WE WERE CRAZY!

I was in New York for the past two days. I spent hours with a friend sitting on a rocker and looking out her back yard at a tree full of birds. The next day I went to visit with Mike Brady, President of Greyston, along with Rami Efal, the Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers. Together we talked about how to strengthen Bernie’s Zen flavor in Greyston, the mandala of for-profits and not-for-profits that he, along with his Zen Community, established in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was Rami’s idea that one of the things I should do at Greyston is tell stories of those early years, when a group of inexperienced but devoted dharma students started a café, an almost-failed bakery that became a great success, a housing program that built permanent homes for homeless families, a child care center, and a highly-regarded AIDS care facility with housing for people with AIDS in southwest Yonkers. Mike gave both of us bags of brownies from the Greyston Bakery which you can buy at Whole Foods.

A week ago I opened up a file I hadn’t looked at in a long time. It contained many pages of journal notes I wrote at night in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I call it my Greyston Journal and I have no memory of writing it. But the pages are there, single-spaced, evidence of a fanatic who stayed in the office night after night trying to capture the flavor of events, and especially stories of the crazy people, like me, who were there because they were madly in love with the dharma.

From a day in April 1989:

“Jack [a consultant who visited the Greyston Bakery to see why it was losing so much money] saw all the employees going upstairs to the zendo and asked what they were doing. ‘Every month we have Mandala Day,’ we explained to him. ‘We gather on the third floor for a couple of hours. The Bakery folks share what they’re doing, the housing folks talk about their work, the Builders [Greyston Builders} talk about their projects. It’s always someone’s birthday so we cut up a cake. The Greyston-ettes sing a couple of songs [that day they sang Didn’t we Almost Have It All and Amazing Grace]. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka talked at Mandala Day last month. People like it”’ Jack was flabbergasted: “You stop work for this? No wonder you’re broke!”

And this, the following day:

“Yesterday the executive director of the Center for Preventive Psychiatry came to visit. We spoke to him about providing psychiatric services to the children moving into the building [68 Warburton, our first housing project]. We suggested we keep the building in a “wellness” mode and send any adults and children who may need help out for treatment. He didn’t agree at all. He told us that CPP gave as conservative estimates that 75% of the homeless people they deal with have drug abuse problems. He said: ‘Whatever your expectations are, I don’t care how low, slash them by 80%. My office can tell you about success stories we’ve pointed to with pride, women who got off drugs and were housed and working in a good job, their kids doing well in school, and four months later they’re back on crack and the kids are out of school and you can’t even find them anymore. They have no social fabric, no basic security of any kind. It takes nothing for them to have another fall, nothing at all.’”

And finally, this from earlier that same morning:

“Lately each time I wake up in the morning and still find myself on my mattress on the floor I wonder if it makes much sense to be spending years of my life here: Why I’m on some mattress rather than on a bed, why I’m not in my own apartment [we lived communally], why somebody isn’t lying at my side.”

Why? Because there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I loved this way of Zen practice, of making a go of a for-profit bakery and helping families (almost always single mothers with children) live in new apartments, get jobs, get child care, get a life. We were constantly broke, with unpaid stipends and wages, on the brink of collapse, perpetually on edge, trying to make up for our ignorance and lack of business-world competence by always working harder.

“Oh yes,” someone once said when he head that I’d worked in Greyston for years as part of that meshugena community, “you were the ones who practiced in a zendo on the 3rdfloor of a bakery, and afterwards would go downstairs and get to work.”

“No,” I told him, “we were the ones who practiced in that funky zendo early each morning and then went downstairs and continued to practice Zen the rest of the day.”

“We were crazy,” I told the friend I visited last Wednesday. She had been there too, and now we both sat in back of her house and contemplated the birds.

“You’re not kidding,” she said. “We were crazy all right.”

But we were in love.

 

Someone recently said to meitting in the morning

 

 

 

 

This morning I walked the dogs and they rummaged around the shrubbery that runs on both sides of the creek, lunging after various critters I couldn’t see. And then in complete silence a gray-blue heron rose high up in the air to grace-filled heaven.

WHO’S MY REAL PACK?

