“Because it’s just me, nothing else around except water. Water water everywhere. Gray and silent. I’m bored. Maybe I’ll create some forms.”
“Forms? Why? I like everything formless, just like now. One big nothing. That’s what I call religion.”
“Maybe, but it’s very boring. You know what? Tomorrow I’m going to get to work. Start creating some light.”
“Lack of darkness.”
“You‘ll be sorry. Darkness is so much easier on the eyes.”
“That’ll take the day. After that, put on some Netflix. But on Monday I get back to work.”
“Why work? Just say Bang!”
“Okay. On Monday I’ll say Bang! and a universe will appear.”
“I hate Mondays. After that, go on vacation. You’ve done enough. Just think of all that space!”
“I need the ground under my feet.”
“You don’t have feet.”
“I need something solid and stable. On Tuesday I’ll create Earth.”
“What’s an Earth?”
“An Earth is solid and stable. You know levitation?”
“Is there a spiritual being who doesn’t know levitation?”
“It’s the opposite of that. You come down to earth, you don’t go up in the air. And I think I’ll add a few things, like sequoias, grasses, sage, and mums.”
“We don‘t need more stage sets!”
“The next day I’ll—”
“Say Bang! again?”
“No, I’ll create suns, moons, and stars.”
“But you already created a universe.”
“I made a mistake, I created too much dark matter.”
“You don’t make mistakes, at least not in theory. Of course, this one will be a doozy!”
“With suns and moons we’ll have days, months, and years.”
“Also, to-do lists.”
“Speaking of which, on Thursday—”
“Hey, what about pacing your glorious self? Take a day off, go to a spa.”
“On Thursday I’m creating Fish and Fowl.”
“Not Dungeons and Dragons? Red Dead Redemption? Super Mario?”
“On Friday I‘m making things that will walk the Earth. Cows, saber-tooth tigers, spiders, skunks, snakes.”
“Could we cancel the snakes?”
“If you slither hither and thither, if you shiver and quiver, if you got the muscle to hustle, if you walk, stalk—”
“I got it, I got it! If you can do any of those things, you appear on Friday. Take it from me, you’re creating a lot of unnecessary confusion.”
“And finally, just before sunset on Friday, I’ll create humans.”
“Why, for Your sake?”
“I’m bored dancing solo. I need partners.”
“You’re indefinable. You‘re birthless, deathless, beyond time and space, beyond beyond.”
“You’ll be sorry. Too many forms, too many relationships, too much mishigas. When do we watch TV?”
“Saturday. We rest on Saturday. Sleep late. Have a nice breakfast. You like eggs?”
“It’ll be too loud. Too many sights and smells. And kids! You know how I feel about kids! And malls! Kids in malls! Take it from me, you’ll miss the gray water and the silence. You’ll miss the boredom. And we’re so happy here, just the one of us.”
I hung up the laundry outside, hoping the sun will dry it by end of day, then noticed the colorful leaves already on the ground and took the above photo. There it is, enough of summer’s warmth to dry even the jeans and sofa covering, while reminders of fall lie all around me.
We’re in in-between times. I’m in that zone quite a bit.
On my way to the laundry lines, carrying a white bin of laundry, I slipped on one of Henry’s newer toys, the pink dinosaur with yellow wings (it doesn’t have a name yet, Pinky is still taken by his old pink elephant). Our indoor floors and outdoors grass, not to mention the more dangerous stairs, are dotted with his toys.
I looked around me while spending a few moments on my butt, taking in the toy and the small depression in the grass that has been there for many years but which I forgot about. Thought of Quarterback Aaron Rodgers falling and hurting himself on his first outing with the New York Jets, only I don’t plan to be out for the season. Also thought of how quickly I like to get up on my feet and go on with my day, as if nothing happened.
That’s exactly what I did. But things don’t happen for no reason. One reason for the fall is my neglect of the toy and depression in the ground. And other reasons?
The New York Jets started checking and rechecking their turf right away after Rodgers’ fall, but when things bring me down like that, I don’t think of turf but rather energy. What is this pointing me to? What energy is propelling me too fast and too strongly, or what energy is lacking or missing? Am I being pointed in a new direction even as I make my way to the laundry lines hanging out in back?
“There is more than one lane in a highway,” says my New Hampshire friend on the phone.
Her memory’s gone a bit goofy, and mine also because I can’t remember the context in which she said this. I called to wish her a happy Jewish new year, we talked about how scary things were (her words, not mine, followed by my cautioning her not to scare herself to death), and then she said the above. I quickly wrote it down. I try to move fast when I hear or see things that strike me even when at first, I don’t know why.
“I don’t believe in distractions,” I told someone else, this time in Florida, that very day.
