MEETING THEM WHERE THEY ARE

Inagi!”

Myotaka!”

Get up!

Sit down!

Manny Ironhawk is teaching the kids at Lavelle Prep a few words in Lakota. He and his wife, Renee, are in Staten Island, guests of Integration Charter Schools and their founder, Ken Byalin. Some 200 children, most from low-income families and many at-risk, listen to Manny and Renee as they describe the culture they are seeking to save by teaching the Lakota language in their immersion LOWI school in Eagle Butte, Cheyenne River Reservation.

What an odd collaboration! Charter schools in Staten Island, New York, one-third of whose students have special needs, reaching out to a Native American school halfway around the country.

But I’m not starting at the beginning.

At the beginning was Ken Byalin, offered the option of early retirement by New York City after a long career in leading mental health service centers. Ken and his family hosted me at their home overnight, and he reminded me that in early 2000 he flew out to California, where Bernie and I lived at the time, to talk to Bernie about this turn of events.

Over his years of work, Ken had noticed that young people with mental and emotional diagnoses, coming from harsh home environments, often lacking at least one parent, were rarely given much of a chance for any kind of education in regular schools. They were usually siphoned away from college, not even finishing high school. Unable to join any kind of economic mainstream, their life seemed to be over before they grew into adulthood.

Slowly and intently, assembling a dedicated team of educators who believed in a vision of giving children with special needs care and dedication, this quiet, almost diffident man founded Integration Charter Schools, integrating those children with others, primarily from low-income and immigrant families, and giving them the attention and skills they needed to graduate high school and go to college.

Ten years ago, he and his team opened Lavelle Prep Charter School, followed later by New Venture Charter School and then Nicotra Charter School. Admission is by lottery; anyone can get in. High school graduation rates are 100% and college admission rates are well over 90%.

We went into elementary school class rooms which have a maximum of 17 pupils per class, two teachers per class and 1-2 more aides. Some children have an aide sitting with them the entire class, giving them special help with arithmetic and reading. When children are too stressed and acting out, they go to small rooms for breaks with an aide to play with special toys and games for de-stressing and colorful exhortations to change your words, change your mindset.

“We meet them where they are,” one teacher said to me as we walked the hallways. They don’t yet have fancy sports facilities, but they have art, music, and movement rooms. And a big assembly room where they listened to Lakota elders describe their way of life.

“We only have one mother earth to take care of,” Manny Ironhawk told the kids. “If we don’t take care of mother earth, there will be no mother earth to take care of us.”

There were questions:

How do you like to be called, Indians or Native Americans? “Native Americans, but my tribe is Lakota.”

Why do you have long hair? “In our culture we never cut our hair except when people we love die. “

Is Washington Redskins offensive? “Yes, it is. Our tribal leader talked to the owner of the Redskins but the owner wouldn’t listen to him.”

What problems are on your reservation? “Abuse of alcohol and drugs. We have no jobs. There is 90% unemployment on the reservation.”

What is your religion? “My religion is to be spiritual every day. I pray every morning. It’s the same to me as going to church. I pray for my relatives and for everything that exists.”

What is your culture’s food? “Natural berries that we make into a pudding: chokeberries, plums, a wild turnip which we save for winter-time and that we use in all kinds of soups. Our main diet was buffalo, but that was many years ago.”

Nineteen years have passed since Ken came out to California to talk with Bernie about his next steps after retirement. Bernie’s dead, and almost 1,000 students are studying at Integration Charter Schools. Zen Peacemakers has done five annual retreats with the Lakota, and inspired by the LOWI School’s mission to save a language and a culture, it flew Manny and Renee Ironhawk to New York to meet Ken and his deeply dedicated team of educators.

Ken used to come all the way up here to visit us, especially after Bernie’s stroke. “I couldn’t have done this without you, Bernie,” he would tell the sick man again and again.

“We do our work in the cracks of society,” Bernie always said. He never got to visit Integration Charter Schools. We were a large group yesterday, but I noticed there was always an empty seat somewhere for an invisible witness.

