EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS WITH ONESELF AT ANY TIME

Dear Bernie and Helen,

“I have just returned from meeting Yasutani Roshi. He is fine and in good health. On the contrary, I’ve caught a cold in last few days. In Japan very bad cold is spreading. I went to the doctor and got a shot. It will be okay very soon.

Thank you very much for your letter. I am very glad to realize that you are firmly enthusiastic about supporting and expanding the Center. I’ve received a few letters from Grant and John, each time they mention your help and I greatly appreciate it. My study is going along very smoothly, only the matter of time and plan, by the end of this year I may be able to finish without difficulty if I can come back early summer. We’ll talk about it when I return.

Regarding the Berkeley Group, I think it is good idea to sit together. When Koryu Roshi goes, we can take him and have one evening for zazen evening. One thing we should be careful is that since there is one group in Berkeley (SF Center), Peter’s group should not be appeared to be antagonistic toward SF Center Group. Don’t you think? Better avoid unnecessary frictions as much as possible. Take it easy and go steadily, slowly and yet firmly. Everything is always with oneself at any time.

Same thing would be said in looking for a land. When time comes, we can do it, accomplish it without difficulties.”

There’s nothing quite like the new green of an early New England spring. In Jerusalem, my brother told me, the green is already turning yellow; their spring barely lasts several weeks before the blasts of summer heat arrive. Not so here, where spring is green and fresh, full of optimism and glory. By August it will turn darker and heavier, laden with experience. Now, the leaves arrive full of hope and wild expectation.

And that’s how it was in those few fledgling dharma centers 50 years ago.

The past pulls on me. These 50 year-old letters pull on me. Maezumi Roshi casually mentions Koryu Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, two of the great Japanese Zen masters of the 20th century. I don’t have Bernie’s letters to him; I don’t need them. In every word I can read the sense of something important going on, the youthful joy of participating in history, the lure of the big adventure.

I wasn’t there in those early years of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, but I joined Greyston early enough to remember the excitement of developing socially-engaged Buddhism, the confidence and exuberance, wanting to give it your all because you think it’s so important and because you love it so much.

That’s the thing, you love the Dharma. Some of those early pioneers loved it more than they loved their families, far more than they loved their jobs and friends—most of the time they gave up their friends for their companions in the Buddhist sangha. See the excitement about looking for land in Santa Barbara for a new monastery—and that’s just a few years after the City Center was formed. But they have no doubts, they look to expand, get bigger, stretch out.

“Take it easy and go steadily,” Maezumi Roshi warns Bernie. Is he already wary of Bernie’s pushy energy?

But I remember what Bernie told me once or twice about his teacher: People think that I was the ambitious one, the one who pushed ZCLA to buy properties on the block even when others objected, the one who went to New York and built Greyston and businesses and bought more property for an AIDS center, then founded Zen Peacemakers. But let me tell you, I had lots of quiet talks with Maezumi Roshi when there was no one else around, just him and me, and his ambitions for the dharma were far greater than mine. They would be amazed if they heard what I heard about what he wanted to come out of ZCLA.

They loved the dharma, they loved Buddhism, they loved Zen; there was nothing they wouldn’t do to help it take root and flower. In fact, they were in love with it like a young couple is in love, oblivious to what the grownups said, to reminders to look around them and not take so many risks. To warnings about how life turns out. I was one of them; I was in love, too.

And in fact, life did turn out. Spring became summer became autumn like it always does, the sun rose and fell. And after enough hard years and deaths you look at that exciting past and wonder if it was all a dream, and whether it was really all that important.

It’s easy to criticize looking back. Easy to criticize how they neglected their families, ignored boundaries, dismissed constraints. They did all that—and we owe them. They didn’t do this for money; nobody made millions and accumulated a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes. Many lived and continue to live simply and humbly. They basically felt that a good star brought them into an unforgettable encounter with the dharma and they had no choice but to follow that star till the end.

A verse is chanted in Zen meditation halls before a teacher gives a talk:

The dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle,

Is rarely encountered even in millions of ages.

Now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it.

May we completely realize the Tathagata’s true meaning.

