Back in Santa Barbara, a friend of mind talked about what had happened in Hawaii a month earlier, when an alarm went everywhere about incoming missile attacks. For 38 minutes Hawaiians thought they had only a small pocket of time to prepare for death coming in the form of nuclear weapons delivered by missiles. Afterwards, when the cause seemed to be a combination of human error and technological glitch, the media and government lambasted the event, i.e., who was the moron who did that, who designed such dumb systems, that’s the problem with idiot technology, etc.

Actually, said my friend, they missed the point. Nuclear war is unimaginable, so the rest of us go about our lives happy not to imagine it. It’s not that we don’t know what would be the results for ourselves, our families, communities, and country, we just prefer not to think about it. Our government, which likes to talk about a nuclear option with limited liability, is happy to leave us in our ignorance and delusion.

Then an error occurs, a message goes out, and people start coming to grips with what a nuclear missile attack would mean. Best thing that could have happened, said my friend.

In Zen we say that everything is right here—God, the absolute, Nirvana, essence, Being, the deepest meaning of life—and we’d see it if only we could get out of our heads. But getting out of our heads is not so simple given that, at least in the case of humans, our heads are attached to the rest of our bodies.

From my earliest years of practice I’d hear Bernie say that there are no secrets. How could there be, he’d say, if we’re all really One, if it’s all one great functioning. Trying to figure this out in my early days, I’d envisage some massive piece of machinery stretching throughout space and time, where one infinitesimal cog keeps a secret about another infinitesimal cog from the rest of the machine. But that would cause things to malfunction, I thought, and already I knew there was no such thing as malfunction in the One Body, so the metaphor would collapse in my head.

A few days ago I blogged about my childhood when I’d been beaten by my father even as in the outside world he was a highly respected and deeply loved educator. I wrote about what it is to be the holder of the secret, because make no mistake, it’s not the perpetrator who holds the secret, it’s the person who is hurt.

What makes it so hard to reveal the secret to others? Why is it, as comes up again and again, that women wait so long before they come forward to talk about these things?

When you’re a holder of a secret you have one foot in one world and the second foot in another. You stand and live in a world that, for good and valid reasons, respects a particular person for skills, talent, personality, and accomplishment. But you also stand in another, more private world, shared only by you and him, behind closed doors and windows, where abuse, cruelty, and helplessness reign.

It’s hard enough to make sense of it as an adult, never mind a child. It plunges you into enormous confusion, you develop doubts about the authenticity of your personal experience, and often the safest thing to do is fold it inside yourself and keep it secret, even pretend nothing happened.

When you hold that secret you are frightened by the power you think you have, because with just a few words you could bring that external world of good times, faith, trust, love and friendship crashing on everybody’s heads. Ain’t no one going to give you much credit for that, believe me. Whoever it is—Rob Porter, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, one’s parents—the world wants to keep its delusions intact. In fact, we fight for our delusions as hard as we can.

Bernie says the world knows. People around me may not have known, but the windows I loved to keep open and now were shut down knew. The bed that held me knew, as did the pillow beneath my head. Perhaps a doll knew, or a stuffed animal, and later on a desk promising to be there years later for the notebook or computer absorbing a much older woman’s memories and impressions. There was clearly a witnessing; no one said it had to be human.

Integrity—which could be another word for wholeness—and brokenness are two sides of the same coin. In a way, the more we break, the more integrity we uncover.

You don’t want to believe that people with greater power can hurt people with far less? What world do you live in?

Human error and technological glitch may have caused the alert of incoming missiles in Hawaii, but I call it Bodhisattva action, one of Kwan Yin’s many hands acting with full compassion. We label it idiocy or madness, a bizarre joke, but She’s just pointing to what is.

I’m still with Bernie. There’s revelation everywhere, no secrets at all.

So what do you see?


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Life is a mess, Stanley.

You’re telling me!

Just look at all this stuff that’s fallen in the winter. We used to go up this path and now look at it, blocked and jagged and no good.

