This morning I visited the old, walled city of Jerusalem. I walked on Via Dolorosa, as did Jesus before his crucifixion, small signs designating the Stations of the Cross.

But Via Dolorosa is also a bazaar full of stores of clothes, food, and souvenirs, colorful dresses hanging outside and store owners importuning you to come in, browse, have tea with mint. Most people stop and look at everything outside—purple and magenta coin scarves and corset belts for belly dancing (Get this! my sister instructs me), Turkish coffee and tea sets, small hills of orange saffron powder, and mounds of wooden crucifixes—how could you not? It’s colorful and downright gorgeous.

And in the middle of it all come the groups of pilgrims. They drop on their knees as their guide reads what happened to Jesus at this particular spot: Here he fell the second time; here he met the three women of Jerusalem, etc. They fall to their knees in the middle of all the shoppers, listening to that echo of events 2,000 years ago.

De donde estan ustedes? I mumble to an elderly lady leaning against the old stones, mesmerized by the cross commemorating Christ’s 6th Station. De Argentina, she says, barely looking at me.

The hubbub of tourists runs alongside them as they hear a different song. No one pushes, there’s no impatience. The two streams run together.

And I think of a friend of mine who emailed several days ago that his mother passed away. He attached two photos of her, one showing her as a young woman getting married to his father, the other somewhat older, when he got married. He sat with her at her bedside till she died.

I also think of another email yesterday from another friend about the joyous birth of a new granddaughter. She told me that the baby’s dark, bright eyes evoked some place else. Looking at them, she felt as though another world, another universe, was looking back at her through the baby’s eyes. She, too, sat with the baby’s mother till she gave birth.

And I think of myself, sitting by my mother these days when she won’t dress but remains in her pajamas, lacking interest in the world in which she had been super-active for so many years. She still has a strong will to live, the doctor told us earlier today.

Still, I feel like I’m sitting along some invisible perimeter dividing me from an invisible land on the other side, an echo of which reaches my ears even in the middle of the honking of cars on the street outside and the smell of coffee from the cheese shop a few doors down the block.


My mother, Shoshana Brayer, and her granddaughter, Yardena Bar-Eden Allon

The doves don’t give up.

I sit in the sunny living room of my sister’s apartment in Jerusalem. I flew in here several days ago on account of my mother’s decline.

It’s late morning on Saturday, the Sabbath. There is less street noise, less car noise, mostly the talk of people walking back and forth from the synagogue. Jerusalem, ordinarily a very noisy city, is more quiet today.

But the doves don’t seem to know about Sabbath of any kind, not Muslim (Friday), Jewish (Saturday), or Christian (Sunday). They have long perched on the narrow column of ledges, 4 stories tall, that is on the inside of my sister’s building. The ledges were safe havens for them, inaccessible to humans or Jerusalem’s dangerous predators, cats, a good place to raise a family. But they left terrible messes in the garden and paths below, and finally the building’s human denizens sealed up their homes.

Every morning I hear them flying down, fluttering their heavy wings, eager to settle back on the ledges that were wide and safe enough for nesting, only to find them shut off by a gray tin siding. In vain they flutter and flutter even now, as I write this, against the tin blockage, bewildered and confused, always coming back, a little like Jews wishing to return from the diaspora, carrying their history and dreams with them.

How many generations have perched here, flying in for refuge from rain and wind, raising young, using it to launch them out into the world? In vain they cluck and flutter their wings. Home is cut off, sealed, done with.

I have never called Jerusalem home. I don’t have a geographical home, not even in Montague, Massachusetts, where I live. I lack that sense of rootedness anywhere. But whenever I return to where my parents—and now my mother—reside, there’s a sense of contact with previous generations and ancestors, with a long and deep karma that goes beyond parents, country, and tradition.

You don’t own me, I used to say silently on these trip to see my parents. You don’t control me. You don’t control my voice. I would sit and witness them, listen and observe. I had learned to do that at a very early age. At a time when young children whooped and hollered, I learned to be silent and listen.

Much, much later, and far away from them, that silence exploded into words and outbursts of feelings, scratches that effortlessly filled page after page. The silence would come back only when I returned to Jerusalem.

But now my mother, too, is silent. Full of heroic stories of struggle and survival, still dreaming of a movie to be made of her life, she nevertheless has become quiet. Sometimes, she admitted to me slowly the other day, my mind gets fogged up, and then it clears, and then it gets fogged up again.