I had a bad interaction with a friend, a co-worker did some harm, a family member is sick—all are part of life. It’s why the Buddha said that life is suffering no matter how you cut it. Something happens that doesn’t bode well, doesn’t meet expectations, and we want to just turn the page. Get back to normal, get back to routine, get the earth under our feet again. I’m all for cultivating stability one way or another, but falling on your face can also bring rewards.
“There is more than one lane in a highway.” Even on our country roads, if a tractor is going slowly or a bike rider is laboring her way up the hill, it’s perfectly acceptable to cross the double yellow lines and pass them.
Landing on my butt next to a full laundry bin (how had I managed to keep it upright?) made me wonder: Have I been driving on the same lane far too long and it’s time to switch? Does laundry day always have to take place on Wednesday?
The life dance is never about me because it’s cosmic. I find myself partnered first with one dancer, then another, often moving from place to place. The dance makes no promises and doesn’t ask for permission. The only question I face is whether to put up obstructions or go with it. Call it a distraction and go on with life as usual, pretend I never fell on the grass, make believe that nothing much is happening? Really?
For the Jewish new year (my family spends lots of time on the phone with each other on the eve of), my brother wished for me renewal in at least one area of life. Instantly I felt creative juices flowing, new thoughts rising. How do I make a new move, even a small one?
I don’t pretend to be in balance. Buoy up and feel like flying, get tripped up by a pink dinosaur with yellow wings, and look around me at the yellow leaves on the green grass. Yes, time’s a-flying. At the same time, there are so many in-between times.
“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Aussie, Happy birthday to you.”
“Leave me alone.”
“It’s your birthday, Aussie. You’re 6 years old.”
“A dog in her prime. This morning I thanked Bernie quietly for asking to get another dog quickly after Stanley died, whereas I could have waited. You were his gift to me because he died 45 days later. Aussie? Aussie? Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“I’m not saying another word.”
“Because you’re going to put it on your blog, and you know where that goes.”
“Hell no, it goes to AI. And AI is going to create an image of me that looks nothing like me, and it’s going to quote all the wise things I say and get millions of hits, and where will I be throughout all this?”
“Are they giving me money? Steak for my birthday? Are they giving me marrow bones? Are they giving me anything? Are they even sending me a happy birthday card, the kind with the pop-up cupcakes that have no smell? They are not. THEY’RE JUST USING ME TO MAKE MONEY!”
“It’s terrible, Aussie.”
“You’re telling me! I should go on strike, like the actors and writers in Hollywood.”
“Like the auto workers.”
“Do they think I come cheap? Do they understand how hard I’ve worked to become everybody’s most loveable and trustworthy dog, the canine Walter Cronkite? What about the fan letters I get inviting me to hang out with other dogs and teach them tricks? I have become a model for good canine citizenship. An Influencer!”
“Wow, you mean there’s an Influencer right in my own home and I never knew?”
“Old people know nothing.”
“Other than voting for Donald Trump, what else are you influencing your millions of followers to do, Aussie?”
“Purina is asking me to talk about their latest no-gluten vegan pheasant treats, made specially for dogs who love birds. Ruffwear wants me to model their latest red vest for anxious dogs, and Chewy’s wants me to sleep soundly on their anti-anxiety bed. The best offer yet comes from CVS.”
“The drug store? What do they want?”
“They want me to walk up and down by their entrance with a banner: Opioids are good for you. They’re sending millions of cameras. I’m going to lose all this once AI takes over the world.”
“Aussie, you don’t need to be an Influencer. You have everything you need right here: A sofa and rug on which to sleep, good food, daily walks—”
“Okay, not today because It’s raining. You go out with Leeann’s pack twice a week. You have Lori and Chihuahua Henry here, not to mention Henry’s entire menagerie of stuffed squeaky toys. What more could a dog want?”
“More! More! More!”
“Why, Aussie? You’re getting so anxious lately. I try taking you to the zendo, you won’t come out of the car because of the nearby shooting range. I try taking you outside but you’re afraid of the new dog living down the road. What’s going on? You used to be such a confident and curious dog, ready to go everywhere. Now look at you.”
“It’s all because I am turning 6.”
“So what if you’re turning 6?”
“I‘m getting older!”
“You’re always getting older, Aussie.”
“Yeah, but now I am really older. Not getting older, just older! I’m going to die.”
“Aussie, they say that the minute you’re born you start dying, right?”
“But who knew? Now that I‘m turning six I really know it. Of course, I’m getting hysterical. Anyone who really knows they’re going to die should get hysterical.”
“Not necessarily, Aussie.”
“When I turn 6 I’m over the hill, nobody will be interested in what I eat or say or where I sleep. It’ll be the end of my career as an Influencer. In fact, even AI won’t care, and when AI doesn’t care, you know you’re a real has-been.”
“Aussie, I hope you have many more years ahead of you. Here’s to more talks and more walks.”
