BRATTY TEENAGER

“Aussie, how come you had a fight with Marlowe?”

“Because she’s a big bully!”

“Marlowe was always like that in the Sunday dog gathering, Auss, and you didn’t mind. She always wanted to be chased and you chased her. She growled at times and you didn’t care.”

“Yeah? Well, now I mind, Boss.”

“I think that since you turned 2 different things are coming out, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to be bullied by Marlowe. If anyone is in my face I’m going to be in their face.”

“Aussie, can’t you just let her be a little dominant? I mean, so what?”

“No way.”

“Don’t you see what happens? The two of you get into a fight that makes no one happy. She’s leashed by her boss and even goes home. I have to leash you up so that you can’t play freely and sometimes we have to leave, too, including Harry who did nothing wrong. Nobody wins, Aussie. See what I mean?”

“Nobody’s getting into my face.”

“And what’s this new thing with terriers, Auss?”

“I don’t like ‘em.”

“What about the miniature poodle we ran into yesterday? I told the man you and Harry were friendly and the next thing I know you begin to growl. “Friendly dogs don’t growl,’ the man says, and instantly I put you on leash.”

“She reminded me of a terrier.”

“Trainers say that when little dogs run fast bigger dogs like you might think they’re prey so you go after them.”

“That miniature poodle prey? Don’t make me laugh. No prey looks that weird. You humans think you’re so smart. You analyze us and think you got us all figured out, but you don’t.”

“And another thing, Aussie. Leave Harry alone when he tries to play with other dogs. He’s interacting so nicely, he has such good manners unlike you-know-who. But the minute he starts chasing somebody else you grab him by the back leg and pull him away.”

“I‘m his older sister, Boss.”

“He wants to play with other dogs, Aussie, give him a break.”

“How much of a break did you give your younger sister when you were growing up? Your friend, Jon Katz, told you that dogs reflect their humans. See what I mean?”

“I don’t think that’s what he—“

“Did you let anybody tell you what to do when you were growing up?”

“Now that you mention it, no, but that was different, Aussie. I grew up in a religious Jewish home and I couldn’t get with that program, see what I mean? So they got angry and I got angry right back.”

“Just like me and Marlowe.”

“Not the same thing, Auss.”

“And did you boss around your sister?”

“A little bit.”

“She told me that when both of you were growing up you kicked her down the stairs one night. I tried it on Harry. He fell down one stair got back up on his paws, said that was fun and asked me to do it again.”

“Aussie, this discussion is going no—“

“I’m your past coming back to haunt you, Boss.”

“Thanks, Aussie. Do you have any more surprises for me now that you’ve reached the ripe age of 2?”

“I’m gonna be the toughest, brattiest teenager you ever saw. Just like you, Boss.”

 

THE LIGHT IN THE LAND OF PLENTY

Two days ago I wrote about my return from Santa Barbara, California. I called Santa Barbara home. In the blog, I wondered whether I knew we were in heaven in those early years.

I had left New England a week ago in summer and I came back to fall. It’s raining now and a few yellow leaves are drifting earthward. Ahead of us is sublime October, a heaven of its own.

The truth is that when I was in heaven I didn’t like it. Santa Barbara, with the ocean waves below and the whales making their way down the channel in January, felt too perfect. “It’s full of blonde, thin people,” I complained to a friend who lives there.

It had its hidden parts, such as the homeless people and the many service employees who couldn’t afford its rents and lived in adjoining areas like Goleta and Carpinteria, or farther away in Ventura. But we were offered heaven, and it was hard for me to accept it. A neighbor greeted me every morning without exception (Santa Barbara prides itself on having 300 days of sunlight a year) with the words: “It’s another beautiful morning, Eve.”

Another morning in paradise, I’d groan silently to myself.

My name notwithstanding, I didn’t believe I belonged in paradise. I belonged in low-income neighborhoods of southwest Yonkers, at street retreats, in bearing witness retreats at concentration camps or in places of massacre. I couldn’t relate to bliss. I felt (and still feel) called to spend time at places of great suffering.

Long ago my mother was a hero, saving her own life and the lives of others in the Holocaust. I heard those stories from babyhood and it became my measure for life, as though no one had a right to live any other way except the way she had, through unending service to others.

Before flying to Santa Barbara I spent three days in Denver, Colorado, in the annual conference of Healing Beyond Borders, with its focus on Healing Touch. I was asked to give a keynote talk. They said they got a lot out of my talk; I got even more out of them. I never sat with a group of such open and connected people. Everywhere I felt a heart beating strongly and fervently, connected at one hand to the healing hands of a practitioner and on the other to the deepest place of earth.

“What I’ve learned here all these years,” said the first Healing Touch therapist I met, “was not just the healing I bring my clients, but first and foremost to stay in deep connection with my heart.”

