SPILL-OVERS

My red car is at Rau’s, a local garage. Right from where I sit I can see it, its oil changed and snow tires replaced. A funny day to do a change of tires since it was sleeting this morning, but I’m taking my chances that spring is just around the corner (the weather forecasters don’t agree).

This is a very different place from the Toyota Service Center, with its big waiting room, comfortable couches (here I go between an old wooden bench and a chair with its seat fabric torn, revealing a spongy mat), free coffee, soft TV, and WIFI. You don’t see what they do to the car. Everything is quiet and esthetic; the dirty work is done out of sight and hearing.

Bernie loved to go to the Toyota Service Center. It was far enough for a cigar (Rau’s, being local, is not) and he loved sitting down comfortably over a coffee and his computer while the work on his blue Camry was done somewhere else. He didn’t prioritize supporting local businesses, but did fill up gas at Rau’s even as he complained that the prices by I-91 were a lot lower.

When he was at the rehab hospital after his stroke, one of the first things he’d ask me was what was the price of gas at the gas station just outside the hospital which he could see from the window.

It’s easy to overlook the mess of things, not to hear the drilling and the whoosh of the tube, the pop of the machine they use to put on tires, the clanging of a press and the hammering in back, the smell of oil and grime. It’s not just around my red Prius. How do you live and not get dirty?

Even in my current clean, rural life in New England there’s a mess everywhere. Aussie continues to run away and the voices in my head are relentless: You can’t let her do that, more training, more restraint! Harry on occasion goes back to messing up in the house in the middle of the night and yesterday I found a paintbrush with small yellow paint particles on the living room rug. How he found it I have no idea, but it took two days to get the yellow spot off the rug with the aid of pain thinner.

What am I going to do with these two, I wonder.

There are billions of husks of sunflower seeds under the bird feeders, the tub broke and requires a plumber’s visit, I broke a plate last night while washing dishes. And finally, there’s all the mess that Bernie left behind: Zen artifacts, pictures, photos, organizational charts, their corners nibbled by mice.

“What’s this?” someone asked me the other day, pointing at two thin, jagged slices of slate.

“It’s from School 6, an abandoned school where Bernie wanted to build housing and a community center for homeless familiesin Yonkers, only the community got up in arms and we couldn’t do it. Nothing was ever done with School 6, it’s become a magnet for drug dealers, and an environmental hazard for the neighborhood because of the asbestos. He said it was an example of what happens when people just fight among themselves and can’t come together around something productive, be it our project or someone else’s.”

He’s gone, his ashes neatly placed in a few urns, but the results of that life still spill over, spread out across tables and the basement floor, a spill you can’t control.

In this house, I tell myself sternly, I am controlling that spill. I am cleaning it all out, getting some space in which to breathe. A space that isn’t completely taken up by Bernie, but that contains him while giving space for some other things to happen.

And as I wait for the work on my car to be finished I remember how we were both very conscientious about taking good care of our cars, washing and servicing them regularly. A year ago I was at the Toyota Service Center and overheard the folks out front talking.

“Did you see what a dirty car that was?”

“Yep, worst one I’ve seen all winter.”

I looked. They were talking about Bernie’s blue car that I had brought in for service. After his stroke I had no time and just let it go. A century-old abandoned hovel in the woods, crumbling and rotting, consumed by brambles and stumps, couldn’t have looked worse than that car. His stroke had spilled over so much, consumed so many things.

DISMANTLING BRICK BY BRICK

Yesterday I cleaned out and cleaned out and cleaned out. I must have gone through some 50-70 Pentaflex files, all summarizing projects Bernie and I worked on over time.

The tabs contained names: Rwanda, Zipaqueria (in Colombia), Amman, Palestine, Jerusalem Project (with Richard Gere), Chiapas, Mexico City, Greyston, Marshall Rosenberg, Sociocracy. Shambhala Book Contracts, Street Retreats (Boston, New York some 8 of them at least, Springfield, Germany).

