Photo by Tani Katz

The beautiful woman standing next to me, Iris Dotan-Katz, stood up one night inside a barrack at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and made a vow to work for an equitable peace in Israel/Palestine, one that will honor the deep yearnings of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It was some years ago now, on a Thursday night in our week-long retreat, when we usually return to the camp in the evening. No lights, just candles that are highly monitored not to burn anything down. Someone shone a flashlight on Iris, a diminutive psychotherapist who asked to speak into the microphone so that all could hear her make a vow right there, where so many of her own family members were killed, to work for peace in the Middle East.

Peace in the Middle East! Isn’t it a joke? Like the one about the Russian czar visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital. He stops by the first wounded soldier, tells him how much he appreciates his sacrifice, and asks him what he wants most in life: I want peace in the world! says the wounded soldier gamely. Warmed to the cockles of his heart by this noble reply, the czar stops by the second soldier, expresses the same appreciation, and asks the same question. What is your greatest wish, son? That all people be happy, Your Czarship. Another wonderful answer. He stops by a Jewish soldier and asks him what is his greatest wish. I would like a corn beef sandwich, Sire!

Peace in the Middle East. Who wants that when you could have a corn beef sandwich from a good deli? That’s like saying that one day one day no one will die of starvation, or one day one day we’ll all get to the moon

Friday night I went to a fundraiser. Two nurses, one of whom sits in our zendo, went down to Haiti to provide medication for the many Haitians living rurally with very high blood pressure, a major killer in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince they got to talking with the Haitian staff about the need for temporary housing for homeless families, which barely exists there though so many have lost their homes. It’s hard to obtain land in Port-au-Prince, they were told. A few days later a parcel of lane came up for purchase. So we bought it, Diane said matter-of-factly.

It was that simple.

Since the land is vacant, by law they need to enclose it if they are to keep it, so they began to raise money for the wall, after which they would start building the compound to also serve as a community center providing services to those around. Somebody suggested a poster: Build a Wall In a Shithole Country.

Speaking of shithole countries, is there a better candidate than Gaza, where almost 2 million people live on 141 square miles? More than 60 people were killed and thousands wounded as tens of thousands tries to cross the barrier into Israel on the day the US officially opened its (not yet built) new embassy in Jerusalem.

So what are we going to do? Get swept up in the rhetoric and the rage? Listen to voices of defensiveness and cynicism? My almost-90 mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, said to me on the phone how beautiful those embassy-opening ceremonies were, the dulcet tones of peace voiced again and again, a promise like some pink-tinged horizon: One day one day. Not now, of course, never now. One day one day.

So here’s the thing. We can follow the indignant media and feel good in our anger and self-righteousness, or we can take the next step. We can now actually build a wall in a shithole country, specifically around land bought by two nurses for shelter and care, help build that facility and take care of people. We can support the Palestinians working to have their own homeland, trying to break through walls and create meaning in their straitened lives. Sami Awad, with Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, has done this for many years. We can support the Israeli and Palestinian activists who have worked towards this same goal in the face of a repressive and arrogant government, and an oblivious population (see Combatants for Peace, or Parents Circle of Bereaved Families).

We don’t have to stand in a darkened barrack in Birkenau and make vows. We can make them now, this day, in our own private corner of the universe, and then, as human beings blessed with only two legs, make every single step count.

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When I walk in the woods I try to relax my eyes and ears, not scan or look for something, let the trees reveal themselves. But there’s a mystery there.

I walked in the woods and there was Stanley framed by the two large trees, the road behind them going deeper and deeper into the forest. He seemed unaware, sniffing and looking to the side, and I paused. Would he cross that threshold? Would he walk beneath them to wherever the road led?

At first something drew him to a wet clump of grass ten feet away, but he came back. He then went the other way, perhaps smelling the creek rushing down below; in the old days he would have run down to drink, stepping carefully in the foam. But he’s too old for that now. Finally he scampered under the trees and went on his way, his back legs heavy, spirit free.

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Photo by Leeann Warner

This is the best life the best life the best life the best life! It doesn’t get any better!

What are you talking about, Stanley?

This is the best life the best life the best life the best—

I heard you the first time, Stan. Why are you limping?