Others said to me: “I’ve learned that I have to heal myself first before I can heal others.”

Bernie might have said: I have to heal myself as I heal others.

We all know this, don’t we? Nothing very original here, I’ve heard this all my life. And yet the temptation to run out the gate to do more, witness more, save more, wins out time and time again.

October is no month to leave New England as the earth puts on one of its most spectacular shows, and I have a front-row seat right in my own back yard. And yet I am already considering leaving for a long weekend to attend a gathering of the Descendants of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I haven’t yet settled on my feet, or on my seat, and already I’m looking to fly again.

One voice says: “They’ve asked for our support. They’ve asked for witnesses, even for help.” Another says: “And what about you? What do you need?”

I never felt that last question had much legitimacy.

But now something prevents me from booking that flight, and it’s not just finances. Rather, it’s a wish to settle close to my heart and hear its whispers: Good idea, go! Or: No, you have your work here, and you need to rest.

The decision doesn’t matter, more and more I want to keep the channel open to that beating organ inside, the one that pumps oxygen and blood throughout my body and sends me messages that I don’t listen to in the rush and stumble of saving all sentient beings. The one that says: Wait. Listen. Just listen.

There is a Hebrew word: oneg. The closest English translation I come up with is enjoyment. Deep enjoyment. I hear it in the hum of bees still collecting nectar from the waves of goldenrod at the entrance to the woods. The exquisite pleasure of getting into a warm bed with Toibin’s The Master. Running my fingers through Aussie’s black hair and never checking the watch, not even once.

Most of my life I chose not to live a life of oneg, but this is slowly, so slowly, becoming my very own private frontier.

And what about climate change and the demonstrations scheduled for tomorrow? And the immigrants that need rides for doctor appointments in Greenfield? And yes, our Lakota friends in the Black Hills?

My widower friend in Santa Barbara sent these Leonard Cohen lines to the widow in New England:

May the light in The Land of Plenty
May the light in The Land of Plenty
May the light in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN HEAVEN?

“If you look down on your left you’ll see Bryce Canyon,” the pilot announces on my flight from Santa Barbara, California, to Denver, Colorado, enroute to Chicago and home. “And in 15 minutes, Lake Powell.”

I have flown coast to coast many times, and continue to be awed by the vast splendor of this country. Visitors from other countries often express their amazement in the same words: “It just goes on and on and on!”

I was in Santa Barbara for a memorial to a beautiful woman, a beautiful soul, who put an end to her life a few months ago using California’s Physician-Assisted Suicide law after enduring 15 years of dogged cancer-induced pain. She loved life like almost no one else I knew. I last visited Santa Barbara in January 2018, and day after day, at dusk, she’d walk over to the bluff overlooking the Pacific and look out towards the setting sun. She cried inside over the beauty of it. She also spent much time “contemplating self-extinction,” as she put it.

“How do you feel when you do that?” I asked her.

“The greatest peace in the world,” she said back.

The memorial, with meditation, music, tears, food, and laughter went on for two days. Hundreds of people came and went. Bernie and I had lived in this cliff-side home for two years. I sat with the family in the same room where he and I had gotten married; in fact, she and her husband had witnessed our marriage, and then the four of us had gone out for lunch.

She’s gone, and Bernie’s gone. Bryce Canyon isn’t gone, but that was small comfort for me as I sat on the dark sofa in silence, remembering that once the sofas were all purple, her favorite color, remembering, too, a tall vase of sunflowers on the coffee table, Bernie’s desk in the corner which he never used, choosing instead to sit on one of the Adirondack chairs on the veranda (also purple) and look out to the ocean, his laptop, phone, and cigar nearby.

Did we know we were in heaven? Do you know you’re in heaven? We did at times, not at others. What does it take to fully inhabit your life? To nest unconditionally in what you have and who you are? This place, this home, continues to heal me. I went back there for five days two years after Bernie’s stroke, and now went back there 10 months after his death. And with all the death in the air, I continue to call that place home.

The living room was so long it seemed to extend right over the Pacific. When we lived there we filled its very long wall with our books. When we left, our friends used the white brick wall to memorialize homeless people who’d died in the streets. Across the room, in a smaller alcove containing far fewer bricks, is a short list of “Heroes.” Bernie’s name is inscribed there.

When we came to Santa Barbara in 2000, this exquisite jewel of a small city, so God-favored, had laws against people sleeping on the warm sand of their beaches, walking aimlessly up and down the main shopping streets and even sleeping in their cars. No matter how hard you work for a living or a home (and it’s expensive to live here), it is impossible to think it’s all yours, solely a reflection of your efforts, your dollars and cents.

“Where are you from?” a white, pink-skinned man asks me in a café on State Street.

“Massachusetts,” I tell him.

“So you must be a liberal,” he says immediately.

“We call it progressive,” I say back.