In my training we chanted this over many years. Finally, when I began to teach, Bernie joined us one evening and heard everyone chant this same verse that he had learned from his teacher. When we finished he turned to me and said: “That’s wrong. It’s not true that the Dharma is rarely encountered even in millions of ages. The Dharma is always encountered, but rarely perceived.”

Right then and there we changed the verse, and have chanted it this way since that evening. The Dharma is always encountered but rarely perceived.

They perceived it. We have benefited. The only way to repay that gift is carry it forward.

 

AT THE DENTIST

May 4, Saturday, will mark 6 months since Bernie died.

This morning I’m in the chair of the dental assistant getting a deep cleaning (as opposed to a regular cleaning) of my teeth. When they do that they scrape down deep, even going into the gums, but I don’t mind. “Just numb me up,” I told Erica. “You can do anything to me as long as you numb me up.”

Erica, sublimely cheerful and chatty, not only discharges this duty conscientiously, but also alerts me to every single thing she’s going to do. “I am now picking up the water jet,” she informs me. Or: “Right now, Eve, I’m sitting behind you looking at your latest x-rays and chart.” I expect her shortly to give me a blow-by-blow update on her breathing.

But Erica and I see eye-to-eye. I don’t want to be surprised by a sudden jab of pain or the sight of a long, evil injection needle hovering over my captive, gums. I want to be forewarned about everything, and I want to be numb.

Last week she did a deep cleaning of the right side of my mouth, scraping at what felt like boulders of plaque, shooting the sharp water jet along both sides of side teeth while remembering not to use it on the more sensitive front teeth. I would trust Erica with my life.

I sat there last week thinking of Bernie’s teeth. They were so rotten that they fell out one after another. He had them all pulled after the stroke, but before that he used to do numerous deep cleanings because the gums and teeth were so infected.

“Another deep cleaning?” I’d say.

He made a joke of it. “They’re so bad they can only work on a couple of teeth at a time,” he said.

Today everything is proceeding hunky-dory. “There’s a deep pocket here, Eve, so you have to be extra conscientious here,” Erica says, jabbing at the very back of the left side of my mouth. I’m so numbed out I can barely tell if it’s up or down. I practically doze off to her high-pitched, reassuring dental patter:

Just a little build-up here.

The molars look good.

Here I am, by the implant.

And then the music filtered into the office changes. I know it before he even starts singing.

La note qui non torna più

dal giorno che sei andata via,

ed il cielo ha smesso di giocare

con le stele e con la luna,

Here the night hasn’t come back

since the day you went away,

and the sky has stopped playing

with the stars and the moon.

Not this, no, not this.

Two years ago I’d suddenly sat up from the same chair at the sound of arias. “What is this?” I’d asked Erica, and she cheerfully informed me that the disk belonged to the dentist. When he came in he wrote me the name: Ti Adoro, Luciano Pavarotti.

I bought the CD and one evening, as Bernie lay in his bed, we both listened to it from beginning to end. He had always liked opera, me not so much, but these arias were different. They were all about love.

He lay there listening, holding my hand. At some point I stretched beside him and he tried to stroke my hair with his good hand.

“Should I turn it off?” I asked him. “You could hear the rest tomorrow.”

“No, leave it,” he said.

We didn’t talk at all the rest of the time. I’d downloaded it onto his tablet, but I never heard him listening to it again. By then his once-acute mathematical mind had a hard time finding things on his tablet other than emails and news. He’d see Game of Thrones, only he’d see each episode three times in order to make sense of it.

Love is loss, but loss is also love. It’s not just absence, it’s also remembrance, it’s also recognition that there was something, that you had something.

So I sat on the dentist’s chair thinking of that evening while Erica sang her own aria, giving me full warning on everything that was about to happen:

OK, I’m going into this pocket now, I’ll be more careful;

Now the upper teeth;

Here is the water jet.

Now the hand instruments.

Got a few more small pieces there.

Got a big piece there.

Luciano, meantime, is singing his heart out:

Tutto è successo già e succederà,

Di un apparente vita senza nobilta,

Gli eventi mutano, mutiamo noi

Everything has already happened, and will happen again,

In a life without apparent virtue,

circumstances change, we change.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

DON’T POOP UNDER THE LAUNDRY LINES

“Please don’t poop under the laundry lines.”