Some were less colorful: Computer Fixing, with detailed instructions on how to manage the calendar program. Bernie was my go-to person when something went wrong with my computer. Telephone lists (yes, there was a time when we had those). And Acronyms. So many acronyms: ZP (Zen Peacemakers), ZPO (Zen Peacemaker Order), ZPC (Zen Peacemaker Circles), PC (Peacemaker Community), PCI (Peacemaker Community International), and even hyphenated ones like ZPO-ITC, whose meaning has disappeared from memory.

I remember Sr. Pia Gyger, who headed the St. Katharina-Werk order of nuns, saying to Bernie one day: “You know, Roshi, every time you start a new organization you must stay with it till it gets strong and can stand on its own. You can’t just leave after a year or two to do something else.”

Bernie didn’t listen. He was a little like Picasso, creating something new every morning, convening meetings and enrolling the enthusiasm of others, but then . . . “Once it goes I lose interest,” he admitted. He liked the giving birth part, but not raising the new child.

A big file: Tantur, right in no-man’s land between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Palestine. We held a big international conference there with a beautiful published report. Where did we get the money for that, I wonder, and then I remember the Italian funder who helped us start affiliates in different European and Middle Eastern countries.

Ecclesiastes comes to mind: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. And yet, when I was in Israel over the New Year, Gabriel Meyer said that it was at that Tantur conference that he first envisaged his Sulha celebration, a ceremony of reconciliation which he held year after year between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

What a dreamer you were, Bernie, I tell him as I work. You circled the globe with your dreams, and now, years later, I feel like I’m throwing it all out:  the papers, the booklets, the summaries of meetings and budgets, the new organizational charts (you loved organizational charts!).

And why am I even doing this now? I could wait, nobody’s rushing me. One friend of mine didn’t do this till 7 years after her husband’s death; someone else lost his wife more than 5 years ago and her clothes still hang in the closet. So why am I doing all this hard work now?

Because I want to get to the bottom of things. Because I want to run my fingers through all that life once again—Greyston, Zen Peacemakers, the Order, the million different projects—and see what’s left. If I want to start from scratch I have to dismantle everything, brick by brick.

“Yes, but do you have to do that now?” a friend asked this afternoon.

Probably not, but I can be fierce in some ways. I’m ruthless about throwing things out. I have to be to get to the very bottom of things. If I don’t do it, how will I know what’s left?

Maybe that’s what I’m most afraid of, that I won’t find anything left.

THAT KIND OF CLARITY

It’s always the same play. Harry runs away, Aussie chases. Around and around they run in the back yard.

Since I moved downstairs to Bernie’s old office with a door directly to the back, a door I often leave open, Harry has figured out a new configuration. He does his serpentine rush around the yard, then into the garage, through the dog door into the kitchen, down the hallway to the dining room, left into my office, out the door, another big figure 8 in the back yard, then into the garage, through the dog door into the kitchen, dining room, office, out again, you get the picture.

Aussie isn’t fast enough to catch him, so she takes breaks, standing completely still as he literally runs circles around her before resuming her chase. Just now he ran through my office and outside. She waited in my office, watching alertly as he circled the globe once or twice, got back to the house, kitchen-dining room-office, and just as he ran out the door again she tried to catch him only he actually leaped over her, landed outside, and kept on running.

You may ask: And what do you do all this time in all that frenzy? I’ll tell you. I sleep.

Not really sleep, only my system feels it’s perpetually dozing. I wake up early, do the usual, sit at my desk later on, do the usual, take the dogs out when it’s warm, back to my desk and the usual, a few phone calls, the usual. The usual refers to emails, reviewing a proof of The Book of Householder Koans, teaching, preparing for retreats, blogging, continuing with the never-ending sorting and cleaning of house, the usual. I will probably go on into the evening with the usual, but my mind’s not quite there. It’s not sharp, it’s not perceptive. Life proceeds in slow-motion and I often forget things.