His smile disappears. “Do you know how many migrants we have here?” he demands.

“We have a nice-size community of immigrants, too,” I tell him.

“Yeah?” he asks suspiciously. “Where?”

In Turners Falls, I want to tell him, leading hidden, invisible lives. And you and I are migrants too, in my case one generation removed, in your case maybe a few more.

We parted amicably, but my mind still raced. Your dollars and cents don’t create the ocean, it wanted to tell the blue-eyed, pink-faced man. They didn’t create the whales that cruise up and down the channel or the dolphins that frolic behind the tourist boats. The Santa Ynez Mountains did not arise out of your hedge funds, they were given to us and other living beings, and instead of being humbled by the gift and overwhelmed with gratitude, some choose to reduce it into something bought and sold, hoarded like Silas Marner’s gold.

You can say that the cosmos laughs at those folks who think they own everything in sight, but people have died on the streets of Santa Barbara and elsewhere, abandoned and alone.

So our friends began to write their names on the white bricks of the living room. There were seats everywhere in the large room for the people who came and went, but none hid the memorial wall of white bricks. In that way the names on the white bricks were included in the fabric of the memorial, even as we cried and laughed and sang, much as in a Jewish wedding the groom crushes a wine glass with his foot to remember the destruction of the Jewish temple 2000 years ago. Joy is always mixed with tears.

I thought of the woman who’d died there a few months earlier and of Bernie who died in New England in November, and the people who’d died homeless and alone on the streets of this country. Below, the Pacific Ocean roiled with surfers eagerly anticipating the next big wave, and the next day Bryce Canyon sparkled in sunlight far below the airplane.

WHERE DID HE GET THESE MUFFINS?

I’m at the Healing Beyond Borders conference in Aurora, Colorado.

Healing Beyond Borders is the organizational “nest” and certifier for therapists using Healing Touch in their practice. Many nurse practitioners and other professionals from the medical and healing community are here to train in how to use this energetic touch practice to give more heartful and skilled care to their patients.

I won’t kid you, in the past I had my blinders on when it came to practices outside Zen. I shared the arrogant approach of many Zen friends, that unless you did a retreat and sat from 4 in the morning to 10 at night, you weren’t going to get very far in the spiritual world.

This arrogance went its way a long time ago, but I still blush to think of it. At Healing Beyond Borders I found the most open-hearted humans imaginable. A healing touch teacher sitting next to me that first evening, describing what she’d learned over the years, said: “I learned to connect with people very strongly, but what I most appreciate is how much I learned about connecting with my own heart.”

Isn’t it strange? When you connect with people who’ve worked hard to heal themselves, you find that outward connection rebounding right back to you, going deep into your own heart.

In Zen we often say that the best way to connect with your heart is to sit. I would correct that to say that it’s just one of the ways. A deep connection with others—not just anyone, but someone in deep resonance with his/her own heart—is equally powerful. These are the kind of connections I wish to pursue now. These are the kind of relationships I wish to pursue.

Something happened the night before I left Massachusetts that seemed to promise something powerful, though at the time I couldn’t know it.

I flew to Colorado on Wednesday. Tuesday night I returned from the zendo, all packed and ready to go, knowing I had to get up early the next morning. Only I couldn’t sleep.

Time passed and I was getting more and more awake, and soon anxiety began to creep in. Was this going to be like last July, when I couldn’t sleep all night before my scheduled flight to join our retreat at the Black Hills and finally decided to cancel at the very last minute? Was it happening again? When I was asked to give a keynote talk at the conference months ago I was sure I could do it. It felt far away,  plenty of time for the grieving process to follow its course before going off to Denver. But here I was again, unable to sleep.

I finally did fall asleep, and I had this dream:

I am in a New Jersey corporate park, where I have arrived to talk about a writing job for a company. I show my interviewers various kinds of writing samples, we exchange ideas, they are very impressed with my creativity, but they ask me specifically if I will write beautiful things about a hair product they are selling. I say no. I tell them that I will soon turn 70, and I don’t wish to write to sell things commercially.

We part very amicably, I walk to the elevator and look at my watch. We are scheduled to fly to Poland for our annual retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau and it’s getting late, our flight’s taking off from New York.

Bernie’s waiting in the lobby along with three other Zen Peacemakers old-timers: Chris Panos (currently chairman-of-the-board of Zen Peacemakers International), Paco Lugovina, and Genro Gauntt. All of us have worked together for many years. “We have to get a taxi fast or we’ll miss our flight,” I tell Bernie. Paco says that he already ordered one, but given the size of the group he asked the company to upgrade the taxi.

At that point a large, antique bus appears. It looks like a school bus, I think to myself. Meantime, our group has grown larger; people have joined whom I don’t know, but all of them are also going to the retreat. Genro takes the hand of a young girl holding a stuffed bear close to her chest and introduces her to everybody. Shyly, she tells me the name of the bear is Lucio.