STILL WANT TO RUN AWAY

“This is not fair, Boss.”

“What’s not fair, Aussie?”

“You sealed up the fence completely. I’ve been sniffing high and low, digging tunnels, pushing the gate every which way I can, and I can’t get out. And it’s all Harry’s fault.”

“Why, Auss?”

“Before you weren’t crazy about how I managed to get out, but it didn’t seem to worry you too much.”

“That’s very observant, Aussie. You generally avoided the road, which gets very little traffic anyway, and you also tended to stay away from people. You seemed to stay in calling distance, too. You didn’t run far, and when I’d open the front door and call you to come, you came.”

“But Harry destroyed the status quo!”

“Exactly, Aussie. As long as Harry didn’t break out with you, things were fine. But the day I went to Boston Tim found both of you outside the front of the house. The next day I watched as Harry heard a construction truck, and before I knew it he sidled under the gate and rushed up the driveway to the road. That’s when I knew things had to change.”

“But I never rushed up that driveway after trucks or horses or even other dogs, Boss. I broke the rules but I was never a maniac like Harry.”

“That’s true, Aussie.”

“So why am I being punished because of something he did? It’s not fair!”

“Auss, we’re one family, one pack. What one of us does affects all.”

“Spare me your spiritual answers, Boss.”

“Beside, I’m the one who’s in trouble now.”

“What trouble’s that?”

“My friend Jon Katz with the great blog—“

“Not the dog maven!—“

“—told me that you dogs reflect us. You see, Aussie, we raise you to be a projection of ourselves, or of whom we want to be, and you guys become that because you adjust so well to our expectations.”

“Oh phooey, what does he know about being a dog?”

“I realized there’s a lot of truth in that, Auss. I love your independent spirit, loved the way you stubbornly went after that fence time and time again. I have to admit I even sneakily admire how you don’t listen to me in the woods and just run and run. You see, I think I want to run away, too, Aussie. I also want to break through fences.”

“What fence? I don’t see any fence around you, Boss. And anyway, now I can’t run through the fence anymore on account of that no-good, lame-brain, maniac.”

“Which leaves me in a quandary, Aussie.”

“Leaves me in the back yard.”

“If you’re no longer breaking through the fences or running away, then what does that say about me?”

“I give up, Boss. What?”

“You no longer embody my fantasy of escape.”

“Yes, I do. I’m the one who gets away.”

“Not anymore, Aussie. You embody staying home. You embody lying in the grass and taking in the sun. So what does that say about me?”

“I give up, Boss. What?”

“Maybe you and I are both learning to stay home more, be comfortable in our skins.”

“Oh yeah? So speaking of skin, Boss, if I’m shedding, does that mean you fantasize about shedding, too?”

“Maybe the reason I brush you so regularly is that I’m trying to shed some dead skin of my own, Aussie.”

“ And if I’m chewing on a bone half the day, does that mean that deep in your heart you want to chew on a bone too?”

“Maybe not on a bone, but I’d love to snack half the day, Aussie.”

“And if I tear up the house chasing Harry all day, is that what you secretly want to do, too?”

“I’d love to play more, Aussie.”

“And if I eat the horse turds that Gala and T leave up on the road, do you also want to—“

“I don’t have fantasies about horseshit, Aussie.”

“I didn’t think so. So much for that theory. Beside, Boss. I still want to run away, see? That’s gotta count for something!”

 

WHAT’S A TRUE NAME ANYWAY?

“Happy homecoming day to you, Happy homecoming day to you, happy homecoming day dear Aussie, happy homecoming day to you.”

“I hate it when you sing those stupid songs.”

“I only sing it once a year.”

“I also hate if when you say Aussie Mossie over and over again. Speaking of which, I hate the name Aussie. Could we change it please? I’d like to be called by my true name.”

“What’s that?”

“Something more dignified”.

“I can’t do that, Auss. Bernie gave you this name. One year ago he and I brought you home. You were a year old at the time, so now you’re two, Aussie, getting into adulthood. A role model for Harry.”

