Waiting for Snow

In 1999 I joined Bernie for a teaching trip to Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas. One evening I talked about the Zen Peacemaker retreat at Auschwitz. During the Q&A that followed, a woman raised her hand and declared that she feels responsible for the wellbeing of her mind, and for this reason has no interest in listening to stories of retreats in terrible places and, similarly, never reads newspapers.

This morning, after reading that Israel’s army targeted and hit three World Central Kitchen vehicles and killed 7 aid people I felt like doing the same. That’s it, I thought. Cancel all subscriptions, give the computer a rest, and go under the covers. See how long you can sleep.

 I felt like I was carrying a heavy stone in my chest all day. It was hard to walk, hard to hold my back up. I felt broken inside.

You may know this story:

A farmer is sitting on his porch in a chair, hanging out.

A friend walks up to the porch to say hello and hears an awful yelping, squealing sound coming from inside the house.

“What’s that terrifying sound?” asks the friend.

“It’s my dog,” said the farmer. “He’s sittin’ on a nail.”

“Why doesn’t he just sit up and get off it?” asks the friend.

The farmer deliberates on this and replies: “Doesn’t hurt enough yet.”

Is it age that causes me to often think that the world is delusional? That we spend so much time and energy on not getting off it, not letting go, holding on relentlessly to drama after drama, story after story of who did us wrong and who is and isn’t a human being?

When the dog originally sat on a nail, maybe it didn’t go that deep back then. Maybe it was a soothing scratch on its butt. Maybe it helped its sitting posture, or maybe it was just too damned distracted to pay much attention. Maybe it just shrugged and thought: Nothing’s perfect, I’ll live with it.

But the nail went deeper and deeper, and finally it really hurt. Maybe it started festering, spreading an infection throughout the body, and finally the dog broke down and started yelping from pain. But even then, it wouldn’t sit up and get off it.

Right in my own house there is pain and soreness. Inside of 16 days of a terrible car accident, my housemate has gone through surgery, spent 5 days in one hospital and 4 in another, and made 3 visits to the ER. There is pain, which leads to pain-killers, which lead to other forms of physical dysfunction. There are doctors, therapists, and nurses. There is a discombobulated house and the look on Henry’s face because he can’t figure out why she’s downstairs and I’m upstairs, and whose bed is he supposed to sleep in now anyway.

People are killed, wounded, raped, starved, and shamed every single hour of every day. Some get help right where they live, some never get any.

The question is always the same: What do I do? It’s the same question here in this house as it is in connection with the suffering in other lands, though the scale is way different. What does care for self and other mean when I’m upstairs and she’s downstairs? What does it mean when the sufferer is starving in Haiti or Sudan while I am here, cutting daffodils to bring home before the arrival of snow late tomorrow night?

Here are some things I’ve learned to do:

I sit every single day, with practically no exception. I know, time goes by and work awaits (I tend to sleep long nowadays), and still I sit. Practice my version of kenosis, emptying of the self. It’s a Greek term often associated with Jesus, who is back with us again after Easter Sunday. Self emptied, I feel more ready to meet the day.

Serve life (part of the Rule of the Zen Peacemaker Order). It’s not just checking in with Lori and feeding the dogs or checking off the tasks on the computer calendar. It’s sniffing out the call. It’s hanging out by Lori’s bed and talking, giving her a kiss on the cheek before I go upstairs to bed though I’ve never done that before. It’s listening to the sun tell me that I should spend more time outdoors picking up the branches, limbs and twigs from a winter season, not as duty but as a response to light. Pausing by daffodils at the corner of the garage door. Letting go of shoulds and musts to sniff the air, like a dog, to detect how and where life calls.

Get clear on what’s my business and what’s not my business. This is a tough one, with the world going to pot. Lots of dramas going on around me, inviting me to return to old internal dialogues, to revisit the past and fear the future. Less and less of that is my business. I’ve learned not to give advice when it’s not asked for. I’ve learned to respect people’s lives and to appreciate that regardless of where empathy lies, I’ll never really know what it is to live in others’ shoes. Period.

Too much abstraction isn’t good for me. Ask what I can do, what I can’t do, and be satisfied with the answer.

Love family, friends, sangha. Don’t take anyone for granted.

A friend told me about the first tine His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to speak at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He was a big celebrity and the cathedral was thronged, people came from all over to listen to him. Various others spoke before him, paying tribute to him and describing the catastrophe unfolding in Tibet.

When it was his turn, he got up, approached the microphone, looked across at the thousands of people there, and said: “Let’s be good to one another.” Then he turned around and went back to his seat.

People murmured and muttered among themselves: That’s it?

But soon he got up again, approached the microphone, and added: “If we can’t be good to one another, let’s at least not harm one another.”

With that, he returned to his seat and stayed there.

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