We could try to get through sideways. I’d make it, but not sure about you. You’re gaining weight! You’re getting bigger

You want to get somewhere, cross the road, but things fell in the way, things got hurt, they died, they didn’t work out, and they leave a mess right in the way so you can never go straight.

Love is a mess, too.

What do you know about love, Stanley?

What don’t I know? I love Minnie. Take a look at the way that beagle looks at me. She adores me.

How long has this been going on, Stan?

Three months. But lately she’s changing. She doesn’t come so close anymore, she doesn’t nuzzle me, doesn’t follow me on the road. Before, even when she drifted away she always knew where I was. Now she goes sniffing elsewhere.

So do you love her because she’s Minnie, or do you love her because she adores you?

I love her because she adores me. Why would you love anybody otherwise?

I didn’t realize patriarchy was so alive and well on your outings with Leeann.

Look at you. You adore me. You feed me. You walk me. You take me to Leeann. You brush me. So I love you back. Nothing messy about that.

That’s very heartening, Stan.

But is that good enough for Minnie? No, sir. Now she wants to talk to me about her problems back home, as if I care. As if I have to worry about how she’s left alone on Saturdays or that she’s not allowed to jump on the sofa. She’s become a feminist, I tell you!

Is that bad, Stan?

It’s messy. When it gets like that, I’m out of here.

Anybody else out there ready to fall in love with you, Stanley?

Only you. But don’t get too pushy and demanding on me! I need someone simple: cook and walk. Anything else gets too complicated. We’re an item as long as you do that.

What about Minnie?

I’ve forgotten her already.

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Sunset in Santa Barbara

I’ve been thinking a lot about the episodes to do with Rob Porter and David Sorensen, two White House aides who left because their ex-wives said they were abusive. Not just about them, but about people generally who are successful, powerful, and highly regarded at work, and exhibit an entirely different aspect of their personalities at home.

My father used to beat me very badly when I was a child. I’m not talking spanking here, some East European shtetl sense of how to raise children, or even a spare the rod, spoil the child approach. I’m talking about a man with accumulated anxiety and stress from work and marriage who came home and released it by beating a little girl. A man who, if he felt thwarted in plans to go out for an evening, if he had an argument with his wife or didn’t like the food served at dinner, would come into my room, shut the door quietly, go from window to window, shut each slowly and methodically, then close the blinds, and proceed to beat me.

I learned from a young age that these outbursts were rarely triggered by things I said or did. Not that I didn’t have an attitude, I did, but there was no proportion between what I said and what ensued. I knew what it felt like to be the scapegoat for someone’s frustrations many years before I heard the word scapegoat. I knew how it felt to be one’s punching bag, literally, and the marriage of helplessness and hopelessness that ruled the fabric of my life in those days.

From a very early age I learned to fear the sound of the front door opening and closing in the early evening, and to watch and listen for his moods and the dynamics at home as if my life depended on it.

And here’s the thing. My father was highly thought of in the community. He didn’t work in the White House, he was a beloved high school teacher and principal. His students used to visit our house again and again to talk things over with him, and they’d stop me on the streets to tell me how they wished they could talk to their fathers as they did to mine, how they wished they had a father like mine.

When I was in my 30s he wrote me letters to tell me how sorry he was for the violence of my childhood and youth. He described his own early life, which smacked of the same things. I forgave him with all my heart, but that didn’t undo the damage.

When he died shortly after the age of 90, hundreds of people came to the shiva to tell my siblings and myself what a great father we had. A few were the very ones who loved him back in those early brutal years, to whom he was a surrogate father.

I remember sitting in the house and listening to them, filled with a deep feeling of I know a secret about this man that you don’t.

That’s the thing, you see, the secret. In a way he led a secret life. We’re not talking about No man is a hero to his valet; people closest to you will always know things about you that others don’t. What I’m talking about are brutal attacks and violence on a helpless child, that’s the secret.

And that happens when we believe in secrets, when we believe in segmenting and compartmentalizing. That’s when you can be beloved in the office, in art, in literature, in films, and a monster at home. Because we live in a society of secrets.