Paco offers to get coffee and muffins for everyone for the ride to the New York airport and we board the bus. I sit next to Bernie, behind us is the girl still holding Lucio with Chris at her side, while Genro sits alone behind them doing his prayers. The bus leaves and I suddenly realize I never got my coffee and muffin.

“Where is it?” I ask Paco.

Before he could answer, Chris looks out and sees that the paper plate holding my coffee and muffin is on a bus tray which is suspended outside the window. Wow, I think, I never thought of that, what a terrific way of saving space inside the bus. Chris leans out the window, grabs the plate off the tray, brings it into the bus, and hands it to me. I look down. The plate holds a cup of black coffee and there are 2 extra muffins in addition to mine.

“There are a couple of extra muffins here,” I say aloud. “Who wants another muffin?”

The girl behind me says that Lucio, her little bear, wants a muffin, so I give her one. Somebody else across the bus raises his hand, so I hand the muffin to Bernie to give to him. And now I see that there are more muffins. They’re smaller than the big ones sold in delis, nicely-shaped and home-made. People raise their hands for muffins and I hand one after another to Bernie who gives them out. Each time I’m sure we’re down to my one last muffin I find a few more underneath, so that everybody is getting more muffins. We give out more and more, and still there are always more buried underneath.

“Where do you suppose Paco got these muffins?” I ask Bernie.

The alarm rang and I woke up. In fact, I jumped up. There was no question in my mind, of course I was going to the Healing Beyond Borders conference.

 

JUST DIE! DOESN’T CUT IT FOR ME ANYMORE

It’s late September, a time of melancholy and silence. I’m flying into Colorado for a healing conference, where I will give a talk.

What will I say? Will I tell them about New England in September, with the red flush on the green leaves? The hummingbird feeders remaining full, the banquet there but the feasters gone? The air purer, drier, clearer, as if nature took one last inhale before beginning its slow exhale? That now when I sit outside in the early morning the birds don’t call out anymore, that even the dogs come out looking bleary-eyed, as though wondering why I’m getting up when there isn’t much light anymore at this hour of morning?

“This will be your first fall in New England,” I tell Harry, who came to us from a Mississippi animal shelter in January. “You’re in for a treat.”

“Can’t wait,” he says, and goes back home to sleep on the sofa.

At times pain comes up. It can be triggered by anything: a couple talking about Bernie coming late to officiate at their wedding but what a fun wedding it was when he finally showed up. Getting up early in the morning to go to the airport, looking out the window, and remembering a morning years ago when we saw a bear scamper in front of the house just as we were about to leave on a similar trip.

I had a dream about Bernie after he died, in which I’m off to go someplace and he gives me a peck on the cheek: “See ya,” he says lightly. He always seemed to take things lightly, but he hated to be left alone. The TV would go on extra early on those evenings and I would find empty pizza boxes in the recyclable bin when I returned. He didn’t mind a guy-kinda evening, he assured me with a jaunty grin. But the eyes above the grin were rarely jaunty.

Like most wives, I saw my husband in dark places, the kind of dark he didn’t share with others. The kind of dark that preceded our marriage, preceded me, that came from some unnamable past. You could try to name it—he lost his mother at the age of 7, had an unhappy childhood with father and step-mother, lost a wife when he last expected it—but some things just remain unnamable.

“You’re the wordsmith,” he used to say. It was my job to express things in words, or at least try; it wasn’t his job. He had his Brooklyn way with words, but he couldn’t find the words for his feelings. He couldn’t find his feelings.

“Getting attached to a person is no problem,” Ken Byalin, Founder of Integration Charter Schools, said to me as we walked together in a Staten Island park early Monday morning. “Getting attached to your idea of the person is the problem.”

There is no person here right now, but the feelings continue, I think as I look out the small airplane window at one of the Great Lakes on our way to Chicago. If they come from memories and reflections, is that a problem? There have been Zen masters who, when asked about dying, tell you to JUST die! Don’t make a thing about it.

But nature makes a thing about it. As temperatures at night dip into the 40s the plants seem to sink into themselves. The fringes of maple leaves start turning red but the others seem to just get deeper and darker. One last or, if we’re lucky, next-to-last dahlia opens up into an awareness of a short lifetime, but it’s no less red for all that; instead of dropping, it seems to blush its way into essence.

I think it’s what happened to Bernie after his big stroke. Tiers and layers fell away and revealed the secret deep inside. I’d like to go like that.

And the person left behind? At times her sadness gets depressed, flat and cloudy like the horizon outside the airplane window. But when she pays attention it’s like a flower, changing colors every day, every moment, deepening gradually under the shine of the autumn sun. You can melt into that and not mind being sad at all.

JUST die! doesn’t cut it for me anymore.

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?