Of course, that’s exactly where the dogs wish to poop. With so many interesting smells around, why shouldn’t they add theirs?

Bernie loved to clean up dog poop in the yard. I wish I had a photo of him doing that. There are thousands of photos of Bernie, yet there isn’t a day when I don’t think of some episode or other and say to myself, I wish I had a photo of that. The photographer Peter Cunningham followed Bernie over decades in different realms of his life—street retreats, Greyston Bakery, Auschwitz, family occasions, searching for traces of his family in pre-Holocaust—and death (Bernie’s body lying inside the oven of the crematorium seconds before I pushed the button, and before that family members writing him messages on the cardboard casket in which he lay).

But did he get that all-important photo of Bernie cleaning up dog poop? No, he did not.

So let me do this with words. Imagine the man in his daily robes: blue jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, suspenders, and sneakers, with his iPhone, cigar, and a pen in his breast pocket. A voice calls from upstairs: “Bernie, don’t forget the dog poop!”

“Oh what a good idea!” says he.

“Scooper is in the garage.”

Who else but Bernie dresses for collecting dog poop? He searches in the closet for his red beret and the proper outdoors vest. Then he opens up a cigar, trims the edge, and plops it into his mouth as he gets the scooper.

Outside, he takes a few extravagant puffs, watching the smoke go up to heaven, and makes his way to the laundry lines, home base. He’ll always find something under the laundry lines. After that it’s a slow circle to the northwest, checking the perimeter, around the chair on which he likes to sit during the summer, under the forsythia, around the Kwan-Yin who smiles at all the gifts the dogs have laid down for her, then further down to the shed, and back again.

He collects a few piles, then pauses, leans against the blue scooper, and contemplates the air. It’s dangerous to send Bernie to collect dog poop because his brain gets busy hatching new devices and plans. Once, long before we were a couple, we both sat at an airport waiting for a flight. “What are you thinking, Roshi?” I asked him after he hadn’t talked for a while.

“I’m thinking about the AIDS center,” he said, “and about the application for funding that we sent in to HHS. I like to follow each scenario in my head. Scenario A, we get the funding. If we get the funding, 3 sub-scenarios about how to use the money. Each of those have different scenarios, too, so I like to follow that in my head. I think I can do that till about the 8th sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub scenarios. Then there’s Scenario B, if we don’t get the funding. That too has sub-scenarios: we stop the work completely, we just do the building, we limit the number of people we take to start with, we cut down on something else in order to keep this going. Each of those has sub-scenarios, too, and each of those sub-scenarios has sub-sub scenarios, and I like to see how many I can keep track of in my head.”

I never asked again.

Cleaning dog poop is the best place for him to do his endless cogitations, and I think of him standing in the middle of the yard, leaning against the scooper, forgetting what it is he’s supposed to be doing, puffing on his cigar, watching the smoke disappear into the air like so many of his ideas and plans.

Did it bother him that they disappeared like that? I don’t think so.

“No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

You could find the no-trace in the piles of dog poop I’d find after he came home, leaving a stump of unfinished cigar at the bottom of the garage stairs, taking off his red beret and vest.

“There’s still poop out there,” I’d point out.

“You have to leave something for next time,” he’d tell me.

REKINDLING THE ROMANCE

I opened up the blog after a week’s break and got an earful.

“You don’t call, you don’t write, not even a postcard!”

“Hey, Blog, I didn’t know you could talk.”

“You thought I was an extension of you? I have my own causes and conditions, my own life, just like you, only we’re somewhat intertwined. So what happened, Eve? The only time we haven’t danced for a full week was when Bernie died.”

“I needed a break, Blog.”

“From me? Is this what you call a committed relationship?”

“First there was the quarterly retreat here, and then I went down to New York to see my niece’s graduation and spend time with a good friend.”

“What about the long train rides? Couldn’t you find some time then to open me up, rekindle our old romance, and work together for the benefit of all beings?”

“For the benefit of all beings? Who do you think you are, Blog?”