I think Joan Halifax was the first to tell me years ago that sleep is very healing in grief; she said that after her father died.

It’s not that I sleep so much per se, it’s my cognition that’s taking time off. You don’t have to process everything, the system says, let me do some of this for you. Change the brain plumbing, plug up some holes, close up some rooms, open up some new ones. Let me do the work and you rest.

I’ve never been very good at rest so I worry about this.

Every morning I do a service in front of Kwan-Yin, then have some personal conversation.

“What do you want?” Ms. Compassion asks me.

“To awaken with others,” I tell her.

“What do you really want?” She asks.

“To work simply and directly. Nothing fancy or complex.”

“So what’s the problem?” She asks again.

“I lack clarity,” I tell Her.

“What kind of clarity?” asks She.

So I tell her of a radio interview I heard one night when I worked at Greyston in Yonkers years ago. I lived in the living room of a communal apartment at the time and heard a woman interview a Catholic priest who, night after night, parked a small trailer in Times Square.

“What do you do there?” she asked the priest.

“I bring hot coffee and donuts for the women who work the streets.”

“You mean the hookers in Times Square?” she said.

“Yes. They need a place in which to rest and get warm.”

“Do you do Mass for them?” she asked him.

“No, no Mass.”

“Do you talk to them about getting off the streets and changing their lives?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“So what do you do?” she asked again.

“I bring them hot coffee and donuts.”

“I don’t get it,” said the interviewer. “You’re a Catholic priest, so what do you do?”

“I bring them hot coffee and donuts every night.”

“That kind of clarity,” I tell Miss Compassion.

She laughs. “Or like the dogs,” She says. “See how they chase each other around us like a pair of banshees? Chasing is exactly what they have to do.”

Yes, that kind of clarity.

THE REAL NEWS

“Mom, how are you?”

“Terrible news. Aren’t you following what’s happening?”

I’m alarmed. “Like what, mom?”

“The plane! The plane that crashed and killed so many of us.”

“The Ethiopian Airlines flight? I think two Israelis died on that flight, mom. Lots more from other countries.”

“Oh please. I was at the senior center earlier today and everyone either lost someone on that flight or knows someone who died there.”

“Mom, I don’t think—“

“Chavale, you don’t get the real news over there like we do here. Here we all know what’s going on. After all, “ she adds with a sigh, “we’re used to it.”

Used to what, exactly? To being perpetually blamed, perpetually scapegoated? My mother, living in Jerusalem, is convinced that thousands of folks died on that flight and they were all Jews. Sometimes I smile when I hear her theories.

Today, after the news from New Zealand, I was not smiling.

It’s easy to pin what happened on white supremacists and populists who will do anything to freeze time in some era when white Christians, mostly men, ruled. But whether its Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia or misogyny, blaming and scapegoating is a very human trait.

I’ve been known to blame and scapegoat; if not entire groups, individuals for sure. I lose power and control, my life isn’t turning out, I’m afraid of the future, so I disparage and attack.

Since the 2016 election in this country, much has been written about people who feel left behind. This group is only getting bigger and bigger.

Ladies and Gentlemen, AI is here. Artificial intelligence. We are warned by everyone from Steven Hawking to Bill Gates that we need to regulate the development of AI because very soon—much faster than we realize—people will not have jobs; worse, they’ll feel valueless and irrelevant.

Genome splicing, which can change a person’s DNA, was done a few days ago in China. Other scientists immediately condemned this, pointing out that the rich will be able to produce children not susceptible to illnesses like others, or with genes enhancing their intelligence and capacity beyond others’. They also worry about how this could affect the structure of the entire human species. But all they can do is issue memoranda and condemnations; they can’t turn the clock back. Worse, we don’t have the international tools and processes necessary to discuss, reach consensus, and implement basic regulations.

