BUT I CAN SMELL PEE!

Do you ever think of death, Bernie?

Sometimes.

And what do you feel when you think about it?

That it’s okay. It’ll be fewer headaches.

Like what headaches, Bernie?

Well, I think I should be doing things.

Are people asking you to do things?

No, people aren’t. But I think that if I’m alive maybe I should be doing more.

You could be walking me, suggests Stanley from the rug.

Bernie’s not listening; he’s too busy eating a slice of Carvel birthday ice cream cake shaped like a football. New England is crazy about its Patriots in this playoffs season and Bernie is no exception, though inside he retains a big affection for the New York Giants. Crowd-sized trays of lasagna and macaroni are sold everywhere, not to mention wings in a half-dozen different sauces along with ribs, as though everybody is hosting parties over the weekend.

We’re not, but when Bernie asked for an ice cream birthday cake I bought one shaped like a football. Chocolate/vanilla ice cream inside, chocolate crumbs outside with whipped cream to mark the seams.

It’s just the two of us cutting into it, with Stanley ever ready for dishwashing duty. Bernie didn’t want a party, didn’t want a fuss. This is not an important birthday, he told me.

What’s an unimportant birthday?

When I spent my 48th birthday at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Roshi Joan Halifax and other Zen teachers, Joan told me that on my birthday I should always call my mother to thank her for all the pain and struggle she went through to give birth, giving me life. I’ve tried to remember to do that every year. I am lucky, because my mother is still alive to hear those words of gratitude.

Bernie lost his mother when he was 7, so there’s no one he could call to say thank you. Instead we’re cutting into a football-shaped ice cream cake and discussing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and especially how long they can keep on winning, because though the team is a machine and Tom eats healthier than anybody, everything has an end.

Earlier this day I walked Stanley on the road. He pulled impatiently on the leash while I paused to examine a fallen tree that lay across the snowy white meadow.

Hold your horses, Stanley.

Why are you dawdling?

I’m examining the tree roots. Take a look, Stan, a tree fell and died, but new critters arrive to take shelter inside and under the tree, entire new colonies of things.

What a dumb reason to walk slowly.

Hey, you also slow down when you find interesting things to sniff.

Tree roots are not interesting unless someone peed on them. Did someone pee on the tree?

I don’t know, Stanley, I can’t smell it.

How do you walk around the woods without smelling pee? How do you learn anything in your life if you can’t smell pee?

I use my eyes—

You’re nearsighted.

I use my brain.

Forget your brain!

Hey, Mr. Dog, you’re at least half blind and all deaf!

But I smell pee! And you don’t! Poor girl, it’s not your fault you’re less intelligent.

 

 

CAN’T HEAR YOU

 

Hey hey hey, where you going, Stanley? Who made this mess?

Can’t hear you.

Who went into the trash, took out the wrapper, chewed it up into little pieces and spat it out on the rug?

Can’t hear you.

Stop pretending you can’t hear me, you know darn well you shouldn’t be doing this.

Can’t hear you.

And what about when we’re walking outside and I call you to get back on leash?

Can’t hear you.

You know perfectly well that in the woods you can be without a leash, wander near and far, pee and smell at every bush, but on the road you go back on leash. You’ve been doing this for years!

Can’t hear you.

Only now you run away when I want to put you back on leash.

Can’t hear you.

You think just because you’re totally deaf you can get away with all these things?

Can’t hear you.

I’ve had it with how you can’t do this and you can’t do that. I’m trying to relate to both you and Bernie with compassion and understanding—

Can’t hear you.

The other night you scratched yourself against the small bed stand, down went Bernie’s cane with a smash, followed by the phone which beeped and beeped on the floor—all in the middle of the night.

Can’t hear you.

Do you know how many times I say something to Bernie and he tells me he can’t hear me?

Can’t hear you.

You do this, you do that, you take care of those you love, and nobody pays you any attention.

Can’t hear you.

You feed the birds, give them water, shop, cook, feed the family, do the laundry, change the bed linens, give you your hip medicines to keep you going, and does anybody notice?

Can’t hear you.

Move the rugs on the floor to help you stay on your feet, move your food bowls to the rug so that you can bend more easily, take you out walking in all weather, drive you over to Leeann, go to—

Can’t hear you.