“An expression of a life on a particular day, at a particular moment. Nothing less, nothing more”

“And that makes you hot shit? You know how many lives there are on this planet? How many days, how many moments? You know how many blogs there are, podcasts, and videos? You’re barely a blip on the screen, Blog.”

“That’s not true, I’m hot shit.”

“If you lost your voice, Blog, nobody would notice.”

“Does a bird lose its voice? Does the wind? Does the ant?”

“I don’t think ants have voices, Blog.”

“I bet you they do, only you don’t hear them. You want to know what your problem is?”

“Not really.”

“You don’t think you have anything to blog about. You don’t think your life’s interesting enough.”

“Nonsense.”

“You think: Here I am, somewhere in the woods of New England, a widow—“

“I hate that word, Blog. I feel ancient when someone uses it, as if my life is over.”

“Now that’s something to blog about. Two dogs, a house that feels too big, a Zen teacher—“

“I never felt like much of a teacher alongside Bernie, Blog.”

“That’s something else to blog about. Solitude that becomes loneliness, becoming solitude becoming loneliness ad infinitum—“

“I don’t want to write about that.”

“Wrong. That, too, is something to blog about. And one more thing.”

“What, Blog?”

“Love.”

“You want me to write about love, Blog? You mean, love for my husband?”

“For anybody.”

“Like family?”

“Like, wouldn’t you like to fall in love again?”

“I lost my husband less than six months ago, Blog.”

“Love always goes with loss, but loss also goes with love. You think that’s all done and finished with?”

“I don’t know, Blog.”

“Don’t you want to find out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Blog about it. That’s how you discover who you are. Sit in front of the empty screen, ask Who am I right now? and out will come the entire kit-and-caboodle.”

“You know, Blog, y dog Stanley used to talk about the entire kit-and-caboodle.”

“Good old Stanley. Lots of laughs, that one. Blog about love. Blog about how you miss it, how you still want it.”

“I’m closing you down, Blog.”

“Close me down all you want, but I’ll keep on coming back and reminding you. You can’t run forever.”

IF WE HAVE THE TRUE MEN . . .

Like so many others, I saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning. I’d been there a number of times, always followed by a stop at George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop. I admired its architecture and size, and always I would look up in search of its famous inhabitant, the Hunchback.

But I can’t say I was moved to tears like so many other people. I looked at the pictures of the burning cathedral and whispered: It’s the people, don’t forget. It’s the people.

Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage. Jews were usually not permitted to build synagogues during the time they were in the Diaspora, certainly not big ones, and they got accustomed to creating more modest dwellings for God. We grew up knowing that if the big temple was gone from Jerusalem, angels still visited every home on the Sabbath Eve on Friday night, and that God dwelt in tiny shtiebel-like shuls as well as the larger synagogues. They couldn’t combine art, architecture, engineering, glassmaking, frescos, sculpture, tapestries, etc. to make anything like a big cathedral. They had to lie low, be humble.

I’ve sat in Notre Dame and in its cousin, Chartres, as well as the Cathedral in Cologne and St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, and admired the big elephants coming down the nave of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan on St. Francis Day. What I most remember were small lunch breaks spent sitting in the back of Trinity Church at the top of Wall Street and walking on the paths of the adjoining cemetery.

When I read of all the hundreds of millions of dollars promised to rebuild Notre Dame, what came up for me was: What about the people?

Early this morning I returned to the basement to search for the elusive title to Bernie’s car. I had already gone through many boxes, but they feel like sand in the Sahara, there’s always more. In one box I opened a folder marked Personal and out tumbled aerogrammes. Aerogrammes, for you younger citizens of the world, are letters written on thin blue paper that went by air, getting to the reader within some 10 days, a big deal in the age before emails and Facebook Messages.

Several came from H. Maezumi and they started: Dear Bernie. I did a double-take; Maezumi Roshi, one of the Zen pioneers who brought Zen from Japan to the United States, never addressed his student by the name Bernie. That’s when I realized how old these letters were, they were written before Bernie’s ordination in 1970, when he became Tetsugen. And in fact, in one of the letters Maezumi Roshi wrote that he is getting the tokudo (priest ordination) papers ready for the ceremony.

