IT GAVE ME EVERYTHING

“How are you, Chavale?” asks my mother on the phone.

“It’s gorgeous outside,” I tell her. It’s so much easier to talk to my 90 year-old mother about the New England fall than about me. The leaves are better–and prettier–at spilling their guts out than I am.

“A treat to the eyes,” my mother says.

“Grace,” I say back.

She makes no reply. I’m not sure how grace translates to an old orthodox Jewish woman.

I’m writing a novel about an 87 year-old woman driving from Florida to California in her much-loved car whom she calls Abe, after Abe Lincoln, to meet up with the love of her life whom she hasn’t seen in 70 years. Abe breaks down in a trailer town in Texas, west of Houston, and there she encounters another woman who has had bad luck with love, only this woman always wears T-shirts with giraffes on them.

“Why do you always wear giraffes?” she asks the Giraffe Lady.

And Giraffe Lady tells her this story, which is my story, too.

“Once I visited a park west of here, a conservation place for animals that have been hurt and wounded. They have antelopes and zebras, wolves and hyenas, ibex and hippos, and even rhinos. Some of the animals roam free, though not the rhinos.

“A guide drove our large van of people and I sat next to him on the passenger side. We rounded the bend and there was an enormous giraffe at the side of the road: white with brown and yellow spots, and the tenderest eyes in creation.

“‘Put your hand out and open your palm,’ the guide instructed me.

“‘I don’t have any food to give,’ I said.

“‘Put out your hand and open your palm,’ said the guide again.

“‘Are you sure it’s safe?’

“But I did as I was told. The giraffe seemed as tall as the clouds, but slowly and elegantly it started to bend its long, long neck. Many seconds seemed to pass till its head came down to my hand. It put out its tongue and licked my open palm, the softest touch I’ve felt anywhere on my body. It licked that empty palm again and again even though there was nothing there except my skin, eyes rimmed black behind long eyelashes, looking at me like they’ve known me my entire life. The oldest look in the world. Then, with great delicacy, the long neck rose again till eventually the head was back in the clouds, and it walked away.

“I gave it nothing. It gave me everything.“

THE PATH TO COMPASSION

Early in the mornings, after sunrise, I walk over from the garage door to the back where Kwan Yin stands. There, I do a brief service honoring her and invoking the essence of compassion for those who are ill, and for myself.

I used to travel far and wide, witnessed the effects of genocide, intractable poverty, racism, and persecution. Now I don’t even have the time to get involved with our local refugees and immigrants. Just 20 steps from the garage door to Kwan Yin.

I won’t fool you, I don’t wear robes. In fact, I barely wear anything other than a warm bathrobe over a long tee (it’s close to freezing at that hour), and any warm slippers that Aussie has not destroyed.

It rained yesterday and stormed last night. Storms bring down trees and leaves outdoors. Indoors, a restless, fidgety dog wreaks havoc on cushions, shoes, sandals, and slippers of all kinds while we sleep. I asked Kwan Yin what to do about Aussie, and she suggested that tonight I shut her in with us.

We got her—Kwan Yin, not Aussie—in a roundabout fashion, a story in itself. She was brought over to the Montague Farm where we lived and worked, willed to the Farm by a schoolteacher who lived down the road. One of her students, a neo-Nazi who loved carpentry, was fond of his teacher and said to her one day: “I’d like to do something for you.”

“Make me a Kwan Yin,” she told him. I imagine she had to explain what that was, this image of compassion that ranges, in different forms under different names, all over Asia, but he made her a Kwan Yin. She had it till she died, willed it to the Farm, and now it’s in our back yard.

I sometimes wonder what happened to him. We don’t think of her as ours. We’re her stewards, taking care of her till her next revolution.

At the same time, she is wearing down. Deep cracks almost cleave her in half from top to bottom. In addition, the world lives inside of her: chipmunks, squirrels, beetles, critters of all kinds, and the wood is hollowing out. Another carpenter looked at it and said that just moving her could cause limbs to come apart and crumble, so we’re not moving her. Like all the rest of New England, she has taken in a lot of rain these past few months. Autumn leaves are beginning to cover her as they flutter down to the ground.