There’s nothing I advocate here. What to do when these situations come to light is a challenge for all of us. I don’t think the cure is to fire folks from their jobs, destroy their careers, break all relations. If we’re serious about healing people and society we can’t depend on social media but patiently, painstakingly (which means taking up the pain), work skillfully from bottom up, give names to the unspeakable and a voice to the mute, and never exclude anyone from the country called compassion.

Over many years Bernie has often said that there are no secrets. If we’re all one, then we know—maybe not the details, maybe not everything—but something. Is that true? I’m no longer so sure. I feel I know just one thing. Basically we’re broken, and each fragment is whole.

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Bernie began radiation treatments yesterday and Rae (his caregiver) and I meticulously monitor his nose almost hourly. Is there a tiny blister here? A skin break there? In Santa Barbara a gardener friend packed up seven very large aloe vera leaves to take home with me. I take one, slice off a portion, and rub the thick, jelly-like extract on the Man’s nose a few times a day.

We were supposed to teach at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas in the week of April 16. I wondered if Bernie would be able to make the trip, but after some discussion we decided to move forward with it. Since we’re going to participate in a peace conference, they interviewed both of us on the subject of Zen and peace.

The interviewer asked what does peace mean, and Bernie recalled that his sense of peace came from the Hebrew equivalent, which is shalom, derived from shalem, which means whole. Peace, he said, refers to being whole, or realizing wholeness.

The interviewer digs further: What does it mean, to be whole?

Bernie looks straight into the camera. We had a big glass vase here, he tells the interviewer, and it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Was it whole before it broke?

I guess so, she says.

And what about after it broke?

She brightens. Well, I guess now it’s whole as a broken vase.

More than that, he tells her. Every single broken piece is whole.

He continues to look at the camera. I can tell he’s getting tired because his speech is getting slower and more labored, but he goes on: Two years ago I had a big stroke. People told me before the stroke that I was whole. Tell me, he says, his mottled face bearing a round patch of skin on the bridge of his nose and the red remains of a circle in the forehead (we call it his Third Eye), am I any less whole now after the stroke and with the cancer than I was then?

She says nothing.

Two things come up for me that moment. The first is: Son of a gun, I want to say to him, you’re always at your clearest and most spontaneous when you’re teaching, that’s never changed.

And the second is that the practice is all about connection. Not the usual my-concept-of-me connecting with your-concept-of-you connection, but connecting with something surprising, unsettling, discombobulating, even alienating. There’s nothing new, challenging, or refreshing about the usual me and the usual you, everything lives up to expectations, so the connection is rote and mechanical.

Now something’s changed. There’s a black eye, or no eye at all. There’s a scar or tattoo, an eyebrow has gone up to the forehead while one edge of the mouth sags down to the chin. The face rattles and disturbs.

Tell me, what kind of connection is this?

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Hurry Stanley, come on!

Slow down, will you. What are you getting me up for? I’m old and I like to go back to sleep after breakfast.

If you want to get a good walk in before the snow, now’s the time.

It’s 7:30 in the morning and snow is predicted to begin anytime between 8 and 10. Not to mention the 10 minutes it takes me to prepare to go out in this weather: gray I climbed the Great Wall dog-walking sweatshirt my mother brought me from China many years ago (Probably made by prison labor, I complained to her), burgundy dog-walking jacket I got from the Salvation Army 16 winters ago, gloves, one of Bernie’s gray wool hats he’d wear to the Auschwitz-Birkenau bearing witness retreat, a scarf, boots with spikes on the bottom, my phone in case something happens back home, and two apples for the white horses in the pasture.

Stanley groans. Anything else? All I need is my collar, jacket, and leash. You look like an Eskimo. He’s not known for his patience.

Shut up and come on. I’m not known for my good humor in the early morning. Out we go.