“A role model? Moi? Don’t even think it. I’m not taking on Harry’s education.”

“The point is, Auss, you’re here because Bernie wanted you. Our old dog Stanley—“

“The one who used to haunt me in the old days?”

“—died in August and I wasn’t up to bringing another dog in till spring, but Bernie wanted another dog. That was very unusual for him.”

“Why? Wanting dogs like me is the most natural thing in the world.”

“Not for Bernie, he wasn’t much of a dog lover, but that all changed after his stroke. He started loving the world more, his family, his students, Stanley—“

“You?”

“Even me. And when there was no more Stanley, he asked for another dog.”

“Would he have asked for another wife if there was no more Eve?”

“Every day at dinner he’d say: ‘When are we going to pick another dog?’ That was a small miracle by itself.”

“A small miracle, that’s my true name: Small Miracle.”

“So we went to the local shelter and there you were, fresh off the truck from Houston, Texas. You were a real sweetie then, Aussie, not like what you are now, headstrong, stubborn—“

“An escapee, don’t forget that. Another one of my true names: Escapee.”

“—always running through the fence. Your basic pain in the neck.”

“I’m a fugitive from justice, that’s what I am. That’s another good name for me: Fugitive. With all these terrific names to choose from, how come he called me Aussie?”

“We were told you were an Australian Cattledog—“

“Me an Australian Cattledog! Fools.”

“—so he named you Aussie even though it was clear you were no such thing.”

“You mean, I got a name based on something I wasn’t? Why would he do that?”

“It’s a Bernie kind of joke, Auss.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s not-gettable. Bernie’s best jokes were not-gettable.”

“Do you have to laugh if you don’t get it?”

“Aussie, you know what your name should be? Gap.”

“You mean, like the store?”

“Sometimes I sit there and get into my head. Think about the past, think about Bernie, think about the future, get into some silly memory, and suddenly you’re sidling into my knee or else you make that strange nasal long sound—neeeeee—“

“You mean neheheheheheheheheheheheheheheheheheheh—“

“That’s it, Auss. You’re the most voluble dog I’ve ever had. But when you make that long sound you take me out of myself. A gap appears, see? I stroke your fur, check out if you’re shedding—“

“I hate it when you brush me—“

“—play with your soft ears while you press into my leg like that. It’s like I’m back home in the moment, with you, with Harry, just where I want to be and nowhere else. You provide that gap, Auss. You bring me right back to myself.”

“But you never left!”

“True, but humans in some way do leave. I don’t think dogs do, but we go deep into our stories sometimes and find it hard to get out, till someone like you comes over and pushes against us, and reminds us.”

“I’m a real Bodhisattva, that’s what I am. Hey, you could call me—“

“No, Auss, I’m not changing your name. You’re keeping the name Bernie gave you.”

“A name for what I’m not. I’m also not brilliant or gorgeous, but did you call me Brilliant or Gorgeous?”

“Oh Auss, what’s a true name anyway?”

“There you go with one of your koans. ANYTHING BUT AUSSIE!”

SO HOW AM I DOING?

In the mid-1980s the Greyston Bakery sold pastries, brownies, and cookies in the Farmers Market that took place every Thursday in downtown Yonkers, in a large parking area adjacent to St. Mary’s Church. And who, among the world’s worst sales people, was delegated to set up the table attractively, stand there for hours, smiling and talking to potential customers? Moi.

There wasn’’t much choice in the matter, in those days you did what you were told. The very first Thursday morning I loaded up our white rickety van with table, table cloth, platters, napkins, and bakery goods, Bernie, then known as Sensei, appeared, said he’d go with me and help me unload. He drove me north the three miles into Yonkers.

At that time we were trying to sell the Greyston mansion, which had served as the Riverdale home to the Zen Community of New York for some 6 years, and move into Yonkers, only it was hard to find a buyer. It didn’t help that our wealthy neighbors “on the hill,” as they were called, planned to have a say in the matter as a way of protecting the wealthy enclave from undesirables. They vetoed an offer from a woman working with disabled children who wished to buy the place as a home and educational facility. And when Bernie said that in the meantime we’d bring homeless mothers and children into the big house till we sold the property and were able to build housing for them in Yonkers, our neighbor, an attorney, bought out our mortgage and threatened to call it in if we did any such thing.