In that very letter Maezumi Roshi discussed at great length Bernie’s search for “a New Center,” which I believe referred to Bernie’s search for a retreat center site in Santa Barbara. Responding to Bernie’s letter to him in which he described all these efforts, Maezumi Roshi talked about the road that needed to be added, blueprints for the buildings, rooms for staff, bringing a special architect from Japan, the correct time to fundraise in Japan, etc. But at the end of the letter he writes the following:

“HOWEVER, PLEASE DO NOT FORGET [caps are his] that my major concern is to have the handful, even less, truly awakened dharma successers [sic] in the United States before I leave this world. In order to do so, if it is necessary, I do not mind to sacrifice even a new center. Do you know what I mean? We should make future plans along with this very fundamental and important requirement. If we have the true men, necessary things will follow them. Big harvest will come in hand if the seeds are carefully taken care of for necessary time to ripe. It is a very simple fact.”

The blog is on retreat till early next week.

DIALOGUE WITH DOGS

“Do you ever notice, Aussie, how things emerge from the darndest places”?

“No.”

“For instance, sometimes I feel deep loneliness and longing, and you’d think that would feel terrible, right? And it does, only I also notice that if I stay with it long enough something else takes form that actually feels good. You understand?”

“No.”

“It’s like you, Aussie. You lie by my desk, get restless and bored, so you go out into the yard and there are these interesting new smells and you start digging after moles and you see our first purple and yellow crocuses which are good to pee on, and little by little you discover new possibilities in the spring that’s finally arrived, your first spring in New England. The point is, unmet needs aren’t just some black abyss into which we fall and see only surrounding blackness and a light that is far away and out of reach, quite the opposite. From our deepest needs and unfulfilled desires something new comes up, new and more life. You get what I mean, Auss?”

“No.”

“It reminds me of Israel. It always annoyed me when people said that the founding of the modern state of Israel was the silver lining of the Holocaust, that in fact it was a miracle from God. What kind of God, I asked, would require the death of 6 million people as payoff? But you can’t deny that new life comes out of terrible loss. See what I mean?”

“No.”

“Of course, that caused all kinds of suffering for the Palestinian people, a whole chain of events that has spread everywhere and continues to this very day. But new forms of life—whether we label them as good or bad—emerge out of everything, Aussie, see?”

“No.”

“I know we’re at an age of massive extinction of species, but from what I see, Auss, life keeps on multiplying and recreating itself into newer and newer forms and greater and greater complexity all the time, even now. There’s no way we humans, or you dogs for that matter, could ever catch up. We’re not wired to understand or even perceive it. See what I mean, Aussie?”

“No.”

“I’m remembering Bernie, Auss. He wasn’t much into speculation. I would describe all these thoughts to him, he would get this funny look in his eyes and say, That’s nice, or, That’s an opinion. And I’d say back: That’s all you have to say, Bernie? And he would say: Yup. And I would say, You’re not listening to me. And he would say Of course I’m listening to you, and then we’d both laugh. You get it, Aussie?”

“No.”

“That laugh was the main thing. We thought differently, we talked differently, sometimes it felt like a lost cause, but there was that laugh in the end that somehow made everything okay and brought us to a different place. Bernie admired Dogen, the Zen master, but the words he quoted most often were: Beyond these, there are further implications. Everything has further implications. Understand?”

“No.”

“That’s okay, Aussie, you’re not a lost cause. Nothing is a lost cause. Everything has further implications. Get it, Auss?”

“No.”

 

MEMORIAL MORNING

Photo by Peter Cunningham of Greyston Bakery staff; Howard stands at right

When I woke up this morning I knew right away that it was the memorial day for Howard, a member and resident at the Zen Community of New York for many years. 24 years have passed since he was killed that spring afternoon in the apartment he shared with a housemate and, sporadically, with me.

I stayed in the apartment 2 nights a week while doing work for the Greyston Foundation in Yonkers, and that day I returned to my home near Woodstock at 11 at night only to find a message from the Yonkers Police Department: Please call right away.

