbat services in her synagogue. There isn’t much time, but her pencil dawdles in mid-air, not coming down to paper.

“I’m writing, I’m writing,” she says, “just thinking a lot.”

“Thinking too much can kill writing. Put down whatever comes to mind, mom, you’ll organize it later, now just get something down on paper.”

“That’s your job, “my sister told me when I arrived. “We made all the arrangements ahead of time, food, guests, program, we did it all, and your job is to help her write her talks. Just no Holocaust stories. When she goes there she doesn’t stop, so make sure she doesn’t go there.”

As you all know, my mother writes, the early part of my life took place in the Shoah.

“But after that?” I prompt her.

“After that,” she says vaguely, and the pencil comes up in the air again. She’s not sure what to write about after that though there’s lots of it, given that the Holocaust ended when she was 17.

How do you summarize 90 years of life? The early years are clearest and most alive. Now, too, comprising grandchildren and great-grandchildren (I think she sees her three children mostly as caretakers at this point), the wider family, a few friends, trying to keep track of time. These are the two slices of bread that sandwich a 90-year lifetime.

“When you look back, what do you wish?” I ask her.

“I wish I’d studied more. That I didn’t have to leave school when I was 13 when the Nazis came into the city.”

“But you studied years later, mom. You finished your degree, you became a teacher, and you kept on studying for decades.”

“It’s not the same like finishing school in the normal way,” she said, “like they did in America.”

“What else do you wish, mom?”

“That your father didn’t leave me.”

After the Holocaust, that looms second in her mind.

“Why, mom?”

“Because it broke the family.”

“Our family didn’t break,” I say.

“It affected everyone.”

“Affected, yes. But it didn’t break the family.”

She gives that nonsense shrug of her shoulders, accompanied by the short shake of the head. Divorce breaks a family, and that’s fact.

“What else are you going to say?” The pencil hasn’t landed on paper in quite a while.

“Leave it to me,” she says tiredly. Not-writing has exhausted her.

On Saturday, after Shabbat services in her synagogue, she indeed talks from her heart in front of over 80 people, telling them that, after her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they and their prayers and songs are what have meant so much to her. They stand outdoors in tree shade holding small plates of the food we had prepared or bought, and set out ahead of time. And as they put herring on the crackers and help themselves to kugel and vegetables, melons and cake, my brother tells this story:

“Once my mother asked me to assemble all her grandchildren because she wanted to talk to them. We all sat around the table to listen to her, and she said to them: ‘I want you to know that after much reflection, I decided that I don’t believe in God.’ Everyone was shocked. So I asked her: ‘But you go to the synagogue religiously every weekend; why do you do that if you don’t believe in God?’ And she answered, ‘Not because of God, but because of the songs they sing.'”

Shoshana now, writing her talk

IN THE JERUSALEM SUQ

At the Jerusalem Suq

It’s Friday here in Jerusalem, so the place to be is at the Suq.

It used to be that all you ever got in this big outdoors market place was fresh produce. If you were anyone who cared about food and cooking, you didn’t shop at the supermarket, but went to the Suq. Only now you can get everything there: meats, clothes, toys, household items; restaurants galore have opened up, catering especially to young customers on Thursday night, the biggest night of the week, where they crowd around tiny tables, Israeli rap competing with Sephardic music and absolutely no parking anywhere.

But it’s Friday morning, and my brother, Mordechai, and I go to the Suq to buy food for a Kiddush in the synagogue my mother has been attending for some 30 years. It is customary that when one celebrates a milestone, like a 90th birthday, to offer a Kiddush, which means Sanctification, in the synagogue after Shabbat prayers. In this case, Sanctification means a Jerusalem kugel (pasta dish), herring with crackers, vegetables, watermelon, cantaloupes and grapes, yeast cakes, cold drinks (we’ll be in the warm outdoors), and snacks for a million little children. I have twice worked with my mother on the talk she will give, but even after all the written notes, it’s clear she’ll say whatever she wants to say, not necessarily what we’ve written down.

“Come on,” Mordechai says, “I’ll buy you the best coffee in Jerusalem. It’s right below the Cursed House.” Later my sister will inform me that the Cursed House is where she studied Family Therapy.

We arrive at a small stand and jostle for place, trying to get the attention of Bernard, who tells us with a sweet smile that he’ll serve us right away even as he prepares a Cortado and an Americano, with two croissants, for the two women standing next to us. The sun already shines hot in the sky and everybody’s yelling out orders, which Bernard smiles sweetly at while ignoring completely.

“You’re the only one working today, the busiest morning of the week,” my brother wonders aloud.

“I told my wife to come at 9:30 but she thought I meant 11, what can you do?” explains Bernard, running back to fetch more 3% milk.

It’s Friday morning, a day off, so nobody gets irritated, just a few good-natured comments: At least bring us a couple of espressos while we’re waiting! Next time tell the wife to come on time! We’d leave if you weren’t smiling so sweetly, Bernard!