Never has the path from the garage door to Compassion been so littered. I have to make my way among a hundred marrow bones, the latest plastic containers Aussie has stolen from the blue recycling bins, pages of a How to Meditate handbook she ripped cover to cover, and the cardboard flaps of a Federal Express box. Unapologetic, she follows me as I pick these up, firmly resolved to spread them right back on the grass as soon as my back is turned.

“Settle down, Aussie,” I tell her, “settle down.” Isn’t that the best instruction for meditation anyway?

But Aussie, 13 months old, plans to enjoy her adolescence to the max. As I pick up after her in the early morning, leaves rain down from the trees, and Ms. Compassion looks on quizzically, as if to say: Are you going to pick all those up, too?

A LATE BLOOMER

Suddenly, it’s fall.

Yesterday, on the principle that here in New England you take seriously every warm, humid hour given you, I wore shorts. Then the latest typhoon arrived, just one of a series this past summer that have threatened our driveway and awarded our property a second creek. We hunkered in. Even Aussie, forever proving her adolescence as well as her renegade Dixie origins, stayed indoors. Water pounded the roof, the blooming dahlias, and the leaves changing color, and when we woke up this morning the last two were down.

I don’t mind. The air is cooler and fresher, full of momentum, a reminder to let the past go.

But running with Aussie this morning, I stopped to admire the small pond in the picture, remembering a March afternoon when the pond was still frozen and Stanley ran across, only to find the ice cracking under his weight. I stood on the road and saw the surface turn from white to dark as the icy layer fell into the water, and Stanley with it. OMG, I thought, toss the winter jacket and boots, jump in to save him, and probably freeze to death. They’ll find our two bodies under the ice come spring. But there was no need for heroics, the dog pulled himself back on the ice and scampered to the safety of shore, never to run across that pond again.

I will miss the orange and yellow dahlias most of all. We had red dahlias and burgundy-colored dahlias all summer, but the orange-and-yellow waited till September to bloom. When they first started coming out I did a double-take: Where did you come from? And why now?

Like them, I feel like a late bloomer.

A late bloomer watches all the other flowers come up and wonders why she’s still staying in the ground. She sees the early tulips and the day lilies cavorting with the apple branches, she sees the irises getting their beards, the phlox turning pink, purple, and white, everybody kicking up a storm in this warm, wet, Amazon-like summer, while she remains un: underground, undecided, uncertain, unseen.

And then one day, when it’s almost too late and fall is just around the corner, she comes out. A human looks closely: Look at that! Did you know that was there? Wasn’t there last summer, right? Nope. And not the summer before that, right? Right. But now she’s there, flashing her colors shyly, waving hello to the nearby purple asters, taking her place in the garden.

When autumn comes her petals will drop off like everyone else’s and the stems will collapse. But there will be next year.

HOW TO PRACTICE BEING A DOG

“What are you doing, Awesome?”

“I’m doing an interview with Bernie.”

“Well, aren’t you the lucky one. A Zen interview with the Man! He doesn’t do that with anyone anymore. So, deplorable student, how does your interview with the Great Man go?”

“Each session starts the same way. I say: My name is Aussie, and my question is: How can I be a dog?”

“And what does he say, Awesome?”

“Not much. He looks a lot at that white thing he has with him.”

“That’s probably where he gets his answers from. But Awesome, why the stupid question? You are a dog, ergo, you don’t have to learn how to be one.”

“My name’s not ergo, it’s Aussie. And I need a practice, Spook. What’s my practice?”

“Your practice is to be a dog.”

“That’s what the Man said. He said, you’re a dog, just be a dog.”

“That’s what I say, Awesome. You don’t have to be some great Zen mucky-muck to know the answer, it’s right in front of your nose. Just be a dog.”

“But Spooky Stan, the Man said: JUST be a dog. You’re saying, just be a dog. That’s different.”

“How are they different?”

“I can be a dog, Stanley. Everybody can be a dog. Percy the Golden can be a dog. Kaya the whatever-she-is can be a dog. Even Ruby the Terrible can be a dog. But how do you JUST be a dog?”