Oh no, I thought, did someone complain about Woody (my dog)? Did I forget to clean up after him? Did I park my car in an illegal spot? You search in all the familiar routines of your life to discover what went wrong, but it’s nothing like that at all. A man from the neighborhood had knocked on the door and asked Howard for money. Howard, usually generous to a fault, said he couldn’t give him anymore, and the man killed him.

Howard was Chinese. If he’d been Jewish we’d have called him the Golden Boy, the one who succeeds in school, has lots of friends, knows just what he wants to do with his life and gets into the best colleges, the one who is going to make the family proud and prosperous. I knew lots of Jewish immigrant families with a son on whom their fondest hopes and plans rested.

There was only one problem: Howard was gay. No one knew in the family. All they knew, it turned out much, much later, is that he broke off all ties with them and they had no idea where he went or what happened to him. Howard meandered back and forth around New York and finally found his way to the Zen Community.

He was not a Buddhist, he told everyone, he was a Confucian, and to prove it he wrote a book describing the positive values of Confucianism, especially family ties and obligations.

“So Howard,” I said to him while sitting in the kitchen we shared one day, “If you think so highly of family, how come you’re not in touch with your own?”

He turned from the sink where he was washing dishes, his usually kind, friendly eyes filled with rage. “You stupid woman! You think any Chinese family wants to know that their son is a faggot?” That last word he shouted out with loathing, then walked out of the room and didn’t talk to me for a week.

This morning I thought of him, and the many sons and daughters who left their families for the same reason. Howard was lucky enough to find another family, a community of meditators. With them he moved to southwest Yonkers to do economic and social development work and stayed long after most of us had moved on. It was that family that cremated and mourned him, and that planted a tree in his name.

After he died, a tech wizard tracked down Howard’s family and a brother came down for the memorial. Years after that, a niece created a film about a man she never met out of old photos and interviews with many of us; the film was shown in film festivals. Times and generations had changed, and the family reclaimed its faggot son.

This morning I lit incense for Howard and then looked out the window. It was April, but the sky was gray. “Live with others in the spirit of spring,” Howard used to say, quoting a Confucian scholar, “live with yourself in the spirit of autumn.”

 

IF YOU CAN’T STAND TO READ ABOUT POOP

If you can’t stand to read about poop, don’t read this post.

I arrived home from Switzerland on Monday night. On Tuesday early afternoon I took Aussie and Harry out into the woods. It was their first unleashed run since I’d gone and my chance to feel the New England (still) frozen earth under my feet. We had various adventures and came home.

I didn’t notice anything amiss till I called them to eat and Harry didn’t show up. Instead he lay on the sofa, clearly in pain. When Harry doesn’t rush to the kitchen as the sound of food rolling into his food bowl things are serious. I wondered whether I would make it to the zendo in the evening and just then Aussie, standing nearby, tottered and fell on the ground. She got up quickly enough, but her legs shook.

I never made it to the zendo last night. Instead, I made it to the hospital with two very sick dogs and was told they both exhibited classic signs of severe marijuana poisoning.

“How is that possible?” I asked the vet. “I took them right into the deep woods. We didn’t pass neighbors, compost, or anything like that.”

“People leave things in the woods,” she said.

She let me take Harry home—he could at least careen his way to the car—but recommended I leave Aussie in the hospital. “Try to check on Harry every hour,” she instructed. “Wake him up, make sure he’s conscious.”

She needn’t have worried. Harry was up every 20-30 minutes all night last night, running around the house, crashing into lamps, tables, and chairs, back legs crumbling under him, body collapsing left and right while I chased him with a leash, trying to stop him from hurting himself. He seemed afraid of me, afraid of the house. He rushed into cluttered corners and brought down side tables and books, belly strangely distended.

“Don’t let him go up or down stairs,” the vet said.

But Harry rushed upstairs into the bedroom and jumped on my bed. I hoped he’d rest there so I followed and lay next to him, exhausted. He clambered further down and lay on top of my legs, keeping me captive under his 41 pounds of scrappy muscle.

I shut my eyes, enjoying a few moments’ quiet; I felt enclosed by affection. He’s farting, I thought to myself. I bent to look down from my pillow and saw the dark puddle a foot away from me. Harry had left a pool of diarrhea on top of the quilt under which I lay.

