A TREE-LINED STREET

“I was born on a tree-lined street in a Jersey suburb. I have been secure and safe all my life.”

A friend who’d been one of NBC TV News’ first female international correspondents told me this a long time ago in New York City. She was ending that career to become a mother and we were searching for what we had in common (we met at a writing workshop). I told her that I was born in an Israeli kibbutz that was the reincarnated version of a kibbutz bombarded to smithereens in the Israeli War of Independence, where my parents had fought just a year earlier.

Since then, growing up here, going to school, gaining skills and some confidence, I’ve become part of an educated middle class living in rural Massachusetts, a good life that resulted a tiny bit from my own efforts and to a much greater degree from events I had little or nothing to do with.

There are many of us, I think, trying to work out how we, living a fairly secure and safe life on tree-lined streets (in my case, more in the middle of a forest), can be mensches in the deepest sense of the word.

Last week I stayed in a house half a mile from the DC border, and last Friday morning I dawdled on the street corner after waving to a young boy who boarded a school bus. A basketball hoop hovered on one side, and I thought of my friend who’d grown up on a tree-lined street, much as this young boy did, much as I do now. Suddenly, I felt the urge to go to Capitol Hill. I’d been there on a few occasions, but not in a long, long time, and certainly not since January 6 when marauders had taken it over, sending Senators and Representatives into hiding.

I took the Metro to Union Station and walked from there to the Capitol. Not to think too much or figure things out. In the past few years, I’ve read enough analyses of modern America and its cultural, racial, educational, religious, and economic divides, and I didn’t feel any wiser. I think at the very time I was there the Congressional hearing looking into the events of January 6 was taking place.

Frankly, I think that all the hearings and Congressional inquiries around this are a waste of time. Those who understood the gravity of what happened don’t need those investigations; those that don’t won’t change their minds as a result. The details that emerge may be important to historians, but it’s used as political theater for which I have no patience.

Now is what counts for me, questions like Who are we? What do we need to remember? What do we need to forge?. All I wanted was to walk up the broad avenue that leads to the Capitol, feel ground under my feet, maybe pick up the resonance of those many feet back on January 6, and the many more before them.

This was a sought-after land when my parents came here in 1957. I grew up highly sensitized to what happened in Europe in the 1940s but oblivious to what others suffered and endured right here. The slow expansion of consciousness began with my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and started me, stupid student that I am, on a slow journey of bearing witness.

I won’t fool you, sometimes it just tires me out. I feel like: Can’t I stand on one thing? Just one thing? As a Zen practitioner, I have a small sense of what that one thing is, but I’m not much different from anyone else, I’d like to find that little slip of ground that’s solidly mine, no more pushing of boundaries, no more and this and this and this. Enough change.

It was a gorgeous day, there should have been thousands of people walking those steps. There were none. Fences barred the entry up front. A tourist entrance in back of the Capitol was shut down. The place looked deserted except for a group of some 50 people, mostly American Cambodians, protesting under a nearby tree against Chinese presence in Cambodia, women carrying posters of children and brothers in prison.

I walked from one end of the Capitol to the other slowly, like a pilgrimage. There wasn’t much nostalgia. This enormous building stands for many years of nitty-gritty give-and-take and tough-edged compromises, the brutal pruning needed to govern a diverse nation. What goes on inside is certainly not as pretty as the outside.

As I write this the Democrats have yet to come together on a promised infrastructure bill. They get little sympathy from me. If you control the White House, Senate and House and can’t pass a critical bill, you obviously can’t govern and probably shouldn’t be there.

That day I walked back and forth, alone and quiet in the warm light, footstep after footstep in resonance of millions. Then I walked back to Union Station and got on a train. I’d need an early start the next morning to get home in one piece. That’s what I wanted to do, get finally home in one piece.

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BACK HOME

I returned home on Saturday evening after a long drive from Maryland, a mile from DC, where I’d gone to help a family I deeply care about, post-surgery, with caregiving and household work. Six days had passed since I left New England, driving back and forth with Aussie in tow (actually, she relaxed in the passenger seat). With stops, it took at least 9 hours each way.

It didn’t help that Saturday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a quick Aussie morning walk, I set out onto I-95, a straight arrow going north, almost reaching the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore 45 minutes later, when the phone rang to say I’d left my valise behind.

But family and GPS to the rescue, I drove back south, met up in the parking lot of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Laurel, did the handoff of the valise, let Aussie out for a final sniff, and back on the road we went. You’re losing it, I told myself. Remember all those old people back in the day, endlessly losing glasses, car keys, and phone, going out to the market to get a can of diced tomatoes for the soup on the oven and coming back with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream instead? You’re there, kid.