The other day an international convention that designed measures to minimize money laundering was defeated by the US, among other countries. In our global society, there are too many areas that can’t by governed or regulated by individual countries, it takes an international body, with enforcement capabilities, to regulate development of AI, gene and genome-splicing, not to mention protection against the financial shenanigans happening the world over. Not to mention global warming.

I don’t want my country back, I want my world back. My country can’t deal with these issues, only the world can. It’s no wonder that populist parties and leaders are against international bodies like the UN or the International Court of Justice, railing against them in the name of national sovereignty. We have to wake up. National sovereignty isn’t going to help with corporations around the globe, accountable to no one, inventing new technologies that will make most of us obsolete, or bio-engineering methods that trivialize that most basic question: What is it to be a human being?

Unless we put international, enforceable rules and processes in place, I think we’ll see a lot more of what happened in New Zealand. Not just towards Muslims but towards people of color, indigenous populations, Jews, people with different gender/sexual orientation, all the usual suspects. It’s human to blame and scapegoat, and I feel there’s more of that coming right around the corner.

PUT TIME INTO YOUR DREAMS

Aussie looks out the window and dreams of being Genghis Dog, the greatest squirrel killer of all time.

So far she’s killed two, which is two more than any other dog I’ve had has killed. One reason is that she benefits from this cold, wintry March in New England, when animals are going hungry. The hungry squirrels have attacked the bird feeder on the side of my office and chewed up a couple of its tiny platforms. As a result, the sunflower seeds fall onto the ground rather than into the feeder, so the squirrels congregate on the white, icy ground at the bottom, looking for seeds, and Aussie, stalking them carefully, sneaks up on them around the corner and pounces.

But even Genghis Dog can’t get past the fence. They know this and cavort on the other side, chasing each other from branch to branch while she looks disconsolately from the door. She tried, oh yes, she did try, and Tim had to twice reinforce the fence as a result. But now she has recognized her limits. She sits inside and looks out longingly, and dreams of creating mayhem, havoc, and terror in the hearts of the local, diminishing squirrel population. Also, she dreams of running.

I take her into the woods for 60-90 minutes where she goes unrestricted by leash, and then return to work. In the afternoon she comes and scratches me on my leg, clamoring and chattering, the most voluble dog I’ve ever had: I have to run! I have to run!

“I can’t take you out again, Aussie. You have a big back yard to run in and lots of squirrels.”

“And a big fence, too.”

“You have to stop running away, Aussie.”

“You know what the trouble is? You’re too old for me! I need someone younger in my life.”

“Aussie!”

“You don’t scooter, you don’t skateboard, you don’t skate. You don’t even bike!”

“Aussie, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never biked in my life. Never learned how.”

“I’m probably the only dog stuck with a human who can’t bike, And do you go cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing?”

“I’m not comfortable in those things anymore, but I still take you into the woods in deep snow wearing plain boots.”

“My life is going by and I’m not living it!”

“You’re living it in a slower lane, Auss.”

“That’s not life for a hound like me. I need to follow the scent of deer and elk. I need to go to the woods and run, run, run! Why can’t we go camping?”

“Because it’s too damn cold outside, not everybody has your fur. Like Harry there. He’s glad to stay indoors. Look at him, cozy and warm on the sofa. Does he look like he wants to go camping?”

“Harry’s a wimp. Did you see how afraid he was to cross the plank bridge in the woods this morning? I came back across and nudged and nudged him, and he wouldn’t cross. I even grabbed the collar of his sweater and tried to pull him across, and he wouldn’t budge.”

“Harry will grow up and gain more confidence. Have some patience, Aussie. You know, Maezumi Roshi, one of the great Zen pioneers in this country, used to tell a friend of mine who studied with him: Put time into your dreams. That’s what I have to tell you, Aussie. Have patience. Put time into your dreams.”

“I gotta run, I gotta run, I gotta run!”

aHarrH

I BREAK DOWN SAFELY

A friend told me about an exchange between a grandmother and a young grandson:

“Are you very old?”

“I guess I am.”

“Are you going to die?”

“I guess I am, but not yet.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll do it really good.”