The best life the best life the best—

You’re not eating your dogfood, Stanley. You’re tottering down the stairs—

The best life the best life the best—

Stanley, this is probably the last May of your life. Consider that!

Look at all the flowers I can pee on! Daffodils and tulips and forsythia and that purple stuff and—

Not to mention the turds right under the laundry lines, Stan.

That’s my favorite thing to do, leaving those big pieces right under your white sheets and pillowcases. The slightest breeze and—

I know, I know, Stan—

Not to mention that you step right on it when you collect the laundry. Isn’t spring great!

Stanley, listen to me. This is your 14th or 15th spring, I think you should get serious and think about it. I doubt you’ll have another one.

Ain’t thinking about nothing, too busy hunting for moles.

Stop digging up the yard, Stan!

Gotta go after them, you know the tunnels they got under the ground? Between raccoon condos on top of the trees and mole habitats underground, we might as well live in a zoo. Or a city.

Come Stanley, I want to show you something. There!

What’s there?

That’s where I’m going to bury you when you die, Stan.

WHAT? You’re already looking to bury me?

I started looking out for a spot, and there it is, right under those trees. Isn’t it pretty?

I hate it! How can you even think about those things?

Stanley, watching you limp on your walks, hearing from Leeann that she can’t take you anymore on warm, humid days, I hate to tell you this, but you are going to die one day, and not too far in the future.

And you’re already making plans?

I have to make plans, Stan. I have to think of digging up that hole—

Don’t look at me!

I have to think of what happens if you die in the winter when the ground is frozen, Stan, I have to think of what to plant there after you go to make it pretty.

Marrow bones.

The point is, Stanley, death is a serious matter.

Nothing is a serious matter. Ask the Man, he knows. He often talks about dying, and do you see him crying? You’re the only one crying, drama queen.

I’m not a drama queen, Stanley, I’m just the only one with any feelings around here.

Oh yeah? Catch me later. This is the best life the best life the best life the best life the best life the best—


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One of the things I hear in connection with the accusations of physical abuse by Eric Schneiderman, New York’s former attorney general, is: Why do women stand for it? Some are already paraphrasing what Kanye West said about slavery, that it was a choice. That being on the receiving end of physical abuse is a woman’s choice, as is verbal and emotional abuse.

Whenever these things come up, I get thrown back to old memories of what it was like for this young woman—me—to emerge into the world.

I went to Queens College in New York City for two years, and while it was an excellent school I soon realized things were too easy for me, so rather than attending it fulltime I got an editorial assistant job in Manhattan during the day and went to college at night.

I ended up spending lots of time on New York City subways and buses, and while traveling in those hot, crowded subway cars (there was no subway air-conditioning at that time), often squeezed tight against other uncomfortable passengers, there was barely a day when my body wasn’t being touched and felt up. It was very common to stand against other passengers, swaying with the speed of the train, and suddenly feel a strange hand on my sweater or on my pants. The more enterprising ones tried to unbutton my jacket and even reach inside my pants.

Did I ever think of telling this to my parents and asking them what’s a good girl to do? Not on your life. I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be: You shouldn’t travel like that, you shouldn’t go out to Manhattan on your own, you should just travel with your friends to school and come back with them, that’s safest.

The message was that the safest place for a woman to be is inside her home. For this reason she shouldn’t get too ambitious, shouldn’t use her initiative to get a job and go to night school, chance public transportation. She should go to school, find a man, get married, have kids, stay home. She should never stand out.

I can’t emphasize enough that, even as I did my thing in so many different ways, I strongly internalized the sense that if someone touched me without getting permission it was my fault because I’d left the safety of home, parents, and later, husband. If I tried to do any of the things that a young man would have done without a thought, then clearly I had chosen risky behavior, had left safety behind, so of course, what could I expect?

It’s hard for men to understand the fear of the outside world that’s instilled in us. Even if we’re not explicitly told that we are to blame if anything happens, there’s always the internal wagging finger: If only we’d been more careful, more vigilant, if only we hadn’t been careless that one moment. If only we hadn’t stood out, if only we hadn’t been ambitious, if only we didn’t have all that creative juice we wanted to do something with, if only we hadn’t wanted to be exceptional, if only we’d stayed with the crowd. If only we’d stayed with our family. If only we’d stayed with our husbands.