Last night she didn’t come for dinner. It was Friday night, the sacred night of the Sabbath when for generations the family always came together. That was the plan this time, too. We gathered in my brother’s home: he and his girlfriend, my sister and brother-in-law and their friend, and myself, and we waited for her to come. Instead the message arrived from Swapna, her Indian caregiver: Mother is not coming. Not doing the 10-minute walk to her son’s home, not doing the wheelchair, not even 3 minutes in a car.

I went to see her, expecting to find her as I have almost every day this visit, in her pajamas. Instead she’d gotten dressed, she even had her hat on. But she sat at the table by the entrance when I arrived and said: I have no strength.

I returned and joined the others in the living room, looking at each other thoughtfully before sitting down to dinner. Ancestorless.


Photo by a kind, unknown man

In my years of negotiating my way in this world, doctors, employers, professors, and family members hit on me, not to mention a college therapist I asked for help when I was a pretty crazy 18 year-old, in lots of pain and trouble, and who agreed on condition that we do our therapy at the empty home of a friend of his.

People talk about how important it is for women to tell the world about these experiences. Totally agree, but for me it’s no small challenge to tell myself those stories, to remind this independent-minded, strong individual what it took to travel the world of jobs, careers, education, therapy, and yes, travel. The price I often had to pay.

A little over a year ago I traveled on Swiss Airlines and, late at night, felt the hand of the man sitting next to me sidling up the side of my body to my breast. I was actually quite surprised; I didn’t think a woman past 65 would have to deal with this anymore, a positive side effect of retirement. What surprised me even more was the reaction of the stewardess, who was very concerned that I was disturbing other passengers’ sleep when I told her aloud what was happening because she ignored me as long as I kept my voice low.

When I look at the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal, I realize that for me the hardest thing is to remember the young woman’s vulnerability and ignorance, to remember the shame. The ignorance because the world was telling me to be tough and mature, this was the price of being a grown-up woman. And the shame because who among us doesn’t want to think of herself (and have the world think of her) as strong, in charge, capable, able to compete with the best and the brightest? Who wants to remember the times when we were told this was the way of the world and don’t be such a child, and when we believed it?

It’s not just gorgeous Hollywood starlets who get that message, we all get that message.

So you develop a thick skin, you try to pretend that none of those things really mattered, that you are strong, you were always strong, you could deal with everything. We’re tempted to say, like Monica Lewinski, that it was a consensual relationship because, if we don’t, then isn’t the implication that I was abused, that I was weak and dumb, that I could be taken advantage of?

The world out there is a projection of myself. I am no observer of the world, we’re all one and the same entity. So yes, rules and regulations for workplace are crucial; institutional changes are crucial. But what about all the personal disconnections? What about the men, like Weinstein, who have daughters but don’t stop to think how they would feel if other men did to their own daughters what they are doing to women?

And what about our disconnections as women, our places of retreat and withdrawal, all of which gets acted out in the relations between the genders? Yes, by all means, let’s face down the world. But let’s also look deeply and tenderly into our own selves, bear witness, and resolve to finally face down those old fears that so many of us absorbed practically from the womb.

That stewardess with Swiss Airlines is no other than me. I’m older and maybe a little more savvy about the ways of the world. But that woman is me, no doubt about it.




I read that half of all Republican voters in this country support a pre-emptive strike at North Korea. This, of course, would mean war and the probable use of nuclear weapons. How do we avoid that, I wonder. How do we prevent the vitriol from rising to a persuasive pitch as it did before Bush went into Iraq for no good reason? Start demonstrations now. Start Facebook organizing now. Get European partners—

And then I hear getting up noises across the hall. I leave my computer and head out to the bedroom for the morning ritual.

How are you doing, Bernie? Did you sleep well? I ask.

I didn’t get to sleep for a long time. And you?

I slept great, Bernie, only I had a dream that you were trying to kill me.


And I must have been half awake because I heard you getting up to go to the bathroom while dreaming this. I heard you putting on your shoes and picking up your cane, and suddenly I was sure you were going to smash that cane on my skull.

And did I? he wonders. That’s not nice of me. Is Stanley on the rug blocking the way? Can I get to the bathroom?

Stanley’s not in the way, he’s been sleeping on the couch since breakfast. Do you ever want to kill me? I ask.

