YOU’RE JUST A PIECE OF WRITING!

My beautiful Saraswati looking over my desk, my first gift from Bernie

After great discussion, I added a button asking for donations to support the blog. Discussions with whom? The blog. It went something like this:

Blog: “I think I need a little help. You know, I don’t wake up every morning bubbling with vitality and something interesting to say, I get tired like everybody else. I have to work hard to do this, especially on gray, rainy days like this one after you’ve been gone on retreat. Even the dogs aren’t giving me one bit of help today. You think it’s easy to get updated and renewed three times a week?”

“Come on, Blog, you’re just a piece of writing.”

“And that doesn’t need support, lady?”

“Immigrants need support. People with no shelter in these cold times need support. Children who’re—”

“What about art, lady? What about writing?”

“Well . . .”

“Thousands of years ago, when it was a lot harder to survive than it is now, people would risk their lives to go deep into caves and draw on limestone that would preserve the drawings. They drew stick figures and painted deer and horses; they even buried their dead near these paintings so that their works of art could accompany them into the underworld. That’s how you should think of me, lady.”

“As a work of art that accompanies readers to the underworld?”

“Hey, I get into some pretty grim stuff there: Life, death, loss, Harry and Aussie.”

“Harry and Aussie are grim?”

“Turn around and look at them lying there, knowing they’re not going anywhere in this rain. The point is, lady, I go somewhere.”

“You mean, I go somewhere.”

“And you take me with you. Not just to different places and people, but also to the underworld. And I send back news.”

“What news, Blog?”

“That even in the underworld there is light, hope, inspiration, and fun. That there’s nothing so dark that it can’t be made light of.”

“And you think that merits support?”

“Yes. More important, lady, you need support!”

It’s a great luxury not to think about money. It’s fair to say that for much of our life together, Bernie and I had to think a lot about money. We spent a great deal due to his stroke, but we got so much help, so many people thought about money for us, that I could afford to forget about it for a while. He died and I have to think about money again.

Many people could not understand our life. “He never took out a life insurance policy?” they’d ask. “You don’t have a pension?” And I have to explain, again and again, that we chose to live a life of engaged dharma, not just teaching but also doing. That didn’t pay much.

I rejoice in my life, past and present (though it would be nice if Bernie, like Eurydice, tried to make his way back from the underworld). Creativity is everywhere. Not just in writing but also in deriving and articulating meaning from the life that streams through me, and sending that out to you to see if it resonates in your lives, if you, too, find something important and meaningful in similar situations.

Being creative isn’t just writing or blogging or doing something artistic, it’s using every situation as practice, as a way to go deeper, as a way to keep your feet on the bottom of the ocean even as you’re buffeted by waves.

I have been writing this blog consistently for four years now, with the exceptions of retreat times. I plan to continue to write and offer it freely, as I have received so much freely. But I need help to pay my bills, like everybody else, including the bills of maintaining this blog. I recently refinanced my home, half of which is rented out. I am so grateful for all these ways of cutting down expenses and deriving an income. But I still need more.

If you could make a donation of any size, thank you very much. If you could make a monthly donation of any size, thank you very much. If you cannot do any, thank you very much for reading this blog; it will continue to be free. What’s more important to a writer than to be read?

Deep gratitude to all beings who make this possible.

 

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OMG! YOU’RE GONNA BE 70?

“Aussie, I’m going to be 70 tomorrow.”

“OMG, you’re old!”

“You think so, Auss?”

“You’re ancient and decrepit! And you adopted me, the embodiment of young, free, and wild?”

“You’re not that young, Auss. I recently read that they are comparing dog ages to human ages in a new way. Instead of saying that your one year is equivalent to 7 of mine, they’re saying that in the early time of your life the curve is much steeper, and later it flattens out.”

“Huh?”

“That means that you, Aussie, a little over 2 years old, are equivalent in your life trajectory to me at 40.”

“Were you young, free, and wild at 40?”

“At 40 I was living and working in Yonkers with Bernie and other Zennies.”

“I knew it! You were never frivolous and crazy. You never broke any rules!”

“Little do you know, Aussie.”

“Tell me some stories.”

“I don’t want to shock your 40 year-old ears.”

“Oh, why did you ever adopt me? I don’t want to be raised by an old woman.”