Over the weekend, Aussie killed a woodchuck.

We’d just driven up the hill and parked near the entrance to our favorite woods, when both dogs made a beeline for an open pasture. Harry barked and barked; Aussie killed.

It was over by the time I got there. Harry was ready to take off, but not Aussie, who stood above the stationary woodchuck.

“Come on, Auss,” I said. “You did your thing, now let’s go.”

When she didn’t move I tried to leash her, but she pulled away from me. Instead, she kept on trying to pull the body with her mouth into the thick shrubbery, but it seemed too heavy for her. At some point she looked up at Harry, who just sat there uncertain about what comes next, as if asking for his help. Harry started barking again, following his usual dictum: When don’t know, bark. Aussie stopped pulling. She stepped away from the woodchuck, then went back; she couldn’t bear to leave it.

“Come, let’s go to the creek for some water,” I said to her.

Instead she sat down next to the woodchuck. There was no trace of blood anywhere, not on her nor on the dead body; she must have sunk her teeth into its neck and shaken it to death.

I decided not to leash and pull her, but to stand and keep her company, take my cue from her. Aussie, the dog who greets me so sweetly every morning when I sit, pushing her head right into my bathrobe to smell all of me, was now totally in her wild element. Someone said that beauty takes you beyond the known world; so does the wild.

She clearly wanted to drag the woodchuck into the bushes and couldn’t. She looked at me; I nodded and said Yeah. I have no idea what I meant by that. But she got something because she wagged her tail, as if we finally understood each other, then sat back again.

Harry circled us, looking at me with a question in his eyes: Aren’t we going into the wild? The wild’s right here, I told him silently.

Aussie proudly savored the moment. There was no den to drag the woodchuck to, no one else to join her at the kill.

I’m waiting for my pack to come and join me.

We’re your pack, Aussie.

I’m waiting for my real pack.

Who’s your real pack, Aussie?

She sat, panted, looked down, and gave the woodchuck a couple of licks. Not eating licks, something else, and looked up at me. I felt that she was teaching me something really important, but what it was I didn’t know.

I wanted to go home. I’d had a busy morning, ahead lay more work, and this was enough drama for one outing, but I also wanted her to go down to the creek, get wet, and drink her fill. Of course, she could have drunk her fill from the water bowl at home, but I felt that this time she had to drink at the creek.

Finally, on her own, she got up and walked off quietly, and stayed quiet for the rest of the short walk. She didn’t run, she didn’t push Harry into chasing her, she showed no trace of her usual flamboyant self. She ran down to the creek, drank, and came back. I called her, she came, and I leashed her.

“Come Aussie, let’s go home.”

HOW TO CURE TRAUMA AND ANXIETY

“Harry, what’s come over you? You’re peeing in the house.”

“Only on the rug under the dining room table, Boss.”

“But why, Harry? You were fully housebroken six months ago. You learned to use the dog door whenever you needed to, nothing ever stopped you. So why have you started to pee inside the house?”

“It’s my trauma, Boss.”

“What trauma?”

“When things come up from the past I can’t help it, I got to pee, so I run downstairs and pee on the rug.”

“What things, Harry?”

“I was found as a stray on the streets of Mississippi, remember? Somebody there didn’t want me anymore.”

“Maybe you just ran, Harry. I’ve seen you with food. You may have spotted a piece of discarded hot dog on the street and broken through the window to get to it.”

“They could have come back for me, Boss, but they didn’t. And what you do doesn’t help me, either. You yell at me.”

“That’s because I also found a few turds under the table, Harry.”

“Last time you threw something at me.”

“You mean the small sofa cushion? It couldn’t possibly have hurt you, Harry, not to mention that I missed.”

“That just re-traumatized me all over again. Boss, I need to feel safe.”

“Harry, I don’t think any such thing really exists. Regardless, you have no business peeing and pooping on the rug.”

“Oh yeah? So tell me this, Boss. How come when you wake up in the mornings you just lie there and stare at the ceiling? I’ve watched you do this every single day.”

“Because I get anxious and sad.”

“Why, Boss?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always been depressed and anxious first thing in the morning. After Bernie died it got a little worse.”