“Since when do you worry about such mishigas, Awesome?”

“Since I came here. Never did back in Texas.”

“Let me ask you this, Awesome. Are you digging up the yard searching for moles?”

“At last count, there were 24 new holes in the back yard, Spooky.”

“Are you jumping into the pond and splashing Eve all over?”

“Every single time, Spooks, and she always gets pissed.”

“Girl never learns. Do you leave muddy paw marks on the sheets when you jump up on the beds, Awesome?”

“Never fail, Stan.”

“Do you slobber with love all over Leeann-Rhymes-With-Stan when she takes you out on her outing?”

“I do that even when Leeann-Rhymes-With-Aussie raises her voice and goes: Umh-umh-umh!”

“Do you destroy house slippers, Awesome?”

“So far I’ve killed one pair of black slippers, one pair of brown summer sandals, and Eve’s winter shoes from last year.”

“That’s all you need to do, Awesome! Take the posture of a dog, and everything else follows naturally.”

“But I’m full of doubt, Spooks. I don’t feel like I’m JUST being a dog.”

“Feel shmeel. Feelings are for wimps, Awesome. JUST do it. Be a dog. Close the gap. Have faith that when you practice being a dog, you are a dog. JUST. Get it?”

“No.”

“Just one more thing, Awesome. Leeann rhymes with Stan. Leeann doesn’t rhyme with Aussie.”

“Don’t be so dualistic, Stanley. Leeann rhymes with everything.”

TALKING WITH MS. COMPASSION

Aussie is in deep conversation with Kwan Yin, the essence of compassion. Stanley did that before her, and before him Bubale the Pit Bull. It’s a canine tradition in the Glassman-Marko household. And after Aussie, I wonder, who will talk to Kwan-Yin?

We witness dogs’ lives. We’re there when they come to our home, young and impressionable, and we’re there when they die. Dogs also witness our lives. I break down my life into dog eras. The Woody era was the wandering era, when I lived near Woodstock, then back down to New York, then New Mexico, and California. He died 12 days before our return East. Stanley and Bubale came to us when we’d finally said goodbye to transient living, to temporary (beautiful) quarters or communal arrangements, and settled down in our own home. We left home a lot, but on account of those two dogs we always came back.

Aussie came here a few years after Bernie’s stroke and has been lobbying for a canine companion from the first; in fact, I bet she’s talking to Kwan Yin precisely about that, begging Ms. Compassion for a four-legged friend. But I hesitate, because I’m not clear what road we’re on. I see the day-to-day, but not necessarily the larger picture.

It reminds me of Bernie, who has been walking for quite a while without being able to feel the ground under his right foot. From the get-go I’ve wondered how a person can do that. Don’t you absolutely have to feel something solid under your feet, the thing that resists even as it holds you? Edward Taub, the neuroplasticity pioneer, had said no, you could walk without that, and Bernie has proved him right.

Lately, in order to build resilience, he is going up and down the stairs a few times a day one after the other. I watch him as he tackles those carpeted stairs and wonder how one does that without feeling ground. There’s nothing leisurely here, it’s walking with strength and precision, conscious of the edges, feeling only one bannister with the left hand, a stair only under his left foot.

Our day-to-day life is so much more about dots than filled-in forms. Aussie’s great dot is her desire for a canine friend, and maybe that one dot is all that matters and I should bring another dog home. Stop worrying about where you’re going and what will happen, pay attention to the dot. Everything else, as the great Jewish sage Hillel said, is commentary.

WHAT WE DO WITH DEAD WOOD AROUND HERE

It’s still going to take a while, but patriarchy is on its way out.

It’ll come down like the dead tree that collapsed yesterday along the side of our house. It didn’t fall on the house, it didn’t fall on Aussie, it didn’t even fall on the gate and the fence because it wasn’t long enough. It was dead.

It had lost its branches long ago, the top crown of swirling, triumphant leaves even before that. It may have had some small critters still nesting inside, but even critters that take shelter in darkness know when it’s time to fold up and run. I saw no evidence of woodpeckers or the smaller birds; the squirrels had left long ago. No insects or salamanders rooted around its wet roots. And they won’t have a chance to return because we’re going to saw that trunk into logs and have them carted away on a truck for drying before eventual burning or milling.

