“The pack is done. Finito. First Harry’s gone, and now you.”
“Only for a short time, Aussie. Not the end of the world.”
“Easy for you to say. The pack is gone. The world as I know it is gone.”
I remember Aussie’s words when I enter Newark Airport, in New Jersey. There are lines in front of the United counter, but almost no one in the lines for general security. Once on the other side, I look up at the monitor, its five panels usually filled with listings of United flights flying around the world, and you can see above how many flights they show. Only 2/3 of one panel shows flights, the others are either blank or carry ads.
I look at CIBO and other food express markets. No sandwiches, just a few varieties of potato chips.
Bernie and I flew many times through Newark, a hub for United Airlines, and I would complain about the people squeezing sideways just to walk through the concourses and, of course, the long lines in the women’s restrooms. Today there is no line in the women’s restroom.
You’d think the airport would look cavernous without people, but if anything, it seems to have shrunk. Hudson Bookstores, closed. Museum shop, closed. Gucci and dozens of other fancy shops, closed. I can’t help it, when I see a store dark on the other side of the window, I get mournful.
The airport and airline workers I run into are wonderful. You can see their smiles behind their masks, trying to reassure us, trying to help out, not denying the challenges but clear, firm, and comforting. It can’t be easy for them, walking down deserted concourses, passing the small passenger vehicles that are parked, empty, their drivers without riders, without tips.
They carry on bravely. United has announced that pending a major improvement in the virus control or the passage of another big relief bill for airlines, it will probably let go of 40% of its labor force as of October 1. Still they smile and offer to help you with the bag or the check-in. They’re kind with their words and generous with their time. They’re not all that busy.
Tim is taking care of Aussie in the time that I’m gone. Tim has always been a part of our packl. I’m already thinking of returning on a Sunday morning. Her head will pop out of the dog-door to see who arrived in the garage.
“You’re back! The world hasn’t ended after all!”
By the time I leave the airport in Tel-Aviv to go up to Jerusalem, I will have seen that world behind a mask for at least 16 hours. It’s easier for me, I’m not a little girl or boy like so many around me on the plane, who talk and cry and shout gleefully from behind a mask. I’m not like so many others in families here, who hope to be heard through their masks. I’m alone.
Wearing a mask this long gives one a sense of how so many others live, working and talking from behind a mask for many hours each day, knowing that with all those precautions, they’re exposed.
I will be warned at the Israeli airport to stay away from people and always, always wear a mask. My brother will be waiting for me. And when it’s just the two of us together, I think I will give him the biggest hug of my life.
I am going to Israel on Wednesday to see my mother. There will be quarantines on both sides of the trip, in Jerusalem and back here. Nevertheless, I decided to hell with it, she’s my mother and I want to see her.
I dilly-dallied with this decision for months. What finally broke the logjam of contradictory information and advice was my realizing that the virus is here to stay maybe past my mother’s lifetime. Things may well get worse before they get better, meaning that while now only a quarantine is required, we could have full shutdowns again in fall and winter.I decided to seize the pocket of opportunity.
I feel like I am living deeper and deeper in not-knowing about this world and how we’re living than almost at any time in my life.
By not-knowing, I don’t mean ignorance. Yes, I truly don’t know how things will work out, in that sense I am ignorant. But I keep on thinking of Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on experienced happiness vs. the memory of happiness, the moment-by-moment intimacy with sadness or joy vs. our story about whether our life is sad or happy. Not-knowing relates to letting go of our story of how happy we are, or what this life is, and making more and more room for the experience itself.
Life is not proceeding in any linear pattern that I can recognize. I am now 70 and used to wonder what it would be like to live in the middle of climate change. I now know that while it’s still not the middle, climate change is well into its very big start and here I am, in the middle of that. I have no doubt that covid and climate change are related, that life is responding (some might say reacting) to how humans live on this planet. Or, as Victor Frankl wrote, life is posing question after question to us.
I recently read Victor Frankl’s Say Yes to Life, which is derived from 3-4 lectures he gave in Vienna within 6 months of his return there after spending 3 years in death camps. He returned to discover that most of his family, including his wife, never made it. While other Holocaust survivors sank into deep depression, he gave the lectures that make up this book, pointing to his conviction that life has meaning no matter the circumstances.
I couldn’t help but be struck by a few parallels between his time and ours.
“If there is a fundamental difference between the way people perceived the world around them in the past and the way they perceive it at present, then it is perhaps best identified as follows: in the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today activism requires pessimism. Because today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely.”
We were captive for years to a story about the continuing progress of human life, especially due to technology and increasing wealth. Bernie was an optimist, too, convinced that we awaken more and more to our interdependence, to the fact that we’re One Body. He was sure the Internet was a big manifestation of that.
My sense is that Frankl is right, we now are aware that there is no real formula for progress, nothing inevitable about it.
“The present generation, the youth of today . . . no longer has any role models. Too many upheavals had to be witnessed by this one generation, too many external—and in their consequences, internal—breakdowns; far too many for a single generation for us to count on them so unquestioningly to maintain their idealism and enthusiasm.”