“Have you ever tried peeing on the rug? It helps me.”

“I’m not going to pee on the rug, Harry.”

“Would you prefer to poop? It’s hard to do if you don’t really have to, you know? I mean, you can pee when you don’t really have to, but you can’t—“

“Harry, I’m not going to poop under the dining room table on account of my anxiety, and I’m not peeing, either. I can just go to the bathroom if I need to.”

“You’ve been doing that all this time, Boss. Has it helped?”

“Peeing in the toilet has not helped my early morning anxiety, that’s true. I don’t think the two are connected, Harry.”

“Of course they’re connected, Boss! You get anxious first thing in the morning and you have to pee first thing in the morning. The only question is, where?”

“This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever had with anyone, Harry.”

“Look, why don’t you pee under the dining room table? It’ll make you feel better.”

“I don’t think so, Harry.”

“And f you leave a pile under the dining room table it’ll make you feel lots better. I’ll leave you space, ok?”

RACIST

Toni Morrison died.

I was so lucky that my friend, Roshi Pat O’Hara, told me to go see the documentary Toni Morrison: Pieces of Me, which I did some two weeks ago. If you haven’t seen it, see it.

When I was in Teachers College, the renowned education professor, Maxine Green, told all her students to read The Bluest Eye and Sula. She said that the country hadn’t seen anything quite like these books before. I did, and followed a year or so later with Song of Solomon.

Morrison refused to make victims of her characters. She knew darn well that abstractions like victims and perpetrators lack the personal. They lack story. They may make sense for police work, but they capture very little of what matters.

White people didn’t get much play in her books. They were out there, of course. Hate was out there, racism, heartlessness, and oppression were out there, but that’s not what she wrote about. She wrote about what was in here, inside her characters’ lives. She gave them choices, she gave them moral autonomy. In doing so, she freed them.

Which brings me to the epithet racist, and specifically to the question of who’s a racist and who is not.

After Donald Trump won election in 2016 I had coffee with a lovely woman who’d helped take care of Bernie on Saturday mornings when I was in the zendo. I’ll call her Julia. I knew Julia had voted for Donald Trump.

“I am not a racist,” she told me a couple of times during our conversation.

Towards the end of our coffee together she told me that her son loved country music. “You know what bothers him?” she said. “Why aren’t they allowed to fly the Confederate flag during country music concerts? I mean, what’s the harm in doing that?”

“Julia,” I said, “does he understand what the flag stands for?”

“I think so, but that was so long in the past, Eve, what’s the harm of flying it now?”

Is Julia a racist? Is Donald Trump a racist? What information are we trying to winnow out by asking that question? A sense of their ethics and values, their social awareness? Whatever it is, it’s getting impossible to get at any of that anymore, everything gets blurred in the cacophony of name-calling.

In one of our retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a German man suggested that in addition to chanting the names of those who died, we should also chant the names of the camp guards whose deluded actions brought on so much suffering. The suggestion brought on a near-riot. “Absolutely not!” someone yelled. “Never! Never! Never!” someone else said.

Then Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi asked to speak. He said that in old Israel, a rabbinical court was empowered to issue judgments, including for crimes that called for the death penalty. But when death was at stake, the Talmud added an injunction. Unlike what’s done in our juries, where unanimity is required for conviction, the Talmud demanded that in capital cases, if all judges agreed that the accused was guilty and should be put to death, the verdict was put aside and the accused had the right to another rabbinical trial.

Why? Because life is not unanimous. Life is not black and white, pure evil or pure goodness. Life is decisions made within social and economic contexts; life is story and history.

Toni Morrison understood that so well. “What kind of person are you,” she asked, “if you need someone else to kneel so that you could feel tall?”

Racism permeates our society, those people asked to kneel and those who raise themselves above them. Who’s not part of that machinery? But Toni Morrison didn’t idealize and didn’t villainize. She used words to get at whatever is behind words.

 

DOESN’T HURT ENOUGH YET

In The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer tells this story:

A friend walks up to the porch to say hello and hears an awful yelping, squealing sound coming from inside the house.