I’m trying to do the best I can, damnit!

Can’t hear you.

One day one day, Stanley, you’ll be dead and then you’ll really not hear me.

When I’m dead I won’t be deaf anymore because I won’t be me anymore. Then maybe I’ll hear you a little better.

Yeah, maybe.

THE RED THREAD

Yesterday a friend of ours sent me this photo from Santa Barbara.

How long was that? At least 16 years. Bernie’s sitting on the porch of the house we lived in then. It was called the Love house, because the Beach Boys’ Mike Love had lived there years ago. You sit and look over the Pacific Ocean, often at whales and dolphins leaping and disporting from the joy of being alive.

And Bernie, too, shows confidence and even exuberance as he sits there with his beloved computer, iPhone in the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt probably concealing a cigar, his eternal jeans. When you wear the same general clothes day in day out, you get pretty comfortable.

It’s a good time, a good moment, and our friend passed by and clicked a photo I knew nothing about till he sent it to me earlier today. Was he cleaning house? Opened an old file and this photo fell out?

And like two arrows meeting in mid-air, yesterday too someone posted a photo of Bernie just a few years ago with Krishna Das. How strong he looked, how ruddy, how full of health! I inhaled sharply, as though I’d been slapped. As though the koan of my life had just hit my head with the weight of 10,000 earths and sent me flying through space as I yelled at the top of my lungs:

What is this? What is this?

I’m returning from a conference of lay Zen teachers. Sounds dull, right? But do you know what we talked about? Do you know what was our koan this long weekend?

Why can’t the Bodhisattva sever the red thread?

Why can’t a person dedicated to the complete awakening of the entire world, each and every inhabitant, vowing to return lifetime after lifetime to accomplish this impossible task, why can’t that person drop love and sex? Why can’t s/he just let go of all that nonsense, the confusion, the regrets, the desires, the silly posturing and postures, the messy, deluded, insane energy of it all? Forget about it finally, give it up, sit in some grass-roof hermitage among the coals and ashes of advancing age and encroaching loneliness, and do some serious work. Never again make a fool of yourself, never again laugh and cry, never again obsess about the love you want and the love you get. Give up frenzy, give up tears, give up the maddest madness of them all, the madness of love.

Why do this again, and break your heart? And again, and break your heart? And again, and again?

I’ll arrive home in the very early hours of Tuesday morning and he’ll be asleep, as the past is asleep. And I’ll tiptoe quietly so that neither he nor Stanley wakes up, and slide into bed. But when he turns over and says sleepily—You’re home!—I’ll say Yes, I’m home, and give him a strangled kiss in that swiftly passing darkness.

I’VE NEVER PRETENDED TO BE A MOUNTAIN

I travel to the annual conference of the Lay Zen Teachers Association that takes place every Martin Luther King weekend in January. It means waking up at 3:30 in the morning, which means not sleeping much, which comes on top of a few other sleepless nights. We land in a Chicago of rain and heavy fog, but when we take off the plane lifts up, breaks through the ceiling of clouds, and waiting for us is the sun.

How many of you out there also feel at times that you have no idea what’s happening in your body-minds? That energies come up, shake up your system, and you have no idea what they have to do with you?

Yes, I know the psychological stories of the past, I have some sense of the seeds of my confusion. And maybe if I went to a psychiatrist s/he would dangle a few more diagnoses I never considered or even heard of, labels to frame the turmoil and anxiety that often go through me like a tropical storm, Category 3 or 4. You know, you’re walking in the woods, weather looks fine, you feel collected and calm, normal so to speak, and a sudden wind starts spitting out twigs and branches all around, a waterfall crashes on top of your head, and you say: What the — ? Where did that come from?

And none of the stories of your past or, for that matter, the present seem to connect to this. You look around for the familiar triggers—after all, haven’t we studied ourselves for years?—and don’t find a thing.

Just the previous night at dinner Bernie teased me by calling me by my Hebrew name, Chavale, in that old Yiddish intonation from East Europe, and I made a face. I like the light Israeli Hebrew way of saying that name, I told him, but not the East European, which is heavy and drags; in fact, I don’t relate much to my East European roots. But now I think again because back there, they knew of dybbuks, maniacal, occasionally destructive souls that take over your psyche and act out their own life in you rather than letting you live your life.