My plan had been to do whatever needed to get done in Maryland as well as my own work. Hey, I thought, I could work from anywhere. I could blog, attend the zendo schedule and other meetings by Zoom, no problem.

It didn’t happen. Aussie managed to post one blog early last week, and that was it.

Folks, I come from a tradition where almost all the famous ancestors were not just men but also monks. They didn’t take care of children or parents, they didn’t take care of folks who were ill, elderly, or dying. They may have come to the house to chant; in Japan, they showed up mainly after one took one’s last breath in order to launch the dead on their next-life journey.

There were masters who meditated under a constant trickle of icy water in order to stay awake, or else sat on a sharp-edged surface for the same purpose. I believe that, to this very day, priests daily clean the vast wooden floors of the monastery of Eihei-ji with toothbrushes to stay focused and pay attention.

I’m not sure you have to go that far. All you have to do is start taking care of challenging children. Start taking care of people who’re too sick or disabled to take care of themselves or their surroundings. Start taking care—what does that mean? Holding their hands and making loving sounds like they show in some movies? How about load after load of laundry, from wash to fold? How about shopping? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. How about cleaning? How about visits to pharmacies for prescriptions, chauffeuring someone to a covid test, reading a book to a child, playing with walkie-talkies in the streets, finagling a brief afternoon rest before going back to work? How about walking the dog a few times a day?

Within an hour I was transported back to the past, when I took care of Bernie once he could no longer take care of himself. I remembered the moment-by-moment attentiveness, one task following another and another after that, day after day. I remembered finishing each evening with organizing notes for the following day: what we would have for dinner, what ingredients had to be picked up, what doctors, what radiation treatments, the bills, the emails, running interference when necessary, the cancer surgeries—

And I had help. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wonder how people without help managed. Because you did this relentlessly day after day. Because back then, you knew there was no going into the car one day and driving north.

Work like this means shelving your plans (Of course I can do the meditation schedule! Of course I can write the book! Of course I’ll do the retreat), and plunging in.

Plunging—because otherwise you get stuck in the story of it all. I was faced with a choice: I could listen to the upset voices in my head wailing out the story of hardship and sacrifice, or I could jump in and trust the experience. The first made me miserable. The second meant I joined the flow of things: heard the signal, took laundry out of the dryer and folded, cut onions for the soup, made the bed, remade the bed, got lunch started. When you do that you feel good, bad, and everything in between, but basically you’re just doing. You’re just living.

I’m a storyteller, but give me the choice between the story and the life and I’ll take the latter any day. I know the story seems to lay out the meaning and purpose of things, but when you jump in they all collapse into the doing.

People who do this work are my heroes. You’d never know it from Western culture, with its stories of wanderers, romantics, adventurers, and brave soldiers. But our adventurers have companions, Huck had Tom. Soldiers have other soldiers, rules, and structures. Try to be a caregiver in the house, alone, invisible, nobody there to see you, witness your efforts.

My mother hated that work. On some level, she couldn’t forgive the husband and children who were the cause of it all. She loved her children and she liked to cook, but was never presented with another option, a different choice, a way to feel that she was the author of her own life.

“No one ever encouraged me in anything,” she told me once, in tears.

Nor would you ever guess from Buddhist literature that caregivers are heroes. That literature adulates the lone man who sat under a tree and vowed not to get up till he awakened. Please! He sat, for God’s sake! He didn’t run up and down stairs or stand by an oven for hours.

The great Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen and the Eihei-ji monastery, ritualized every aspect of daily life—how you cooked, how you ate, how you slept, how you went to the bathroom— to keep his monks focused and attentive; hence the toothbrushes at Eihei-ji. But all he had to do was send them to nearby homes to help take care of farmers, peasants, and their families. Meeting those needs—believe me, they would have been paying attention plenty.

Tell all those monk warriors we read about, who woke up at 3 am to sit every night, cold and uncomfortable, trying to stay awake—there ain’t nothing to keep you awake like a fidgety or crying child. Nothing to focus your attention quite as much as a tower of dishes waiting in the sink, a tower of clothes waiting to be washed, a house to be cleaned, homework to be gotten through, meals to be cooked. Towers and towers of stuff rising up after you’ve taken them down, day after day.

As a friend of mine, another Zen teacher, said: It’s endless. Now what?

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AUSSIE’S GREAT ADVENTURE

Aussie at Sligo Creek

“Aussie, this is your first long trip in the three years since you’ve lived with me and here you are, in Maryland. What a big traveler!”

“I hate every minute of it.”