So things were fairly glum that Thursday morning when we drove up to Yonkers. We needed to sell the building in order to discharge our many debts. Offers had come and gone; weeks began looking sunny and bright, as if the sale was going to go through and we’d be rid of the big house that cost so much to maintain, only to end in disappointment and frustration by weekend.

Bernie was behind the wheel when I looked at him from the passenger seat and said, “You know, Sensei, I like watching you.”

“What do you mean?” says he.

“I like watching as you go through all these setbacks and disappointments. I want to see how things affect you and how you react.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “So how am I doing?” he asked with a grin.

So how am I doing?

It’s what I want to know from you. Isn’t that what you want to know from me? Some of us want a lot of feedback from others, some less, but almost all of us want to be seen and minimally acknowledged by someone, even if we number among the world’s greatest introverts.

One of the biggest challenges Bernie and I had was how much we could lay aside our own needs and wants and plunge into the other’s life, the other’s dreams. Always the same question: Who is this person sitting beside me with whom I’ve gotten up morning after morning, eaten my meals with, joked around with, food-shopped with, walked the dogs with? What does she care about? What does he love? What prods at her heart again and again?

We don’t want to be ghosts, we don’t want to be the dog that lies on the futon waiting for a walk, food, and crumbs of attention. We want more than that.

Years ago my father told me that he was raised in Eastern Europe by his grandfather rabbi in almost complete silence. It was called the Method of Silence, a well-established approach to raising children that mandated silence between parent and child except for practicalities. He was accustomed to hearing his father say, “Get up,” “Open the book,” “Go to the synagogue,” and “Don’t play soccer with your friends.” Instructions like these were practically all he heard from his father.

Not just weren’t there words of tenderness or affection, nothing was ever expressed that gave the young boy a sense of being seen or acknowledged. That someone was bearing witness to him.

I have no idea if this method of raising children is still practiced in the world, but some infection must have entered my genes because I still hunger for that recognition that silently or in words says: It’s you! I see you now, and I see you deeper and deeper each time I look.

I think Bernie wanted to be seen as well.

“So how am I doing?” he asked me that morning.

“You’re doing okay, Sensei,” I said.

And I kept on seeing him for 33 years, saw him felled by a severe stroke, and finally saw him die. Sometimes I think I still hear his voice in my head, still see the old grin: “Still doing okay?”

Only I can’t see him now.

 

SCARY, BUT NOT SCARED

Krishna Das came for a visit yesterday. He usually sings up in Northampton in September; Bernie and I always loved to attend his kirtans. He told me this story about Bernie:

“Last September, which was the last time I saw Bernie before he passed, I took him out to his favorite breakfast place, that diner on Rte. 9. Bernie ordered a pile of blueberry pancakes. Halfway through the meal he looks at all the food that’s left on his plate and says, “Maybe next time I’ll order just one.’ Then he picks up his cane and gets up to go to the bathroom. Only he totters.

‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.

Bernie pauses, and says. ‘Scary, but okay.’ And then slowly walks to the men’s room.”

“He didn’t say scared,” Krishna Das repeated, “he said scary.”

I looked at the Greyston Journal that I kept in the late 1980s and early 1990s about how the Zen Community of New York built the Greyston organizations that continue to serve southwest Yonker. In 1990 I was writing an ambitious grant application to the Department of Health and Human Services for money to train and hire almost 30 homeless mothers in bakery jobs. It involved developing a training program, creating jobs, doing outreach, hiring the candidates, providing counseling and child care—everything that might be needed by the women to be successful. Then I wrote this:

“It’ll be fun to get the money. In the meantime we have no money to pay our own stipends. We need private donations to cover core costs. Please, please, PLEASE we need private monies to keep us going so that we don’t crash with all these great programs on the horizon. I’m nervous because we have so little money at the bakery.”