First, to visit the horses, who canter to the fence to get their apples. Stanley, of course, pretends they’re not there. I usually try to hang out and stroke them a bit, but I’m in a hurry today, so we turn back and enter the woods, walking up the hill to the gazemple, the tiny gazebo temple atop the hill that looks out to the west, where the snow is coming from. The road isn’t snowy but full of ice; by the end of today it will be covered with snow once again.

I hate it when you take pictures of me.

I know, Stan, you run away as soon as you see the camera.

The ice crackles underfoot. I feel the temptation to get cracking, there’s so much to do today even though we’ll be closed in by snow and not go anywhere. A list of things to do unfurls inside my head like a Torah scroll, I seem to see it wherever I look: laundry, noon Zoom meeting, half a dozen phone calls, pay bills, upgrade computer, financials for 2017, prep for Thursday zendo stewards meeting . All that in addition to writing.

Back in Santa Barbara, a friend told me what his psychiatrist long ago told him: Be suspicious of urgency.

It’s as if that long-ago doctor is looking straight at me many years later. Be suspicious of urgency.

What is urgent in my life? What will they say in eulogies of me, if any? She did laundry like clockwork every Wednesday. She paid her bills on time. She knew how to update apps. And she wrote, yes she wrote. So what’s urgent?

Be suspicious of a life in which every day is full of urgency, as if what you do is of inestimable importance to the world. It’s the Golden Calf of our technological age: You can do anything—and it’s IMPORTANT! In fact, it’s urgent.

It’s probably not.

The snow comes down now, covering all my deficits and transgressions, covering up the failures of attention, the mishaps of forgetfulness, the sins of neglect and distraction. Don’t worry about it, it seems to say. Inside your head it’s a mess, but outside, see, it’s buried under, all white, forgiven.

Walk with Stanley on the icy, gravelly path. Spot the yellow on the horizon, be grateful for full bird feeders and a full refrigerator. Bernie will be getting up when you get home, you’ll take his blood sugar numbers, have breakfast. Sit and watch the birds, sit and watch the snow wiping everything away.

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Photo by Leeann Warner

It’s so great to see you. Did you bring back any food from California?

I did not, Stan.

But you’re such a terrific hunter! Look at all the food you hunt down each weekend! I love being in the kitchen and sniffing it when you bring it in, though I don’t know why you bother putting it in those bags.

That’s what I love about you, Stanley, you’re such a dog!

Of course I’m a dog.

I mean, your feelings are right out there. You can’t hide them. Even with the cataracts covering so much of your eyes I can see the sparkle when I come back from the store or when it’s time to go for a walk. When you go to Leeann you’re grinning in the back seat of the car as soon as we make that turn, and you wave your tail so gaily when she comes to get you! When I came home yesterday from California you whimpered and nuzzled me. Things are right out there with you, Stanley, there’s no hiding anything.

Why should I hide?

Humans do, Stanley. We hide our feelings, not just from others but from ourselves.

How do you hide your own feelings?

By not experiencing them, not going fully into the sensations, Stanley. When we’re babies we feel things strongly, but as we grow up many of us submerge things.

You mean you go swimming?

No, Stan, we learn that it’s better not to feel certain feelings. Say you want to play with someone and there’s no one to play with. Say you want to cuddle with someone only there’s no one to cuddle back, in fact they even make fun of you for wanting to cuddle. After this happens a bunch of times, you don’t want to play and you don’t want to cuddle.

That’s terrible.

In fact, Stanley, that’s what happened to you when we first got you. You didn’t play and you didn’t cuddle. I’d pet you and talk sweetly to you, and you’d go sit by the glass door in back and look out for people or animals.

That’s because I was a guard dog. I’m retired now, so I can play and cuddle.

The point is, Stanley, when humans have a hard life and they’re just trying to get by, just trying in their own way to survive, they forget to feel. In fact, half the time they don’t know what they’re feeling because they’re rushing around so much. We learn to pretend, we learn not to care. Stanley, where are you going?

I’m running downstairs. Rae is sautéing chicken, can’t you smell it? I’m so HAPPY!

It’s only chicken, Stanley, what’s the big deal? And you just ate.