We’re not after a Holocaust or a world war, but we are aware of conflagrations the world over. When I look at how the young generation responded to Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, when I look at how passionate they are about ecology, food, and our relationship to the natural world, I don’t see wild, unfettered enthusiasm, but rather an enthusiasm tempered by sober realizations of what they are facing.
In Frankl’s words, they have no role models. Even the righteous ones among us feel somewhat quaint, our former lifetimes somewhat irrelevant. The young generation’s passion excites me no end. They’re not silly or naïve or innocent, in retrospect I think we were the ones who were silly and naïve.
I have fewer and fewer ideas about what awaits us, and it’s for that reason that I am ready to go through airports and planes, with quarantines on both sides, simply because I still can and I want to see my 92-year-old mother. I don’t have a clue what’s coming around the block.
I’m not afraid; I’m awash in curiosity.
Frankl wrote that even in the concentration camps, certain people knew they had a task, and this task gave meaning to their lives. He wrote: “[It’s] not what can I expect from life, but what life expects from me. What is my task at this moment, and at this moment, and at this moment? Living itself means nothing other than being questioned: our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to—being responsible toward—life.”
Last winter I decided to re-energize the Zen Peacemaker Order that Bernie Glassman and Jishu Holmes founded in the 90s. Before covid, I was preoccupied by the challenges of climate change. What is my task vis-à-vis future generations, I asked myself again and again. There were individual efforts, but I felt more was needed, so I decided to help create an international container of trained spiritually-based activists who base their work on a common Rule or practice and have a family—each other—to sustain their hearts. Life presented me with a question, and that’s how I responded.
I also respond now by traveling to see my aged mother. I also respond by finding caretakers for Aussie, by giving $1700 ahead of time to help immigrant families during these next 2 weeks. A friend told me of the illness and death of her service dog, and I cried. Question-response; question-response; question-response.
Let go of the story, and now bear witness. Let go of the story, and now live.
I recently heard Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on experienced happiness vs. the memory of happiness, which I highly recommend. He says that the two don’t correlate much, so you could be experiencing lots of joy in daily life but your memory of it, or your story of it, will be quite different.
This talk inspired me to plunge deeper into the mundane experiences of my daily life, feel and embody them as much as I can. In the early morning when I open my eyes, the story of lack and sadness assails me every time; it has throughout my life. I don’t know why, and it’s not particularly relevant anymore. Instead I remind myself to thoroughly feel the warm shower in the morning. I nuzzle with Aussie for ten minutes when I come down and sit by her where she lies, on the futon in my office. When I stroke her, I’m not stroking Aussie, I’m not stroking a dog; I’m stroking my heart.
Yesterday morning, after days of humidity and heat, she and I drove to a store in Greenfield. The windows were wide open, Aussie’s head sticking out one of them, I could see her grinning in the sideview mirror, white teeth gleaming. For the first time in a long while a breeze blew through the windows, I inhaled, and re-remembered what gorgeous country roads these were. I was deeply happy.
And of course, the next morning, I awoke to the usual story of my life as lacking in different ways. In my case, at least, the contrast between experienced happiness and the memory or story of happiness couldn’t be starker.
Last night I came home from meeting with Jimena and immigrant families. They brought me homemade tamales and a dozen ears of corn picked that very afternoon. I ate the tamales and corn for dinner and thought to myself that it doesn’t get much better than this. I bring them food cards and cash, and they feed me.
Jimena uses these times to talk to them about their children. The local school system, like school systems all over the country, can’t decide about whether to open up to in-person learning or stay with distance learning, as it did this last spring, so it created surveys to be filled out by parents. Jimena translated them into Spanish, and since not all of the families are literate, she sits down with them and reviews the questions in Spanish as they pick up food cards from me:
What do you prefer, in-person or remote learning? (Remote learning is difficult for children without English. And while they were each given iPads and even have WIFI at very reduced rates for a while, they are crowded into small apartments, sometimes with four children in different corners of one room trying to participate in four different online classes.)
Can you do hybrid, or a combination of the two? (That requires lots of explanation.)
Are you comfortable with 10 feet distance surrounding your children? Six feet? Three feet?
Since we can’t fill up school buses, can you bring your kids to school if necessary? (Very tricky since many have no valid driving licenses, and if they’re stopped by police–forget it.)
What’s most important to you: the distance between children, how many children in a class, quality of communication between teacher and students, etc.?
I sit there, smile, try to joke, compliment women on their gorgeous masks or their children’s clothes. I’m not part of the team, and at the same time I am. I don’t speak Spanish and am not undocumented, but I’m a human being. As I get older, I feel my skin getting more porous, so that others’ feelings become a little my own, their pains echoing in me.
A short young woman arrived yesterday for a food card. Even wearing a mask, it was obvious that the left half of her face was paralyzed.
“Que paso?” I asked. I could see half her lip curved downwards and the rest of that side of the face swollen and rigid. For a brief moment I worried about a stroke.
She thought it was Lyme. It was getting worse and worse, only she has no medical insurance to see a doctor.
“Donde trabaha?” I asked her. Where do you work?