“Aussie, I give you and Harry a big, beautiful back yard in which to play. I also take you out for your walks every single day regardless of weather. Who took you out in the snowstorm where there was no one else around, not even snowplows?”

“Did you think of what happens to me if you die? Did you leave me in your will?”

“Actually, Aussie, I did leave money in my will for people to take care of you and Harry. Not a lot, just enough.”

“If I’d known about this earlier I’d have asked Tim to dig you a grave BEFORE the snowstorm. Now there’s a ton of snow and everything’s frozen, and you’re too big to fit into the freezer alongside all our marrow bones. And between you and our marrow bones, guess what’s staying in the freezer.”

“Aussie, you are being very nasty today.”

“I’m being practical. Try to last till spring when the ground defrosts. Tim could dig a grave between Stanley and the tool shed, there’s enough space as long as you don’t put on more weight.”

“This is the nicest birthday celebration I’ve ever had, Aussie. Thanks.”

“Speaking of birthday celebration, what are you doing for your 70th?”

“Tomorrow evening we start a meditation retreat.”

“I knew it! I knew it! You are such a Zen nerd!”

“Come on, Auss—”

“Others eat steak, they run around, have  a party, eat steak, they play, eat steak, they laugh and joke around, eat steak—”

“Bernie wanted to do that, Auss. We talked one evening, four months before he died, about how much he was still exercising, and he said that he was working hard to get in shape so that he could take me away for my 70th.”

“Too bad he didn’t make it.”

“Even then I knew he wouldn’t be in shape to do that.”

“Did you tell him?”

“No, Aussie, I just said thank you.”

“So how are you going to spend the VERY FEW days left to you to live?”

“I wish you wouldn’t put it that way, Auss.”

“We have to face facts.”

“Remember the red dahlia that bloomed late in September?”

“Of course. What a dummy, I thought. If you’re going to bloom so late, why bother?”

“But it did bother, you see, Aussie? That’s the point. For some reason that red dahlia made it out of the ground late, and then it bloomed and opened up to reveal the most gorgeous color, remember? It could feel the cold coming but it relished every sunny day. Just days before the freeze it exploded and sent out so much beauty.”

“You’re not a dahlia.”

“I want to fold back into fullness, Auss.”

“You’re withdrawing from life?”

“Not one bit.  As I go deeper and deeper into fullness I also open up to the world more and more. One goes with the other.”

“You’re not just going to sit and meditate, are you? If you are, I’m going back into adoption.”

“Don’t worry, Auss. I’ll do what I always did, but not much more. Personal epiphany is nice, but what’s even nicer is connecting more and more with humans and nonhumans—”

“Dogs!”

“No, everything. Even black matter across all space and time—everything!”

“Speaking of fullness, can you feed me now?”

“That red dahlia was fearless, Aussie. I’m following in her footsteps.”

“Okay, just don’t forget what we dogs do to flowers.”

“Eat them?”

“Pee on them. Just saying.”

 

The blog will be on retreat till Monday.

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SNOW DAY

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“Right there in the snow, Harry.”

That’s a bathroom?”

He reminds me of my old Golden, Woody, whom I raised for a couple of years in the woods around Woodstock. I brought him back down to Yonkers when I returned to work with Bernie. The first morning I leashed him and took him out on the pavement to pee. He didn’t pee. On and on we walked, he looking up at me occasionally, and he didn’t pee. Finally I got the idea. Each time he looked up at me he was asking: Where the bathroom? I crossed the street and walked a little till we got to a green park, and he peed right away.

He was one well-educated dog.

“I know the snow’s a foot high, Harry, but you can do it.”

“I know I can do it, the question is where? Dig a trench for me.”

“What are you, a Marine?”

“I ain’t peeing in a ton of snow.”

“You are such a wimp, Harry!” says Aussie, who’s been tracking the snow half the night and now can hardly wait to roll Harry in it.

“I’m from Mississippi, Auss!”

“And I’m from Texas, where the guys are guys and the gals are tougher. Now get out!”

It’s a snow day, and now the two dogs are running around like a pair of banshees in the snow.

“What do you mean, a pair of banshees? One banshee–moi. Harry didn’t run till I pushed him outI”

That’s exactly what Aussie did. The two stood by the open door of my office leading down to steps that were covered by at least a foot of snow, Aussie going into her high-pitched twang: “Come on already! Would you come on!”