I’m not hungry, I’m HAPPY! I’m so SO HAPPY!

Tail wagging, he scrambles down the stairs to the kitchen so fast his legs collapse under him and he slides down the bottom four steps.

And what do I do? I return to Barking to the Choir, the terrific book by Fr. Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries for gang members ready to give up gang life, and look again at a line he quotes from one of his homies: We got authenticity beaten out of us.





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How many times can you take a photo of the ocean?

How many times can you evoke tenderness?

That’s what this big Pacific Ocean brings up for me when it’s quiet and pond-like, waters whispering like massage.

Tenderness, ease, delight. Somehow they were never included in the wiring of my brain. You grow up on stories of hunger, concealment, and death, are told how lucky you are that you don’t have these things in your life, and suddenly problems like I have no friends or Someone said something very cruel to me or I don’t have a date for Saturday night seem pathetic and overindulgent. You’re not sick, you’re healthy, you’re smart, what’s the problem?

What I missed was tenderness. Being held, not just physically but emotionally. And I don’t blame anyone here, it’s hard to give what you ain’t got. But what you’re left with is a yearning for tenderness.

In the distance a sailboat cruises slowly away from us, toward the Channel Islands. In two months or so mama whales will take their babies north. I won’t see it, I’m leaving Santa Barbara in an hour, but I learned how to look for them when I lived here. Not their great leap, that’s a different thing entirely.

You look for a break in the surface of the water, a line that moves north rather than staying in place or coming to shore. At some point—and you have to be patient here–the water breaks a little more and you see an enormous shadow grazing just below the surface. Slowly and ponderously they travel north, living and letting live. Tenderness.

I told a friend this morning that for years Santa Barbara was not for me. Too easily beautiful, I told him. Of course there are divorces and deaths here, traffic accidents and poverty; there were terrible fires, homelessness, and mud slides. Still, I thought I had to be more at the edge of things, where life is raw and difficult, where even the small things will level you.

Here I find tenderness. A world that says you don’t have to do much, you’re not so important after all. Look west at the ocean and east at the Santa Ynez mountains, see the dolphins play and the dogs chase balls into the waves, all saying: When you go back East, don’t forget, there’s this too. This too.

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I’m back in Santa Barbara, California.

We lived here for two years in a compound once owned by the Beach Boys. In fact, we lived in the Love house, once inhabited by Mike Love. A very generous couple gave it to us, to live and work in. Our neighbors were kind and warmhearted. Later, even New Englanders would wonder why we left paradise to go and live in snowy, cold Montague.

Santa Barbara was almost too beautiful. You caught your breath every morning coming out on the deck. We slept with the endless sound of waves crashing onto shore. There’s something about that feel of eternity that lulls you into insignificance, not just you but also the suffering of the world around you, the full catastrophe.

Yes, garden workers are here from Mexico, how can you miss them? And yes, Bernie and I went out onto the streets, walking down from the Mesa all the way downtown (did he really then walk that long?). A law had just been passed in Santa Barbara making it illegal for homeless people to sleep in their cars, and if you dozed off on the beach a policeman might wake you and tell you to move on. Of course, only if you looked a certain way. You have your old lady with you, they told Bernie, you’ll be fine.

We flew off from here and traveled to many places, returning to this place where day after day the ocean sparkled, surfers surfed, dolphins frolicked, and whales cruised slowly by between the beach and the Channel Islands.

Finally we left to New England, where the winters are really cold and the nearest ocean is 2 hours away, where folks told us we were crazy to come there from a place called Santa Barbara.

The photo above shows you where Bernie used to sit. He had an office indoors, but why bother? He sat on the deck 30 feet from cliff’s edge, looking out at the ocean far below. He wore jeans and Hawaiian shirt, and smoked his cigar while working on his computer or talking on the phone.

My office, on the other hand, was in back of the house, a middle room wedged between the bathroom and our neighbor’s studio. My view was of the lemon and cherimoya trees, and the world’s most colorful cactuses. Micro rather than macro.