In Hadley, she says. That’s shorthand for the farms in Hadley, which means that she’s working under a hot, humid sun picking vegetables while her face becomes more paralyzed.
“What can she do?” I ask Jimena.
“The Community Health in Greenfield serves those without medical insurance. They do some procedures but not all.” She knows another place to call, and if they agree she’ll send the woman there.
I’m horrified. It’s one thing to know as a fact that many people have no health coverage in our wealthy country; it’s a whole other thing to see someone’s paralyzed face and realize she can’t get treatment even as she’s working.
When you fully experience things, it’s all there: the noisy, happy children doing remedial English with Jimena the previous morning, as if for just a few minutes Latin America arrived right here in New England, blazing with laughter, color, and enthusiasm; the fresh tamales and corn spilling out of the shopping bag; the woman with a paralyzed face getting sicker all the time.
You take it in unreservedly, unconditionally.
Please help this woman; help these immigrant families. I am going to visit my mother and have left $1,700 with Jimena to cover some needs over the next two weeks. My dear friend, Maggie, also volunteered to help out. Please let’s keep on going even as we arrive at the dead of summer,.
And I invite you, as you push that button or write a check, to really experience the generous act of giving. You know why? Because it’ll make you happy. Really. In that moment it’ll make you happy. You are giving unconditional sustenance to a family that has very, very little, for whom the current Congressional infighting about relief funds have no relevance because they won’t get a penny.
Take your time while doing this. Appreciate the feel of the computer key or the scrawl of the pen, the distance that shortens when we see ourselves in others and vice versa, the reaching out across space and time and sending help with the wind.
Next week I should have a second Donate to Immigrant Families button on this blog, connecting to separate PayPal and bank accounts. It’ll be more direct and transparent, and easier on me for sure. Meantime, you can still use the button below to help immigrant families. It will take you to PayPal and please write on the note: Food cards. Or else write a check to me and send to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351 and write on the memo line: Food Cards.
Yesterday I went to the bank to pull out cash for today’s meeting with immigrant families. That’s in addition to $750 in food cards.
“How much do we need?” I asked Jimena the day before.
She figurds it out on the phone. “Can we help Elena with more rent money?”
That’s the new mother who faced eviction right after giving birth, her husband deported while she was pregnant. Elena is not her real name; she has been unable to work all this time, especially since most of the jobs are on the farms during a terribly hot and humid summer. She still can’t work, has to take care of the baby..
We received generous gifts to help Elena with her housing—thank you to all of you who were touched by her story. It didn’t just depend on us.
I am learning to appreciate Jimena’s broad array of skills that she uses on behalf of this community. Even as a little girl, she accompanied her mother across the Ecuador-Colombia. Her mother would sew clothes in the day, drive across the border at night and sell what she’d made the next morning. She, traded everything from clothes she sewed to food and other items. One result is that Jimena is in possession of ,negotiating skills I’ll never have. Now she uses those skills to make deals with utility companies and bargain down landlords. So even as money came from you for Elena, Jimena pestered community agencies and, with our help, put $2000 together to get rid of the eviction threat.
But that’s for past months. Life goes on, rent goes on, and July is practically done. I see over and over again how little low-cost housing we have in our country. Even in Franklin County, the poorest county in Massachusetts, rents are high. In the low-income town where I meet Jimena, an apartment with just a couple of rooms rents for $800 per month. Some of you readers may be accustomed to big-city rents, but given the pay rates around here, that’s exorbitant. So families crowd into these apartments, which can be helpful and destabilizing all at the same time.
“Yes,” I say, “of course there’s more rent money for her.”
“And then there’s Clara (not her real name), and she needs money to pay off electricity.”
Rent, electricity, telephone, food. Rent, electricity, telephone, food. Add heat during our long New England winters, so rent, electricity, telephone, heat, food. Repeating, unending bills. You’ve managed one when another comes, and then another; it never stops.
In my personal finances, which were quite narrow, I always insisted on being on top of bills, but in my work with Zen Peacemakers and Greyston we often ran out of money. I remember the pressure of invoices coming in: insurance, mortgage, utilities, taxes, and of course, payroll. They come in like a relentless drum beat. You’ve paid off one and the next one has just come in today’s mail, and another will come in tomorrow.
After I went to the bank I took Aussie out of the car (she gets a biscuit from the bank every time) and walked over to the adjoining park where Jimena was teaching remedial English to young children in the summer. I told you, that woman can do anything. Her son was there, too, helping them use computer demos.
“Come on, Aussie,” I tell the dog, who wags her tail.
There are two tables of children and they look wide-eyed at Aussie. One brave little boy comes over and pets her gingerly, like fearful people do, holding his hand on top of her brow and then slowly bringing it down.
I try to explain that that’s not the best way to approach a dog you don’t know. “How would you like it if someone raises a hand on top of your head and you can’t see what’s coming?”
Aussie is not a Lab, not composed and peaceful all the time, and she looks up nervously. She wags her tail. One after another, the children come to pet her. I sense their nervousness, I sense hers.