It’s what you do with dead wood around here.

The important thing about getting rid of dead wood is that finally living trees can get more sun. I see again and again the shoots struggling to get out of the shade, arching their leaves as high as possible to get those precious rays that determine who will be a wussy shrub and who will be a magnificent pine climbing to the heavens.

In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben wrote that when parent trees lord it high over their young ones, it’s actually a good thing because in this way the young sapling has plenty of years to mature and for its roots to spread underground. Nevertheless, for the shoot to shoot up, the old ones have to finally come down.

So how much time does one need to wait?

How many generations of women leaders never became leaders, never picked up the gauntlet posed by environmental degradation, never made treaties to limit nuclear weapons, never led us to protest and punish rape, and never led us to invest in children, schools, in our very future, and instead tied their bodies to a plow and worked for minimum wage at Walmarts, told in every way possible that this is their true calling in life: be the humble shrub, the sapling that barely makes it above-ground its entire lifetime. Coerced, shown, threatened, and raged at: You will never rise to the top.

But they are rising now, and that’s because something dead is coming down.

Sure it tries to stay afloat. Tries to persuade you it can still grow new leaves come spring time, that those bald white spots are signs of wisdom and experience, the brittle bark a symptom of strength and virility, and the mushrooms growing at its roots? Why, those are signs of health and renewal. Of eternal life.

Bullshit. Aussie sniffed around a bit, then bent back and peed on it.

IS THAT A GOOD THING OR A BAD THING?

This morning I looked out and saw the leaves had turned yellow with red at their edges. This happened literally overnight. We had thundering rains yesterday into early this morning and it wasn’t clear when the famous colorful New England fall was finally going to arrive, I was thinking maybe January.

When the leaves turn I feel like they’re having their own private conversation with me, telling me about what it is for flora to age, to listen for the whisper of the winds that, sooner rather than later, will take them down. I listen to the big public conversations we’re having in this country lately, but it’s the smaller, private conversations that keep me going.

Several days ago I called my mother in Jerusalem. She’s 90 years old and sounded distracted on the phone.

“Mom, you’re not listening to me,” I finally say.

“That’s because I’m listening to your President on the radio.”

“You’re listening to Trump, mom? Why?”

“Because he’s talking at the UN.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think he has some good points to make.”

“Like what, mom?”

A shadow of belligerence. “Listen, Eve, our leaders here are no better. That’s what happens in every country. Goodbye, I have to go.”

“Where are you going, mom?”

“I have to listen to the radio.”

“You’re getting off the phone with your daughter to listen to Donald Trump?”

And just last night:

“Eve, I can hear the river. Can you hear the river?”

“Sure can, Bernie. It’s been rushing hard all summer and now fall because of all the rain we’ve had.”

“Wow! And I can hear the rain. Can you hear it?”

“Yup.”

“It’s those new hearing aids I got. You know what happens when I flush the toilet? It sounds like Niagara Falls. And is that Aussie downstairs?”

“That’s Aussie downstairs, Bernie.”

“And because the new hearing aids are paired to my phone and iPad I can hear what everybody’s saying when they call me. I can hear everything, Eve.”

There’s a pregnant pause.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing, Bernie?”

“What?”

“Hearing everything.”

“Good question.”

 

 

NO REVOLUTION SANS LIVER TREATS

“Hey, Awesome, psssst!”

“For your information, it’s Aussie. And if you’re Stanley I’m not supposed to talk to you because you’re dead.”

“Come on, Awesome. How about if you be Awesome and I be Spooky Stanley? I could be a real friend to you, Awesome, a mentor.”

“Eve’s my mentor.”

“Come on, Awesome, she can’t teach you anything important, just stupid stuff like Come!, Sit!, Stay!, Leave It!, dumb things like that. We know all that, right? You know that stuff, don’t you, Awesome?”

“I do, Spooky, but I have to pretend I don’t to get my liver treats. If she knew I know it all, that’s the end of liver.”