“How about a birthday gift? Just one thing I want.”
Aussie’s off to find Nessie. She asked me to come along, accused me of not having any sense of adventure. I told her that, much as I love the Scottish Highlands, they’re not right for me now. There’s a different trip I want to make.
Sometimes you can go looking for the Loch Ness monster. Or you can start doing a different kind of journey. Most important, ask yourself: What now?
A friend of mine recently said on the phone that he’s done what he’s wanted to do, written what he’s wanted to write, and what’s up for him now is to find a loving companion.
I was taken aback that someone could see this so clearly. For me, it’s easy to continue the old habits of doing, writing, teaching.
What writing and teaching have in common is that both help me see things I didn’t see before. Questions I didn’t know I had, something in the core I wasn’t conscious of that finds its way to my fingers, then the computer keys, then the screen.
I wasn’t prepared to give a talk Tuesday night, but I did, and things became clear even as I spoke them; I was the first to be surprised. The space frees up and some inner voice begins to speak. You don’t even know this will happen till it comes out of your mouth, or suddenly appears on the screen.
For so much of my life I avoided the path of the heart. The karma of it is clear. My eyes go up to the sky, which I know, from watching so many other people, that it’s a damn good sign that I’ve gone right into my head.
Bernie’s eyes rarely climbed up when he spoke, even as he was thinking; he kept them straight ahead. At times his famous thick brows would knit together, furrows would appear on top. He might look over your shoulder for a moment. But his eyes didn‘t roll up much.
Mine do. Go back to the mind where it’s safe, where you’ve made your mark in the past starting when you got good grades in school with relatively little effort and were told you were smart and capable. Continue that theme with variations over the decades.
And what about opening up that dusty path that leads elsewhere? The one like the desert roads in western Morocco, so covered with overturned, sharp-edged boulders and wide, jagged cracks that aid vehicles can’t get through to help those affected by the earthquake? I feel at times that that’s been the path to my heart, to my deepest feelings.
Mine is a self that has not felt very comfortable around children but loves to look into the eyes of Milton, first grade, and hear his stories at our local Catholic Charities office about the camp he went to (with your help) this past summer. Would love to hug him tight, too, but refrains.
Mine is the body that wishes to stretch out an arm to his doting mother who went through hell to get here and wants nothing for herself, just that Milton grow in safety and have a good life.
Open your arms, I tell myself.
I can’t speak much Spanish, another voice says.
You don’t have to, the dialogue continues, just open your arms.
I love students and meditators who cope with challenging children, sick parents, and full-time jobs. I’m sure old-time monks left home because staying home was too tough a practice. I have long ago given up the distance we as teachers were encouraged to cultivate; I hug them because I love and admire them.
A path to a more balanced and honest relationship with brother and sister, get away from the older-sister-who-knows-best role and admit to my yearnings, my wishes for closeness, admit to doubts and not knowing my own next steps.
I’ve had loves of all kinds, watched myself flounder, sometimes not show up for husbands, lovers, and friends. Love is much bigger thann a loving companion, it’s the entire life force. So why die before my time? Why roll up my eyes to think more rather than keep them straight ahead in this moment, opening towards this person, this tree, this dog.
If I was talking Zen talk, I would convey to them that they are Buddhas. That I am Buddha, all one thing, no secrets, no barriers anywhere other than the artificial ones we create. Give no fear—including to myself.
Why just keep on doing the old things because for years they worked? Who needs another book, another blog, more teachers? Stories, yes, lots of them. Not AI stories, but ones that tell of what it is to follow breadcrumbs, veer right and left, get lost, almost be devoured by witch or wolf, and finally reach home—without going to Scotland.
I’ve met my Nessies, I told Aussie before she left, I’ve met my monsters. And the one I’m most afraid of isn’t long-necked and underwater, it’s the rolling of the eyes upwards towards ideas and abstractions, plotting new reasons to work, rather than looking straight ahead into connection. I fear nothing else right now.
How do I change direction? Make that sharp turn of the wheel and go down an untraveled side street?
My sister taught me a new word: Coddiwomple. It means traveling in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination. Drive purposefully down that elusive side street, pay attention to people, listen to stories, forget about mistakes (Bernie said there’s no such thing). Don’t condition this on other people’s responses (they don’t meet me there!), go full out. Vague destination, but the life force is real.
We have big storms outside (our 5th consecutive day of rain). Aussie lies on the office rug; before that she spent time on the back seat of the garaged car, her safe space. The illegal Chihuahua sits right on my foot and I can feel his little butt shaking; both dogs are very afraid of the occasional thunder. I can’t keep Henry on my lap all the time, but I can occasionally put words aside, bend and pick up the little dog, stroke him, tell him things will be okay even as he continues to tremble. Can’t control the weather, but I can do that.