“What’s that terrifying sound?” asks the friend.

“It’s my dog,” said the farmer. “He’s sittin’ on a nail.”

“Why doesn’t he just sit up and get off it?” asks the friend.

The farmer deliberates on this and replies: “Doesn’t hurt enough yet.”

This past weekend reminded me of this story. I asked myself how much it has to hurt till we finally make the turn—not just from guns, which stares us in the face—but from other things, too.

Donald Trump holds rallies. He has badmouthed “The Squad,” consisting of four women of color democratically elected to the US Congress, including two Muslims, and has said they should go back where they came from. Showman that he is, he knows how to energize a crowd.

And what a crowd! A crowd that travels across various states and stands for hours on line to get in to see him, cheer him on, yell Send them back! Not skinheads, mind you, but mothers and grandmothers who tell reporters that Jesus will make sure that Trump is re-elected, and Pence after him. Nor are they poor. They are restaurant owners and nurses; they are people who send their kids to college.

They are people who adore him because, as one said: “He will protect our world order.” That’s when I get nervous.

I haven’t been nervous on account of Donald Trump since Election Night 2016. The very next morning I decided to look carefully at what had been invisible to my Western Massachusetts eyes, to learn as much as I could about what happens to people when coal mines and steel towns shut down, about a Main Street that is ignored not just by Wall Street or Washington but also by big universities, Silicon Valley, and major media, the places where opioids circulate instead of money.

But nervousness has returned.

It’s not Donald Trump per se. I don’t think he has a fierce ideology against people of color or immigrants; I don’t think he has any ideology per se. He’s also silly in the way that people are when they just see short run gains over long run, the partial rather than the whole. And, of course, we all pay a price for his silliness.

I am more concerned about after Donald. I am thinking of the people watching his success who are much smarter and savvier than him, and who share a particular vision: We need to protect our world order.

Talk of world order makes me uneasy. It’s too gargantuan for me; it lacks human proportions. And what world order is that? The world of white male domination? Of private ownership of assault weapons? Of unregulated capitalism that has gone wilder than a rodeo show?

I used to hear: This is their last gasp, they’re running out of time. I’m not sure anymore. Yes, they’re running out of time, but there are many— more than I thought—who’re ready to fight long and hard for this old world order, and take this country right over the edge along with them. We underestimate their strength and passion.

The question isn’t whether Trump is another Hitler, but rather what conditions here parallel some of those in pre-Hitler Germany. There is a clear emphasis on remilitarization. More money, more weapons seeking targets and deployment. There is cynicism and contempt towards governance and media institutions. I agree that these have failed many, many people, but before we take them down let’s make sure there’s something in their place; let’s not leave a vacuum. There is the blaming, scapegoating, and inciting directed at people of color and immigrants.

Finally, I watch with growing dismay a growing segment of the population be unfazed by, and even support, statements of racism and out-and-out hate I wouldn’t have thought possible anymore. A narrow slice of Americans believed this dogma, I used to think; now I know that slice is widening. And it reminds me of how a majority of well-intentioned German people watched Hitler industrialize Germany and improve the economy, win approval from major German institutions and concessions from other countries, and little by little they thought: He’s not so crazy, in fact he’s doing pretty well for us.

I was one of those people who often felt she’d had it with politics and both major parties. But anyone who thinks that there is no difference between the two parties literally should have her eyes examined. Take a look at the white males of the Republican Congress and Senate as they flee from journalists asking for comments after Send them back! Take a look at the gender, ethnic, and religious diversity of their Democrat counterparts, at the youth, the demand for reform of everything from climate to medical insurance. Whether it’s the more moderate wing or the more progressive wing, representing differences in methods, what they all seem to agree on is that a new order is coming—and it’s welcome.

I can’t remember a time when the two parties had such a contrasting vision for this country.

I don’t think Donald Trump is Hitler, but I am concerned that waiting in the wings is someone who is learning from his mistakes and ready to take on that mantle, who will protect the old order at all costs.

In the end, youth will win out. That youth already shows itself much more comfortable with diverse ethnicities, less religion but more spirituality, and passion about the fate of this earth. But for now it’s still the parents who drive the political process, and some parents, I believe, will fight long and hard. We underestimate that fight to our peril.