“What’s there to hate?”

“I hate being in the car for so long.”

“I split the trip into two, Aussie. We drove Sunday evening down to New York and saw Genro Gauntt.”

“I LOVE Genro!”

“I thought you didn’t like men, Aussie.”

“I LOVE Genro to death.”

“We drove down to Maryland the next day.”

“I wish we stayed with Genro.”

“I made a long stop  on the way, you had plenty of water, exercise, and treats.”

“You should have left me in New York. All that highway noise made me deaf!”

“I shut the windows for that reason, Auss, but then it got too warm.”

“You know you’re on the wrong path when no matter what you choose, it’s always wrong!”

“But we got here yesterday afternoon and it’s been great, Aussie.”

“Great? It’s busy, nonstop! You know how hard I’m working?”

“How hard you’re working, Auss? Are you cooking?”

“Never. I lie on the floor right between your legs to trip you up whenever there’s cooking, just to remind you. Always eat raw!”

“Are you doing loads of laundry?”

“What’s laundry?”

“Are you washing lots and lots of dishes?”

“Aussie says: If you can’t lick it, screw it.”

“Do you clean up after yourself?”

“Excuse me, everything coming out of me is organic.”

“Do you play with a young boy, take him shopping, read books and give him lots of love?”

“I only love Genro.”

“So why are you working so hard, Aussie?”

“You know how much commuting I do? I start out on the bed in the basement. Then I go upstairs to use the sofa in the living room. Then I go up another flight of stairs to lie on the office rug or on any of the beds upstairs.  I’m on the road all the time! ”

“Aussie, I meant to tell you, you’re not supposed to go up on the beds here. It’s fine back home, but it’s better if you don’t do that here.”

“Oh oh, as soon as we get down south ugly racism rears  its head.”

“Aussie, it’s got nothing to do with your being black or our being in Maryland, it’s the hairs you leave on the bed.”

“They’re racists here. Have you seen all the dogs parading up and down the streets? Do you notice who’s missing?”

“Who’s missing, Aussie?”

“Henry’s missing, that’s who. Have you seen one chihuahua in the two days we’ve been here?”

“Come to think of it, no. But Aussie, I thought you didn’t like chihuahuas.”

“I don’t, but there’s one thing worse than chihuahuas.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“Having nothing to complain about. Life isn’t life with nothing to complain about.”

“You’ll get back to New England by the end of the weekend, Auss. That way you could go right back to your bitching and moaning.”

“Could we pick up Genro on the way?”

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PURSE IS THE WORLD

Please look carefully at the small, embroidered squares above and below. Shake your head, shout to the skies.

My friend and dharma sister, Barbara Wegmueller, talked to me in Switzerland about the project she and her husband, Roland, supported. It started when a friend of theirs received these squares from Afghan women in a small village. They were embroidering these squares and sending them to the West in the hope of getting money to sustain their families.

If you read the newspapers, you know the distress Afghan families are undergoing. There is very high unemployment, and many of those who’re employed don’t get paid. Earning money in this way is not just crucial for the family, it also gives women respect in the eyes of their families and village.

Barbara’s friend asked her Swiss friends to incorporate these small jewels in their own arts and crafts, and she made an exhibit of this artistic fusion, Afghan and Swiss women creating their own works of art integrating two very different styles and evoking two different cultures—all in the same objet d’art.

As you can see, one woman sewed the square onto a purse that she created. These beautiful art pieces were then sold with the money going back to the Afghan women.

Years ago, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to such an effort. Of course, it’s nice to get money into the hands of women who are homebound, covered now from head to foot, trying to feed their many small children, but how much was this seriously going to improve things?

All that’s changed for me.

Imagine that you’re carrying the purse pictured above. You’ve put in your money and credit cards, your checkbook and car keys, all the Western artifacts so crucial to a Western way of life. But that purse is no longer just functional, it’s combined with a gorgeous piece of embroidery created by a woman far away, who may never see a credit card in her life, no checkbook and no car keys, but who works exquisitely with shapes and colors, creating a small work of art and sending it out into the world.

Now it’s part of your purse. It’s part of you.

When you look at your new purse, what occurs to you? That you’re not alone? That you’re part of a world and life that defy categories and labels? That rather than being separated by names and geography we can create combinations that integrate both? Something throbs through that purse: an Afghan culture, Afghan womanhood and family, mothers looking through the all-covering burqa and seeing what we all see—green leaves on brown stem, yellow sun, white-topped mountain and blue, blue sky—all pulsing with color, pulsing with life. Sisters.