I have a request. I ask for support for this blog on a quarterly basis. The blog is free—it is at least as much value to me as it may be to others—I should probably pay folks to read it rather than the other way around. I don’t follow the blog’s numbers of hits or readers because that’s not why I write. Nevertheless, I pay to maintain and service it. I usually respond to those who email me. I admit I coddiwomple my way around the blog and my life, sharing their weird twists and turns (including illegal U-turns). Often, I feel like urging you, as we do in a certain Zen ceremony, to wash your ears out after hearing my words.
But there’s one thing better than success, and that’s failure. My motto is: Fail, fail, and fail again. Fail better! Always share. Always connect.
So please use the link below, Donate to My Blog, if you are so inclined. Thank you.
The heavy rains and storms are flattening our flowers. Some survive, some don’t.
Yesterday was 9/11, when thousands died, and I lit incense.
Today is a memorial for one person—I have marked it for close to 35 years—and I lit incense again. Each time this day rolls around I think of him, the terrible impact of words casually spoken, and an incredible act of grace and forgiveness.
The name of the man was Chris (I won’t give his family name). He was a young black man from New Orleans who wrote the Zen Community of New York in the late 1980s, when we were in Yonkers struggling to develop our social service programs and trying to prevent the bankruptcy of the Greyston Bakery. In his letter he wrote that he was in his 20s, was fatherless and raised by his mother with limited means. He’d sat for a long time, heard of our work, and could he come up by bus to live and work with us?
We’d never met him and knew nothing of him, so by all measurable criteria, this was not a good idea. But measurable criteria also have their limits. The woman who answered his letter (not me) invited him to come and work as her assistant. He did, and she very quickly realized her mistake. He didn’t have the capacity to do the work he’d written he could do. In addition, he was already taking serious meds for mental illness.
Like many Zen centers, we had a 3-month probation period for anyone coming to live and work, so she agreed that he stay for the probation period and we would do an evaluation at the end. He had to participate in all meditation programs, including retreats. And, in consultation with his doctors, she insisted he take his meds.
Chris agreed and lived in a small room just down the narrow hall from my room. He never missed a sitting period or a retreat, and he worked for her. As the weeks and months went by, it was clear he couldn’t do what was needed. Our days consisted of long hours and deadlines, which Chris couldn’t sustain. At other periods in the unfolding of the community there might have been more help and support; that wasn’t true then, we were struggling.
I find that the act of giving attention and listening to someone consumes lots of energy. Some people, I am aware, say that even a minute of full-fledged attention is very important. They may well be right. I don’t shift gears that quickly. Paying deep attention is a generous act, and from me it takes energy hard to summon in the middle of a big workload.
This is often the criticism I heard aimed at myself, at Bernie, and others who hurried to work each morning but found no time for each other, labeling human needs and companionship distractions before moving on. Believe me when I tell you that lots of kindness, caring, and even love were there, but Chris needed more than that.
Chris’s three months of probation were up, he went through an evaluation, and I was told by Chris’s boss, along with Bernie, that this probation period hadn’t gone well. The work was beyond him; worse, they’d been informed by his doctors that he wasn’t taking his meds, which he had agreed to do. We couldn’t be responsible for his wellbeing.
Other than seeing Chris in morning sittings, I’d had little to do with him at work, exchanging but a few companionable words. But I was the residential coordinator at the time, and like it or not, it was my job to give him the news. That evening I knocked on his door; he was lying in bed, reading. I told him the news, he didn’t seem surprised. I said there was no rush, he could leave once he knew his next steps, no one was hurrying him out the door. He thanked me.
Those were his last words to me. The following day I was gone for two hours in the early afternoon, and when I returned, I was told by the bakery manager that the police had arrived and informed them that Chris had jumped from the 14th floor of a building downtown.
I was shocked—that’s an understatement. I had no idea what meds he’d been taking, no idea that this was a possibility. Later, in talking with others, I discovered from one friend that Chris had indeed told him he would never return to New Orleans, that he’d rather take his own life, and even told him how he would do it. Had we known that ahead of time it might have changed things; as it was, the man never shared this conversation with anyone, and Chris did what he’d threatened to do.
Weeks and months passed. I did what others do in such circumstances, talked it out with peers, talked with a therapist. We did a memorial service. I felt I was sleepwalking those first months after his death.
I wish I could say that it turned a page for me, that it caused me to sit up and wonder: Wait a minute, what am I doing here? What is this practice of freeing all sentient beings? I write in so many grant applications about the need for housing for homeless families, jobs for mothers and childcare for children, but what about the person right in front of me?
Instead, I was glad to be swallowed up by work once again. Chris’s body was sent back to his mother in New Orleans, his life was over, there didn’t seem to be much I could do.