Harry wasn’t coming. Aussie finally lost all patience, pushed her long snout against his hind legs and sent him tumbling down the stairs.

“I almost drowned!”

He started getting up, but she ran past him so hard that into the snow he tumbled a second time, and when he got up he was past caring. The two ran—yes—like a pair of banshees, coming into the house just to grab a stuffed otter or turtle, dangle and shake it in front of the other, and then rush off out to the snow with the second in hot pursuit.

I opened the front door to talk to Tim, busy shoveling a path out front, and the two escaped with a whoop and ran up the unplowed driveway, slipping and scrambling. They expect another 5-8 inches this afternoon and evening. I looked up the driveway nostalgically, put on my boots, jacket, hat, and gloves, and went out to join them.

“Took you long enough,” snapped Aussie.

“You know, Auss,” I tell her, “I remembered how when we were kids we’d leap out of bed after a night of snow. Nobody wanted to come in.”

Aussie was gone before I could finish my sentence. When the two dogs and I finally came home Harry jumped on the futon for a nap while I sat at my computer.

And Aussie? She’s back in ambush mode since we put up squirrel feeders, sidling around the back of the house, waiting for any squirrel with designs on the birdfeeder. But she’s in for a disappointment. We’ve had a banner year for acorns and the squirrels have squirreled away plenty.

“They’ll be out again in a month or two,” I tell her, “so you can come in now.”

“Are you kidding? Gotta practice my moves.”

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RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS

Just before being packed.

From the Security station at Hartford airport:

“What’s this, Miss?”

“It’s a monk’s bag.”

“A monk’s bag?”

“You see how it says Zen Community of New York on the flap with an image of a paulownia leaf?”

“A what?”

“Zen monks used these bags to carry their worldly possessions. The bag belonged to my husband.”

“He was a monk and your husband at the same time?”

“Yes, it’s a contradiction in terms, part of the confusion of Buddhism in the West. Part of his personal confusion, too. Careful how you open it.”

“DON’T TOUCH THE BAG! And these were his worldly possessions, Miss?”

“Yes, along with a 50” TV set which didn’t fit inside the bag.”

“What’s this plastic?”

“He took this bag with him when he wanted to live on the streets for a while. The plastic was for protection against rain.”

“And the small umbrella, I guess. This?”

“A roll of toilet paper. You see, public bathrooms—”

“Yeah, yeah. A rainhat. And this?”

“A small pillow. He still liked his creature comforts.”

“I don’t know, Miss, this is very suspicious. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, we gotta check everybody carefully, I’m not sure I can let you board—”

“I have to bring them down to Maryland, sir. You see, this bag and the jacket I’m wearing—”

“Why are you wearing two jackets, Miss?”

“This threadbare, falling-apart-at-the-seams blue jacket from the Greyston Bakery is also from my husband, and both are going to the Smithsonian Museum.”

“The American Smithsonian Museum?”

“The very one. The curator for religion has asked for religious artifacts belonging to my husband to be on display there.”

“These are religious artifacts? Toilet paper, stained yellow pillow, a whistle—what’s the whistle for, lady?”

“To summon help in case he gets into trouble.”

“Not to whistle at pretty women? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’ve never seen religious artifacts like these. And a bakery jacket? What’s so religious about that?”

“He thought that creating jobs for people with no jobs in a blighted neighborhood is very religious. So was talking with street people.”

“And these things are going to be at the Smithsonian to lie surrounded by crosses and stars of David?”

“And Muslim and Native American and Hindu and–”

“Do all you people from Asia have such religious artifacts?”

“He was from Brooklyn, sir.”

“Lady, I can’t let you take these items onboard.”

“Sir, I have to bring them down to Maryland so that my husband’s daughter could bring them to the Smithsonian.”

“Don’t bullshit me, lady. No way these things are going into the Smithsonian Museum. What kind of fool you think I am?”

“No kind of fool, sir.”

“Try checking them in, but you can’t take them into cabin.”

“Okay, sir.”

“I’ll say one thing for you, lady. You tell a good story.”

“Thanks, sir.”

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MY OLD FRIEND BILL

I am usually up at 6, go downstairs for a glass of water and a cup of coffee, and then sit. Take the mundane and rare opportunity to explore this moment and nothing more, this moment that includes all moments and is still uniquely this moment.

Yesterday after sitting I lit a candle for my old friend, Bill. I’ve done this annually since the mid-90s, when he died quite suddenly around the age of 50.