If only we wore a full-body burqa. Muslim women talk of the safety they feel within the confines of that black fabric, sealing them off from the world. I once ate at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan, when a stately woman entered dressed in full burqa. She was tall, elegant, extremely graceful, and was covered from head to toe in black leaving the barest slit for her eyes. In fact, her vision was so impaired that her husband, at her side, took her elbow and whispered caution when they came to the stairs leading down to the dining room.

I guess having a male guardian at your side, guiding you every step of the way, is one way not to fall on your head. Before anyone says anything about religious Muslims, it’s worth remembering that here in the West there has been, till only very recently and even till now, the promise of safety, dignity, and respect—if we let ourselves be confined. If we do nothing outrageous. If we find, outside or inside, some way to hide. If we never, ever, go out into the woods with no protection (Stanley is no protection).

It took me a long time to learn to tell someone in a loud voice: Get your hands off me. Saying that out in public, chancing the sidelong glances and the eyes filled with alarm—was a very brave thing to do. It flew in the face of discretion, it flew in the face of secrecy and caution, it flew in the face of concealment. It pointed to a man, it pointed to an act, but it also pointed to me. And all I’d wanted to do was read my book quietly while going to school.

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Do the gulls cry in triumph, or distress?
In neither, for they cry because they must,
Not knowing this is glory.

Isn’t that beautiful, Bernie? There’s more to the poem only it gets darker.

Who wrote it?

A poet by the name of Clive James. You know, I love talking to you guys while we’re eating.

Which guys? I just see you.

He’s getting senile, says Stanley under the table.

Stanley, it’s not true that everyone who can’t hear your voice is senile. Lots of people probably can’t hear you.

Why? I talk loud enough, don’t I?

Yes you do, Stan. It’s just too bad you don’t exist.

Whaddya mean, I don’t exist?

You’re a dog I named Stanley more than 13 years ago, but the character in our conversation doesn’t exist.

Am I talking?

In my head, maybe.

That’s the trouble with you humans, you don’t hear all the sounds like we do. You don’t hear the thud of a leaf falling on the ground or the wind stroking the tree bark or the hum of the bird flying in the air.

A leaf doesn’t fall with a thud and there is no hum when a bird flies in the air, Stanley.

You’ve got to be kidding! You don’t hear them?

No, I don’t. And neither do you, Stanley, because you’re completely deaf.

No wonder you humans miss so much! You know what? Ask the Man.

Don’t be silly, Stanley, he’s also hard of hearing.

Ask him anyway.

Okay. Bernie, can you hear the sound of a leaf sailing down to the ground?

It doesn’t sail, it falls with a thud.

What do you mean, it falls with a thud? I have the best hearing of the three of us and I don’t hear any thud.

There are three of us here?

What about birds, Bernie? Do you hear them flying in the air?

Of course, how can you miss the hum of those wings?

But you’re hard of hearing, Bernie, and Stanley’s completely deaf! How do you hear those things and I don’t? You always like to say that I have super-power hearing.

Yes, they should make a movie about you. You could save the world.

I don’t want to save the world, I want to hear what you and Stanley can hear, a leaf falling with a thud or a hum when a bird takes off. Do I have to lose my hearing to hear those things?

Bernie gives it some thought. Maybe you should save the world instead.

Get deaf, says Stanley. It’s easier.

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Photo by Rami Efal

After dinner by the dining table:

Bernie, do you ever get sad?

I get sad when we fight or if you’re upset about something.

But do you ever get sad about the stroke? About the fact that you can’t do what you did, that instead you have to rest a lot in bed?


What about when your eyes weren’t working and you couldn’t look at anything for a couple of months, wasn’t that terrible?

Yeah, but I wasn’t sad.

What about the people we don’t get to see anymore? Don’t you miss them?


Why do you keep on asking those questions? says Stan from under the table.

No commentary, canine. Ignore him, Bernie.

Ignore whom? I don’t hear anything.

Bernie, don’t you get sad when you think about how this happened to you just when you were cutting down on so much work and enjoying life?


You never get sad about the slow walking with the cane, the cancer, not being able to maneuver with your hand, difficulties with the computer?

No. The only time I get sad is if when you are sad, or when you are upset.