When Bernard finally gets to us he asks me if I we want the coffee with a fruitier or more bitter nuance, and I opt for the former, appreciating that neither in Starbucks or in Peet’s Coffee, or in no other coffeehouse for that matter, has anyone ever asked me that question.

Off into the Suq to get the fruits and cakes, and Mordechai points to a stand selling good-looking tomatoes and other vegetables. “See that stand? It’s specially priced for poor people. The way it happens is, you choose whatever you need for Shabbat, the shopkeeper looks at you and names a low price, and that’s what you pay. I didn’t know this, so one year I come here, choose some produce, and start asking him what the price is. Careful, says somebody behind me. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I ask again what’s the price, and why isn’t it written up like in all the other places, and the store owner starts cursing me out: You idiot, you son of a bitch, don’t you know anything? That’s how I learned the store sold fruits and vegetables to the poor at very low prices, which he designated, and you couldn’t mess around with the protocol.”

I love this place.

GOING HOME?

It’s always the same routine. I fly over the sea towards Israel, reading, working, sleeping, but at some moment I look through the window and there is the coastline. Usually it’s the Tel-Aviv coastline with its tall buildings and long, sandy beaches, looking a little like Miami Beach. This time the plane entered Israel a little more south, and I looked out the window towards Holon and Ashdod.

It used to be that incoming planes would glide down into the airport within 5 minutes of crossing the coastline, reminding passengers of how small the country is. That stopped some years ago, when they were required to make a wide circle and come in from the east, which also reminded me of how small the country was because if the pollution wasn’t too bad, I could see Jerusalem in the distance, the city I’d be heading to after landing

There was one exception. Once, aboard a Lufthansa flight, I watched as the airplane flew right towards the runway without making the circle. Seconds before its wheels touched the ground it suddenly veered and flew up like a rocket. It was a time of plane hijackings and bombings, and people grew very, very quiet. But the plane regained altitude, made the regular big circle, and came in from the correct eastern direction. Nobody clapped, as they usually do in this part of the world, when its wheels touched the ground.

I was born here, so in some way I could title this Going Home. But is there a home where ambivalence doesn’t reign?

I was born a year after Israel won its Independence War. My father was wounded and the kibbutz my parents valiantly fought to defend was so devastated by Egyptian artillery that, at the end of the war, they were told to abandon it and restart the kibbutz further north. Though they were following the orders of Levi Eshkol himself, a future prime minister of Israel, they never received the certificates of recognition others received who fought in the war because they’d abandoned the land. It took hardliner Menachem Begin, when he became prime minister, to personally order that they receive those certificates decades later. But courage in the face of far superior forces, with artillery and planes that at that time they didn’t have, under the command of an army captain called Gamal Abdul Nasser who was to become the future president of Egypt, losing one-third of their comrades in the battle, were like nothing to the mantra: Never give up the land.

My mother took that mantra to heart and has backed right-wing governments ever since. Over the years there were some years of argument between us, but far more of smoldering silences.

I’m coming in for her 90th birthday. She is one of the last few remaining survivors of the terrifying 1940s in East Europe.

Each time I fly over this coastline I feel the intensity of the life behind this moment, the plane gliding in to land in Ben-Gurion Airport and a woman walking down the aisle to join the lines of passengers in the elegant, modern Terminal 3. Her mind can’t grapple with all the things she knows had to happen so that she could take her place in the passport line. What, in the black backpack she wears over one shoulder, points to the life-and-death scenarios her mother faced back then, in East Europe and in Israel? What, in the white sweater she still wears though now it’s hot, will signal to any observer the strains, the will, and the incredible courage of that history? The hazard and risk, how all it took was one turn here rather than there, one impulse not listened to, one detail overlooked, and she wouldn’t be going through the big double doors and searching for a brother-in-law waiting to bring her up to Jerusalem. How easy it would be for me not to exist at all.

My mother gave me not just life, but one remarkably free of the kind of life-and-death struggle she had to face. I had other struggles for sure, the kind those of us with food, shelter, and safety have, but I never made the mistake of thinking that one was comparable to the other. She gave me that baseline comfort, and then watched me become someone she couldn’t understand, who loved hanging out with people of different religions, races, and cultures, who supported the Palestinian cause, and was uncomfortable with being just with Jews.

I don’t recognize you, she often told me. To which I had little reply except to feel it was a tribute to her efforts to give me the things she never had. Reaching fruition, those efforts provided the wide open space in which I could turn, like that Lufthansa flight, trying this and that, and finally going my own way.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean from south to north (then it was from west to east) know of only one direction where safety lies. She gave me a far, far wider compass.

A REASON NOT TO GET MARRIED

“This doesn’t look like our regular path into the woods.”

“Same path, Stanley, only a couple got married down in the Farm so they put up these lanterns for the people camping in the woods.”

“What happens when you get married?”

“Well, you usually live together.”

“Are we married?”