Bill came to meditate almost daily with the Zen Community of New York all the way from Long Beach, New York. He would have had to have left his home sometime after 4 each morning to make it on time. He was a big, bearish man, grunted rather than spoke, and was prone to sudden, wild bursts of laughter, a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining only Bill kept his lips closed, so that the laughter sounded like a nasal tickle of his throat.

We talked a little from time to time and it didn’t take long to find out that he was a great fan of Leonard Cohen. Also that his wife had just left him, taking their small son with her, and that he hated her. I also liked Leonard at the time, though not as much as I would later in the coming years.

One morning I was taking a bath in the antique tub of my small apartment in Yonkers, NY, on the third floor. It was around 6 in the morning when the intercom rang to tell me someone was at the door. I jumped out of the bath and answered. It was Bill.

“Bill,” I shouted into the intercom, standing stark naked and dripping all over the floor, “what are you doing here at this hour?”

“Heh heh heh,” says Bill. “I brought you something.”

I toweled myself quickly, slipped on a bathrobe, and went down two flights of stairs since there was no buzzer to let him in. I opened the door and he held up a CD right in front of my nose as though this was the key to the kingdom. “Heh heh heh,” says he.

I let him in and he came upstairs. “What is it?” I asked again.

“Leonard’s latest,” he said. “Just came out—only in Tower Records. I stood in line to get the first ones.”

“For whom?” I asked stupidly.

“You,” he said. “You and me both. I got you one,” and he put it in my hand.

It was Cohen’s The Future, which contained what would become some of his most famous songs: The Future, Closing Time, Waiting for the Miracle, Be for Real, Anthem (The crack is where the light comes in), and  Democracy.

“This is it,” said Bill, waving his copy in front of my face, “He’s really done it now.”

I wasn’t clear what exactly Leonard had done, and I was still dripping water on the floor and feeling a little uncomfortable, so I thanked him and explained that I had to get dressed. He immediately understood and left.

A short time later I heard that he’d died. It was sudden and I never discovered how, I only knew that he was in a lot of pain from the divorce and the loss of his son. Perhaps for that reason I made a point of lighting a candle every year at his memorial.

As I did that yesterday, seeing his face in my mind, I suddenly thought of Bernie many years later. Bernie got a hold of the CD Bill had given me and loved the songs. A friend got us a DVD of Cohen’s concert in London and we watched it more than once, the last time when Cohen died some three years ago.

Right after his stroke, I got Bernie a CD of The Best of Leonard Cohen and it had a permanent place of honor in his car. I’d take him for breakfast to a diner in Hadley, and from there go on to do some food shopping, leaving him in the car. I would return with the shopping bags and hear Leonard singing in top volume before I even opened the doors. He heard those songs over and over again; I think they gave him comfort.

Yesterday I remembered Bill at my door at 6 that morning waving the CD at my shivering face. He knew Sensei (as Bernie was called them) and was in awe of him; the two probably rarely spoke. But that CD followed karma’s mysterious squiggly path, making its way to Massachusetts, and eventually to a sick man sitting in his blue car listening to those songs more than two decades later, waiting for his wife to get back from the store, finding solace in the voice of a troubadour facing the end of his lifetime.

Bernie told me he never met Leonard Cohen. It didn’t matter, Bill connected them.

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MEMORIAL

My father and me when he turned 80.

Today is my father’s memorial. He died 4 years ago, at the age of 91.

He was very lucky in his last quarter-century. He left my mother after more than 40 years of a miserable marriage, married someone else, and proceeded to live a different, more peaceful life. His second wife loved him very much, proof of how much a person can change when he’s really loved.

My father had been physically brutal with me as I grew up. As the oldest, I became a scapegoat for everything that went wrong in his life, and especially his disappointing relations with my mother. Neither of them had had it easy in their early years, surviving World War II, getting to Israel illegally and meeting in a refugee camp, surviving active fighting in Israel’s War of Independence, immigrating to the US with two small girls and barely a word of English between them, and finally, 15 years later, going back.

I remember well the terror in my heart, when I was a young girl, each time the front door opened in the early evening as he came home from work. I would stay in my room, trying to avoid him as much as I could. When he was angry or had had a bad day, none of this mattered. I didn’t want to be close to him, avoided him at all costs. When two oceans came between us because I lived in the US and he’d returned to Israel, he seemed quite happy.