No. I think there were times you’ve wanted to kill me, he says. In the past.

Not kill, but close, I admit.

When he gets downstairs he sits down at the table. OK, say I, taking my seat close to him, time for the daily stabbing. Where are those little knives?

You mean prickers, he asks with a grin.

We’re talking about a glucose test because Bernie has Diabetes 2. I take out the little lancet, put in the device, prick his finger, get the blood onto the test strip, insert in the meter and check: 118, I tell him. Good. That’s because you didn’t have any dessert last night.

Soon I’ll get rid of my diabetes drugs.

That depends on whether you could let go of vanilla ice cream with Herrell’s chocolate fudge sauce. We start to negotiate. How about just vanilla ice cream?

How about just chocolate fudge sauce? he offers.

Medicine and illness subdue each other, I say, remembering the koan while I next examine the cancerous sore on his nose which will be removed in November, ponder what ointment it needs, what Band-Aid (Only the nose knows, Bernie says).

He’s ready to make his own breakfast, but not only has time passed since I wondered what I or Zen Peacemakers can do about the rhetoric surrounding North Korea, the energy has changed, too. It shifted from going out there to focusing in here, from creative thought to brushing the dog, from compiling a list of strategic options to compiling a list of to-dos, from saving the planet to hanging laundry, from loving everyone to loving one man (and a dog).

Like the photo of the back of our home above, on my way to plunging into the exquisite leaves of fall I bump into the barbecue grill and the satellite dish.

The Zen koan goes: Yunmen, teaching his community, said: “Medicine and sickness subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is yourself?”

They say that it’ll be women who’ll save the world. Instead, Bernie and I argue about why I find white crumbs of used tissues in the pockets of his gray pants after they come out of the washing machine. Why do I worry about what he’s going to wear to Greyston? Why do I have to try to remember if the car has gas?

Why why why, he used to shake his head when I did formal study with him. Because at that time why was my favorite word in the English language.

Yes, if we had a less fragmented life, if our attention didn’t go from writing to laundry to sweeping leaves to taking out the trash and recyclables (Is it plastic/glass or paper today?) to returning books to the library and DVDs to the mailbox to making family phone calls to emptying the dehumidifier in the basement to taking out the spider on the floor to sewing buttons to shopping lists and what’s for dinner, etc., etc., etc., yes, if that happened we women would save the world.

Till then we’re saving it one human at a time, one home at a time, one spider, one button on a sweater, one undocumented family needing a ride to the courthouse, one man, one marriage, and one beer can thrown on the road, picked up and put into a blue recyclable bin.

In our spare time we try to address other issues.

Sometimes I think it’s enough, and sometimes I don’t.


Photo by Rami Efal

So here we are, with Dail Moses-Taylor, in Greyston’s 35th anniversary gala.

I won’t fool you, my heart was actually with the small group of ZPers flying the next day to South Dakota to witness a gathering of descendants of the Wounded Knee massacre taking place this weekend in a camp in the Black Hills. Instead we ate filet mignon and drank red wine somewhere in the Rockefeller Estate in Tarrytown alongside 500 other people, celebrating.

Remember when we were happy if someone would make Greyston a party in their front yard? I asked Bernie in the car going down. I remembered being broke and attending big, elegant parties of other organizations or foundations, usually being the worst dressed in the crowd, and looking around for whom we could ask for money.

There was fundraising last night, too, but on a different level.

In the end I was very happy I went. You know why? Because we have to celebrate the good things, smile and laugh, not just weep. We have to be able to look back at 35 years and say—Wow, that did make some difference! That affected people! It’s not perfect, it’s not everything we wished and dreamed about, but it was and is something.

There are so many organizations that don’t survive their founders; most people don’t know how tricky it is for a company or organization to go on after a powerful founder, with a powerful vision, steps aside. Many disappear, or else they lose the vision and change completely.

That didn’t happen here. People appeared—new board members, presidents, new managers, and just people—who continued the work, bringing in their flavor into it, so that the vision now is so much richer and more inclusive:

Dail, above, leads the Pathmaker Program that addresses people’s needs not just for a job but other dreams as well—for study, for careers, for a better life for their children.