The Buddhist side of me shakes her head. There’s only one life, the voice says, and that’s the life of this moment that the words this moment can’t capture, it’s this that the word this can’t capture. What are you getting yourself tied up in knots for? And you call yourself a teacher!

But for me teacher has nothing to do with equanimity; I’ve never pretended to be a mountain. There is no Mount Eve in any land, I’m quite sure. For me teaching—and living, for that matter—have much more to do with a reshuffling of the cards, followed by another reshuffling, and another and another. Always a new deal, a new game, with some invisible players joining whom you can’t even see never mind check out their finances to see if they can pay up.

I’m off to Texas folks, wild country, but it’s even wilder inside. Winds of change blow through, and it’s my tough luck if they wait to do this till the middle of the night. Where do they come from? From my present? The past? My parents’ past? The dawn of time?

Sometimes they knock, but lately, maybe because they know I’ve put away my guns, they just walk right in.

You’re strangers, I tell them. I know my own ghosts and sorrows; you I don’t recognize.

Who cares, they say, just make room in the bed, we can all fit.

You know what time it is? You know I’m getting up in just a few hours?

You want us to stay outside in the cold? You wouldn’t do it to a dog.

I start sitting while lying down. I become mindful of my breath, the bed against my back, the sounds made by Stanley and Bernie, the heat coming up.

Stop fidgeting, they tell me.

You’re not letting me sleep. You’re too stormy and violent, please get out of this bed.

You’re sending us into exile, you of all people? You’re the Roshi, you’re supposed to know how to let us in. Let us in, let go, let us in, let go. So nu, Roshi, why can’t you help us find some peace?

ALWAYS FEED THE ANIMALS FIRST

Our friends Grover Genro Gauntt and Krishna Das were here over the weekend, and on Saturday morning as I was preparing breakfast Genro asked what he could do.

I hate to ask you, I told him, taking out bagels to put in the toaster, but could you fill the bird feeders and give them water?

It was -8 Fahrenheit (-22 Centigrade) at the time, not including the winds, and we had 6 empty bird feeders outside along with a warmed birdbath that needed filling. The birds were eating up a storm, and who could blame them at the tail end of two weeks of historically frigid temperatures in New England. That morning we decided to close the zendo because of the cold, so instead there we all were, drinking coffee and planning breakfast in a warm kitchen, except that there were the birds outside to think of.

My grandfather used to say that one should always feed the animals first before you feed yourself, I told the guys.

He was the rabbi of a small shtetl in the very north of Rumania, bordering Russia, and after World War II he made it here to this country with his wife and one son, my uncle. I have very few memories of him, so it’s interesting what I recall. They had farm animals back in Europe—don’t know what kind—and they fed them before feeding themselves.

In 1999 I returned there with my father, along with brother and sister. The small house my father grew up in was still standing, empty and seemingly abandoned, looking more like a dark shed with 2 rooms, not all that dissimilar from the stalls they had in back for the animals only with a concrete floor and doors.

It was the shtetl world before World War II, impoverished and with few opportunities. The shtetl would have ended even without the Holocaust, my father used to tell me. Anybody with any brains and ambition got out.

My memory of my grandfather was of a bearded man who studied all day, was served tea with sugar cubes by his wife, and looked benignly at his grandchildren around the table without making much effort to communicate other than occasional comments that his wife, the grandmother is how he referred to her, liked to talk. I couldn’t relate to him.

What stayed? Always feed the animals before feeding yourself.

We don’t have sheep or cows, just dogs and lots and lots of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. So Saturday morning Genro layered up, put on hat, boots and gloves of a quality I’m sure they never had in Rumania, and took the big canister with birdseed out to the back. They were saying that morning that even 10 minutes of exposed skin could lead to frostbite, but Genro’s a warrior. Stanley went out with him for a minute—he loves to nibble on sunflower seeds–but came right back in.

THE TEACHING OF DOG SCRAPS

Photo by Leeann Warner

Could you get going already? It’s time for my walk.

You know, Stan, your problem is that all you think about is food and walks.

That’s a problem?