This changed. When I was in my 30s he began to write me letters apologizing for the past. I saw strong parallels between how I’d grown up with him and how he grew up with an unrelenting, sadistic father who had no patience for a free-spirited, sports-loving son. My father could hardly wait till I came to visit and for the rest of his life he mourned the distance between us.

At times I did wish I had been closer, if only to enjoy the gentleness that had grown between us. Whenever I was in Israel I’d see him every day. We’d joke around and tease each other, but the emotional bond between us tended towards silence. His love for me was strongly tinged with regret, and though I often told him to forget the past, I think mine was, too. There was a sense of having missed the boat, that we couldn’t undo the karma of that long-ago past. Phone calls and visits weren’t enough to do the trick. Like many men, he had very little language for emotions; for anything complex, he relied on me. The Jewish custom in these memorials is to light a yahrzeit candle the evening before, a small candle inside a plastic container that stays lit for at least 24 hours. I had a box of these candles, had ordered it for his first memorial and had lit the candles every year, but last night I couldn’t find them. I went through the hall closet, then opened drawers in the living room and my office, looking for them everywhere. They were gone, and though I have another candle always lit in front of my Kwan-Yin, I felt very bad about not lighting a yahrzeit candle. It was something he would have wanted me to do.

Complex relationships are a challenge. I always admire those people who describe coming out to the light on the other side, forgiving, focused only on the good, full of appreciation for what they had rather than what they didn’t.

I have never been able to relate to the word forgive. To me it implies that something was done to you in a very personal way, with a conscious desire to harm. My experience is that most people don’t mean to harm anyone; we get hurt because we’re seen as being in the way, obstacles to someone else’s happiness, anonymous reminders of suffering in the past. It’s enough to generate lots of harm, but even as a young girl I intuited that it wasn’t really about me.

I knew early on that people—including me—usually close their hearts for self-protection, to avoid hurt themselves, and that when they’re afraid they strike out.

But for many years, long after I “forgave” him, I felt a great emptiness in my heart. Today I feel tenderness, and sadness that we couldn’t do better. I promised myself that later today, at sundown, when the Jewish memorial ends, I’ll stop working and think back to our times together.

I’ll remember how he once came to visit me when I lived in southwest Yonkers, working at Greyston, and asked me earnestly to please leave that place because it wasn’t safe. He wanted me so much to have a nice middle-class life!

He loved to visit me when I moved up to Woodstock for 2 years, marveling at how I could live alone in the woods of upstate New York, tentatively stroking my Golden, Woody (he was afraid of dogs), walking alongside me on the promenade over the Ashokan Reservoir and shaking his head at the beauty. Like many Jews of his generation, he preferred cities because they felt safe.

Late one night we both couldn’t sleep and went out for a walk. It was winter and very cold, but we bundled up and walked down the road, just the two of us with the dog. He marveled at how quiet it was. He looked up at the stars and the black, black sky, and I think he found something there, some rest and quiet from his constantly anxious mind, as if the Promised Land wasn’t in Jerusalem but right there, walking with his oldest daughter on a snowy road lined with trees rather than parked cars. We talked and laughed softly though there was no one to hear us, he perhaps wondering how a Jewish man who’d started life in a disappeared shtetl in northern Rumania ended up walking with his daughter on a snowy road in a New York forest, and I wondering how a young girl who feared and hated her ogre father could now walk beside him, her hand clasped with his, both snuggled together deep in the pocket of his coat to keep warm.

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KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN

Photo by Peter Cunningham of Greyston Bakery staff in mid-1980s;

I went back to Greyston on Wednesday, and on the 3-hour drive down to Yonkers, NY, remembered how it all began for me.

I had started meditating around 1984 and started looking for a meditation group. Near me was a Zen center headed by a Japanese teacher following strict Japanese protocol, and it was hard for me to connect with them.

One day my friend, a Jungian analyst by the name of Walter Odajnyk, said to me, “There’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn teaching Zen up in Riverdale, wanna check him out?” A Jewish guy from Brooklyn was a little too close to home, I thought, and being an arrogant Manhattanite, I didn’t have a clue where Riverdale was. But a week later Walter called and said: “They have meditation this evening, I’ll pick you up and take you up there.”