I remember bringing my Golden Retriever, Woody, to Yonkers, New York when I worked at Greyston. African American families have a bad history with dogs, and whenever we walked in the park the parents would warn the children: “Leave that dog alone!” But the kids couldn’t help swarming all around Woody, a few even trying to ride him; Woody good-naturedly took it all in stride.
Here, too, the older folks avoid Aussie, but the kids can’t wait to pet her. All except for a young girl, nowhere near Aussie, who bursts into tears and runs into the arms of an older girl.
“Why’s she crying?”
“She’s afraid of you, Aussie.”
“Afraid of moi?”
“We’re all afraid of something, Aussie.”
We’ve arrived at a perfect time, Jimena reassures me, and asks the children to hold up the sheets they’re working on. They colored in a dog. On top, it says: That’s a big dog!
“Say after me,” she tells them, and they, looking at Aussie (less than 50 pounds), chant in unison: “That’s a big dog!”
I don’t want to get in the way of the class so we walk away. Jimena lines them up in small rows, puts on a song on her laptop, and they start singing along.
Inside the car I practically squeal in excitement. “You were great, Aussie!” I’d never seen her interact with fearful children before. “You were such a good dog! Such a good girl, Aussie!”
Aussie’s resting the front part of her body on the arm rest between me and the passenger seat, grinning from ear to ear. We’re a team, and she knows it.
“Want to be a working dog, Auss? Want to be an ambassador of good will to children everywhere?”
Please support immigrant families. You can do this using the Donate button below, which will take you to PayPal. Please make sure to write “Immigrant Families” or “Food Cards” in Add a Note. Or if you prefer to send a check, send it to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and please write “Immigrant Families” or “Food Cards” on the memo line. Many, many thanks!
“Aussie, I know it’s hot and humid, but here we are so we might as well walk.”
“I hate walking on leash on a road. Besides, I don’t want you, I want Molly.”
“I hate to tell you this, Auss, but your intimacy with Molly the black Lab isn’t going anywhere. You like Molly, Molly like rocks.”
“How could she prefer a rock to me?”
“Aussie, I think you’re one of those dogs who’re attracted to dogs that are not good for you. Dogs that don’t respond, don’t really care, they’ll play with you just a little bit and then drop you like a hot potato for the next rock. Been there, done that.”
“I miss Harry.”
“I also miss him a little, Aussie, like now when I go with you on the road, I feel the lack of pull on the other side. Harry balanced you out.”
“I was the disrupter, Boss, Harry was the balancer. Now all you got is disruption. That’ll teach you.”
“Teach me what, Aussie?”
“To leave things alone. Why couldn’t you leave things the way they were? Everything was going great.”
“They weren’t going so great. Aussie. You remind me of my father. He used to talk just like you. He never wanted to change anything. He didn’t want to move, didn’t want to renovate, didn’t want to modernize, he didn’t want to change plans once we made them, he just wanted to hold on to the way things were—forever. At least till he divorced my mom.”
“Who asked you to empty the basement? All those boxes had to be packed and taken out of the house, the trips to the dump, all those bins of paper recycling—who asked you to do all that? Who asked you to let Harry go? Who asked you to do this blog or to raise money for food cards? You sometimes complain that you get tired—well, who asked you to do all those things?”
“Because that’s life, Aussie! And life is full of kinks.”
“It’s all the things that happen that you don’t expect. You know, every time something goes south or doesn’t succeed, people think it was the wrong thing to do. Or if something takes way more effort than you first imagined—and they usually do—you get discouraged. Bernie loved the kinks, Aussie. He said that life is in the kinks, not in the plans that go off perfectly. Kinks arise, you work with them the best you can, and they take you into places you never imagined.”
“You mean, like you, Boss? You’re a kink.”
“How am I a kink, Aussie?”
“I made eyes at the Man in the shelter and he brought me home. Then he died and I got you.”
“Thanks, Aussie. What I’m trying to say is that people are afraid to try things in case they fail or they turn out differently from what they expected. Or else they just sit around waiting for things to happen.”
“I think it’s time for you to sit around a little bit—except when it’s time to take me for a walk.”
“Aussie, you and I have to develop a new relationship.”
“Oh oh, here it comes. A renegotiation.”
“We’re starting from scratch, Aussie.”
“Again? If we have to renegotiate, I think it’s time for me to be the boss.”
“Okay, here’s another idea. You can remain Boss, and I become your new teacher.”
“You think you don’t need a new teacher after Bernie died? Become so high and mighty?”
“Actually, Auss, I do need a new teacher. Bernie said that one should always have a teacher, and after his teacher died, he found Reb Zalman Schachter—”
“The Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and asked him to be his teacher. Since Bernie’s death I’ve also wondered who my new teacher could be.”
“Search no more.”
“You can’t be my teacher, Aussie.”
“I knew it. It’s because I’m female, right?”
“Because I’m not kinky enough?”
“You’re plenty kinky, Aussie. It’s just—well, you’re a dog.”
“You know, your Golden Retriever friend. He’s coming to hang out with you in the back yard.”
“Oh, you mean the one who smells like coffee grounds and grass, who’s sometimes constipated because he eats dog food with lots of corn, burps a lot, likes to poop under trees, and has a nice smell around the ears?”