From under the table: Like I said, the Man’s as clear as can be, in the groove with things as they are. Doesn’t question anything, doesn’t get all fluffy and mushy. Was this way from Day 1. Too bad he married a drama queen.

You don’t get it, Stan. True, it’s important to rest in the moment, be fully present to—

Who’re you talking to?

I’m talking to Stanley, Bernie.

You’re talking to a dog? Say hi from me.

Stanley, we also need feelings and imagination. We need our yearning for life even when we face illness or death. We need beauty even when it comes out of a sense of loss. We need to call things by their names, recite poetry, break our hearts, love like crazy, the whole shishkabob.

I guess in this family that gets cut right down a little funny. He loves this moment, and you love everything else. By the way, I love shishkabobs. How come you don’t make any?

I don’t have time to set up the grill.

Are you still talking to Stanley? wonders Bernie. You two sure carry on long conversations.

From under the table: Don’t you understand the deep generosity of accepting life for just what it is? The Man’s after a stroke, life has changed, and he’s living it without remorse or regret, content in the small moments. Can’t you get that? Oh no, here she goes, tears in her eyes. Drama queen cries again! Like I said, he LOVES the moment, you LOVE your feelings.


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“Stanley, wake up, there’s a big black bear in our back yard.”


“Wake up, Stan! It’s eating the husks of sunflower seeds on the ground. It smashed down the chimes hanging from the tree and the entire birdbath. Listen to it munching!”

“Can’t hear a thing.”

“It scares me, Stan. Big animal out there, darker than the night.”

“Can’t see, either.”

“How could you sleep through all this, Stanley?”

“I turn around a few times, lie down, curl my legs under my belly, and off I go right next to my food bowl. Empty, I might add.”

“Once you used to go nuts when there was a bear out in back, Stan.”

“I barked a lot, but did you ever see me run out through the dog door? Not that nuts.”

“You’d give the alarm and Bubale the Pit Bull would rush out to attack while you stayed home safe and sound.”

“That Pit Bull was crazy!”

“But now look at you, Stanley, sleeping through everything, deaf to the world.”

“That’s my definition of retirement: Sleeping through everything, deaf to the world.”

“Oh, yeah? So what’s your definition of senility, Stan? Sometimes I come downstairs and find you standing at the corner just looking at the wall.”

“I’m meditating.”

“You have a glazed look in your eye, Stanley.”

“Did you ever see yourself meditating?”

“My eyes don’t glaze! Now listen, Stan. Meditating is not just looking at some wall. It’s being completely alert and awake.”

“At 6 in the morning? P-l-e-a-s-e!”

“The birds are chirping, the world’s awake!”

“Any fool can tell you that’s the best time to sleep.”

“You’re wide awake, Stanley, aware of everything: the slant of sun coming from the east, the smoke of incense stick drifting up, disappearing.”

“I hate that smell!”

“My cold feet on the floor, Stanley, the small ache in back of my neck.”

“That’s what you want to pay attention to?”

“It’s not just cold and achy, those are words. Morning air comes through the window, life is all around. It’s one big invitation, Stanley!”

“That big black bear out there is an invitation, too. Try going out tonight and you’ll wake up awful quick.”

“Oh Stanley, why can’t you be the way you were?”

“How was I?”
“Young, vibrant, eager—”


“Full of life and spark! Not as you are now, Stanley, sleeping indoors in the middle of a bear invasion.”

“You know what I think?”

“What do you think, Stanley?”

“I think you liked me more when I was young. But you love me more now that I’m old.”

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Often I wonder why I feel so connected to the traumas of Native Americans or African-Americans in this country. My family arrived here in 1957 with no awareness of what had happened here, in this golden land of opportunity. They had a daughter who needed help after polio had paralyzed her leg and hoped to get their own legs on some solid ground, give their children education and a whiff of middle-class prosperity if they could get that far. Which they did.

But you could imagine their bewilderment some years later when they found fingers pointed in their direction calling them racists, or at the very least active participants in a racist and genocidal society.

It took me a while to come to grips with what it means to be a white person here, in some people’s words: a perpetrator. It started with reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, and since then the panorama got wider and wider.