“No, Stan, we’re not married. You also love each other.”

“So aren’t we married?”

“No Stan, we’re not married. Sometimes you argue.”

“We sure do that. So aren’t we married?”

“No, Stan, we’re not married. And then you love each other again.”

“So aren’t we—”

“Stanley, we’re not married. You also usually eat together.”

“Well then, of course we’re married. I never let you eat alone.”

“Stanley, we’re not married!”

“How come?”

“For one thing, Stanley, you’re too old for me.”

“So?”

“Some big animal is still eating up our flowers and I don’t see you doing anything about that.”

“Maybe it’s a caterpillar, and with my cataracts I can’t see caterpillars.”

“Stanley, see where the ferns are leveled over there? Obviously some big animal did that, not a caterpillar. It practically made a path with the sign This Way to Day Lilies.”

“So you won’t marry me?”

“Stanley, you’re no good for anything anymore: can’t guard the house, can’t hear knocking on the door.”

“So?”

“That’s the trouble with you old guys, you’re always thinking there’s a much younger woman ready to marry you and take care of you. Not to mention, Stanley, that you’re a dog.”

“Is that a reason not to get married?”

 

THE ROCKY THAT NEVER FIGHTS

A big animal is eating our hostas, so I decided to sit outside and look for it.

It was the longest day of the year. At 9 pm there was plenty of light on the western horizon. Fireflies lit up the slope, the overhang around the tool shed, even small caverns inside the bark of trees. They lit up even the darkness of the forest from where Norman likes to emerge, tempting me with his calls to depression, despair, blackness of all kind, and the call to leave the moment and go somewhere—anywhere—where it’s always better.

Norman lies through his teeth, but his voice has whispered to me all my life. I could count on him to point out everything that didn’t work out, the work that didn’t pay off, the blessings that didn’t accrue, the love I hadn’t gotten, the money I didn’t have, and always, always, the passing years. He was also pretty good at pointing out the faults of every single person that ever lived.

I’d sit with his voice in my ears and feel I had to fight somehow, get on top of things, my spirits up, find some spiritual mallet to slam him down with. Remember all the people who have it worse than me. Remember spiritual giants like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, as if they represent some goal line I am kicking the ball towards. Thought of RBG, the film I saw on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the US Supreme Court judge, and my admiration and gratitude for her.

All that lingered a moment, then waned. Instead I sat quietly and watched the fireflies. Don’t have to idealize anyone anymore. Don’t need to go to somebody else for some truth that isn’t already right under this scratchy (from mosquito and tick bites) skin of mine. I find it not by reading books, but by sitting in the dark watching fireflies, waiting patiently for the animal eating up our flowers.

I’ve probably struggled with some form of low-key depression all my life. It’s almost always there first thing in the morning. Activity submerges it, which is one reason why I like to be active. But last night, sitting under the watchful gaze of Venus in one direction and the half-or-so yellow moon in the other, watching blinking fireflies everywhere, even Norman got quiet.

My husband, Bernie, takes my breath away sometimes. The stroke leveled him. The strong, robust, bigger-than-life personality aged so overnight that even now, 2-1/2 years later, I don’t recognize him sometimes. There isn’t a morning when he gets up and, from my desk I look over my shoulder to see him standing on top of the stairs and I startle, ask again for the thousandth time: What happened?

What happened, and continues to happen, is that Bernie plunges. Once he plunged into Zen koans, ending homelessness in Westchester County, inspiring peacemakers for this endlessly suffering world. Now he’s plunged into stroke. Goodbye fierce independence, goodbye quick rejoinders, goodbye complex new solutions and approaches, goodbye daily activity that started at 4 am. Hello to dependence, paying attention to the body, medical decisions difficult to understand, to the changing proportions of a human being as he ages and gets ill. His greatest lesson to me is that no one is exempt, not even a Zen master.

Do you do this fighting or lying down? Bernie has chosen lying down. He fights no one and no thing. He walks carefully, checks his calendar for phone calls, Skypes, and Zooms. And now, when he gets questions from students, old questions he’s answered a million times, he takes his time and goes to a place I don’t know, a place I don’t think he knew before the stroke. A place you go to again and again because it’s never the same from one visit to another.

I used to call him Rocky because that was his nickname when he was a boy, because he was a fighter. This Rocky never fights. Nothing in the world is his opponent, no experience is beyond his experiencing.

“I have a question,” he admits to me quietly. “It’s—what do you call it?”

“I don’t know, Bernie.”

“You know, something philosophical.”

“An existential question?”

“That’s it,” he says, and proceeds slowly. “My existential question is why I am still living.” He doesn’t ask the question, he lives it. Plunges into it, like any good koan master.

Outside it’s completely dark as I wait for the phlox-eating beast to arrive. Stanley comes out of the garage, and though I’m right in front of him he can’t see me, doesn’t catch my scent, and his black shadow passes me by. Only the fireflies keep blinking on this longest day of the year.