Just take a look at your daily schedule, Stan:

6:00-7:00 am            Get antsy for breakfast.

7:00                             Eat breakfast.

9:00-10:00                  Get antsy for Bernie to have breakfast

10:00                            Lick Bernie’s breakfast bowl.

10:00-11:00                  Get antsy to go for a walk.

11:00                              Go for a walk.

12:00 pm:                     Get post walk treat, including Greenies on Tuesdays and                                          Fridays.

12:00-1:00                    Get antsy for Bernie to have lunch.

1:00                                Lick Bernie’s lunch plate.

2:30-3:30                       Get antsy for your supper.

3:30                                Supper

4:30-5:30                       Get antsy for Bernie and Eve to have dinner.

5:30-6:00                        Drive Eve crazy while she cooks dinner.

6:30                                 Lick dinner bowls.

OMG, I had no idea I worked so hard! Now that’s what I call a busy schedule.

It’s all about you either walking or eating, Stanley, nothing else. It’s the most self-centered, deluded schedule I’ve ever seen. Life is not all about you, Stan. You’ve lived in a Buddhist home for over 13 years, don’t you know by now that everything is connected to everything else?

Of course I know that. The world appears each time I lick the remains of Bernie’s chicken soup.

I’m glad to hear that, Stanley.

When I lick Bernie’s chicken soup bowl I think of chicken, and how instead I wish it was hamburger. Then I think about bread and vegetables.

How’s that, Stan?

I think about how Bernie doesn’t like hamburger buns but I do, and how he likes catsup and I don’t. Then I think about the past.

What about the past, Stanley?

I think about how I wish I knew Bernie when he was younger, when he ate more. Then I think about everything that comes out of the earth.

Like what, Stanley?

I think about how good it is Bernie can’t eat salad anymore. Then I think about illness and change.

What illness and change, Stan?

I think of how generous Bernie’s become since his stroke, leaving me more on the plate than ever before. And I think of other human beings.

Like whom, Stanley?

Like you, and what a miser you are, eating everything that’s on your plate with no thoughts for me or anybody else. I think of the animals everywhere.

How nice, Stanley.

I think about how it’s the coldest it’s been in 20 years and how I’ll kill anybody that dares come inside. And I think about all the birds in the air, and how much nicer it would be if instead of eating sunflower seeds they ate hamburger.

You have compassion written all over you, Stanley.

I think of the world! Everything is connected to what’s left in Bernie’s soup bowl, nothing is left out. Nothing is excluded.

Who knew dogs scraps could be such a teaching!

Bernie knew. You—feh. Bernie’s a master!

 

 

WEATHER IS MASTER

Last night I lay in my bed and listened to 40 mph winds ripping through the forests I love so much. Snow and ice everywhere, with wind chills bringing temperatures down to -30 F (almost -35 C).

The kirtan chanter Krishna Das, staying with us overnight, didn’t help matters much relating how a big oak had fallen some time ago onto his bedroom. It cut through the roof like butter, he said. That’s Rockland County, he added as comfort, where the ground is rocky and the roots grow into the ground sideways, causing the trees to come down in a storm. Here you have better soil, the roots go deep.

But I lay in bed open-eyed, listening to the activity overhead. Animals scampered inside the roof and heavy tree branches—or something—fell on top after being whipped by the winds.

When I first moved to the country in 1994 (the Woodstock area in New York State) I laughed at how all everyone talked about was the weather. But that’s what I now talk about, too. When I talk to my mother in Israel I go on for a long time about the cold, the heat, the moon, whether things are wet or slippery, what to do about dry, blistery feet, and she worries about whether I dress warmly enough.

Weather is master here. In the city you feel like humans own the planet, but in the country you know better. You watch snow storms shut down your roads and power, eliminating your heat, water, and refrigeration in one blow. You watch frigid temperatures close down schools and meditation halls, see how an inch of ice will postpone and even cancel carefully-planned trips. Witness farmers struggle to clear paths to the barns and wonder how they get their machinery to work without leaving the skin of their hands attached to the sharp, frozen metal (I have a hard time taking hands out of gloves just to fill the birdfeeders).