When we arrived we discovered that there was no meditation; instead, the residential community was having a meeting in their large dining room. We entered tentatively, they looked up and invited us to join them. We sat in the corner of the large table and I heard things I didn’t hear in other Buddhist communities: cooking meals for the Sharing Community that served poor and homeless families in Yonkers, the entire Zen community leaving wealthy Riverdale and moving to southwest Yonkers, building homes for families with no homes and a child care center.

There would be much, much more later, but that was enough. I loved the dream; I loved the vision. I knew in my bones that there was something historical happening there that evening and I wanted to be part of it.

It was also my first view of Bernie, who didn’t say a word to Walter or me, and my first impression of him wasn’t favorable: He’s full of himself, I thought. But that didn’t dampen my ardor for the rest.

Walter had no interest in any of that and our paths diverged. I stayed while he went off to meditate at the Rochester Zen Center, years later sending me his very good book on Zen and Jung, and later joined the faculty of Pacifica Graduate Institute out in California. He passed away some five years ago.

So two days ago I found myself taking the Yonkers exit off the Sawmill River Parkway, winding my way down and up and then again down Ashburton Avenue.

The Greyston Bakery was surrounded by construction crews building “mixed housing,” which these days means that even the few affordable apartments aren’t very affordable. Along the Hudson River, Yonkers has gentrified, but that ends a block or two inland. There were the familiar shuttered stores, some storefronts with big signs promising Easy Credit, the groups of young men huddled on street corners. Lots and lots of churches. Many years ago, US HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) researched the prevalence of churches in this country and concluded that the number of churches per community rose as income went down.

We had a meeting with senior bakers and crew chiefs, and senior administrative personnel including Mike Brady, the President. I felt right at home among the folks wearing white, with white caps to cover their hair and snoods to cover their beards. They work in 12-hour shifts producing brownie products for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well as the brownies that appear in high-end food shops like Whole Foods.

And here is a plug for holiday gifts. If you’re looking to give delicious and beautiful holiday gifts to family and friends, please look at the Greyston brownie packages and boxes going out around the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The product is mouth-watering, the packaging elegant, and the gift changes the lives of people hired with no questions about possible criminal records or time spent in prison. Greyston has become a national spokes-company for Open Hiring, hiring anyone you have a position for without inquiring into their past or possible incarceration.

I asked them how I could help, and then just listened. They wanted to hear about Bernie and the beginnings of the Bakery. “What caused Bernie to start all this?” asked me one baker who’d known him well, and I found myself awash with memories and stories of those times. We talked about meditation and the practice of awareness, how conscious breathing helps to deter stress, how one can keep one’s feet on the bottom of the ocean and walk steadily even as the waves buffet you on the surface.

They were excited about that because stress is so prevalent in their lives, and we agreed that I will start in January and return month after month. I was deeply moved by their enthusiasm, by their beginner’s mind. I’d planned to meet with residents of Issan House, the residence for people living with AIDS, but that will wait till January.

Mike Brady hosted me for an overnight stay at his home in Bronxville. As he drove me there, I remembered going to Bronxville’s Dutch Reform Church to make a presentation about our Greyston with the hope of getting some financial support for our work there. I was so young and uninformed then, had no idea how to strike the right note, how to get those well-to-do people who wouldn’t step foot in a poor neighborhood 15 minutes away to support homeless families, mostly single mothers with children. I was clueless. I gave them the right numbers and statistics, but mostly I relied on my own passion and enthusiasm, which didn’t bring much success that night.

We made many mistakes. At the same time, there was so much excitement in all those ups-and-downs, in that I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-but-here-goes mentality. Now I feel I know much more, maybe make fewer mistakes (maybe not). I know what to do, I know what people want to hear. But those shots in the dark, shooting for some distant horizon you had no idea how to reach—it was full of possibilities. It was full of life.

I came home and had a brief conversation with Aussie:

“What’s my vision, Aussie?” I asked her.

“What do you mean, Boss? Don’t you know how to open your eyes?”

“I mean what’s my vision, Auss: My dreams, my plans, what I want to focus on in the life I’m given now without Bernie?”

“Just keep your eyes open, that’s what I say.”

“Is that enough, Aussie?”

“Stop thinking so much, Boss. Wait, watch, listen. You humans!”

“Okay, Auss. I’ll just keep my eyes open.”

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IS GOD A DOG?

“Are you off again?”