Bernie always said that he had no fear of dying. I can confirm that when he died, I saw no signs of fear at all. But the three years before!

I used to tell him that I didn’t feel much fear of dying either. It’s what comes before—stroke, pain, illness, dependency, loneliness—that gives me pause.

I brought Harry the Cur to Elise McMahon, a highly regarded dog-trainer in these parts, for some help with training. Elise trained our last generation of dogs, Bubale the Pit Bull and Stanley the whatever, and remembered Bernie bringing Bubale to earn her Canine Good Citizenship papers and my bringing Stanley for the same purpose.

We had to do that after someone walked around our property when no one was home, saw a pit bull and a whatever with some tell-tale German Shepherd marks on him, and reported us. We were told that our home insurance was being canceled within the month.

“What do I do?” I asked the company.

“Get rid of those dogs,” was the answer.

“They’re peacemaker dogs,” I told them. “We’re Zen Peacemakers.”

That didn’t have the desired effect. Instead our agent found us another insurance company that was ready to insure us provided both dogs got Canine Good Citizenship papers. And they did.

“You look good,” Elise says this afternoon, 14-1/2 years later.

“Thank you, but I’m in the process of breaking down,” I tell her.

“That’s too bad,” she clucks.

Then we talk about how it’s déjà vu all over again because Harry’s learning how not to jump on food (after finishing half a blueberry pie on Sunday that was left on the table) and how not to jump on people coming through the front door, just like Stanley in a previous generation.

One generation follows another. Elise looks the same except for some very cute blue strands of hair covering her forehead.

When I’m not terribly anxious, I feel fine. My friend and blog mentor, Jon Katz, recently wrote that anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. I am lately very spiritually insecure. My mind isn’t clear. In making arroz con pollo, I bought fresh olives and put them in back of the cabinet rather than in the refrigerator. I also left the pollo in the car. This morning I managed to lose my car keys, two handfuls of Brussell Sprouts, and Aussie, who loves to run away. I found everything except for the Sprouts.

This is the time of dismantling and being dismantled. It doesn’t feel so great. But I’m remembering our meetings in Rapid City, South Dakota, with our Native American hosts. One of them, Violet Catches, came late from Pine Ridge due to the funeral of her aunt and a malfunctioning car. When she arrived in dangerous, sub-zero weather someone said to her, “You arrived safely.”

“I broke down safely,” Violet said.

I wrote it down right away. That’s me in a nutshell. I break down safely.

GETTING HIJACKED AGAIN

“You, the most organized human in the world, is making one mess after another.”

“I know, Stanley, I just can’t seem to help it.”

“Look at this room! And look at that basement!”

“It’s terrible, just terrible. Sometimes I get so mad at Bernie when I think of how often I asked him to clean up his stuff. Don’t leave it to me to do, I used to tell him, but did he listen, Stan?”

“No way. The Man wasn’t going to clean up if he could help it.”

“Well, now I’m doing that cleaning for him, the sorting of what stays (very little) and what goes (a lot). And in the process dismantling much of our life together. Not all, but some.”

“But what are you doing with your own life?”

“What I’m doing is my life, Stanley. Dismantling and recreating.”

Still, you feel like you should get your life together again. Around you people are doing beautiful things. You were once one of those people. You go to Rapid City to help plan the Native American retreat and spend time with people you love, people you have a history with. You go out to meals, make jokes about the under-zero degree weather. You do everything they do, talk and banter like they do.

If someone asks, you admit things are heavy, but you don’t make too much of it because everyone has their life, and you sense that folks are on a different trajectory from yours. It’s not that they don’t care—they care a lot—but they’re on a different wave length and you’re not sure, in fact you’re quite certain, that it’s difficult for them to understand why, four months after your husband died, you still can’t find the ground under your feet. Why you try to do the things you always loved to do, only they now seem distant, even meaningless, as if the Great Plains have come between you and them.