But that’s not the only reason. I’ve been reading The Year of the Comet, a novel by the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev. His protagonist is a boy living through the dissolution of the USSR, and this is what he writes of the boy’s family:

Every family in the USSR was “overloaded” by history; the family space did not protect you from anything, it had lost its autonomy. Too many people had died before their time, and the family remained exposed to the crossfire of history, constantly reconfiguring itself to the intensity of the losses, finding a replacement for once significant figures.

Probably every family at any time lives like that. But there seems to be a threshold for loss, after which there is a quantitative change. The family stops being a communal entity unfolded in time, built on values and meanings, and it becomes simplified, moving into a reactive existence within opaque zones where you can hide from time and the state.

. . . A child’s life in such a family is not at all necessarily horrible, the child can be loved and spoiled, but he still feels that below the cover of daily existence and the concord of communal life, there are tectonically active layers saturated with blood that is hardly symbolic.

A child grows in a field of conflict greater than his horizon of comprehension, inheriting historical anxiety as a background and milieu of life.

Some sociologists now call this multi-generational trauma, with symptoms like anxiety and fear of what the new day may bring. People suffering from this often try to find oblivion in alcohol or drugs. But it’s Lebedev who nailed it on a much deeper level.

Growing up this way, you feel it’s not your life to begin with, that underneath the rhythms of daily existence—get up, breakfast, go to school/work, talk to people, work, lunch, more work, take care of family, make dinner, walk dog, watch news, go to bed—underneath all that the earth is moving. Nothing is what it seems. Nothing is as normal or mundane as it seems. Underneath the little acts there are big forces at work, and those forces are acting on you and through you, whether you like it or not, whether you chose it or not.

I grew up feeling exactly like the boy in The Year of the Comet. My family didn’t live under Stalin or get sent to the gulag, they grew up in Eastern Europe and saw that world disappear under their very feet, fought and got hurt in a war in Israel, and always felt the enemy was all around. Their children inherited that in their very genes, in every single one of the billions of cells that made up their bodies.

You have your life ahead of you, my mother used to say, you have more opportunities than I ever had. But I knew in my guts something very different: It wasn’t my life at all, there were forces deep and strong working on the family, on me, and through me. The personal part of it was small; the much bigger part of it lay beyond me.

Growing up here, I watched white American children go through their lives with no sense of that at all, as if everything was within their reach, as if they were masters of the universe. Even at a very young age I suspected that not only were they not masters of the universe, they were not even masters of their own lives. The only difference between us lay in that they didn’t know it, and I did.

I actively participate in our programs with the Lakota because I am aware that they, too, know this. They, too, as Lebedev said, have grown in a field of conflict greater than [their] horizon of comprehension, inheriting historical anxiety as a background and milieu of life. We’re different, and alike.

For years I tried to fight the tectonically active layers saturated with blood that I felt lay under my feet, that would rob me of a personal, individual life, but I stopped to do that. That is my life, I now say to myself, and I’m grateful for it. Let me bear witness to it as fully as I can, act as consciously as I can, and be a small agent for the powerful, creative forces acting on this roiling humanity.

I can only go day by day, otherwise the whole thing becomes crazy and even self-aggrandizing, of which I’m wary. Start the day with meditation, feet on the ground, awareness in the mid-point of my body rather than up up up. Later in the day walk the dog between the raindrops, feed the horses their apples, and otherwise, let not my life but the greater life take over. As if I had a choice!

What choice I have is to go unconscious, or wake up to what acts through me. Not fight, not get distracted by self-doubt, Trump, or anything else, just make a vow to help those who struggle, love every minute of life that’s given me, use whatever clay (or words) comes to my hands and make my tiny, well-meant offerings, one eye looking sideways at the invisible that’s always there.

You can learn more about the Zen Peacemakers’ Native American program here. You could also register for free for a one-hour Q&A taking place on Friday, May 4, featuring Renee Iron Hawk and Roshi Genro Gauntt, two of the retreat’s leaders, here.



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“Oh no, you’re leaving home again?”

“It’s a retreat, Stanley. I’m going to sit for 3 days.”

“Why can’t you sit here? Why do you have to leave us behind? Chasing squirrels with me isn’t enough for you?”

“I’m not sitting alone, Stanley, I’m sitting with a group of folks. We do the retreat together. Beside, you don’t chase squirrels anymore, you’re too old and cranky.”