SAYONARA, YASODHARA!

“Who’s on the wrong side of the fence, Aussie?”

“You are.”

“No, you are, Aussie, and you know why?”

“Why, Boss?”

“Because you’re outside the borders of the house.  You’re outside the fenced area. Therefore, you are on the wrong side of the fence. Instead of being here, where you are safe and well cared for, you go off to brave the wilds of Montague.”

“I’m leaving home just like the Buddha did. He left his wife, Yasodhara, behind. That’s you, Boss. Sayonara, Yasodhara.”

“Wait a minute, Aussie.”

“He left! He ran, just like me!”

“I don’t think he ran, Aussie, I seem to remember that he had a white horse and—“

“I don’t need no white horse, Boss, or any kind of horse.”

“What about Harry, Aussie? He always whimpers when you go through the gate, a little like the Buddha’s friend, the charioteer, who asked him not to leave.”

“I do not listen to Harry. The world calls. The truth calls, Boss.”

“What truth is that, Aussie? That life is suffering?”

“Are you out of your mind? The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, the river flows below us, there are horses to greet and deer to chase. You call that suffering?”

“But Aussie, you’ll get old!”

“I’ll get old at home, too.”

“You’ll get sick!”

“I’ll get a lot sicker if I continue to chase Harry around. If I have to do one more circle round the house chasing that canine locomotive I’ll probably drop dead.”

“So you’re going out to find out how to end suffering, Aussie?”

“Boss, I’ve already sniffed out some end-of-suffering territory.”

“What have you found, Auss?”

“Well, if you wade into the river below on a hot summer day like today and get your paws all cold and wet, your suffering will end on the spot.”

“I did that the other day, Aussie, when you and Harry were down by the pond and invited me in. I took off my sandals and went in, had a great time, splashed you–“

“A very stupid thing to do, Boss—“

“I thought it was great fun. Till Harry jumped onshore, grabbed one of my sandals in his mouth and ran off with it. Instantly my suffering returned.”

“Now that was really fun, Boss. What a run he had with the sandal between his jaws, tail twitching, and you’re yelling: Harry, you come back now! Harry, bring me back my sandal! Talk of attachments. Shame on you.”

“I’m not a dog, Aussie, I can’t walk around in the woods barefoot. Did you learn anything else about how to end suffering?”

“I learned lots of things, Boss. When you smell a deer, chase it!”

“But then the deer suffers, Aussie. It’s scared and has to run.”

“When you see a squirrel, pounce! All misery is instantly forgotten.”

“The squirrel can’t be feeling too good about that, Aussie. The Buddha wished to end suffering for all beings.”

“I’m taking it one dog at a time. When you find a horse turd, eat it.”

“Uggh. I think you’d better come home, Aussie.”

“Hey, I’m just getting started. Why aren’t you cheering me on? You’ve cheered the Buddha on for centuries, and he left his home once! I do it almost every day.”

“Please come home, Aussie. Be a householder.”

“And accept the terms of my confinement? No way, bluejay.”

“Be more like Harry. He’s such a good dog.”

“Likes his family, likes his food, and sleeps all day. Fuggedaboudit. I’m going to be like Buddha. Nobody ever called him a good dog.”

 

ONLY IN AMERICA

“The little prince sat down on a rock and looked up into the sky.

“‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘if the stars are lit up so that each of us can find his own, someday. Look at my planet—it’s just overhead. But so far away!’

“’It’s lovely,’ the snake said. ‘What have you come to Earth for?’

“’I’m having difficulties with a flower,’ the little prince said.

“’Ah!’ said the snake.

“And they were both silent.” (St Exupery)

Imagine having difficulties with a flower. Bees and butterflies might have difficulties, hovering over a half-closed dahlia: What’s the matter? Was it the pounding rain last night? Are you discouraged by the clouds? Don’t get on with the neighboring apples?

Many years ago I said to someone I then loved: “It’s so hard for me to go through layer after layer after layer before I can get to your heart.”