“You must think about him a lot,” people say. Actually no, you don’t think much about him at all. You don’t spend time recalling intimate scenes or talks, although when you watch TV you still look over to the right to where the wheelchair once stood, at the edge of the futon, to ask what he thought of the movie. You’re surrounded by absence. And that often feels like a lack of purpose, as if everything you do is followed by a question mark: What is this? I know I’m planning this retreat and that program, editing this book, but why? For what reason?

You don’t understand any of this. After all, you lived on your own for years in between marriages, you never needed a husband to have purpose and meaning, you were excited about life and knew how to live alone.

It doesn’t help that you’re constantly getting hijacked. You’re in the motel room in Rapid City, getting ready to go grab coffee and an English muffin on the way to your final meeting, when you find Bernie suddenly staring up at you from the desk. Instantly—and I mean instantly—you know that it’s a photo of him after his stroke. Not because of the red blotch on his hand and not even the red thing peeking out of the shirt pocket that everyone else thinks is his red clown nose but that you know is the red rubber roller he’d use to exercise his paralyzed right hand. No, you know from the expression on his face: sweet, vulnerable, childlike.

Who are you, you ask for the umpteenth time. How much you changed after that stroke! And what are you doing here in a motel room in Rapid City? And then you realize the photo is part of a Greyston write-up about Open Hiring, on the other side of the paper of the Delta ticket you printed before you left, the ticket taking you out of Rapid City later and, slowly in the snowstorm, returning you to New England.

Your eyes get warm. Somehow an hour goes by and you come late to the meeting. Where were you, people wonder. You don’t know. You haven’t a clue where you went.

 

YOU CALL THIS COMPASSION?

I’m used to the fact that long before 6 am, when I get up, Aussie is already out the dog door and in the yard, ready for action. This morning I got up later than usual, went down to make coffee, put on boots over my pajamas and walked out. Didn’t see Aussie till I went round the corner of the house, and there she was, chomping away on a dead squirrel. The snow around her was dotted with bloodstains.

Not hard to work out what happened. Two bird feeders hang from our lilac trees and the squirrels like to hang upside-down there and feed. One was probably dawdling around the base of the trees, sprinkled with birdseed, Aussie went into hunting mode and got it. I later discovered that the squirrel got at the tip of her left ear and gave it a good scrunch.

I confess I didn’t call her off; my dogs eat all kinds of horrible things. After all, she did get the squirrel. After all, she is hungry before breakfast. Instead I went back upstairs, did meditation, went again outside to do service by the Kwan-Yin that stands cheerfully in back, and there was Aussie right in front of Ms. Compassion, and there was the dead squirrel, rigid from death and cold. Aussie had brought it over and laid it at Kwan-Yin’s feet, some hair and skin nibbled off.

By the time I took the photo below Aussie had picked it up, swung it around in her mouth, then put it back down on the ground, but when I first saw it, it lay on its back, eyes staring right at the smiling wooden face, as if asking: You call this compassion?

In Rapid City, South Dakota, you hear story after story of teens committing suicide. You call this compassion? Or of men beating up their women, people dying very early from effects of alcohol and drugs. You call this compassion?

Closer to home, hawks circle over our house, eyeing our birdfeeders for prey. The body of a male human was found on nearby Mt. Toby, frozen. You call this compassion? The principal of the neighboring Turners Falls High School quit her job among accusations of racism running rampant in the school, not to mention a long battle around the use of the Indian as a mascot for the school’s sports teams.

Turners Falls itself is named after Captain William Turner, who massacred the inhabitants of a nearby Indian village and subsequently was killed himself by avenging warriors. Nearby Amherst is named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, whose idea it was to supply smallpox-infected blankets to the local Indians. Yes, that same Amherst that gave refuge to its Maid, Emily Dickinson, hiding in her safe home and writing poetry.

For me, Emily Dickinson is part and parcel of Jeffrey Amherst and the thousands of Indians dead of smallpox, while Jeffrey Amherst will always be part and parcel with Emily, Maid of Amherst, the one who wrote: .“They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as something of a recluse.”