I took photos. “Take them home,” Barbara said. I think she hoped that I, too, would find something to combine with them that would honor the eye and hand of those that made them, that could even send them money in exchange for these patches of beauty.

I’m not an artist or craftswoman, so if you have ideas of what we could do with these squares, please make sure and write me. The purpose, down the road, is still to get some funds for these village women.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me add that since the Taliban took over Afghanistan no money has been sent until its safety and security could be verified. But the money is there, in Switzerland, waiting to be transferred, and I believe it will be very shortly.

I saw my friend, Jimena Pareja, yesterday. I brought food cards with me and was also asked for burial money. Anita (not her real name) lives here with two young children, having left her husband in Guatemala with their two older ones. Split families are very common here. Maybe one adult made it across and one did not. Or maybe one stayed back with the understanding that he’ll take care of the older ones with the help of money his wife will be able to make working on farms here.

But Anita‘s husband, who lives in a small village, got sick. He went to the city for medical care, got covid at the hospital, and died. The family needs money to bury him because they have nothing.

“What will happen to the two children back in Guatemala?”

“She wants to bring them here,” said Jimena, then shrugged. “We’ll see.” As if to say: That’s life.

And that is life, unpredictable, waves crashing and receding every minute.

I also asked about Hilaria. While I was in Switzerland Hilaria’s brain lesions began getting bigger once again. They had  diminished in size and the plan was for her to undergo surgery once the lesions were small, but now they’re getting bigger. She’s stressed out, afraid of losing her apartment, afraid of what will happen to her sons (they’re being cared for by other families). Her deafness doesn’t help. I told Jimena that, one way or another, we will continue to pay her rent and utilities so that she needn’t worry about that.

How does a single mother feel when she can’t do anything but wait for tough surgery, her sons uncertain and afraid? Of course, she’s told that stress makes things that much worse, but is that enough? If you can help, please do so.

I myself will leave for Maryland tomorrow to help care for a family that is very dear to me, visited and revisited by cancer. I’m taking Aussie with me—she better behave! I plan to blog from there but won’t know anything till I am there. I promise not to stress about it.

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FOUND OUT IN THE BATHROOM

you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

The poet David Whyte wrote the above. The words mean a lot to me, probably would at any age, but I’m at this age, past 71, and this is what they mean to me now:

I told my sangha that I’m letting go of my leadership of Green River Zen Center as of January 2022. If a few thought they were falling off their chairs (or cushions), I can say I was already down on the floor, rattled and looking up, blinking in the light, wondering what happened. It took a while for me to decide, and I questioned it a few times later, but each time I became reconvinced that it was right.

You’ve simply had enough of drowning and you want to live.

I never drowned in Green River, the group is too small. But I pay deep attention to anyone who wishes to walk this path with me at his/her side (in our group it’s mostly her). Gratitude spills from my heart for the many teachers I’ve had, who took on the role in response to their vow not to let the Buddha seed be discontinued. I think we did it out of love.

I still hope to continue to teach; at the same time, the transition has begun. I say over and over that we teach what we ourselves have to learn. What is the Buddha Way about? Bernie used to say: It’s about becoming a mensch. That becoming never ends.

It used to be that, to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin’s famous aphorism, I was the fox who did many things. Now I want to be more like the hedgehog, who does one thing, and that is a fuller, deeper, slower life. I’m nowhere as beautiful as the bright yellow leaves outside my office, but in a funny way, I’m more attuned to love and beauty than at any other time in the past.

When the sun is out it makes the yellows and oranges very bright, but when it’s gray the colors shimmer. That’s what I look for now: brown contours surrounding the color, the way the branches lean towards my office as though commanding: Come with us.

“Don’t you think I should prune those branches?” Jan the gardener asked me a while ago.

“No,” I said. Let them come closer and closer. I want to be intimate with this trinity: life, love, death.

I want to write more. Time and time again I sit in front of the white screen and have no idea what to write. But I’m not paralyzed as I was long ago, the years have brought faith and trust. And soon the fingers begin to type, first slowly and tentatively, then with more confidence, and after a few paragraphs a crazy, sacred energy is streaming through my body, carrying me along. Or maybe not, because I’m gone.

[T]o take the one hand you know belongs in yours.

Maybe there is a special one hand still in my future for me to hold and love, maybe not. Right now I’m aware of the many hands stretched towards me, hands of family and of old friends, dharma buddies I’ve ridden with together along some strange, heartbreaking routes. Like Ulysses, I want to egg them on: Tis not too late to seek a newer world, so push off and, sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrows. Love has taken us down so many mysterious paths, where laughter and grief converge and become one.