I lay there quietly, not moving a muscle so as not to disturb the dog. This is love, I thought to myself. A red brindle dog, confused, anxious, in pain, stretched tightly over my body in search of relief, and next to him a puddle of shit.

Sometimes we are loved but don’t feel loved. The kisses, the words, the murmurs of endearment are not there. Even the dog that always rested his body against mine now runs away because of illness. But illness is also love. It confuses things, makes a mess, has a bad smell, and it’s love.

Soon, I knew, I’ll squirm and get out from under Harry because his weight is too much for me, and he will jump off in alarm and continue banging into things and bringing them down. I will follow him with a leash, say soothing words. And when he finally rests again I’ll go back up, collect the blanket, the cover, the sheet, the pillowcases, and even my bathrobe and put them into the washing machine. Later I will find poop everywhere, including in the lining of the duvet cover (how did it all get inside, I’ll wonder, and how does a little dog like Harry produce so much of it).

I’ll call the hospital, check on Aussie, maybe bring Harry in in the morning for a further check-up. Mop the wooden floors upstairs and down because Harry dribbled piss all over.

A night of shit, is what it is. A night and day of shit, illness, and confusion. So you clean up, try to feed him by hand, catch yourself before shouting at him because he careens into the water bowl and splashes water on the floor you just mopped. Someone is iIl, and you take care. Doesn’t feel like the real thing, but it is the real thing. At the same time, nothing to write home about.

SWISS CHOCOLATE

Photo by Leeann Warner

“Miss me already?”

“OMG, Stanley, what are you doing in Dublin Airport?”

“I have become more mobile since I died. I smelled a grilled cheese/tomato sandwich and tracked you down here. Why are you eating grilled cheese in an airport?”

“Because I’m on my way back from Switzerland where I taught this last week and I’m hungry. Oh Stan, you always did love food. When you were alive, I mean.”

“I still love food. Trouble is, I can’t eat any since I lost my body. Can’t steal it, either, so you don’t have to hide the Swiss chocolate anymore like you used to.”

“You ate so much Swiss chocolate, Stanley!”

“People said it would kill me. Instead I lived till I was almost 15. Probably would have lived longer if I ate more chocolate.”

“Speaking of stealing food, Stanley, you have a worthy successor in Harry the Cur. Harry can jump onto the counter and the stove for beef stew. Even you couldn’t jump that high.”

“I was never stupid enough to jump onto a hot stove. I was silly in those younger years, but never crazy.”

“I miss you, Stanley.”

“Good for you.”

“Everybody says I should be living my life. Instead I miss those who’re gone.”

“Attachments! Don’t you love them?”

“Weird things happen when people and animals die, Stanley. Their voice seems to get louder rather than softer. In fact, they get so loud that sometimes I can’t hear the voices of the living, know what I mean?”

“No.”

“Your voice is so much louder than the voices of Aussie the Bandit and Harry the Cur. They’re alive, but they still don’t have much personality. The land of the living is kind of mute compared to the land of the dead.”

“They’re young, give them time. How strong was my personality when you got me?”

“At first, none. Later you became the most stubborn, ornery, willful dog I ever had.”

“That was moi!”

“You had opinions about everything, Stanley.”

“It’s true, I was a real Zen master. Don’t forget, the Man gave me transmission.”

“The only thing the Man ever gave you was food.”

“Transmission comes in many ways. Speaking of the Man, is his voice as loud as mine?”

“It’s everywhere, Stanley. He seems to be talking right through me, especially when I’m teaching. Someone asks something or something happens, and the thought flashes in my mind: I know just what Bernie would say now. And then I laugh.”

“Why? Because he was funny?”

“No, because there’s something magical about it, Stan. It’s like he’s right there in the retreat house in Sternenberg telling people what he thinks.”

“The Man was just like me, opinions about everything. Sometimes it felt like I was giving him transmission, know what I mean?”

“Not really.”

“Who else talks through you?”

“Nobody, Stan.”

“How about moi?”

“Toi? Why should toi speak through me?”

“Because I am also a Zen master. I came out with some real beauties.”

“Like what?”

“Like Your steak is my steak because we’re all one.’”