I returned from Rapid City in the middle of snowfall. But the next morning I went out to do service by Kwan-Yin and found that a long path had been shoveled in the snow and ice, going straight and then turning left towards the wooden statue.

“Tim,” I ask the man now living in the house, the quiet bodhisattva who fixes the ceiling where a leak appeared, patches up the holes where pictures once hung, moved 4 desks out and brought my office downstairs to what was once Bernie’s office, “did you shovel a path to Kwan-Yin?”

He nods while eating his breakfast cornflakes. “Yeah, I know you like to go there in the mornings.”

Aussie knew, too. I suspect that’s why she brought the dead squirrel and laid it at Kwan-Yin’s feet for me to see as I prayed for compassion.

FLYING INTO RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA

From left: Violet Catches, Renee and Manny Iron Hawk, Genro Gauntt, Michel Dobbs, me, Rami Efal. Photo by Rami Efal.

I was in Rapid City, South Dakota, this past weekend to meet with Native American elders and plan the summer retreat with them. A lot happened there, not so easy to put into words. One is connection to land.

I got up at 3 am on Friday, by 4 I was out the door and driving to the airport. By 6 we’d begun our 2-hour delay waiting inside the plane before taking off for Denver, and by 1 pm I was in Rapid City, where the day’s highest temperature would be 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit. It would go down to -40 at night, including the wind chill factor.

Did I walk the land in this weather? Hell, no. I walked 25 steps from my Quality Inn motel to the adjoining Days Inn where we had our meetings, then 25 steps in the opposite direction to Millstone Family Restaurant where we had our lunches and dinners.

On Sunday I took off again, landing in New England in the middle of a snow storm. By 2 am this morning I was home.

My body resists this travel. It tells me that bodies are meant to be in one place, not hop in an out of airplanes, not jump time zones or bounce in and out of cultures. Place is meant to be known from the inside.

When it’s known from the outside, what do you see? You look out the window of the small descending plane and what you see is white, arctic wasteland, flat, frozen tundra so glacial it seems another planet.

And a voice whispers inside: Is this what all the fight is about? Is this the place people love so much they’ll stay here in uninsulated, poorly-heated homes, try to keep their children close, struggle for generation after generation to get the Black Hills back, regain autonomy in the reservations, and save and preserve their culture and different way of life?

I’m reminded of when my mother went to visit Switzerland for the only time in her life. “Now that’s a land of milk and honey,” she reported on the phone. “You should see their farms, their cows, their mountains! Why didn’t God give us Jews that land? Why did he have to give us Israel, where so much is desert, we never get enough rain, and we’re surrounded by enemies? Switzerland would have been a real gift.”

But that’s if you see things from the outside. If you see land from the inside, then only the Swiss want Switzerland. Because the connection you make with the land has nothing to do with temperature; it’s simply where you put your feet.

Jews put their feet on the road and made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem three times a year to make sacrifices. The Lakota go up to Bear Butte for Inipi ceremonies for purification, to pray and make offerings.

Land is also where the routines of personal history lie. Like feeding the birds. This morning I picked up the bag of sunflower seeds and walked from feeder to feeder, contemplating my tracks in the snow while the dogs scampered around me. It’s always the same routine. My trail goes first towards the slope where 2 feeders hang, then right where another hangs above a mound, and then down to the side of the house where 2 feeders hang from lilac trees.

I’ve created that trail over 14 winters.

Land in winter doesn’t just mean snow, it means chickadees and hungry squirrels, it means paw prints and branches littering the snow because of the storm. It doesn’t just mean cold.

And for our friends in Rapid City, who came from Cheyenne River Reservation, it didn’t just mean cold either, even in that freeze. It used to mean buffalo, because the buffalo gave meat to satisfy hunger and skin for warm clothes and a warm teepee. The buffalo is now gone, but land is still the place where you plant your feet, your life, your home, your children. The sky you look up to when you pray, the wind that goes through you, drying out your face while drawing wrinkles of character all around your mouth and brow.