My non-Jewish housemate told me about her brother. He drank, had medical problems, and finally died at a young age. He loved to sing, she said, and had a special voice. He searched everywhere for venues where he could sing, often without success, but he wouldn’t give up. Once he saw an ad by a synagogue for an assistant cantor. He’d had Jewish friends, knew some of the liturgy, so he went for an interview and was offered a job. They assumed he was Jewish, of course.

He served as the assistant cantor in the synagogue for a few years, mastering the Hebrew prayers and the old melodies. When the cantor retired he was hired to take his place.

“What happened to him?” I asked her.

“He was found out and had to leave,” she replied.

“How?”

“In the bathroom,” she said.

They couldn’t grasp a non-Jewish cantor leading Jewish prayers. Had they fully understood that God is love, maybe they would have kept him on.

you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

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ME AGAIN

“Hi Aussie, it’s me again.”

“Of course, it’s you again. Would you please get out of bed and feed me?”

“Okay, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s me again. Here it is, Tuesday morning, and it’s me again.”

“Who else did you want it to be?”

“I don’t know, Auss. It could have been Barack or Michelle. It could have been Angela Merkel. It could have been Henry.”

“Please, not Henry. Who in their right mind would want to be a chihuahua? Besides, how do you know it’s you again?”

“Well, I’m wearing these black-and-white pajamas, same pajamas I always wear.”

“Don’t other humans wear pajamas?”

“Not everybody,  Aussie. I didn’t wear pajamas for a long time, or anything in bed for that matter.”

“Spare me, I don’t want to hear about any of that. Still, how do you know it’s you?”

“You’re wagging your tail as though it’s me.”

“I wag my tail at lots of people and animals—just not Henry.”

“I think I wanted to be someone else for a long time.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been me for 71 years and I’m tired of it. Can’t I be you for a change, Aussie?”

“Then who would I be? AND DON’T SAY HENRY!”

“Don’t you ever feel like you want to be somebody else, Auss?”

“No, I‘m happy being me. Nothing is better than being Aussie. No life is better than Aussie’s life, especially when she’s down on her belly in a puddle. Heaven!”

“Aussie, why do you have to flop down in every puddle in New England?”

“Where else should I flop down?”

“In the streets of Northampton. I take you walking on the streets and you get all nervous, eyes like black balloons, constantly looking over your shoulder. You rush into the car as quick as you can.”

“Of course. You know why?”

“Why, Auss?”

“Because people go shopping in Northampton. They constantly need things; that scares me. I tell you, Northampton isn’t safe for anybody. You know what’s the trouble with you?”

“No, but I think you’ll tell me.”

“You think too much. If you didn’t think you were the most fascinating thing in the world and instead flopped belly-down in a puddle, you’d be a lot happier all around. Which reminds me. I noticed that my bag of treats was empty and thrown in the trash. What happened to all the treats?”

“I brought them to my goddog yesterday, Auss.”

“You have a goddog? And pray, who is that?”

“Her name is Bailey. I visited her human yesterday. I know Bailey from very, very early on. My friend and I were talking about her before she was born.”

“And you brought her my treats? Did you bring anything to her human?”

“Roast chicken and mashed potatoes.”

“What about giving your goddog roast chicken and mashed potatoes? What about giving me—”

“You know I try not to give dogs too much human food, Aussie.”

“Okay, so now we both agree about something.”

“About human food for dogs?”

“No, about how you wish you were someone else. I also wish you were someone else.”

“Who, Aussie?”

“Your New York friend who cooks sirloin, chicken breast, and omelets for her dogs. Who doesn’t lounge around in bed in her black-and-white pajamas whining about wishing she was somebody else but gets off her butt and makes her dog breakfast. That’s who!”

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MARIANNE IN THE KITCHEN

Aussie and I walked by ourselves down an unfamiliar path. The leaves are changing color and lots of squirrels and chipmunks crisscrossed right in front of us, giving Aussie lots of exercise. They’re busy stocking up for winter even as the trees drop their leaves, stocking down, so-to-speak.

Lori and Henry came home 10 minutes after we did, Aussie growled the minute the front door opened, I said What’s going on?, but Henry knew perfectly well and he hurled himself at her neck, leaping so high he almost soared clear over her back. She chased him down, cornered him on the rug and put her jaws around his little head. I winced and almost called her off, but she released her jaws on her own so Henry instantly hurled himself at her neck again, as if saying: Do it again, Aussie, do it again!

I opened the door and told them to take it outside, which they did, chasing each other back and forth around the yard till Lori started making Henry his supper, at which point both ran into the kitchen because Aussie gets little cheese treats during the meal prep for Henry. After Henry ate he brought me his blue and orange ball to throw, which I did, he brought it back, I threw it again, and the setting sun threw one last golden light on golden leaves. You get the picture: cacophonies everywhere.