“What does Percy mean?”
“It tells me what dog is coming to visit.”
“Does it tell you what his pee smells like?”
“Does it tell you what he ate for dinner last night or who he played with yesterday?”
“You see? Nothing important.”
“I guess that’s true. You know, Aussie, in Zen we say that names and words don’t describe reality.”
“Oh, here we go again. Zen blather.”
“So, tell me, Aussie, where were you last night?”
“I went to visit Harry.”
“That’s miles and miles away, Auss!”
“We met halfway and had the best talk.”
“What did Harry say, Aussie?”
“This is what he said: ‘I’m having the best time of my life, Aussie. Every morning I start with a run of four miles with one of my humans, and when I get back the other one gives me a great breakfast. They have coyotes in the back so I get to sit by the window and howl in the middle of the night, which they think is hysterical. The cat and I tussled a bit in the beginning, but we made peace, only she’s old and doesn’t eat too much so I get to eat some of her cat food. Have you ever had cat food, Aussie? Tuna and halibut? It’s the best! They haven’t figured this out yet, they think the cat’s eating everything, little do they know. They say I’m the best dog ever. They even changed my name.’
‘To what? Boozer?’
‘No, to Hurry.’
‘They changed your name from Harry to Hurry? Why?’
‘Because their name is Kane, see? So now I’m Hurrykane. That’s me, Hurrykane. I run like the wind, steal the cat’s food, and howl with coyotes. They think I’m perfect!’
‘That’s because I’m not around to lead you to debauchery. Without me would you ever have learned how to get through the fence?’
‘How to rush out the front door anytime someone comes to visit by sprinting between their legs?’
‘How to raise the dog door by pushing your nose into the hole in the door and lifting?’
‘Never, but who cares? I’m having a blast.’
‘Well, Harry, I’m sorry to say that I’m not having a blast. The Boss is no fun. You know why?’
‘Because she’s spiritual, that’s why. And spiritual people have no fun!’
‘She won’t go sniffing around the yard with me, she won’t dig up the compost, she won’t ambush the birds and kill some mice, she won’t pee on my pee and won’t let me pee on her pee—WHAT GOOD IS SHE?’
‘She won’t even pee on your pee? What’s wrong with her?’ Those were his last words to me, Boss. I got so depressed I went home.”
“You must be tired, Auss.”
“Not tired, just jealous. Are we adopting Percy?”
“No. In fact, Percy’s humans called and asked about adopting you as a friend for Percy.”
“I’m packing my bags!”
“Auss, you’re staying with me. This is what’s called a committed relationship.”
“What’s that, Boss?”
“It means that we stay together even when we’re not always happy.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I used to have this argument with Bernie. Whenever we argued he’d say that obviously our marriage was all over, there was no more love there, and I’d say yes there is. And he’d say you love me in the middle of all this? And I’d say yes, even when we argue there’s love. And he used to say I don’t believe it.”
“He was right.”
“No, he wasn’t, Aussie. Love isn’t just kiss kiss kiss all the time, or in your language lick lick lick; love is many things.”
“Like digging up the neighbor’s compost and killing squirrels?”
My last post talked about home, and ended describing how my husband felt at home anywhere, including at an Apple store:
Bernie was at home everywhere except in the Land of Emotions. He didn’t look like a Zen master, he looked like his surroundings. At the Apple store, dressed in jeans, Hawaiian shirt and suspenders, itching for the cigar in his breast pocket, he talked Nerdish. On street retreats he looked like a hobo. In the zendo he was a meditator. Everywhere was home.
The following morning, as I was sitting, it hit me: He was most at home with me. That’s how I should have ended that post. True, the Zen master was home everywhere, but he was most at home with me.
He needed me to be his anchor and harbor, the person who sat across from him at the dinner table and listened to ideas and events, who sometimes said “That’s great, Bernie,” and more often added: “Did you think of this or of that?” This is not self-aggrandizing, it’s basically how it was.
I think many of us hope that by following some spiritual practice—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, our own custom-made path—we’ll become independent avatars of peace and tranquility, unruffled by life, not needing anybody. Spiritual Rocks of Gibraltar. Or else happily going off on our own, free and untethered, intimate with the stars and sky and avoiding people messes. There are lots of stories and haikus of Japanese masters who are alone in the fields or follow the moon, happy in their worldly solitude.
Bernie Glassman may be seen as an avatar for engaged spirituality, but in the last ten years of his life he used to say: “I’m just Bernie.” Not Sensei, not Roshi, just Bernie. Which reminds me a little of how HH the Dalai Lama likes to say about himself: “I’m just a simple monk.”
I don’t think it’s false humility. The deepest understanding doesn’t pre-empt human feelings and frailty. Enlightenment doesn’t make you invulnerable; it gives you strength even as it makes you more vulnerable than ever: I vow to bear witness, to be touched by the joys and suffering of the world. I vow to be raw, to eschew defensiveness and self-protection. To feel deeply grateful for the ground that holds me up and the morning sun that shines regardless of how deserving I am. It’s hard to speak of publicly.