My Greyston Journal is full of those entreaties to some invisible God to please, please, PLEASE keep us going till government grants come through. Please, please, PLEASE help the bakery not crash before it can start providing Ben & Jerry’s with the brownie products they seek for their ice cream, please, please, PLEASE give us just enough so that we don’t have to fire people.

The pages are laced with apprehension and fear.

Bernie, or Sensei as we called him then, was not scared. I write often that he looks worn out. I use words like ashen and haggard. There’s a week’s retreat he’s supposed to lead but doesn’t show up. I go down to talk to him. “You said you’d be there.”

He shakes his head. “We might lose the whole thing by the end of the week.”

So a small group sits alone while he fights so that Greyston doesn’t go under. A huge, scary thunderstorm hits us that day. We sit in that basement zendo as the light leaves and the outdoors gets black, lightning strikes everywhere. We sit till the bell rings to end the period.

In my life now, too, things at times get scary. Will I have enough money to pay my bills? Should I sell the house? Everything’s up in the air. But am I scared?

There are days when it’s basically only the dogs and me, day after day. I sit in the early morning mist alongside Kwan-Yin. The birds are quiet, planning their flight south, the squirrels don’t chatter as much as they did. At that hour even the dogs are asleep. Aloneness is in the air.

But am I lonely?

 

 

A CIRCLE OF COMPLETION

My housemate Tim has tightened up the fence to prevent Aussie from escaping. The only change is that while Aussie used to break through the fence and then break back, she now still escapes through the fence but can’t get back. Instead, I find her lying down on the steps to our house, waiting for me to open the front door.

I know she’s gone when I see Harry sitting by the fence looking sadly out, whimpering to himself. I go out and comfort him:

“She’ll come back,” I say.

“How do you know?” he asks right back.

Indeed, how do I know?

The first koan in our book, The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments, is called Ensho’s Circle of Completion. It’s about a man called Ensho who lost his mother as an infant, and this loss accompanied him throughout his life; he felt it deeply. Seventy years later he unexpectedly received her ashes. He found a special place, sprinkled them on the ground, and made three deep prostrations.

The koan asks: Why did Ensho bow?

I was reviewing the galleys of this book yesterday and as I read this koan—and I have read it many, many times—I was so moved I had to stop what I was doing.

Classical Zen koans—stories and spontaneous exchanges between teachers and students—date back to China in the first millennium and come mostly from the monastic life. They often end with questions, and a student working with koans has to present his/her answer.

What Egyoku (Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles) and I did was to ask students to send us their own personal situations, their own stories of the difficult aspects of modern householder life. These include the challenges of love and romance, raising children, relationships with parents, friends, and neighbors, work situations, illness and death, and so many more. Our reflections on these koans focused on basically one thing: How do you use this uncomfortable, even fearsome situation to awaken to the essential truth of your life? What is that truth?

Yesterday I felt deeply that Ensho’s situation was my own. Things can go awry. In the 10 months since Bernie’s death not just his loss comes up for me, but others as well. Old bugaboos of being left alone, of being unloved and unlovable, left weak and a victim to circumstance—all these are there to greet me in the early morning when I open my eyes.

The name Ensho, a dharma name given to someone deeply practicing Zen, means Circle of Completion. It points to the fact that he, motherless that he was, was complete as he was. That I, a widow now (I hate that word!), and still feeling old, childish things, is complete as I am. That even when we think that things are missing, nothing ever is. That you don’t escape suffering by hiding from or denying anything, and that your life has an unimaginably broad scale that you experience not by trying to control the outside, but by penetrating deep inside.

It’s not enough to read that in this blog, or even in the book. The question is always: How can I experience my life and myself in this way? How do I experience my life so wholeheartedly that nothing is left out? Otherwise, I will always be afraid of something. Otherwise I will always be picking and choosing, i.e., I like this, I don’t like that, I want to be here, I want to be somewhere else.

I don’t want to pick and choose, I want to participate fully in my life. With full devotion, as a Zen master said.

The Book of Householder Koans comes out next February. You can pre-order it here.