You wonder about your pipes and well underground, and you wonder about the animals. First thing in the morning I look out the window: Where are the birds? I remember asking the writer and ornithologist Peter Matthiessen one day how birds survive our New England winters, and he said not to worry, they have lots of down. Then it was -6. Now we talk of -30.

Maybe it’s silly when you can hear the blessed cranking up of the furnace in the basement and even your cars have a garage for shelter. We don’t have domestic animals to feed. I took Stanley for almost an hour’s energetic walk yesterday, but his tail wagged when we turned to go back down the driveway; he was ready to come home. Today we’re not going anywhere. Last night and today, all of us in the house felt like playthings of the gods of winter.

On the day of the snowstorm I stupidly let some 10-12 inches of snow fall before remembering to shovel. A far better idea to do it in two batches rather than all at once, even if it was light and fluffy. I then went behind the house to check on the bird feeders, the heated water, and the satellite dish, and when I turned around I saw the candle in the window of the office illuminating the imprints the snowflakes make on the windows. It seemed to blaze light and consolation.

THE FINAL KENSHO

What are you doing today, Eve?

I’m going to do some writing and plan for the winter intensive in the zendo, add some finishing touches to next week’s conference, plan who will be here in my absence, do a yoga class, a few Skypes, make dinner, and do our bookkeeping for December.

What about walking me? asks Stanley from the rug under the table.

We’re sitting at the table having breakfast. Bernie’s eating the hot cereal he makes himself, combined with milk, peanut butter and banana, I with my breakfast shake of all the healthy things in the universe.

And what are you doing today, Bernie?

I’m going to have a final kensho [an experience of awakening]. Or maybe not.

What’s a final kensho?

A final kensho is maybe to see that kensho is not important, that everything is just as it is. It’s exactly what is.

Is anybody walking me? Stanley wonders.

At the same time, Bernie continues, I guess kensho has some use. It gives you something to work towards. Only that’s a problem.

I could go to Leeann, suggests Stanley hopefully. I love Leeann. She gives the best outings.

Beside, continues Bernie, how can anything be final?

You’ve been saying that a lot lately, I tell him. Do you want coffee?

Did I tell you that I had a dream?

No, you did not.

I had a dream too, says Stanley. I dreamt you took me for a walk.

All my life I never remembered my dreams, says Bernie, but after the stroke I started remembering them. I dreamt I got a phone call, and somebody told me that UCLA is up for sale and we should buy it.

UCLA? Your alma mater?

So I said okay, and you and I went out there, looked at the entire campus, and I said we’d do it. So we all get together in this big room, their lawyers are all there, and I ask what’s the asking price for UCLA and they say $10,000. $10,000? That’s all? But they all agree, the price is $10,000.

Back in the old days in Yonkers, I tell him, every time you walked down Ashburton Street from the Greyston Foundation to the Bakery or to the Child Care Center, you’d come back all excited about another rundown house you saw for sale. “We have to get inside,” you’d say, “get an assessment, figure out how we could afford it.” “Who needs it?” we’d ask, and you’d say, “We could use it for more housing, more offices, maybe a zendo, maybe a new business.”

Too bad I wasn’t around then, says Stanley. I could have walked with you.

And did you buy it? I ask him. Did you buy UCLA?

I can’t remember that part, Bernie says, drinking his coffee. Back in Yonkers I used to tell people not to drive from the Bakery to the Child Care Center, always to walk. You have to walk to get to know the neighborhood.

A sigh from the rug. That’s what I always say, says Stanley.

 

 

A NEW PRACTICE FOR THE NEW YEAR

Porcupine in winter

What’s out there, Stanley?

What do you mean?

You have that funny look on your face I know so well. Something’s out there.

We’re in the woods because we ain’t wimps. So what if it’s 7 degrees Fahrenheit (-14C) feels like -2 (-19C)? So what if Stanley’s whiskers have turned into icicles and his breathing sounds a little like a donkey’s bray?

When we first got here 16 years ago, a young landscape architect told me that here, when winter comes, you have a choice. You could dig in for about 5-6 months and not go out of the house, or you buy warm layers, the right kind of boots, hat and gloves, and go out in all weather. Over the years Bernie’s chosen the first and I’ve chosen the second.