Bernie had many, many people and things around him—and he had me, whom he needed. In early years he denied that need, but not later on, and especially not after his stroke. Finally, he just wanted to be a human being who needed other humans, too.
And that is true for me, too. I wish like anything that I could have my family down the block, like my Irish friend from Monday. There are times when I weep without it, when I wake up in the morning and think, I don’t have anybody down the block. I used to have a husband, but not now. I used to have two dogs but had to give one up. Now I have Aussie downstairs, and nobody down the block.
Why didn’t I write the sentence: He felt most at home with me? What pushes me to often paint him as self-sufficient and self-contained, seeing through everything? I still need to uncover this because I’m very clear: This is about my need, not his.
My collaborator in The Book of Householder Koans, Roshi Egyoku Nakao, wrote there that it’s important to unveil the hidden motivations behind our spiritual practice. Is it that if I attain some deep understanding nothing will hurt me anymore? That I won’t be dependent on anyone, especially if that person dies and I’m left alone? That the world could throw one thing after another at me—climate change, coronavirus, poverty, massacres—and I will be serene in the face of them all?
As Bernie used to say, when you really understand that we’re all One Body, there may be more to upset you than less. The practice gives me strength and resilience, less reactivity and more responsiveness. But most important, it helps me embrace my humanity.
Yesterday I brushed my hair back hard, trying to straighten it, and put on a new pair of glasses.
“What are you doing?” asks Aussie.
“I’m trying to look like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”
“She’s a justice on our Supreme Court, Aussie, and her cancer has come back.”
“So, she’ll croak. What’s the big deal?”
“If she croaks, as you so inelegantly put it, Donald Trump will get to put another judge on the Supreme Court. So, a friend of mine had the idea that we should do a Ruth Bader Ginsberg look-alike contest, so that if she goes, the winner puts on her robes and sits on the Court as if nothing happened. Nobody will ever know the difference. What do you think? Do I look like her?”
“Nah, you look like you. You smell like you, you sound like you. You still go hide out in the downstairs bathroom when there’s a thunderstorm outside. You can’t be anybody else but you. My misfortune, but there it is. Ain’t nobody going to adopt you like they did Harry, not even your Supreme Court.”
Yesterday I spoke to someone who, after years in this country, returned to Ireland. “Did you return to take care of your aging mother?” I asked her.
“That, too,” she said. “But mostly, I came home.”
What was home for her? The brogue, the banter, the neighborhood, the people. The ways someone says good morning or gives you a cup of tea. The way she has a sister just down the block who comes over for a quick visit every day.
For a moment, my heart ached. I was envious. Home was so clear and palpable for her, she was happy to be there again. It had never been like that for me.
Yesterday, too, my mother celebrated her 92nd birthday in Jerusalem, Israel. My brother sent me a picture of her with four out of 5 grandchildren and two out of three children. If not for covid, there would have been lots of great-grandchildren. I’m not there.
He also sent me a video in which she describes the home she grew up in in Czechoslovakia and the meals her mother cooked for 11 hungry children: “There wasn’t always enough food for all of us, but what there was, was delicious,” she said. And she finished her brief talk the way she’s finished it for many years: “We had no money, we were very poor, but we were happy.”
Not all her brothers remember it like that, but most have died so there’s no one to contradict those memories anymore. I wonder if that’s how idealizations function. Once everybody dies, who’s there to bring up the contradictions, the contrasts, the nuances, the exceptions?
I don’t feel like my Irish friend. I can’t see Jerusalem as home, I can’t see Israel, where I spent the first 7 years of my life, as home. Brother, sister, and mother live there, and I would love to live a block down from them and have them come in for a quick visit, and I can’t see it as home.
I always envied people who knew what home was, who felt rooted in a place or a house, a local dialect, smells, stores and neighbors they remember from childhood. So what is home for me? Is this big house home?
I’ve asked myself that question many, many times. The only time I felt like I’d found my home was the first time I sat in meditation many years ago in an artist colony in the Midwest. I sat down and never got up again. Yes, In a way I never left that big armchair by the fireplace in my room, my feet on the thin rug, my arms on the armrests (I knew nothing then about where and how to position my hands). That day something flashed throughout this body-mind, and I knew I was home.
Some forty years ago, my friend Margery entered my small studio in New York City. We chitchatted, I may have said something deprecating about where I lived, and she sat me down and said: “Eve, wherever you are, make it home. It can be small and simple, I don’t care if it’s a monk’s cell, but make it home.”
She proceeded to tell me about her friend Eileen, who lived in a ritzier address than I did, with a dining room containing a portable bridge table. “And you know why she uses a portable bridge table as her dining room in that lovely apartment?” she said. “Because Eileen is expecting a divorce settlement of millions of dollars from her estranged husband, and till she gets it she holds on to that portable bridge table. She’s been holding on to it for years. Don’t do that, make every place you live in a home.”
And I did. Over the next years I lived in everything from small rooms in communal settings to garage apartments, and finally to this beautiful house in the woods, the only home I’ve ever owned. Bernie, too, made every place he lived his home. He’d be hanging up pictures and art work and organizing many books by subject even in places we weren’t going to stay in very long.