The view of the ocean was too much, I told Bernie, who told me I was crazy. But I still feel that even now, as I write where he once worked. Some things are too big, too awesome, to be confronted head-on. I have to come up to them sideways, shyly, like an invited guest. Look out at infinity, but never lose sight of the young man in sombrero mowing the lawn, or another digging under the grass to put a wire contraption with which to trap the gophers.

Let me break your heart by telling you that there’s a hot tub right at the edge, where I go in at night and then stand by the railing and look down at the high tide. There’s danger there. When you look down at so much, it’s easy to feel you’re on top of the world, that perhaps you are the top of the world.

This place is full of love and recollection. We got married here, we fought here, left here, came back, left here again. A dog’s ashes were sprinkled here; we went vegetarian and made pasta dinners for our neighbors with a tomato sauce that Bernie nursed all day long.

A Buddha sits close to the edge of the cliff, but to his side stands the charred sculpture of a human being, one arm outstretched. Just one arm to envelop all my wantings and nostalgia, the fierceness inside that wants more and more and more. Yes, I practice Zen, shouldn’t grasp so much. But just look at this world, look at it! And then tell me about your own glorious attachments.


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I’m sitting at the Denver airport, delayed enroute to Santa Barbara, California.

Three seats away a tall man, around my age if not older, is talking on his iPhone. He wears jeans, a black cowboy hat, and black boots. He makes one phone conversation after another while I finish my coffee, talking to friends and real estate agents, telling them he’s coming over for a week and plans to buy a home, so please show him everything they got. Doesn’t mention where, or at least I never hear it. Hangs up, dials again, same message, hangs up, dials again.

Some 70 feet away a woman announces the flight to Shreveport, Louisiana. Two dozen people board; these are small planes. She announces Last call for Shreveport! After that she calls out the names of three people who haven’t boarded yet and asks them to come quickly. Three seats away the man continues talking on the phone. Then she announces once more: This is the last call for Shreveport, doors are closing. Finally the plane leaves.

Five minutes later the agent at the gate in front of us announces that the plane for Santa Barbara has arrived and we will board soon. My cowboy neighbor gets up and walks over. What happened to the plane to Shreveport?

The agent tells him that the plane to Shreveport just left.

Why didn’t you make any announcements?

They made announcements, the agent says patiently, and when the man asks what he should do now, the agent recommends he book another flight and directs him to Customer Service.

I shake my head—others around me do, too—but I’m relieved at the same time. For the agent is Latino, and an hour earlier I’d witnessed an ugly scene of an inebriated passenger yelling racial slurs at another agent, clearly not born in this country, till airport police arrived and took him away.

Ever since Donald Trump’s remarks about people from shithole countries, I watch and listen more carefully. I’m also more proud than ever of my own shithole roots.

In Denver I had sat down at a small airport eatery. The man at the next table opened up a potato chip bag, it burst into a big hole with a loud WHOP! and the chips fell on the floor. Immediately a small, dark-skinned woman approached with a new potato chip bag. She opened it for him as he apologized, then brought out the broom and pan and swept the floor.

She rested a bit on a nearby chair, a shade of red down one side of her long, dark hair, and we started talking. I thanked her for taking such good care of us. She said she was Tamil from Sri Lanka.

How does she feel here, I asked her. She smiled bashfully, said she felt good.

After talking a little more, I pressed her. Did she feel welcome here? She is here legally, she assured me.

Were things all right? That was my vague way of saying: You’re clearly an immigrant, not Norwegian, not white, in fact you’re not even 5 feet tall and very, very thin, so are you alright?

She understood. People very nice, she assured me. Much nicer than Sri Lanka, she added.

It reminded me that many immigrants, coming from the countries Trump despises, have faced far worse things than verbal abuse. For now, the Tamils are finished in Sri Lanka. Villages burned, families destroyed, people disappeared. And she’s legal here in the US.

I bless US every day, she said.

Still, out of caution, I didn’t ask her whether I could take a photo.

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