 

 

 

IN THE LAND OF SOD

“Yippee! A new day! Let’s run, Aussie!”

“I’m way ahead of you, Harry.”

“The sun is out, I could smell the deer from last night, and you know what we get on Sunday? Marrow bones! Isn’t life great? Wait a minute, where’s the Boss?”

“She’s walking slowly behind us, deep in thought.”

“Don’t tell me she’s back you-know-where.”

“I’m afraid so, Harry. She’s back in the Land of SOD.”

“Where’s that, Auss?”

“The Land of Sickness, Oldage, and Death is nowhere and everywhere, Harry.”

“Uggh, who wants to go there? Think she’ll throw the ball for us, Auss?”

“Wouldn’t count on it, Harry.”

“Think she’ll go wading in the creek with us?”

“I don’t think so, Harry.”

“What’s wrong with her, Auss?”

“She spent several years caregiving and now she’s grieving.”

“Yes, but for how long, Aussie? She’s been doing that since the day I arrived.”

“She’s not always like this. Sometimes she’s actually happy.  Just not now.”

“Doesn’t she know that time is passing, Auss?”

“She knows it, Harry.”

“She’s not getting any younger. If she doesn’t start living now, what’s going to happen later? The hummingbirds are starting to go.”

“She knows that, too, Harry, she’s the one who puts out their sugar water.”

“Doesn’t she feel the cool nights, Aussie?”

“She’s put out a warmer blanket on the bed, Harry.”

“What’s she waiting for, snow?”

“You can’t rush these things, Harry.”

“I can’t wait, Auss. You know who the Boss reminds me of?”

“Who, Harry?”

“Bruce.”

“Bruce the big dog we play with by the pond?”

“That Bruce. You know how he flounces around in a funny way? I heard the Boss talking with Bruce’s human pal, and the pal told her that Bruce was put in a crate too small for him when he was young so that he could hardly turn around or anything, so he lost a lot of his peripheral vision or he doesn’t know how to use it.  That’s why he’s clumsy and doesn’t respond to things coming from the side, like me when I jump him, yuck yuck.”

“What’s that got to do with the Boss, Harry?”

“The Boss is like Bruce, Aussie. She doesn’t have a big enough view.”

“Because she grew up in a crate that was too small?”

“Aussie, doesn’t the Land of SOD feel small to you?”

“To me it does, Harry, but humans are undecided about that. Some say it’s good to get out of there quick as you can—“

“That’s what I say—“

“And some say the Land of SOD is a big country masquerading as a small crate.”

“Well, I think the Boss has lost her peripheral vision, Auss. She’s missing out. Soon the flowers will go, then the other birds, then the creek will get cold and I won’t want to splash in it anymore with her.”

“She does take us out every day, Harry. She loves the woods, loves the flowers, sits outside in the early morning when you’re still dozing off in bed. She just hasn’t turned yet, know what I mean?”

“No. Does she throw us balls?”

“Not too often.”

“Does she run around with us or drop to the ground and wrestle?”

“Not lately, Harry.”

“I rest my case. She’s just like Bruce. Somebody better get her out of that crate fast.”

IN THE ABYSS BUT NOT THE TRENCHES

“We’re in the trenches.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Harry. It’s just that everything is overgrown at this time of summer.”

“No, no, I tell you, we’re in the trenches. Everything is so much bigger than me. It feels like we’re in a war zone, I love it!”

“Harry, you’re not in a war zone.”

“If I say it’s a war zone I could get all excited and think about what military gear I need to protect myself. I could think of all the baddies and how we’re the goodies. I like being in a war zone!”

“I don’t think we need any more of that, Harry.”

“How come you don’t have any imagination?”

I don’t have that kind of imagination. But the sense of walking along an edge almost never leaves me. If I stay on my feet I’ll be okay, find gladness in talking on the phone with friends and comfort in activity. But nothing takes away the abyss at my feet. It’s a long fall down there, deep and sad. I have no idea when it will happen, when something will trigger it:

What did you do this summer? We were in Maine for two full months.