When I did my retreat with Franziska Schneider in Switzerland, the retreat center had no in-house cook so Franziska hired Marianne, an outside cook, to provide the meals. We had simple and  tasty food throughout (with the exception of the concluding lunch, when Marianne offered in one meal all the starches and sugars that she didn’t give out during the rest of the retreat). There were some two dozen different dishes in that final lunch, including 4-5 desserts.

Throughout the retreat Marianne, with a big smile, would announce during each meal what the food offerings were. Two people always had to help clean up at the end and I would hear Marianne giving instructions in a loud voice, giggling and laughing, and the people helping her would then also giggle and laugh, raunchily calling out to her, having way too good a time.

The strict Zen teacher in me grumbled inwardly. In Zen retreats the position of the cook is very important, and the job of the cook isn’t just to make sure that meals are ready in the prescribed hour but also to maintain a retreat atmosphere in the kitchen, keeping everyone focused and quiet, fully concentrated on what they’re doing.

That was not the atmosphere in the kitchen. Marianne was irrepressible.

Towards the end of the retreat, Franziska broke the silence to thank Marian for the wonderful meals. Marianne replied in kind—and replied—and replied. She couldn’t stop talking. Later I was informed that she told us we ate a lot.

I sat close to her during this exchange and watched her face. I didn’t understand a word she said (all in Swiss German), and this freed me to watch her more carefully. She was a middle-aged, slim woman, short black hair, with big dark eyes behind round, schoolmarm glasses. She talked animatedly, a big smile splayed across her face revealing small, white teeth, giggling and laughing just as she had throughout her time in the kitchen.

I was glad I’d never gone into the kitchen and asked her to take things down a bit. I thought about the big urge we have to express ourselves, this life form, this individual dharma, whatever it is—right/wrong, follows the rules/doesn’t follow the rules, loving, hating, stiff, wacky—all those different ways of being seeking expression all the time, not as hungry ghosts but as vibrant expressions of life, no different from the bells around the sheep and cows, the gurgle of the brook, the silent, graceful falling of the leaves, Henry throwing himself at Aussie—so much diversity, so much lusty expression.

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WHAT THE COW SAID

“Aussie, tell me a story.”

“I don’t tell stories. You tell stories.”

“Don’t dogs tell stories, Auss?”

“Never. We’re too busy living. Too busy eating. Too busy walking. Too busy killing chipmunks.”

“Oh, Aussie.”

“This is the best time to catch them. They’re running everywhere with nuts and acorns in their mouths, which slows them down, see? That’s when I get them.”

“They keep the food in their cheeks to bring home to stockpile for winter, Aussie. Imagine that!”

“Can’t. Why have food in your mouth if you’re not going to eat it?”

“You do the same thing, Auss. You snap your jaws around them and kill them, and then you just leave them on the ground.”

“I let them marinate for a few weeks and then I eat them.”

“You know, Aussie, stories are like that.”

“Like dead chipmunks?”

“Stories have to marinate, too. And then when they’re fully marinated—”

“Somebody eats them?”

“No, I think they fade.”

“Let me get this straight. You make up stories so that they could fade?”

“Not all stories, Aussie, but I think a few need to fade.”

“Humans are crazy.”

“You know, Auss, when I was in Switzerland I thought a lot about Bernie because he and I used to travel there to do many things together. And then I watched this cow.”

“What’s a cow?”

“A big animal that eats grass and makes milk.”

“Is this another one of your stories?”

“Switzerland is known for its cows, Aussie. The head cow walks around with bells, so you hear bells from morning to night.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s the head honcho, see? She wears bells and the rest of the herd follows her.”

“I guess that’s better than having those maniac border collies around, but don’t even think of putting bells around me.”

“I stood on a path and looked down at this field where the cow was eating, and she looked up at me and I looked at her and she looked at me and I looked at her—”

“Would you get to the point!”

“Aussie, I knew I had to let Bernie go.”

“The cow said that?”

“The cow just looked at me. She was like you, just eating, just peeing, just pooping, just jingling those bells. There was nothing extra there, know what I mean?”

“No.”

“There were no stories there, Auss. I felt I could hear Bernie’s voice.”

“Really? What did he say?”