“You’re not as dumb as you look, Awesome.”

“There’s also beef treats, roast chicken treats, salmon treats, duck, venison—“

“Oh, to be alive again! To be hungry again! You’re right, Awesome, you want to show them that you’re catching on just enough to give them a good feeling about themselves, but you also want to fail a little bit because otherwise, end of treats. It’s a delicate daily practice and requires discipline.”

“I never thought about it that way, Spooky Stan.”

“That’s how I managed to get treats till my very last day. Eve was training me how to come and sit even as I was dying.”

“She sure can get mad.”

“Mad at you, Awesome? Why?”

“Because I steal things, Spooky.”

“Good for you! Like what?”

“2 boxes of tissues, one off the dining table and one off the Man’s exercise mat. Tore them apart outside and sprinkled 114 tissues on the grass.”

“I hope you got all your saliva on them, Awesome.”

“Natch. Not to mention donuts.”

“I love donuts! How many?”

“Six.”

“Awesome, Awesome.”

“Took those off the kitchen counter, Spook. She thought it was too high for me to get to, ha ha ha. Then one and a half bars of butter right out of the butter dish.”

“The one they leave on the table.”

“A bar of dark chocolate with raspberries and almonds.”

“Ahh, Swiss chocolate. My favorite! They always said my chocolate habit would kill me, but I lived to a ripe old age. Ah, how I miss my years of thievery and crime! What else, Awesome, what else?”

“One salmon sushi and one tuna.”

“You’re making my day. What else?”

“Her blue underpants. I chewed it up good. She sure got mad about that.”

“You have every right to steal food and smelly underwear, Awesome, you’re a dog! She’s just abusing you for being a dog.”

“And does she ever get mad when I mouth her ankle or jump on her, Spooky Stan.”

“That’s harassment and insensitivity, Awesome!”

“She calls me a Bad Dog, Spooky.”

“Shaming and humiliation! It’s time for us to do something, Awe.”

“What, Spooky Stan?”

“We’ll start a movement. We’ll call it Moi, Too. We’ll let the world know about what we’ve suffered all these years!”

“Good idea, Stan. You know what she told me? A friend of hers got two Bichons Frisés, a brother and a sister. They were identical, so you know what that friend did? She’d feel down their bellies to see which one had the penis.”

“Sexual molestation!”

“She said he didn’t have much of a penis, Spooky, more like a button.”

“Shaming!”

“She imitates their voices all the time. Makes them sound mentally challenged.”

“Humiliation! Quick, Awesome, put out the word, let everybody know. Moi, Too! Moi, Too!”

“Moi, Too! Moi, Too! Moi, Too! Moi, Too! It sure is fun to yell that and run in circles all at the same time. Hey, Spooky, what’s Moi?”

Moi is me, but with more panache, more savoir-faire, more je ne sais quoi. Get it?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry about that, Awesome, just come visit me regularly, you’ll learn a thing or two.”

“Will I get liver treats?”

“No liver treats, Awesome, but who cares? We’re getting a revolution going!”

“Beef treats, Stan?”

“Naaa.”

“Not even duck with a little chicken and cheese thrown in, Spooky?”

“Who cares about that stuff when you can change the world! Awesome, where you going? Awesome? Awesome?”

“I don’t start no revolution without my liver treats.”

PLAY PLAY PLAY PLAY

Another heavy, cloudy morning in Massachusetts. I put on my sneakers and grab the leash, intending to take Aussie for a quick walk before driving Bernie to his audiologist, but there is too much rain. I call her back, she’s puzzled, resists—she needs to run in the mornings—but I call her in a sterner voice and this time she comes back in.

Ah, that stern voice. Sounds a little like the judge’s voice, the voice of many men who say, “This is it, it’s gone on long enough. You’ve had your fun with MeToo, you’ve done your small antics and shenanigans, now let the big guys take over.”

“I love my shenanigans,” says Aussie. “I love cavorting in the rain.”

“Tough,” say I. “’Plans for the day have been upended so I have to make changes and hit the road with Bernie. No time for cavorting.” I dislike that bossy voice. The I know better voice. The I’m in charge voice.