“We ate vegetarian meals in Sternenberg, Stanley.”

“Too bad. That was one of my more skillful teachings. Did a dog lick your plates?”

“I don’t know if they let dogs to do that in Switzerland, Stanley.”

“Don’t ever go back there again. Do I smell Swiss chocolate in your bag? My favorite chocolate in the whole world! That’s the problem with dying.”

“What’s the problem, Stanley?”

“You can go everywhere, but you can’t do much. Maybe I could taste some through Harry. After all, if Bernie could speak through you, why can’t I taste Swiss chocolate through Harry the Cur?”

“No way Harry is stealing my Swiss chocolate, Stan. Everyone knows chocolate is poison for dogs.”

“True, he is a little young, but I’ll whisper in his ear. Instruct him in my old chocolate-stealing strategies.”

“You’ll do no such thing, you dead coot!”

“Just watch. I’ll make Harry wise beyond his years.”

 

WHAT’S A ROMANTIC DOING IN ZEN?

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I quoted Lao-Tzu the other day: “Eyes unclouded by longing.“ Words sent me by a friend.

To get to a point of no longing smack in the middle of birth and death, where he is right now, is quite something, perhaps finally essential. I did a lot of that practice after Bernie became ill. There was so much to accept, so much to make peace with,. Four months before he died, in early summer, I felt that I had reached the place my friend refers to as articulated by Lao-Tzu, and by other masters as well. I had eyes unclouded by longing.

But here I am in Switzerland to lead retreat with one of my students, and someone pointed out that it’s my first time in Europe after Bernie died. We always loved coming to Switzerland, to warm and welcoming friends, teachers, and students. To a challenge posed by two Zen teachers who taught together: Work more in partnership together, they urged us. The world needs to see more partnerships between men and women. We had trouble with that because ours was both a vertical and horizontal relationship, unlike theirs. Some things came into fruition, some did not; that, too, is what you work with at the end of a marriage’s lifetime.

Has longing disappeared? Have I reached the point of being at peace with things as they are?

The photographer Peter Cunningham took the photo above some 23 years ago, when we were back in Yonkers. There must have been a work meeting and it must have been summer because I’m sitting outside with Woody, my Golden Retriever, by my side, and I’m gazing at something. Where? Who knows? Probably at some panorama of endless possibilities visible only to me. I was such a romantic at heart. Not romantic only in love (Bernie and I were not a couple at the time), but romantic in the sense of Goethe and Wordsworth (in fact my dog was called Wordsworth, Woody for short).

My father loved the photo so I gave it to him. A few years after he died in 2015, his widow moved to a new home and a new life, so I took the photo back. And now, as I was doing my own post-death clean-up, I found it again and wondered what to do with it.

Should I trash the photo? Is there room for a romantic in Zen practice?

The face is younger, of course, and also filled with hope, longing, yearning, curiosity. There’s a road still ahead of that woman, she’s sure of it. She’s such a romantic.

What’s a woman like that doing leading a Zen retreat in Switzerland? Aren’t we told again and again to close the circle between life as it is and life as we’d like it to be? But there she goes, looking beyond the hedge to what lies outside, wondering, always wondering about the possibilities.

When I was a child I was a dreamer. I didn’t like people because I was afraid of them, afraid of social situations where I was such a dork (I was a dork before the word was invented). So I went into my dreams. I could sit in a car full of people and be gone, having terrific conversations inside about the meaning of life while they talked about the weather and the next Jewish holiday coming up. My mother often turned around, saw me, and got angry: Stop dreaming! Don’t be so anti-social.

The woman in 1996 was still dreaming. And the woman now? A lot less, but her eyes are still clouded by longing, a perpetual reaching out even with no grasp in sight. She could never be a pragmatist like her husband was, his feet securely on the ground even as the rest of him went flying. But when his life filled up with uncertainty, when he could no longer do what he used to do, his eyes, too, became more tender and ethereal.

When your legs can’t hold you up anymore you give up even the last, tiniest pretense of solidity and accept the fact that all you are is stardust. There’s a weeping beauty in that realization, and the deepest love imaginable.

The blog will be silent till early next week.