Contemplating that this morning, I called my mother. “How are you doing, mom?”

“Everything is fine,” she said, which she has said every time I call over the past 4 months. “But I was remembering something that happened a long time ago.”

“What’s that?”

“When we came to America, your father worked in a synagogue.  One of the things he had to do was prepare the young boys who were turning 13 for their Bar-Mitzvah, which meant they had to chant the weekly portion of the Torah and recite the blessing on the Sabbath of their Bar-Mitzvah. None of these boys were religious; they just did this to please their parents.

There was an elderly man there who was very rich, I think his name was Morris I’m not sure. He had a grandson, the son of his son, coming up for his Bar-Mitzvah. Your father worked with the boy, the Sabbath came, the boy read as he was supposed to and said the correct blessing, and everyone was happy.

Two months later your father had to prepare Morris’s second grandson, David, the son of his daughter, for his Bar-Mitzvah. Morris was a little nervous about this grandson, so he came early on Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, to see how the boy was doing. Your father took him into the synagogue to see the boy practicing on the bimah in the synagogue.

‘David,’ Morris said, ‘I want you to do well tomorrow. I want you to make me proud. And if you do that, I’ll give you the same gift I gave your cousin two weeks ago.’

‘What did you give him?’ wondered your father.

‘I gave him one million dollars,’ Morris said.

‘I don’t want a million dollars, grandpa,’ David said. ‘I want a gun!'”

LULLABY FOR ME

I tell you, this dog has saved my life.

Aussie, I mean.

Day after day, from sheer habit I get into my head, into those glum, narrow, gray confines of a boring old self I’ve known for some 69 years. Same old voices, same old lazy moaning and groaning. You look around and find yourself in fog, you know what’s next in the day, and what’s next after that, and after that, but you don’t really know anything.

Then Aussie brushes by your leg and looks up, and the aliveness of those eyes! The shine of those black pupils, the light inside the dark!.

For what reason? What’s the inspiration or ambition that causes them to practically glitter? Not world peace or a Nobel Prize. Maybe a reminder of breakfast, or of a walk or car ride. So ordinary, so routine, so alive!

And you know that inside that black and brown canine form, descended of wolves, nothing is lived by halves or quarters. Joy precedes every meal, Christmas every walk.

She doesn’t know about fragmentation, about being here but not really. Her eyes don’t go up towards her forehead when she talks, a sure sign she’s back up there. In fact, she doesn’t know how not to pay attention, how not to be aware.

Each time she brushes my leg or presses her head against me, whining volubly, I wonder: Is it time to feed them? Didn’t we go for a walk? And then I look down and see the brightness of those eyes: Come on! Meet me! Talk to me! Stroke me! Laugh with me!

Not with Aussie, with life.

How do you do this, I ask her. I lock you up, put you behind the fence, tell you where to go, where to sleep, what to eat, put you on leash. I bound and fetter you, so how are you so alive? Why, in so many of these moments, am I the one who is asleep?

Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem, a lullaby, just for me:

“Lullaby.

Sleep on and on,

war’s over soon.

Drop the silly, harmless toy,

Pick up the moon.”

NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL FAMILY!

“Where are you guys going?”

“We’re off!”

“Off to the woods. Adventure, here we come!”

“Wait a minute, where are you rushing off? You may not realize it, but the idea of walking in the woods is that you two walk with me.”

“Really?”

“I had no idea. Aussie, did you know that?”

“Silliest thing I ever heard, Harry. We go on our run, you, Boss, go on your walk. You mean, we’re supposed to stay en famille?”

“What does that mean, Aussie?”

“Stay as a family, Harry. Stay together.”

“We are a family, guys. I know you like to run when we’re in the woods, I don’t mind if you go off here and there instead of staying by my heels, but you have to keep track of me, and when I whistle or call out, you come right over. That’s what being a family means.”

“Fool me, Aussie.”

“Never heard of such a thing. We’re two different species, Boss, how could we be one family?”

“If we’re one family, Boss, how come we eat dry dog food while you eat sautéed chicken?”

“Good one, Harry.”