Friends and dogs are also pieces of home. I get on the phone with an old friend, sitting on the steps in the back in the immense heat we’re going through, bantering, and feel a piece of home. Or else I see Aussie lying on my office futon at 7 am before she turns into Saucy Aussie. She slaps her tail on the futon so I go over and run my fingers through her back hair. After sitting I’ll come back down and she, still lying on the futon, will turn onto her back, asking me to stroke her belly, but for now I just run my fingers through her hair and tell her how pretty she is. In those few minutes, I feel at home.
We pay a price for every decision we make, consciously or unconsciously, for the way we choose to live our life. If you’re as independent-minded as I am and was, following a crazy tune in her head instead of doing what she was told, you may indeed lose that sense of home. Or you may go inside, to where some deep truth lies, and find it there.
This morning, after two trips to Staples, I gave up and drove down to the Apple store in Holyoke with my MacAir and a computer console I inherited from Bernie because the two didn’t connect. I wish there was a store selling items that help me connect, too. It was my first time in a mall since well before covid.
While there, I remembered the first time I went to an Apple store with Bernie, stars in my eyes looking at all those gorgeous gadgets, including things I could barely identify. My iMac had died and I’d decided to get an iPad, which was fairly new then, but at some point strolled over to the other counter, looked at the MacAir, and fell in love.
The sales person didn’t make fun of my ignorance, of the fact that I was not from planet EarthTech but from some distant, primitive rock somewhere out in space. He was a tall, handsome African-American with a short beard (I love handsome men) and explained to me in words I could understand what were USB ports and wires, how they differed from regular electric wires (don’t laugh!), the concept of storage and search engines, etc. Bernie told me to get the MacAir right away, a year later got his own, and the two of us traveled with our indistinguishable platinum MacAirs all over.
But that first time I went to the Apple store Bernie had an issue with connecting cables, as I did today. The man who waited on me tried to solve his problem, couldn’t, and called for help. Next time I looked up there stood Bernie surrounded by 4 Apple tech staff, two young men, two young women, each looking like they came from a different continent, different skin tones, hair and no hair, tattoos and nose rings, as motley a group as ever you saw, all talking Nerdish.
The Zen master stood in the middle, asking questions, bantering, nodding, in seventh heaven. Bernie loved technology, and they loved him that day because they had to solve a complicated problem he’d presented them with, like students having to present a koan.
Bernie was at home everywhere except in the Land of Emotions. He didn’t look like a Zen master, he looked like his surroundings. At the Apple store, dressed in jeans, Hawaiian shirt and suspenders, itching for the cigar in his breast pocket, he talked Nerdish. On street retreats he looked like a hobo. In the zendo he was a meditator. For him, everywhere was home.
When I decided to find a new home for Harry, I started writing up an ad.
“What should I write about you, Harry?” I ask.
“Happy, playful, smart-as-a-whip,” says Harry.
“Dumb dumb dumb,” says Aussie.
“Brave, protective, great guard, loves food,” says Harry.
“One out of four isn’t bad,” says Aussie.
“Progressive, Anti-Trumpist, Back Lives Matter,” says Harry.
“Like I said, dumb dumb dumb,” says Aussie.
I find it a personal calling to live in the intersection of opposites, to live in the gap while finding some way to connect between highly partisan, even warring sides. It’s become a bigger challenge lately. We seem to be creating rancor and do-or-die principles out of anything and everything.
I remember crossing into New Hampshire from Massachusetts five years ago and reading the sign at the border: Welcome to New Hampshire. Live Free or Die. I almost turned around right then and there to go home.
Several days ago I went on a different trip, upstate to New York to visit my friends Jon Katz and Maria Wulf, and listened to a CD of the country singer Emmylou Harris singing songs about love—happy love, failed love, how you made me once feel, how I feel now, how I wish for love, how I wish this love were over, all the infinite variations we have around love. By contrast, I did EST a long time ago and the facilitator started humming the current rock-‘n-roll songs about love, calling them soap operas.
I thought of the many people who, like me now, live alone and feel the empty air around them every morning when they wake up. I especially thought of those who are even more isolated because they’re afraid of the coronavirus and won’t meet up with anyone.
A woman I know in the next town does a lot of gardening. She has been alone for many years, she tells me when she comes here with her truck.
“Do you ever think about love?” I ask her.
“Not anymore,” she says, putting a hat over her folded-up long hair to protect her thin, dry skin.
You probably won’t ever be a country music singer, I think to myself.
I also reflect about trees, grass, animals, and birds. I’m not a maven here, but my sense is that few species, if any, actually love. They need to survive, so there’s the strong instinct to copulate in some way or other and preserve their genes. But love? Even those that mate for life, like wolves, do they do this out of love?
So why do humans love? We don’t need it to survive, we could be like everybody else and copulate to preserve our kind; lots of people have sex without love at all. So why do we love when it’s not essential to our survival? Even in long-ago cultures where marriages were arranged between families and personal love was unacceptable, stories survive of two people, like Romeo and Juliet, who fight society and the odds in order to be together.