“ I’m sorry, Aussie, I’m going down to Greyston in Yonkers, New York, to meet with some of the bakers in the Greyston Bakery and the general staff.”

“What for?”

“I want to see what’s needed and how I could help. The Zen Community of New York started Greyston 40 years ago. Back then we were so naïve. All we could think about was how to be enlightened. Bernie, of course, had other ideas and he brought us to southwest Yonkers and that became our practice instead. Greyston has deep spiritual roots, whether they know it or not, and I’d like to see it up close.”

“Do they have dogs there, Boss?”

“I don’t think so, though I used to bring my dog, Woody, there.”

“If they don’t have dogs, who cares?”

“You know, Aussie, for a while we had offices in a nunnery of Sacramentine nuns and—”

“Are nuns dogs?”

“No, Aussie, they most certainly are not.”

“Then I don’t care—”

“Just listen, Auss. The Sacramentines were a cloistered order, which means they couldn’t go anywhere.”

“They couldn’t run and play? They couldn’t chase deer?”

“They had to stay in, Auss.”

“Could they roll on their backs to be petted?”

“I’m not sure about that. My point is, Aussie, they couldn’t talk or be with us, a fence separated us from them. But sometimes during lunch I’d go out with Woody and approach that fence. They’d be on their side of the fence and we’d be on ours. They’d be wearing their all-black habits, which many nuns don’t wear anymore—”

“Their breed was all black, Boss?”

“In a manner of speaking, Aussie.”

“Most of me is black. Am I a nun too?”

“Don’t be silly, and stop interrupting. They couldn’t talk to me—”

“Why not?”

“Because they were cloistered, separated from the world.”

“They didn’t play even among themselves, Boss, like me and Harry??

“I think they could say a few words to each other, but not much. Mostly, Aussie, I think they talked to God.”

“Is God a dog?”

“Some people think so because God is supposed to be all about love.”

“I’m not all about love, Boss.”

“Truer words have never been spoken, Auss.”

“Did you see me frightening that black bear away in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t see the bear, Aussie, but I sure heard you, as did half the town, I’m sure.”

“I don’t want the bear to bring down the birdfeeders.”

“Because you love birds, Aussie?”

“No, because the birdfeeders attract squirrels, and then I could kill them.”

“I’m trying to tell you this story, Aussie.”

“Get to the point.”

“So the nuns couldn’t talk to me, but whenever Woody approached the fence their hands would go through the bars and stroke his golden fur, and they would make these cooing sounds.”

Coo-coo? Not ruff-ruff?”

Coo-coo.”

“And then what happened, Boss?”

“Nothing. That’s the story.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. I still remember their pale thin fingers because they spent most of their days indoors praying.”

“Are there still nuns at the place you’re going to?”

“They moved out years ago, Auss. They’re probably dead by now. Their order was dying out.”

“Don’t worry about the house, Boss, I will protect it. No bears tearing down birdfeeders in my watch. Did you see the rainstorm we had? Didn’t stop me from rushing out the dog door and barking like  crazy, while Harry barked from behind the door. What a wimp!”

“Aussie, try to be careful around bears.”

“They should be careful around me! I’m not afraid of anything. Not bears, not foxes, not rain or snow, nothing. I got soaked to the skin, but who cares? Once the bear ran for his life I came back in, jumped on the sofa, and fell asleep. Made that sofa awfully wet, though.”

“Try not to destroy the sofa, Auss.”

“It’s all worth it, Boss. Have a good trip.”

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TREE OF LIFE

Don’t tell anyone in the Zen world, but I meditate on a rocking chair.

Strange, I know, but see here: It doesn’t rock when I sit. It stops the minute I settle in, and I feel like I’m poised between heaven and earth, between pushing forward towards all the things I want and pulling back from everything I dislike and fear. I seem to sit right on the edge between the two and it feels very stable. The chair doesn’t move.

This morning a card on the adjacent windowsill fell on the rug. I picked it up and saw it was an old card someone had sent me from Europe after Bernie became ill. She wrote beautiful words of encouragement. I turned the card over and it showed a tree on the other side, entitled the Tree of Life. Bernie often referred to the Tree of Life. In the Old Testament, there were two trees: the Tree of Knowledge, which helped you discriminate right from wrong, and the Tree of Life. Adam and my namesake, Eve, chose to eat the fruit of the first tree, but it was the second, the Tree of Life, that was in the center of the Garden of Eden.