How can you understand any of that, flying in and out of Rapid City on the first weekend of March?

I drove home at 1 am on a Monday morning in a snowstorm. I was alone on the roads for much of the time, sleet and snow flying towards me as I drove on unplowed roads. There was no fear, just awe at how the pine trees took the brunt of the snow and left me clear roads on which to travel. Everything giving itself so fully.

LEMON MERINGUE PIE AT PERKINS

Photo by Suzanne Webber of me at Greyston Job Training facility

I’m on a plane to Denver, then switching to another flight to Rapid City, South Dakota, for a weekend of meetings planning the Zen Peacemakers’ Native American retreat this coming summer.

Notwithstanding my 3 am wake-up, I haven’t made a good start. We waited by the gate and on the runway for 2 hours verifying that one of the generators is kaput, requiring more fuel, and finally de-icing since snow began to come down. Chances are very good that I’ll miss the flight from Denver to Rapid City.

My fellow passenger, a small, blonde woman in her 40s, immediately called the airline to curse out their agent. Then she walked out of the plane in search of better routing, a faster flight, and a generally more efficient and productive life. When this didn’t turn out so well she returned to the plane and, using her middle seat as her private office, yelled angrily into her phone for close to an hour, making asides like “This is insane,” or “How dare they?” or “I can’t believe this!” to the rest of us whenever she was put on hold.

Her diatribe kept her so busy she never noticed the pilot coming down our economy class aisle, inviting passengers to ask questions, offer suggestions and options, patiently explaining the problem again and again and promising to do whatever he could to get the plane into Denver as quickly as possible. Lucky for him she was content to just yell into her phone, not so lucky for the agent on the other end.

Aren’t our lives important?

In Rapid City we will start, as usual, with a dinner with Manny and Renee Iron Hawk and Violet Catches, together with some of their children, at Perkins. Opening dinner in one of the Perkins chain restaurants is almost a tradition for us now, along with coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie.

We’’ll catch up on what happened since we last met in August, the progress in starting a Lakota language program, the challenge of getting through a ferocious winter (temperatures below zero every single night, 1 degree highest on Sunday day), births, deaths. Theirs and ours.

This is the only time I eat lemon meringue pie. Not because Perkins’ lemon meringue pie is so terrific but because I can’t imagine these meetings without it. By the end we’re tired, slightly jet-lagged. We’ll probably talk of Bergil Kills Straight, of the Oglala Lakota, whose funeral took place the day after Bernie’s memorial. Those two men watched each other warily and respectfully, often at loggerheads. We’ll have that slice of lemon meringue pie thoughtfully, having covered a lot of ground, ready to start the next morning more business-like.

Which reminds me of a story Bernie loved to tell. The Russian Tsar visits a hospital of wounded soldiers. He greets one in his bed and says to him, “You’ve fought long and hard, mon brave. What can I do for you in return?”

The soldier says, “Your Excellency, all I want is peace on earth.”

“Good man!” says the Tsar.

He visits the next soldier. “You are a credit to your unit,” he tells him. “ What can I do for you?”

“Love, Your Excellency,” says the soldier softly. “I want all people to love one another.”

“May it be so!” says the Tsar. “What good people these are.” He reaches the bed of a Jewish soldier. “And you, my fine man, what can I do for you?”

“I vant a corn beef sandvich,” says the soldier in Bernie’s best Brooklyn Yiddish voice.

I want to hear the news of people living in Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge Reservations: Who got into college and who spoke on a radio show. Who has a new job and who is selling their horses because they’re too sick to care for them. I want to admire the gorgeous beaded earrings hanging from Renee’s ears. And finally, I want to share a slice of lemon meringue pie in Perkins on Rapid City’s North Lacrosse Street, practically on the corner of I-90, before finally getting into bed late tonight.