A man stopped by and introduced himself. He’d been chairman of the board when Greyston went through hard times and he led the effort to restructure its debt. He was humble and backed out as soon as someone else came by, and I wished he’d stayed around because I know how easy it is to get enthusiastic when things go well and how only a few are ready to work hard when things go south.

Of course, there was Dion Drew, who gives a terrific Ted talk about his four years in prison, with no one hiring him afterwards till he goes through the door at Greyston, and the family he’s raised since then. Dion has a rare talent for talking and inspiring; I told his wife Jackie that he sounded like a minister in the making.

Speaking of Dion, the banner Greyston carries now is Open Hiring, where Greyston will hire anyone applying for a job without asking about felonies or criminal record, without asking about a history in prison. Are you aware of how many young men of color are imprisoned in our system for nonviolent crimes, only to be met by shut doors when they come out, their future in shambles? How many business managers do you know who stand ready to take a risk on hiring people out of prison? Greyston is making a big push, through its own Center for Open Hiring, to convince other companies—including big ones, like Unilever—to do just that.

And what a time it was for me to be with Bernie there, somewhat fragile and tired after the trip down, but still so happy. Bearing witness to the exquisite opportunity our life affords us, using that precious time, the precious life, to create something, help someone, love someone, while outside the leaves change color and fall on the earth.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were there (see below), and Ben Cohen said, This small 2×2 brownie is changing the world. Everyone laughed, but I had a moment of déjà vu. The fancy lit tent disappeared, and I thought of Bernie pointing to a small cheese cake and telling us, his students, so young and idealistic at that time, and also to all the political, religious, and business figures who used to visit—This cheese cake will change the world. And I used to think to myself: A cheese cake? How does a cheese cake change the world?

But Ben Cohen sees in that brownie, the same brownie that Greyston ships up to Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont for its ice cream that then goes all over the world, what Bernie saw in the cheese cake 30 years ago. Each small thing contains the universe. Behind that small brownie stand bakers who change their lives, their children’s lives, and the life of the community. Behind that small brownie is a philosophy to give a second chance to people who’ve been in prison. Behind that brownie are the words, Bernie’s words, the emcee quoted in closing the evening: To heal the world is to heal yourself.

A little brownie, that’s it. And a lotta lotta work as we swirl up and down and sideways over many years, till finally coming to rest on the earth like the leaves outside.

Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, Mike Brady (CEO of Greyston), and Bernie. Photo by Deborah Stewart.


Fall in New England, and everybody takes pictures. Year after year I promise to stop, but I can’t help reaching for the phone camera when I walk on the road. And as I neared the bridge over Spaulding Brook I heard a giant flutter and a blue heron flew out of the lower branches. It looked sideways at me—What do you know about beauty?—and flew off.

It’s not just the color that talks to me, it’s the graceful freedom with which these leaves die. They float down, some sweeping up, down, and sideways before finally coming to rest on the earth. They don’t seem to grumble, complain (Ouch, my stem hurts!), or give over to regret (You mean that’s all the time I got!). They turn gorgeous, and they go.

I smell freedom in that. Not the freedom where you control what happens to you and call that freedom, not the freedom where you decide to go right rather than left or vice versa, but the internal freedom to greet whatever comes up with openness and affirmation: Yes! To let myself be changed by whatever happens rather than forever fighting and struggling,

And I don’t want that freedom just for my death, I want it for life. I don’t want to live in fear of what the next day brings. I don’t want to live with painful memories controlling my moves, dictating that whatever I do must circumvent that pain so that it never hurts again. There was nothing smart about those rules; if anything, they turned into the prison bars of my life:

Don’t go out if you see the slightest chance of a thunderstorm. Be careful when a man says hi to you. Don’t make too much eye contact. Watch how much money you spend. Look at how they’re killing people, this world isn’t safe. Don’t ask people for help and you won’t hear a no. In fact, don’t ask for too much, think of how your mother suffered in the Holocaust and all the people still starving in India, and who do you think you are anyway?

Yes, I know we live in a free country, but what about my internal country? How free am I in there?

I want to plant the seeds of goodness. In an hour Bernie and I will go to the 35th anniversary gala of the Greyston Bakery. As I wrote a dear friend: It feels like the Zen Community’s work in the Greyston Bakery was just yesterday. I can tell you everything about a chocolate mousse cake; I can even tell you how to tier a wedding cake for 150 and the choices for filling and icing. And now Greyston, through its next generation of terrific leaders, is a national leader in open hiring, employing everyone they can without inquiring into felony convictions or time served in prison.