You need to let me go finally, is what he said, Aussie. Just let me go. You know, Auss, I can still spend time thinking about the two of us together, parsing things out: what worked, what worked less, what he wanted, what I wanted, all the different little dramas we had, the beautiful things, the sad losses, and standing there on that field I heard a voice telling me that it’s time to let all that go. Bernie now has a different journey from mine. He’s no longer mine for caring, for loving, for second-guessing, he’s no longer mine for anything. He’s his own energy now and he has to go wherever that energy leads him, and I must let him do that. He has his path and I have mine. Once the two converged, but no longer.”

“The cow said all that?”

“In a manner of speaking, Auss.”

“That’s some therapist! Does she take insurance?”

“So many of my stories are still centered on Bernie, but they’re fading little by little.”

“And that’s good?”

“With some stories it’s good, Aussie. With some stories, it’s good.”

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GOING HOME

It’s Tuesday morning in Bern, Switzerland. I plan to catch the 2:00 pm train from Bern to Zurich, then take the train one more stop to Zurich Flughafen. From there it’s upstairs to check in for a flight to Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.

What a pleasure to get to an airport on public transportation, quick and easy, unlike the trek later tonight from Boston home. I have my covid test results in hand—negative after being in close retreat with folks, most of whom were vaccinated but a few not but with negative test results before they came—and am ready to leave Switzerland.

To go home? It wasn’t clear. Yesterday early morning, the day after retreat ended, I heard my mother in Jerusalem was in terrible pain and going to Emergency. If not for the fact that I couldn’t get covid test results on time, I probably would have flown to Tel Aviv last night. Instead, I had to wait, and as of this morning things have stabilized, at least for a short while, and the negative test results will help me get back home rather than fly in an opposite direction.

But that’s a story for another day.

Franziska Schneider, who became a new Zen teacher on Sunday, and I had planned this retreat and final ceremony some 9 months ago, so I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was flying to Switzerland to do a ceremony recognizing her as the 84th generation of Zen Buddhist teachers, a lineage that began with Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago. This is usually preceded by retreat. Before that we had to spend a few days reviewing documents, discussing and studying, and I thought I was going to Switzerland for that, too. I gave myself lots of time to get organized—there were things to bring with me— and felt things were fine.

Alles in ordnung. All in order.

But sometime in early September I started feeling very low. From day to day my spirits sank deeper and deeper; the week before I even started to wonder about anti-depressants. In the last few days before leaving, I couldn’t cheer up at all. I would find the briefest temporary solace in activity, but most of the time felt as though I was walking on a cliff edge and any moment something terrible was going to happen. I felt no joy or gladness, there was the sense that very close by, just around the corner, was a black abyss waiting, just waiting for the inevitable fall.

The Sunday I left I was packing in the afternoon and straightened up to stretch my back. I grabbed one of those long plastic stretchers, held both ends with my hands, stretched it tightly around my back, and as both arms pulled up the stretcher snapped and ripped in two.

Twinges began right then and there, but the pain really kicked in on the plane. It felt like a pinched nerve and pain spread throughout the left half of my back, continuing for all the hours of the flight, then for my first two days in Switzerland. I wondered how I would be able to do sitting meditation once the retreat began.

And sometime in those days the thought flashed in my mind that almost 3 years ago I had also flown to Switzerland for a similar purpose. I’d come into Bern for a dharma transmission ceremony recognizing a new teacher. After that I was to go for 4 days of vacation with my friend in London before returning home. This time, too, I’d planned to take 5 days of vacation with my sister in the Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. Three years ago, the London portion of the trip was canceled when my friend got sick, and this year the Ticino part was canceled due to covid.

Almost 3 years ago I’d returned unexpectedly early back to Boston, arrived home late and exhausted, and 36 hours later my husband was dead.

Almost three years later I was back in Switzerland in a very similar situation, and dread had enveloped me all month like the blackening skies of a thunderstorm. What was going to happen this time? What shock? What loss?

By the time the retreat began on Thursday I was feeling better, the back restored. It was so wonderful to sit with a group in person again, feel the energy and camaraderie of being together, meeting people face-to-face, listening not just to them but also to the gorgeous sun greeting us each morning, and especially the cowbells that rang all day from cows and goats that were everywhere, including right under the very windows of our meditation space.

I walked the hills in the short breaks, the Swiss green hills I’ve seen so much over the years, looked at the fluffy, young, white goals scampering over them, a few rising on their hind legs to get at the leaves of the trees. Those same hills turned from sun to shadow and back to sun, and my eyes drank in the light emerald sea that is of a different shade of green from the one I know back home, which by now is darker.