As time has gone by, and especially on September 12, I look at the wooden face of Kwan-yin in back, she who lets herself be consumed by rodents of all kinds that find home and wood to gnaw on inside her body, and ask for forgiveness. As the years pass, I realize there is still a job ahead for me, and that is not to work more, write more blogs or better books, or teach more. The job ahead is to always, always give attention.
There’s a lot to say about that, but not for now.
A few weeks after Chris took his life, I received a letter from New Orleans addressed to me personally. I opened it up and found several sheets of long lined yellow paper, the kind you tear off of yellow office notepads. The letter was from Chris’s mother, and it was handwritten, the lines sloping down as if it was hard for her to stay on the horizontal lines.
She wrote me not to feel guilty about her son’s death. She had raised him alone in New Orleans, and from the very beginning he’d been a very sad boy, so much so that she would pray for him every Sunday in church. She wrote that she’d long ago realized that he might die before her, that there was little she could do about it, and therefore begged God to take care of him. There was no room for blame here, not by me, not by her, not by anyone. She also added that Chris had told her that those 3 months he spent with us were the happiest he’d been in a very long time. She was grateful for that.
When I think of grace, as I do now, I think of a low-income black woman in New Orleans who lost her son to suicide, buried his body, and then wrote a letter to a white woman in New York whom she’d never met (how she knew my name I’ll never know), to tell her she was not to blame, that she herself had put her trust in God long ago when it came to her son, and I must do the same.
When I light incense for Chris today, I light it for his mother, too.
“Guess what I want for Christmas? A food bowl with the Man’s mug shot on it.”
“Luckily, Aussie, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Chanukah? My birthday? That’s coming up real soon.”
“You get steak on your birthday, Auss, not a food bowl with Trump’s mug shot on it.”
“You mean I can’t get what I want for my birthday? What about his picture on my water bowl? Or on my orange hunters vest for hunting season? It’ll match his hair!”
‘Forget about it, Aussie. Take a look at that photo. He’s the very picture of truculence.”
“Belligerence, Aussie. Nasty-ism.”
“Aussie, look at the way he’s looking at the camera, at his eyes, his chin, lips, the furrows over his eyebrows. It’s the perfect photo of revenge and even hate. That’s one nasty man.”
“My hero! I want it on my blanket, I want to sleep with him.”
“You don’t sleep on a blanket, Aussie, you sleep on the sofa.”
“Can we put his photo in the living room? There’s a perfect place for it right over the altar with the compassion thig-a-ma-jigs—”
“You mean Kwan-yin and Maria of Guadalupe?”
“–and Bernie and your parents and all the other people. They need company!”
“Forget about that, Auss.”
“I know, why don’t you have it painted over the entire house outside? You’ve wanted to repaint the outside of the house for years. Our home looks like nothing, a light gray, nobody even looks at it, not even when they walk on the road above and I bark like crazy. But paint this photo of the Man all over the outside and we’ll have everybody gawking and pointing. Fox will come!”
“Foxes are always visiting here, Auss.”
“You know what I mean. Fox! They’ll interview me. They’ll take pictures of our home. We’ll be heroes!”
“I don’t want to be a hero.”
“I say it’s time to refresh and renew the place we call home. It needs a complete make-over.”
“No, Aussie. You know why?”
“You’re afraid I’ll bite the painters?”
“No, Auss. I’m not doing it for the same reason that I don’t watch horror movies or movies with lots of blood and gore—”
“My favorite kinds!”
“—or read scary books at night by Stephen King, who’s a damn good writer. Because if I do, I won’t sleep. I will see ghosts and ghouls in the darkness and have nightmares instead of dreams. The next day I’ll be run-down, distracted, and anxious. Life brings with it enough challenges and it’s tough to keep a clear mind. I don’t have to add more craziness to my life.”
“What about my favorite dogs?”
“Lassie? Benjy? Scooby-Doo?”
“No, Cujo. Pampers the Zombie Poodle? Rip the Rotting Rottweiler? I love those movies. Every time I see one, I want to bite somebody.”
“My point entirely, Aussie. We are responsible for the state of our minds. When I see horror and violence, it affects my mind, makes me see monsters everywhere. Makes me feel scared and more confused. And that’s on me because I know it’s not healthy, so why do it?”
“You’re a scaredy-cat. Just look at that picture: Gentle, good intentions, a man who loves everybody. A sweet, mild-mannered human, just what this country needs.”
“I think too many movies featuring vampire Vizslas have affected your mind, Auss. I can’t live in a house that has a face like that painted all over the outside, it’ll affect me badly. And think what message it gives to the rest of the world!”
“We’ll be noticed. With any luck, they might even try us in court for something, like being co-conspirators,”
“You mean, for being full-fledged idiots? There are too many of those already, Aussie.”