I want to bear witness to people as they are, not to ask them to get better, stronger, not to tell them what they should do and how to improve. And frankly, I don’t want anyone else telling me that, either, though they probably will.

From the time I was a child I loved sneaking down the hallway in my pajamas and listening to adults talk in the living room, stories grown-ups told each other about their lives and their struggles. I got confused when I began Zen training and heard That’s just your story! as some spiritual insult, but I’m not confused about it now. I know that that was someone talking who simply couldn’t listen.

If I want to die with some degree of internal freedom, I have to live with it right now. Work on it day after day, even moment by moment. Pay attention to withdrawal symptoms—I better not say that; time for me to check emails/Facebook/headlines again; I really need a glass of wine/something sweet/some dope.

We can affect each other so strongly. So one thing I can do is appeal to everyone in the world and ask them to take my delicate sensibilities into consideration. But I don’t have Donald’s cell phone number, or Harvey Weinstein’s, or General Min Aung Hlaing in Burma, or Roy Moore’s in Alabama, or Bibi’s in Israel, or Maduro’s in Venezuela, or even Stanley’s in Montague for that matter. The only number I have is my own.

Freedom fighters aren’t just to be found in Kurdistan, Catalan, Palestine, Venezuela, Russia, or in Black Lives Matter. The frontier comes up every time there’s that scratching in the belly, the dry feeling in the mouth, and you wonder: What happened? I was doing fine till 15 minutes ago. Did someone say something? Did I read an email, an article, and suddenly the world looks different? What’s draining me? Who or what did I empower to rob me of energy and take away my life?









Love that hat!

I recently had a terrific time reading a novel called Smoke, by Dan Vyleta. The book takes place in a 19th century England which is closed off from science and technology, and its most salient element is smoke, which people emit any time they indulge in a passion of some kind. If they’re even just a little jealous or angry, not to mention lustful, envious, gloating or greedy, they smoke, which alerts everybody around them that they’re sinners; there’s no hiding it. Teachers and housemasters actually check the linens and underwear of students for telltale spots of soot that betray wet dreams at night.

Of course, it’s the poor who smoke constantly due to the stresses of their lives while the rich, surrounded by piety and comfort, happily show off their white, unblemished shirts and collars as proof of their moral superiority. The rich also have access to contraband, like sweets, that you chew to get rid of the smoke, enabling you to sin without public exposure. Perfection is mastering one’s passions, and almost the only thing that doesn’t result in smoke is righteousness.

I started wondering about smoke and Donald Trump. No, not Trump personally, but all the people who are card-carrying members of Trump World. Come on, we know who we are, don’t we?

What makes us bona fide card-carrying member of Trump World? When we start sending and sharing every single Facebook message and post, every single tweet to everybody we know in the world to remind them what a bad hombre he is.

When we assume that our friends are illiterate and read no newspapers, online or off, so we generously share all the latest articles on him showing him to be an idiot (who happened to win the last Presidential election), a monster, and an out-of-control adolescent who also managed to marry a trophy wife and procreate selfish, greedy children.

Just in case our friends aren’t availing themselves of our volunteer news service, we send them personal Facebook Messages linking them to the latest scandal of how the Trump empire makes money off his presidency (one would think that’s never happened in this country before or that politics and money usually avoid each other like the plague).

And just in case there isn’t enough smoke around to choke the daylights out of each and every American child, we get into a contest with other denizens of Trump World as to who could dig up even worse news about him (And if that’s not bad enough, And what about, And did you know that, And the most terrible thing of all is that . . .).

Never mind that we’re doing exactly what he’d like us to do because, as a very talented publicity hound, he knows that even bad publicity is better than no publicity, and that the greater and louder the divisions and schism splitting this country apart, the better are his chances of holding on to the White House.

Yesterday the Zen Peacemakers posted on their Facebook blog an article from The Daily Beast about Christopher Ford, who was ordained by Joan Halifax as a Buddhist chaplain and serves in the Trump administration’s National Security Council. Ford was quoted as saying: I take not knowing as an admonition to continually be intellectually humble… to remember how complex the world is and that we’re really pretty bad at predicting how everything’s going to turn out.