Last September, in Santa Barbara, I met a couple. Both were 74 years old. He had lost his wife some 8 months earlier, met an old friend, the two fell in love, and confided to me that they’d just gotten married. They hadn’t done this publicly because of concern over what his children would say.

“I don’t know how you could do something like that so fast,” I told them. We were all in Santa Barbara for a memorial of a close friend, and it brought up Bernie and our 2 years together there. “I’m not judging you,” I said, “I just can’t imagine it.”

He explained that he’d nursed his wife through 5 years of Alzheimers. By the last two years she couldn’t even recognize him.

He left the room for a short while, and his new wife said to me: “You know, it takes courage to fall in love at our age. We’ve had our losses, and we know that ahead of us lie more losses. It’s very different when you fall in love much earlier, and ahead of you stretch many years of loving and planning and building. But what are you going to do?”

What, indeed? Not fall in love? Not go on like that red dahlia that only bloomed in September, living fully in the face of decreasing sunlight and cold nights, evidence that its lifespan was going to be short?

Soon I’ll be 70. I don’t know what love is ahead for me, only that life is. And short and pockmarked as that may be, I want to do it fully.

 

I will lead a Zen meditation retreat from Thursday evening, December 5, till mid-day of Sunday, December 8. Please see here for details if you are interested in attending.

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I DON’T WANT THIS WINDOW TO CLOSE

My friend, the Zen teacher Myotai Treace, wrote the following in her terrific book, Wake Up: How to Practice Zen Buddhism: “After a shared tragedy, people are washed clear for a while, after the wringing grip of intense grief. We are left with this sparseness—a tenderness that is practically edgeless. When the mental clutter begins to reassemble, many find themselves grieving not only for the dead, but also for the passing of that quality of spare tenderness. Daily routines can heal, but they can also put our hearts to sleep.”

When Bernie’s second wife, Jishu Holmes, died suddenly, I watched the teacher I’d known for over a dozen years turn into bare bones. He was raw, aching, without the confidence and even swagger that often characterized him. He was a different person, and knew it. His beard grew, hair gone wild, confronted by something bigger than himself, and he knew better than to fight it. He plunged into an immense lake of grief, and it held and sustained him. He was full of wonder at this change in himself.

And then he seemed to change back, the old personality returned, altered somewhat but bearing old patterns I knew well.

“What happened?” I asked a friend of ours, a Zen practitioner and psychiatrist. “He was so different!”

“The window’s begun to close,” he said.

I don’t want my window to close. This skin that grew so thin, even diaphanous, since Bernie’s stroke, that opened itself up to fear (How will I take care of him! What will happen to us!), sadness, and infinite alteration—I want that skin to remain as it is. I want the sparseness that Myotai talks of so eloquently to stay.

Not that my life is sparse. I still love the cappuccino I make in early mornings and drink from a blue cup I bought at an Armenian pottery store in Jerusalem. I love the hot baths at night, films on television weekend evenings.

But relationships have gotten spare. I’ve no patience for small talk, for conversations that remain on the surface, for connections that don’t connect. It’s not that I’m sad, not at all; I can get pretty frivolous with a couple of good friends, talk and laugh and gossip like anyone else. What I’m talking about is wanting to be real, stop with the yada-yada, make sure my words reveal what I think and feel. Try to come from a place deep inside, not just the hi place. Not talk about the man in the White House and what’s wrong with half the country or the rest of the world.

I don’t want this blessed window caused by illness, death, and grief to close. I don’t want to stop being tender and raw. I don’t want mental chatter to return, the old veils seducing me out of grief and back into routine. I never cried so easily as I did this past year, and though at first I felt like a silly child, now I kind of like it. It means I break down more easily, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t want the old veneer, I’d like to shiver when it’s cold. There’s so much going on around us, and all of it needs tenderness. It’s all dharma, pure reality, and my practice—and what I love—is to sit with it, pay attention, appreciate every single tiny moment. The time I waste on nonsense is really and truly wasted. Sleep nourishes m, but not petty, depthless moments.

Reference points? Three years of mornings when Bernie would finally wake and sit up. I’d sit on the edge of the bed with him as he looked out the window, contemplating another day of life as it was, not as it had been.

“How did you sleep?” I’d ask.

“Fine. And you?”

“Fine.”

All of heaven and earth were in those few words.

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