Stanley’s still giving me that I see nothing look that he puts on when there’s something out there he doesn’t like. The bears have gone to sleep so I look out for hunters. It’s still shooting season, but no hunter is nuts enough to be out here now. And then I see the small creature scuttling ahead of us as fast as its small feet can take it.

Don’t you dare approach that porcupine, Stan!

What porcupine?

You know what porcupine, the one up ahead making for those big tree limbs that fell across the path.

What porcupine?

You know, Stanley, you have the funny habit of not seeing things you don’t want to see.

Of course I don’t see things I don’t want to see. You think I’m crazy?

It’s no different with the horses, Stan. You don’t want to see them, so they’re not there. When you were younger you saw and chased after lots of porcupines and horses.

They were there then; they ain’t here now.

Of course they’re here, Stanley. Who else is running up ahead to get away from us? And who come trotting to the fence when I bring them apples?

That’s because you want to see porcupines and horses, you love that stuff. Me, if I come across something I don’t want to deal with, I don’t see it. Clear as day.

That’s the silliest thing I ever heard, Stanley. If we ran into a bunch of coyotes licking their chops and you pretended not to see them, what do you think would happen? When we deny the existence of things we get into trouble.

I don’t deny anything, I just can’t see it. As someone older and wiser than you, with cataracts covering much of my eyes, I can tell you that you lose nothing by not seeing horses, porcupines, bears, moose, and anything else threatening mischief.

And if thieves or killers came into the house to rob or kill us, you wouldn’t protect us, Stan?

What thieves? What killers?

You realize that this is how Hitler came into power, Stanley.

Who’s Hitler?

And what about old age, illness, and loss? You can’t just look away and not see them, Stanley.

Why not? Nothing easier. This year, practice not seeing any of that stuff and you’ll feel great! You’ll be a lot happier, and a lot more fun to be with. You think it’s easy for me to hang with you when you’re seeing all that stuff? It’s like a funeral.

Practice not seeing old age, illness, and loss? How, Stanley?

It’s the easiest practice you’ve ever done. You don’t have to get up early, you don’t have to light that stinky incense. Just pretend you see nothing.

How do I do that?

See not-seeing.

I never thought of that, Stanley. Does it get harder and harder to do over the years?

I’m a lot older than you and I’m still doing it.

You are so advanced, Stan.

I’m a master.

Happy new year, Stanley.

Happy new year, Eve.

REAL DOGS

You know, Stan, I was gone all day yesterday. I went down to New York and spent time with my good friend and her two delightful little dogs, Moon and Arlo. They’re Bichon Frises.

 

You betrayed me. I smelled it as soon as you came in the door. Their smell was all over your body, it’s disgusting.

It couldn’t be all over my body, Stanley, they’re too small. They can only reach up to my knees, and that’s only when they get up on their hind legs.

You could have taken a shower before you came home. How do you think I feel when I see you’ve been with Bichon Frises? By the way, is that a dog?

Of course it’s a dog.

Small purebreds! Uggh.

I don’t know why you dislike them, they’re actually very cute, Stanley.

Cute! Is that a word you’d use for me?

Never, Stan.

That’s right. Big dogs ain’t cute. Big dogs are dogs. I hate cute. I hate sweet.

You’ve been sweet, Stan.

Name one time I’ve been sweet!

Stan, you’re being silly. Those little dogs are fluffy—

Fluffy—feh!

They’re clean and beautifully groomed.

Don’t even think about grooming me.

They’re beautiful creatures. And you know what they eat, Stanley?

Not Purina Dog Chow, I bet.

Right on, Stan. They had roast chicken last night. Sometimes they get salmon, sometimes even filet mignon. Yesterday morning my friend fed them this premium dog food which they wouldn’t touch.

I guess they’re not all that stupid after all.

And she lets them stand on their hind legs and beg at the table, Stanley.

You’d yell at me if I even tried.

She doesn’t let them out in the cold, Stan.

That’s because they’re not real dogs. Real dogs go out in any weather!

Really? What else do real dogs do, Stanley?

Real dogs never jump up on their hind legs.

You used to do that, Stanley, till you got too old.

Real dogs don’t have a wardrobe, they don’t have a bath every month, they don’t wear bows on their ears and bandannas around their necks. When are you going to see your friend next?

Why, Stan?

Can I come?