Come for a cookout tomorrow evening.

My husband and I read aloud to each other every night in bed.

Can’t forget standing on line in the Greenfield Co-op behind a couple waiting for their groceries to be tallied. He tapped her on the shoulder, pointed to a price sign above the avocadoes nearby, and whispered in her ear, and she smiled back. Small things like that.

Then it’s my turn at the cashier: “Hi, how’re you doing?”

“Well,” I say, “how are you?”

What else am I going to say? I just went smash into a dark abyss, don’t know when I’ll come out, and how are you doing?

Another day in the preserve I go down a secluded path. The dogs rush forward and I see a man wading happily in the creek. “Come in,” he says to someone behind me. Another man, younger and taller, stands on shore with a dog that looks a lot like my old pit bull, Bubale. He hesitates, smiling at his friend in the water. There are backpacks nearby and food items, including a frying pan, and I realize that these two made a night of it, camping above the creek.

We hang out for a few minutes and then I leave, and as I start going uphill to the pasture my eyes do what they now inconveniently do half a dozen times a day, clouding over and blinking rapidly. Bernie would have never camped; I hurry to remind myself. It doesn’t matter, it’s the intimacy that leaves me breathless:

Come on!

It’s a little cold!

Come on!

I’m not sure.

Come on!

And then I surprise myself. After a few moments in the abyss I suddenly feel a deep sense of gratitude and a strong wish that these two men cherish each other and the companionship they share. Words creep down to my lips, words I’ve never uttered before: I bless you. I bless your closeness and intimacy. I bless you apart and I bless you as one whole.

I’ve never blessed anyone in my entire life.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and I gathered and commented on edgy situations that householders like her, like me, and like almost all of you encounter in our lives. We called it The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment, and it’s coming out in February 2020. One of the koans appearing there is called Enju’s Black Abyss, dealing with a mother’s loss of a child.

I didn’t lose a child, I lost a husband approaching 80 after 3 years of suffering through a severe stroke. But I know a black abyss when it cracks open at my feet, and I bet you do, too. I will write more about this book, the many sharp-edged fragments of life that we encounter, and how they  make us sad and enrich our lives beyond measure. F,or now, you could pre-order this book here.

WHEN DISAPPOINTMENTS PILE UP; HAITI

“How come you never write about me?”

“I write about you and Aussie, Harry.”

“You write about Aussie all the time but you never write about me.”

“I think that’s because you don’t have much of a personality yet, Harry.”

“What’s a personality?”

“You haven’t come into your own yet, Harry, you haven’t figured who you are.”

“I didn’t know I had to do that.”

“Aussie, for example, who will be 2 next month, is only beginning to come into her own, but you can already see the basics of her personality, Harry. She’s full of energy, funny, sneaky in how she gets through the fence and the look she gives me over her shoulder (Just try to stop me!), playful–”

“You mean bossy, don’t you? She sure likes to boss me around.”

“She’s also playful, Harry. When we go down the stairs she comes to a sudden standstill right in the middle, between my legs, and then wiggles her bum from one side to the other like it’s all a big game.”

“Is that supposed to be fun? I think she’s trying to make you fall.”

“The only thing you have, Harry, is your craziness around food.”

“Isn’t that enough for a personality?”

“Remember how you used to attack Aussie if she was chewing on a bone that you wanted?”

“That’s what I mean. Doesn’t that make me tough and macho?”

“It makes you what trainers call a resource hoarder, and if I’d known this about you back in January, Harry, I wouldn’t have taken you home.”

”That would have made me a tragic figure.”

“The point is, Harry, I still don’t know who you are. Are you Harry Rama, as in Hare Rama in Kirtan? Are you Harry the Red? Are you Harry the Bum? Who are you, Harry?”

“Are those my only options?”

“Harry, you either have a personality or you don’t. Most important, you still don’t have some basic confidence. For example, for a month you were peeing in the house even though you’d been housebroken 6 months ago. Luckily, that has ended.”

“There’s lots of trauma in my life, you know.”

“What trauma, Harry? From the time they found you as a stray on the streets of Mississippi?”