I remembered how much Bernie and I had loved to come to Switzerland. You wouldn’t have thought it, two crazy Jewish Buddhists coming to a culture known for its strong structures and moral rectitude, and yet we had loved it here. Mostly we loved the people. There is ease here and riches, but some 20% of the population are refugees that have been given not just legal status but also homes and jobs, a chance to raise families safely once again. You begin to see the mix here, the young people traveling down to the Balkans and taking on peace work and projects, with girlfriends and boyfriends from vastly different cultures and countries. They have their very strong Swiss culture but are also porous, receiving, giving, and absorbing elements from around the world.

It was what both Bernie and I loved here. Strict Zen practitioners and peacemakers, but with so much joy and laughter, and damn good food!

All traces of pain disappeared, and with it the dread that seemed to dog my steps all September. The light breezes reminded me of the good times we had here, one of our rare vacations taken in Schonreid that is hiking distance to Gstaad (only Bernie never hiked). The talk, the plans, coming together with friends from England, Poland, and Germany right here, at the home of Barbara and Roland Wegmueller. I was in Barbara’s kitchen years ago when one of her sons came home and she told him that about a dozen Syrian refugees were coming to the house in 3 days and would stay however long, and he never batted an eye.

The mountains here embraced me like home. And not for the first time in my life I found myself struck silent by the intimacy of life and death, grief and joy, the thin line I traverse, one foot on one side, one foot on the other.

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STILL IN ST. GALLEN

A view of St. Gallen from my room

Wednesday afternoon in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Tomorrow our retreat begins, ending on Sunday with a ceremony recognizing and honoring a new Zen teacher. Later that same day, on to Bern with friends, and on Monday there will be time for discussions about the Zen Peacemaker Order with co-spiritual director Jorge Koho Mello, who’ll arrive from Zurich. Later the next day, Tuesday, a return flight to Boston. If I’m not super exhausted when I arrive, I’ll drive home that same night.

Still in the same room overlooking St. Gallen, its big cathedral to the south, heavy clouds crossing beneath blue skies, reminding me of my day-to-day life, blue skies crisscrossed by gray clouds sometimes frequently, sometimes rarely, sometimes not at all. From Lori back home I hear that Aussie, who stepped on something long and sharp last Saturday, is still limping a bit and will miss out on some walks.

In the Sunday ceremony, I will ask my new successor, Franziska, to vow not to let the Buddha seed be discontinued. Not to let the realization of awakening, and more precisely, of being awakened, fade or even come to an end. She vows to carry it on, and I vow to support her no matter what.

Traditionally, this ceremonial exchange of vows takes place very privately late at night, dating back many centuries to a time when Buddhism was persecuted and new teachers had to be recognized in secret. But in this case we will do it in broad daylight in front of some 30 witnesses. And why not? We need all the help we can get. Perhaps the ceremony will inspire more people to take on the vow of awakening to the oneness of life, the One Body, not to let gray clouds mar our view of blue, infinite skies.

It’s easy to get discouraged when we look at the world. Violence, refugees, pandemic, climate change, etc. And then I remember that in China over a millennium ago, in the 8th century An Lushan Rebellion, two-thirds of the population died due to war, drought, and starvation. Historians say that’s approximately one-sixth of what was then the total world population.

In response, a few Chan masters began to develop new skillful means for how to awaken to the essence. Enough of purification rites, enough of texts and study. A treasure hides in every single moment of life, regardless of whether you judge it good or bad, full of hate or full of love. Can we see that?

To discover and walk through that gate—that was the work, that was the practice.

We’ve been laboring hard these past days, Franziska and me, studying and reviewing documents, looking at names going back a couple of millennia, planning the retreat and ceremony. It didn’t help that I arrived with a pinched nerve that sent bursts of pain up the left side of my back for two days. But this morning I woke up, got up, walked gingerly, and felt it was almost gone.

These are the days when you realize how many shoulders you’re standing on, that you’re being carried not by your own strength and willpower but by the energy of multitudes. My great hope is that those participating in the retreat and ceremony will see that they, too, are being carried forward, that so much has been given and done for their sake and on their behalf, that a great tapestry of mutual care was born before there was such a thing as birth and our job is to sew one more stitch, or even one-half of a stitch, in that unimaginable, timeless field.

We can do it however we choose. Franziska chose to do this by teaching, but we can do this by taking care of the garden, taking care of children, doing a good job. I couldn’t be here in St. Gallen if my sister wasn’t in Jerusalem, taking care of my mother.

From my window I see two hospitals in the center of town, and every once in a while, day and night, a helicopter lands on top of one of them delivering people who need care. At the same time, a giant crane circles round and round, raising and lowering blocks of cement to cover a tunnel that crosses the city. So much attention, so much care wherever I look.

The blog will be silent till early next week.

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