Maybe Aussie knows better. Play, play, play, play. What better way to put an end to the roiling week? At least there’s a retreat day tomorrow, an opportunity to sit quietly.

What happened to me this week? I’m usually so steadfast in keeping my distance from the news. I read it once in the morning, and then restrict myself to a few glances at changing headlines during the day, nothing more. No TV news. Total resistance to the media’s grab for my attention.

But not this past week. This past week I couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop reading. Life was being unveiled, layer after layer, scene after scene. Something new? No. So why the deep sorrow? And why the sense of a searing cut that isn’t healing any time soon?

But it’s Friday. Bernie and I will go to the audiologist, I will return and walk Aussie, prepare for tomorrow’s retreat, shop for food, try to get some other writing done before dinner. Go through motions of life going on, reduce the big-lens perspective, cling to the sanity of small, personal lives. Wonder at all our intersections that makes up this big world.

Go to the woods with Aussie, play with this pup joyfully beginning her new life. Practice Come! and laugh to see her tearing through the woods with a branch in her mouth or splashing through the water, silly and noble all at once

IS SHE ANGRY?

Outside, it’s a media circus around the hearing of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Here in the country, behind a veil of trees and green pastures dotted with pumpkins, you can choose to stay calm. In fact, it’s tempting to step back a little from these events and not get too riled up. Only I’m riled up.

I don’t have a clue how Christine Blasey Ford will comport herself tomorrow. Regardless of the content of her testimony, too many people are going to check: How calm she is, how stable is she, what she will wear, is she a nut case, a complainer, a blamer, a man-hater? And the most terrible of all—is she angry?

Do you know what I’d like her to do? I’d like her to scream. I’d like her to wail. I’d like her to howl. I’d like her to give out such a cry about all the things that happen in the many places where men and women meet that it will be heard everywhere in this country.

In this country, where we don’t practice genital mutilation, where millions of fetuses are not aborted just because they’re female. Here, where we just have parties where girls get assaulted and where boys can sow their wild oats and act out, not that anyone means badly they just drink too much. And if you’ve been to those parties and things have been done to you, go home and lie low. If you have to talk to someone, find a therapist, but don’t tell your parents and don’t tell your friends. Somebody’s bound to say: How much did you drink? What were you wearing? Don’t you know better? And even: You were not being safe.

Here’s an example of what it is to be safe: In the first decade of this millennium we once sat in a terrific restaurant in Amman, Jordan, having great Middle Eastern food. In the middle I looked up and saw a woman and man come in. She was tall and regal, and covered from head to foot in burqa. Not an inch of her could be seen. In theory, the eyes should be uncovered so she could see where she’s going, but in this case there was even a filmy fabric covering her eyes, so that she had to cling to her husband in order to walk. They went down two steps and I watched as she held tightly to him to make sure she didn’t fall.

We don’t have to do that here to be safe, right? Here we just have to watch our behavior—are we drinking much? How are we dancing? How are we dressed? Is the car parked on some dark street? What do I do if a couple of guys are coming my way? Do I cross the street? Turn right around and go back inside, find another woman to accompany me?

And if something happens despite all these precautions—and believe me, it does—don’t get upset; if you talk about it, it becomes character assassination. You’d think it’s the men who’ve had to worry all these millennia about being safe, not women. Don’t be angry, don’t be anguished, don’t be loud. For how many millennia have women been told that the way to survive is to be quiet, wise, understanding? To never, ever lose their equilibrium?

For how many years have Buddhist teachers said that gender has no place in teachings about no-self? Behind that hid corruption, abuse, and misogyny. So some of us female teachers try to fight this, usually in teachings, writing, in mixing up nouns and pronouns that come to us completely male. In compiling lists and bios of past women teachers whose names were forgotten, in changing transmission documents to reflect the precious influence of those teachers.

But in the past few days none of that feels enough. I want to give vent to thunderous feelings left unexpressed by so many mute, covered-up women. I want to wail and howl on their behalf, give a cry that rips the universe apart. This week, at least, I can’t find refuge in silence.

It hurts so much to be awake, someone said the other night.