“Sounds to me like you need an anti-anxiety bed. There are some good ones on Chewy’s. but they’re probably too small for you. Would you consider getting two and putting them together? Expensive, I know, but you need to take care of that crazy mind of yours.”
On Monday morning, Labor Day, I walked with the dogs in Fiske Pond, Wendell. I’d last been there in July, but rocks, dam and bridge were underwater due to the local floods. This time the day was gorgeous. I managed to cross the dam (thanks to beavers) and walked up to the crest overlooking the lake, Aussie hanging back.
Suddenly, I heard a big splash, followed by another. I called her name, no reply. Walked here and there, trying to get a good view from behind the dense trees, and after a while I caught sight of a dark head above water, paddling quickly. Beaver, I wondered? And then, at a long distance, a tiny red band shone under the sun, and I exclaimed: “Aussie!”
Aussie, almost 6 years old, always loved the water but never swam. On a hot day she liked to stand in a pool, creek, or river, water up to her belly, a blissful look on her face. Over the five years I’ve lived with her, she saw ducks, seagulls, even herons, but would never let go of the solid ground under her paws to go after them.
Aussie—a swimmer? My Aussie? It was as if she’d become another dog. And not just any swimmer, but one paddling hard after a row of ducks, making her way to the very middle of the lake, her head low over the water. The ducks made circles, trying to shake her off, but she wouldn’t be deterred.
Suddenly, I got nervous. Was she going to make it? What would happen if she overestimated her strength? If she suddenly got tired and sank like a stone? I started clambering down to the water edge, getting tangled in brambles and the vines of old trees.
It took me 10 minutes to get down, calling her name. She finally turned around and swam back, but then splashed right back into the water and paddled out again to the very middle. The ducks were in no danger, they just dived down if she got close. It didn’t dissuade her. On and on she swam, chasing one duck, then another, while together they made circles in the big lagoon.
I stopped worrying; she knew what to do. After a quarter of an hour, she made her way to shore. It took me the same time to climb back up the embankment. At some point I got completely stuck, encircled by thick sharp branches that wouldn’t open up. Scratched up and mosquito-bitten, I found a happily soaked Aussie, eyes glittering with joyful awareness.
“Is this your first time?” I asked her. I was talking to a dog I’d never seen before. She had swum so freely out there, while I encountered nothing but obstructions.
She had no interest in treats as reward for coming when I called. Instead, she seemed in love with herself, as if saying: I know who I am, don’t need anything more. Don’t need acknowledgment, don’t need approval or reward. You’re excited and happy for me, but I don’t need any of that because I know who I am.
I thought of her Aussie-big-game-hunter bark as she chases deer, as if saying: I know this, I know this, it’s me! There was so much confidence and joy there.
There are those who express things, and those who don’t. Instead, the latter want treats. They want approbation and fame, but if you express something thoroughly, you don’t need any of that.
What prevents us from giving full expression in this way? People talk of needing a safe space. My dear friend, Roshi Ken Byalin, who founded Integration Charter Schools in Staten Island, New York, talks of encouraging kids to enter a brave space, not a safe space. Just like Aussie who entered the water with a big splash, spontaneous, unafraid. Though why she waited for 5 years I don’t know.
Maybe that’s the question: Why do we wait? What’s the right moment? No one can trace that, except for a great novelist, maybe.
A good novelist will present the karma: she’s half German Shepherd, maybe she didn’t find water near Houston, where she came from, maybe she finally was relaxed and confident enough to take risks, etc. All the causes and conditions.
But a really great novelist will know there are magical moments which will not fit into a linear landscape, no matter how beautifully and meticulously described. They won’t arise out of identifiable histories or stories. Someone will just jump into the water and swim.
I went to Ogunquit last week for an overnight stay with my friend, Zen teacher Cynthia Taberner. Cynthia has written publicly about her illness, so I don’t feel that I am breaking confidence in simply stating that we spent 24 hours together right at Ogunquit Beach, which, as she often told me, was her favorite beach.
Ogunquit is very beautiful, but it was extra special for me to experience it with her, see things through her eyes rather than just my own. Where does empathy come from, if not from seeing things through other people’s eyes?
My vision has never been great, especially now when I can’t wear contact lens till I see the cataract surgeon again, and I notice what I miss, especially in terms of color and the margins. Similarly, I notice how much I miss due to the prism of my conditioning, which, like my eyes, misses a lot at a distance.
Ogunquit is some 15 miles north of the New Hampshire-Maine border and we shared a room with a terrace from which we could see the estuary on one side and the Atlantic waves on the other. It was Cynthia who, holding a finger to her lips as a warning to be quiet, called my attention to the cormorant babies in the estuary walking lightly in a single line, first in one direction, then returning, surrounded by seagulls and a heron or two.