“If we’re one family, Boss, how come I can’t pee overnight and have to hold it in till you open the dog door in the early morning? Do I have to remind you how often you go to the bathroom every night?”

“No, Harry, you don’t have to remind me.”

“If we’re one family, Boss, how come you can leave the house whenever you want to and I can’t?”

“Except that you do, Aussie.”

“And this morning I missed breakfast. If we’re one family—“

“Enough already! Guys, one family doesn’t mean that we have the same life, that we sleep on the same beds—“

“Actually, we do—“

“Quiet, Harry! Or eat the same food or go and come in the same way. We’re different, not better or worse.”

“Tell me that next time you’re eating a hamburger and I’m eating Kibble.”

“Hey, I don’t have it as good as you think. Who worries about having money for your dog food and treats?”

“Don’t you hunt?”

“You’re a lousy hunter if all you can bring back is Kibble, Boss.”

“When the tree smashed down close to the house, who made sure to get the live wires back up and out of reach, and then got the tree sawed up and the yard cleaned out so that you two could have your games and chase each other?”

“Not us, Boss, we ran away.”

“When you ate the edible pot in the woods, who took you to the vet?”

“That was a lot of fun, Boss.”

“Who provided you with training, which hasn’t yet paid off? Who took out all those porcupine quills?”

“She has a point, Harry. We all have our jobs to do. We all have our different roles to play. Right, Boss?”

“Right, Aussie, now you’re talking. I’m proud of you.”

“The Boss’s job is to fence us in. My job is to break out.”

“The Boss’s job is to give us Kibble. My job is to steal chicken off the counter.”

“The Boss’s job is to get us dog beds. My job is to sleep on the sofa—“

“Or her bed.”

“The Boss’s job is to walk us. Our job, Harry, is to run away.”

”Now, that’s what I call a family!”

 

CHEESEBURGERS

I used to love to sit in New York City subway cars and look at all the different faces across from me. At that time all the subway cars had long benches, one across from the other, each bench holding 10-12 people, and if you were lucky you saw 12 completely different faces, from ethnic groups all over the world.

There they are, sitting elbow to elbow, in their own respective worlds and thoughts. Maybe they’re mentally reviewing the job they’d just left or what’s ahead for them at home, thinking about children or what they’re going to make for dinner, and do they have to stop at a food market. They’re barely aware of each other, they just do their thing, some tired and shutting their eyes, others listening to music or talking on the phone, all in one subway car together, effortlessly, not realizing how amazing it all is to me, sitting across from them and looking from one face to another.

I no longer live in New York, so now I love to look at the credits that roll in the end of movies and see all the different names of editors, cinematographers, producers, animation specialists, special effects folks, the many assistants. Sometimes there are hundreds of names rolling down that screen: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, African, Jewish, Muslim (a more recent phenomenon), and straight WASP, as I think of it.

I do the same thing with the acknowledgments at the end of books, especially nonfiction informational books that list the many names of those who helped with research, editing, proofreading, inspiration, etc. It never fails to move me how people with such different names, coming from such different backgrounds, work together to create something that wasn’t there before.

I grew up in a religious Jewish household and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had different priorities than others in my family and community, one especially. I was not interested in the question of what it meant to be Jewish. I was interested in the question of what it meant to be human.

The bus driver who took us teenagers to school and back often ate his meals while waiting for us to board. His special favorite seemed to be cheeseburgers. I would sit up front and stare and stare at him as he ate. In our house, where meat and dairy were always kept separate, we never had cheeseburgers.

One day I said to my mother, “Mom, do you ever wonder what cheeseburgers taste like?”

She turned around slowly. “Never! Not once!” She couldn’t have been more horrified if I’d asked her what a dog turd tasted like with yellow mustard on the side.

Right then and there I knew I was different. I also knew that it was dangerous to be that way. Usually, people didn’t say you were different, they said you were crazy.

I don’t usually sit on New York subways anymore. But I think about what that was like, how different we all were, sunk in our own thoughts even as the train hurtled uptown, carrying us all into the next moment, the next future, the next life. We didn’t have to do much, just pay a subway fare, and the train transported us equally uptown regardless of who we were or what station we got off.