“But do you see me running away from being old and cranky? No. I’m ok with being old. I’m OK with being stiff. I’m okay with being all deaf and half-blind. I’m even okay with being cranky.”

“Stanley, I’m doing a retreat with other people. We’re like a family, we’ve sat together for a long time.”

“The Man and I are your family.”

“They are, too, Stan.”

“A second family? Personally, I think one’s too much.”

“It’s true, Stan, you and Bernie are a handful.”

“So you do a retreat to be with more people?”

“I’m with people but I’m also alone, Stanley, know what I mean?”


“The man who founded Buddhism left his family, too, Stanley.”

“Why does that not surprise me?”

“He had a wife and a son, a father and stepmother, and lots of servants, Stan.”

“Any dogs?”

“The sutras don’t say. He was trying to understand what life is all about, Stan.”

“If he had dogs he’d have known. Did he come up with an answer?”

“Yes, Stanley, he said that life is suffering.”

“Do you think he’d have come up with that answer if he’d stayed home with his dogs?”

“No, Stanley, I don’t think that would have been his answer had he stayed home with his dogs.”


The blog closes down for retreat, not to reopen till Monday. Unless Stanley decides otherwise.



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I went to Laurel Lake for the weekend. Bernie’s daughter was here for a visit, so I jumped into my car at 2 on Friday and drove to Laurel Lake in the Berkshires, just north of the town of Lee, an old New England town reminding me of the 1950s, with its large, somewhat drab colonial houses, an old Carr Hardware, and a General Store on Main Street rather than in a far-away mall. It’s Norman Rockwell’s 1950s America without Norman Rockwell, who lived in Stockbridge just five miles away.

I went to the Black Swan Inn where Bernie and I used to go. I think it was a Best Western hotel then, still called the Black Swan though I never saw any swans there, black or otherwise. We were living communally in the Montague Farm then, in a large 18th century farmhouse, and on the 2-3 weekends when we felt: Enough!, we fled to the Black Swan Inn with its two floors of rooms above Laurel Lake. It was easy then, just get into the car and drive. No organizing coverage and writing notes on what to do and when, no dogs to care for, no reminders that I’m just a phone call away.

It was always cold, I remember; we didn’t go in summer, which was prime season. The trees were always bare, but once I sat out on the small porch and wrote poetry. I looked for it this past weekend and couldn’t find it. This time, too, I tried to sit on the porch, but Friday and Saturday were cold, and while Sunday was warmer I had to leave the room by 11.

Two things are always going on at the same time. There’s the lake itself, the lakeness of it, dark waters driven south by the wind, cresting and depressing, with small gabby geese floating around a tiny pier bobbling in the water. The lake circles north towards Lenox while feeding the Housatonic River on the south, gentling and unwinding, but the water always looks dark and cold.

There’s the lake, and what it evokes. There’s looking deeply, and there are memories and reflections. Not one, not two. We went to Laurel Lake for refuge, seeking something different from work and people, from making plans and raising money. I was going to the Middle East a lot then, to Amman and Bethlehem and Jerusalem, met with much idealism and hope. Loved the hot desert winds and summer salads kissed by sun. Laurel Lake felt far away from sun. Nevertheless, that’s where we went in search of a connection beyond work.

By then Bernie had several lifetimes’ work behind him. Was he, in between the calculations and improvisations, thinking of the future? Thinking of his legacy? Did he share with me anything important? Can’t remember. Yes and no.

I remember meals. A good dinner at the Morgan House one time, a bad one six months later. Walking along the edge of the lake while he waved from the porch of our room, prepared to freeze in his denim Greyston Bakery jacket and red beret for the sake of several puffs on a cigar.

We weren’t the type to tootle around looking at antique shops. I imagine that even there we probably talked a lot about work—it’s what we usually did—even as I wished for us to talk of other things. I was always glad to be there with him but I also felt alone, and that’s probably why I wrote some poetry that now I can’t find.

Already then I was scrutinizing the waters looking for some truth, and getting the inscrutable right back. And that’s what happened this past weekend, too. I tried to capture in my mind something basically uncapturable. It resisted the fat gush of my longings and my stories, so that it could be forever free.

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