On the other side, the beach side, the humans were showing what fun it is to be human. Young, bikinied couples sat on small beach chairs in the sand, reading summer paperbacks behind shades. We paused to admire the vast network of trenches, moats and castles built by younger kids.
“Wow, can I take a picture of this?” I ask them. “You did this all by yourselves?”
“Our dad helped,” the young boy said proudly.
The dad looked up; he also seemed proud.
The tide was coming in and just then a big wave rushed forward, flooding the big rectangular moat they had built, a turreted castle in the middle.
“Yeah!” the boys and older men yelled excitedly, high-fiving each other. “We’ve been waiting for hours to see what happens when the water comes in, and it finally did. You’ve brought us luck!” Everybody grinned in triumphant unison, as if we were all equal partners to this great engineering feat.
And there were the older couples sitting on tall, wooden chairs under the awning by the hotel, sipping on water or a cup of coffee, murmuring to each other, perhaps remembering other times, other beaches, other tides.
Cindy and I sat on the beach chairs she’d brought with her, I holding a hot dog I’d just bought to eat after the long drive. While we’re talking, I suddenly see a large sea gull flapping its wings wildly and flying straight at me, and before I knew it, it had grabbed the hot dog from my fingers with such precision there wasn’t the faintest nick in the fingers that had held the hot dog.
It flew off, landed a few yards away in the sand, and swallowed the entire thing in three seconds flat. Smaller gulls walked around it, perhaps looking for a few crumbs, squawking in admiration, while Cindy and I couldn’t stop laughing and shaking our heads admiringly as the bird fluttered proudly on the sand.
The sun shone on everyone equally—the cormorant young ones, the hot dog-loving avian F-16, the children digging up more tunnels, the dads buried in wet sand, the surfers out by the rocks, the seashells, the ice cream vendors, the happy, happy world.
I’m thinking of my frequent walks with the dogs these past months, Aussie quickly leaping into a pond and standing there in delight on a hot summer day, Henry busily sniffing the ground looking for a stick for me to throw, the splash of the small waterfall nearby. Aussie comes out, her fur heavy and wet, her eyes shiny.
There are many times when I’m happy and don’t know it. And then there are times when I’m happy and I know it.
“Where all adventure-loving, danger-chasing, risk-taking critters are going now. Scotland.”
“To find Nessie, of course.”
“The Loch Ness monster? Oh Aussie, it doesn’t exist.”
“Who says? And it’s not an it, it’s a she.”
“How do you know? Checked her genitals recently?”
“Because she’s called Nessie. Also, it’s time for monsters to be female. Enough of King Kong. Enough of Godzilla, Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and all the rest. Where’s equal opportunity when you need it?”
“Alien Queen? Medusa?”
“But Nessie’s real, she exists. She’s not a movie. She’s managed to stay low for almost a thousand years and nobody could find her. But we could, just as long as we get to—”
“Exactly. No one could find her. Aussie, there have been scientific expeditions galore to find Nessie, using sonar earlier and now even more modern technology. No scientific implement has spotted her. No blinking dots underwater to show something’s breathing there, and even photos of her were proven to be fakes.”
“You know what I say: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
“Fire, but not necessarily an underwater monster, Auss. Did you ask the gang at Leeann’s about whether they believe in Nessie?”
“What do they know? The minute I brought up Nessie Petulia got so terrified she went running to Leeann, but she’s a Dachshund, what can you expect? Percy said he didn’t believe in Nessie, but he’s such an entitled Golden, and with a name like that, you just know he’s ignorant about real life. Come on, just buy one ticket to Scotland. You can even take me in storage. Percy would never fly in storage.”
“I have better things to do than search for a non-existent monster, Aussie.”
“What’s wrong with you? Where did the imagination go? What about fantasy? You have me, the best sniffer and tracker in the world—”
“Of deer and wild turkeys, Auss. Not fish.”
“She’s not a fish, she’s a monster. The real thing. Where your sense of mystery? Where’s the journey in pursuit of life’s big questions?“
“What big questions, Aussie?”
“Does Nessie get lonely? What’s it like, to stay put for a thousand years and never leave your comfort zone? Why does she need such a long neck? What does it feel like, being named after instant coffee?”
“You want to find her to ask her all these questions? I wonder if she even speaks English.”
“Won’t do me any good if she does. The English they talk over there, you can’t understand a word they say.”
“Aussie, there are many things we don’t understand, like sudden illness or death.”
“We associate them with fear and terror, we call them monsters.”
“We make them up, Aussie.”
“We made up Covid?”
“No, no, I mean monsters. The gigantic body, the long neck, the eyes full of hate and—”
“The razor-sharp teeth.”
“I doubt she has razor-sharp teeth, Auss. She has nothing to use them on in Loch Ness.”