“No, from the time you let Aussie lick the soup pot instead of me. And yesterday you gave her a treat and not me.”

“I gave her her heart worm medication. You know, Harry, not every disappointment has to result in trauma.”

“But if disappointments pile up and pile up and pile up, don’t they finally result in trauma?”

“Harry, you’re going to die one day.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No, you’re really going to die one day, Harry.”

“OMG, now I’m really traumatized. Watch me pee.”

“NOT IN THE HOUSE!”

 

Dear readers of my blog: Two students at Green River Zen Center, accomplished nurses, are returning to Haiti (after working there in the past) for a week of nursing work beginning Saturday, September 7. They have gathered a great deal of urgently-needed medications to bring in, but are restricted in how much each could bring. They need 1-2 people to fly down to Haiti with them so that all the medicine can arrive. They will be there till September 14, but whoever comes down with them can go home earlier. You don’t need a medical background, they’ll train you to do some basic procedures and be of assistance. There may be help with the airfare.

If you or anyone you know can do this, please let me know: eve@zenpeacemakers.com. The Haitians have sore need for medical treatment and the medicine that has already been gathered. Let’s try to find a way to get this down to them. Thank you.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO PARIS

 

Many lifetimes ago, on a planet far, far away, I fell in love with France. I had divorced after an early marriage and decided to fall in love with a country instead. I upped my high school and college French by dating Frenchmen and made a point of getting to France at least once, and often twice, a year. I could do that even on a low income because there were some cheap airfares back then. I flew Pakistan Air to Paris in the middle of one summer for $150.

Met the man of my dreams, lived with him a short while, and one rainy summer day knew it was all over. Not just my relationship with him, but also my relationship with Paris. And not just the relationship with Paris, but with the beautiful things outside that we clutch at because we think that there’s nothing inside.

I remember well how it all ended. It was a Sunday twilight, around 8 or 9 in the evening (it gets dark very late in Paris summers), and it was raining. I left our apartment and walked far till somewhere around Montparnasse a young man began to walk by my side. We maintained a companionable silence in the rain till he finally said, “Vous êtes triste, Madame?” [“Are you sad?] “Oui, Je suis triste,” I said back.

Without any further ado he told me his story. He was Hungarian living in Paris and several days earlier came back to find his furniture gone, his money gone from the bank, and his girlfriend gone, all now belonging to his best friend, a fellow Hungarian also living in Paris.

It was the oldest story in the world, and he told it to me in French as we walked through Jardin du Luxembourg in the Paris mist. No one was feeding the pigeons, no raucous children or couples in love, just a Hungarian expatriate living in Paris who had lost his reason to live, as he earnestly told me, and an American woman who lost her taste for Paris. We walked like this for a long time, he so deeply engrossed in his story that I don’t think he guessed that I wasn’t French.

Two days later I left France and didn’t come back for many years.

The page turned. I realized that there was no escaping my own skin. When I began to sit, or meditate, a couple of years later I realized that there was also a way of living in my own skin, maybe even finding refuge there.

Yesterday I returned home from our summer sesshin, or Zen retreat. I came back to two gorgeous dahlias in what had been till now a dahlia-less summer, to a home that,  in the fall and winter, had felt caved-in upon itself but that was now enjoying the warm yellow sun and whose grass was thick and green. Aussie had broken through the fence again but broke right back and rushed to greet me when I yelled out her name, and Harry the dog mewled like a kitten when he saw me come out of the car.

I felt that I had rarely sat with so much in my heart as I had in this retreat. Episodes from the past popped up without surcease; I finally gave up pushing them away and let them wash over me, as did tears. I read aloud some of my notes from my Greyston Journal and I gave a talk about how to save a ghost.

You learn to take up all the space that life has given you. You dance with the afternoon sun as it frolics on the grass and much later you walk unafraid towards the night that lies deep in the garden, beyond the Kwan-Yin. You know that what makes a desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere and what makes the water come alive is the parched, indecipherable vastness that surrounds it.

You don’t have to go to Paris.