I thought that was wonderful, till I read that he also believes that sometimes nuclear weapons are justified. Did we let him get away with that? Don’t you worry. We howled in derision: What kind of Zen Buddhist are you? Let’s face it, if not-knowing doesn’t produce the actions we agree with—what good is it?

We, card-carrying members of Trump World, know who the enemy is.

Watch that smoke spread, and spread, and spread.


It’s early morning of Columbus Day, or Indigenous Peoples Day, so I lit a long stick of incense before writing this. The intention, of course, was remembering and honoring the millions of indigenous people in our hemisphere who lost their lives at the hands of Anglos starting with Columbus’s arrival, and the millions who continue to suffer from the karmic effects of that history. But the act of lighting incense spilled over the boundaries of my intention and became something hard to describe.

I think it’s because I lit the incense at an altar dedicated to Kwan Yin and Maria of Guadalupe, the latter a gift from Sheika Amina in Mexico City. Kwan Yin is known all over Asia as the mother of compassion, and Maria of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary, visited an indigenous Mexican peasant, of Aztec origins, in the early 16th century.

There is almost no denying the horrors of what happened to the first peoples in this hemisphere. An event celebrated by so many people—white people arriving into an immense landmass not discovered earlier—was for them the knell of doom: genocide, slavery, estrangement from their culture, language, and religion, broken promises and treaties, broken families and disappeared tribes. A violent clash of cultures and needs took place and continues to do that over many years. Make no mistake, Columbus Day is celebrated by the victors. Wishing to remember that, I lit incense this morning.

And unbidden, the memory of my family arriving here in 1957 came. Not an arrogant Anglo family from Europe wanting to make its fortune on the backs of natives, but a family newly traumatized by the Holocaust in Europe and then a war in Israel, unable to speak English, with no money, two small daughters in tow one of whom was ill with polio. That was the family that came to conquer the New World in 1957. Just like the Irish conquered the New World in the 19th century escaping mass famine, the Italians escaping crushing poverty in their small towns, Jews escaping constant persecution everywhere.

We made room for you, one indigenous grandmother said to me when I tried to explain this, but you didn’t make room for us on our land.

Yes, there’s the rub. A few may have come here for the sake of ambition or conquest, like Columbus, but the majority did not. Nobody likes to leave something that is familiar to them and that they’ve called home, to come to an unknown, unfriendly destination.

Think of immigrants coming from Latin American and the dangerous risks they face. They encounter some of us who support them because we know that that’s exactly what our ancestors had to do years ago to survive. And they also encounter others who fear the competition for work, the new language, the music, and the culture, who feel that something of their own is being lost. We call them racists, white supremacists, alt right, conservatives.

I long ago stopped believing in win-win situations. Wins go with losses, birth goes with death. Those couplings may describe some of reality, but not much. My family has its roots in the Holocaust, a terrifying loss that conditioned not just them but their children and grandchildren, and that same family lives in Israel where Independence Day, marked by celebration and fireworks, is also the Palestinians’ Naqba Day, the Day of Catastrophe marking death and loss. In one lifetime they have lived out a breathtaking arc of loss and gain, losers and victors.

For most of her life my mother would veer, in a matter of minutes, from hopeless memories of fear and trauma to gleeful, even racist statements about the superiority of Israelis to Palestinians. The two formed a couple, a duality that dominated her life. Only in the last few years, old age and the onset of dementia have softened its hold.

So early this morning, in the dark and rain, I lit a tall incense stick, ones we use for big memorials, for Indigenous Peoples Day. I pictured sitting with Violet Catches, Manny Iron Hawk and others in August in the memorial to Indians who fell at Little Big Horn, listening to the stories of what they carried in them, and felt deep gratitude that their stories and lives showed not only fruits of trauma, but also seeds of hope.


You know, says Bernie at the dinner table, they like to say that death is the ultimate teaching. I said that for years. You know why? Because Maezumi Roshi said it, so I said it, too. But I don’t think so anymore.

What’s for dinner? asks Stanley.

Salmon with new potatoes and broccoli. Shut up and learn some dharma, Stan.

Roshi’s death affected me a lot, Bernie continues, but I learned so much more after he died, I changed so much in my life, the stroke changed me. So I can’t say that his death was the ultimate teaching for me.

Maybe it’s the penultimate teaching, suggests Stanley.

It’s not that, I just don’t believe in an ultimate teaching or an ultimate truth. Something else is always going to come up.