“So, let’s go and find her. Everybody in the world is now looking for Nessie.”
“I don’t think so, Aussie. People are working, having babies, raising a family, fighting in Ukraine, worrying about AI, counting Trump indictments, eating pizza—”
“And looking for Nessie. What’s life without Nessie? What’s life without a mysterious monster hiding underwater? What’s life without something that makes no scientific sense, extraordinary, beating all odds and expectations?”
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.”
“No, Nessie, Nessie, Nessie. Give me danger! Give me daring! Give me centuries of dreams to pursue, journey beyond horizons, journey without end.”
“How about a slice of broccoli, sausage and pepperoni pizza instead?”
I was in New Hampshire for 2 days to see a good friend, and when I left yesterday to start the 3+ hours of driving I left behind a bag that included my eyeglasses, among other things. Since I wear contact lens as a rule, that wasn’t such a big deal except for first thing in the morning and last thing at night, when I revert to eyeglasses to give things a rest. I will get the bag back with glasses on Saturday.
But today I went to an eye surgeon to begin the process of cataract surgery. He reminded me of my Keratoconus, an eye condition affecting the corneas that I’ve had my entire life (long before it was even diagnosed). He told me to stop wearing my contact lens for 10 days and then come to see him so that he could get a more accurate measurement of the cornea of my eye.
That meant I would have to depend on my glasses, which provide only partial improvement for my vision. Once I get them on Saturday.
I told myself it was no big deal. When you tell yourself that something is no big deal, chances are it’s a big deal.
I started wearing glasses at the age of 8 and promptly hated them. I was sure that my vision would end up being the fatal flaw in my body and life. I became even more certain of that when an eye doctor examined my eyes when I was 12 and promptly told my father that my vision was getting weaker because I clearly wasn’t wearing the glasses. This was not true, but my father, relying more on the doctor’s word than mine, returned home angry and told the family that on account of my negligence, I will turn blind by the age of 25.
Instead, at the age of 25 I was seeing 20/20 with contact lens, and it was then, in the midst of a routine check-up, that the doctor diagnosed that I had Keratoconus, which had just recently been discovered. I was his first patient with this condition, and he was beside himself with excitement.
That condition is actually remedied through the use of contact lens, which I was already wearing, glasses providing much less improvement, and I have seen very well all these years, owing many thanks to doctors who took excellent care of me.
But deep in my mind, there’s the fatal flaw. I drove home today thinking of what it would be like to wear glasses for 10 days, giving me only partial vision. You could work, I told myself. You could drive locally, walk Aussie, do laundry, and read (with some eyestrain).
But you’ll be vulnerable. You’ll feel naked.
It’s as if you suddenly discover that your skin doesn’t cover all of you, there are crevices or spaces that are open and revealing—of weakness, of faults, of not being up to snuff.
I have good health, a fine body and reasonably clear mind. That’s more than some of my friends can boast of, I don’t forget that. Still, the what-if voices arise: What will you do if … How will you manage if …?
I am fine, I tell myself, pushing it all away. Everything is fine.
The teacher Frank Ostaseski, who suffered a number of strokes, said that his sense of vulnerability is that it makes you more permeable, more aware of how interdependent you are rather than some untouchable (and untouched) fortress. That can be a source of inner strength regardless of how it looks to the rest of the world.
I’m reminded of Bernie’s and my last visit to the Auschwitz/Birkenau retreat in November of 2017, a year before he died and 2 years after his big stroke. One evening, as we all gathered, we formed a fishbowl council in which 5 people form a small circle in the middle, speak their truth, and then leave to make room for others to come in. Bernie took his turn to speak in the inner circle, and when he finished, he began to walk away.
We hadn’t noticed that he didn’t have his cane. We offered to bring it to him, but he waved it away, and instead he tottered towards us. The council stopped, everyone grew silent. I knew he wanted to do this himself, but I could feel my toes curling, my body inclined forward, ready to spring up to catch him if he fell, or at least help him make his way.
But something held me back. By then I was pretty sure he didn’t mind showing his nakedness to people who’d long admired this founder of the retreat, the weakness of a body that couldn’t do what a three-year-old could. He wasn’t just teetering on his legs, but on the edge of the fake cliff we call individuality, his fragility blazing as strongly as his dharma talks years ago. That lurching walk, right step, left step, right step (he had no feeling in his right foot), his feet banging heavily on the floor because of the lack of control, was among his greatest teachings.
Tomorrow I will drive to Ogunquit, Maine, to spend time with my friend, Zen teacher Cynthia Taberner. And Saturday I will begin my visual “fast,” peering at the world through glasses that will give me only an obscure view of roads, words, people’s faces, television.
“Just as long as you don’t mistake me for the illegal Chihuahua,” Aussie grumbled.