Maybe his death was the ultimate teaching for him, and yours will be the ultimate teaching for you, I suggest.

Maybe, concedes Bernie. It could be that a moment or two before I die I will experience something and say to myself, Oy, here it is, the ultimate teaching! But I don’t think so.

Why not?

Because even then, how would I know that that’s the ultimate teaching? How can anybody know that?

I chew my broccoli thoughtfully. You know, Bernie, this afternoon I accompanied S. to the vet where she took her 15 year-old dog for euthanasia.

Don’t even think of doing that to me, says Stanley.

Why? He was old and feeble, sick and in pain. There was sedation, and then the final injection. There was no fighting, no resistance from what I could see, only ease. At the end I asked the vet if she’d do the same for me when it was my turn.

Was it the ultimate teaching? asks Stanley.

There’s always something else right around the corner, says Bernie. We never know.

I put my fork down. But Bernie, Buddhists say—

Buddhists say this, Buddhists say that, says Bernie. You know what else Buddhists say? That if you have long ears that’s a sign of Buddhahood.

Long ears like mine? says Stanley, wearing a big grin and wagging his tail.  I knew the secret would finally come out.

No, I tell him, long ears like lotus petals.

I bet mine look more like lotus petals than yours.

You’re always arguing with yourself, Eve, says Bernie, and tries to stab a small potato with his weak right hand.

But Stanley and I are off and running. What else are signs of Buddhahood? Stan wants to know.

Every hair is soft and curly, I tell him.

Ho ho! Now you’re talking!

Jaw like a lion, Stanley.

Better and better!

Thighs like a royal stag.

What’s a royal stag?


Yesterday I heard many people, in media and in person, repeating the post-Las Vegas mantra What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with this country? So last night, in an effort to shake off the blues, I went to a contra dance in Amherst.

At the beginning of one dance the caller is arranging the set, which consists of long lines of couples, and my partner and I find ourselves in a square formation with another couple. We start talking, waiting for the dance to start, and one young, bespectacled woman mentions a recent holiday.

I’m sorry, I’m not Jewish, says her partner, who obviously has just met her. What holiday is that?

Yom Kippur, she explains. Day of Atonement. It’s the holiest day of the year for Jews.

He nods, he’s heard of it, then smiles sheepishly. I’m Methodist. Family Methodist for 200 years.

Isn’t that where you take out the Torah? asks another man, darker-skinned, curly black hair, familiar accent. Middle East, I think to myself. His partner is a young man with a pink, muslin see-through skirt over pants with very sweet, moony, blue eyes. In contra dance, while the caller refers to Gents and Ladies, a person of any gender can be a gent or a lady.

No, that’s coming up, she explains. That’s Simchat Torah.

Isn’t that also when you jiggle the Torah? asks a middle-aged Japanese man waiting with his partner. Do something with the handles?

Well, it depends, she says. The Orthodox do it one way, the Conservatives do it another way, and the Reform do it differently, too. She begins to explain the differences, invoking different traditions, sayings of the rabbis, and Talmudic commentaries.

Everyone listens respectfully while the fiddlers tune up onstage.

In Islam it’s the same thing, says the man with the curly black hair, shaking his head. In the mosque everyone prays the same, but my family in Lebanon did it differently.

Not my family, says the Methodist. They’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years.

The accordion player plays an octave, they’re getting ready to start. Who’s the active couple? the caller asks, and my partner raises his hand with others and cues me to do the same since I have no idea what the caller is talking about.

Meantime, the Japanese man has asked the young Jewish woman why they jiggle the Torah on Sinchat Torah, and she’s not exactly sure but will ask Rabbi Andrea. If you’re here next week I’ll let you know then.

I’ll be there. I never miss contra dance, the Japanese man says, and everyone else nods their heads about this quintessentially American folk dance, and we stand by our partners, the centuries-old Methodist with the scholarly Jewish woman with glasses, the Lebanese with the young swooning man in his pink skirt, while the Japanese man returns to his partner in the next square. We’ll meet them all soon as we progress down the rows.

I’m feeling better about my country already.

Ladies and Gents, says the Caller, with a small cough, ready to start.

I am new at this, I tell my partner quickly. His name is Don, like Donald Duck, he told me. I’ll do what you do.

No problem, he tells me. I’ve been doing this since 1947.