At the beginning of one of our retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we sat on the floor of the Sauna building which inmates came through after Selection, shedding their clothes, personal belongings, hair and identities to emerge shaved and in striped pajama uniforms, slave labor of the Third Reich. They were the lucky ones who didn’t go straight to the gas chambers.
A woman told the story of her father, who had gone through the Sauna and survived his labor and years at Birkenau, even as the rest of his family was murdered. When the Russian army liberated Birkenau, he was so sick he went into the hospital, and over the long time of his recovery he fell in love with the nurse taking care of him, a German woman. She loved him very much.
He received a visa to go to the United States and promised to send for her as soon as he could. But upon arriving here and sharing his story, people immediately tried to dissuade him. Local rabbis especially said: “You have a chance to start a new life with a good Jewish girl, why do you need a German woman, a member of a nation that murdered us, in your life here in America?”
The man listened to them, never sent for his beloved German nurse, met an American Jewish woman, married, and had a family. The nurse had become pregnant with his child. She had the child, a boy, and never married.
After the man’s daughter shared his story with us as we sat in the Birkenau Sauna, surrounded by photos, postcards, letters, and other memorabilia left behind by all those who’d disappeared through the ovens and chimneys of Birkenau, Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi spoke up and said, in paraphrase, the following:
“There is nothing to equal the power of love in human beings. When two people fall in love—it doesn’t matter who they are—it is a sacred gift from God. It is physical and spiritual, it spills over all boundaries and illuminates the world. How does anyone dare to interfere with such a gift? How can anyone belittle it in the name of common sense, logic, or even history? It is the most precious thing we are given, we must never take it for granted, never interfere with its intricate workings.”
A rabbi said this standing in the mass extermination grounds of Birkenau. I never forgot it.
Now, whether I listen to Emmylou Harris or Leonard Cohen, whether I talk to a friend who turns towards her truck as she turns her back on love, whether I think of my husband (gone) or Harry (gone but loves his new family) or Aussie (who wishes I was gone rather than Harry) or the palpable quivering absence I wake up to each morning, I remember Rabbi Ohad’s words.
We’re in the conservation land nearby, with its streams and pools, and Aussie is looking around for somebody to splash around with.
“Harry’s doing well with his new humans. He goes running early mornings—”
“And misses me.”
“—and he eats well—”
“And misses me.”
“—and tussles with the cat—”
“And misses me. What! He doesn’t miss me? I think it’s time to adopt another dog, Boss. How about Freddy, the German Shepherd, down the road? He walks around sometimes looking lost.”
“That’s a big dog, Aussie. Whenever we pass by him you look the other way, even though you’re safe in the back seat of the car. What about Squiggle the Yorkie?”
“He looks like something you put in a sandwich. What about Silly Milly, the white Lab across the railroad tracks? Boy, those Labs are d-u-m-b, dumb!”
“You like Molly, Aussie, and she’s a black Lab.”
“Nobody, but nobody, is as silly as Molly. I mean, what kind of stupid dog falls in love with a rock?”
We met Molly at the Conservancy, right above the small pond the dogs love to swim in. The first time we saw her she splashed, swam, chased, ran away, and generally had fun with Aussie. We next saw Molly during our weekly Sunday dog-in with lots of dogs. Molly ran down to the water, Aussie right behind her, and zeroed in on a small, round, black rock which she grabbed with her mouth and ran right up the slope.
“Oh no,” said her human, “not another rock! She loves rocks.”
And indeed, Molly licked and licked the rock, then put it on the ground and rubbed herself all over it.
“She’s bonding with her rock,” sighed her human.
“Looks to me like she’s having sex with it,” I told her.
Molly then picked up the rock with her mouth and threw it around a few times, then licked it and licked it, nuzzling and cuddling with it.
Aussie is watching all this, mortified. She couldn’t figure it out. She whined a little, nudged Molly, and Molly ignored her. The black Lab finally rolled the rock down the slope and into the water and ran after it, Aussie right behind her, ready to splash and swim and have some real fun.
But Molly found the rock in the water, picked it up, hurried up the slope, and the lovemaking began all over again: Lick, rub, roll and shimmy, toss around a few times, lick up again. Not a glance or sniff towards Aussie.
Aussie was dumbfounded. No dog had ever thrown her over for a rock. She tried to sniff it as it lay between Molly’s paws but Molly edged her out of the way. She whinnied and rubbed the ground with her paws repeatedly, trying to get Molly’s attention, but Molly was paying attention to just one thing: her rock.
Finally Molly’s younger human, down by the water, called to her and Molly went running. Instantly Aussie pounced on the rock. Slowly she sniffed it, then licked it, concentrating hard, trying to discern the magic and flavor. Was this a special toy? Why did her friend love it so much?
And that’s when Walker the Corgi jumped. He didn’t mean anything by it, he was just in the midst of one of his enthusiastic dashes around the enclave and on the way he jumped on Aussie. Aussie growled and shook him off. Walker didn’t pay attention and jumped at her again, this time close to the rock. Aussie’s lips curled.
Too late. Aussie dropped the rock and, with a snarl, turned on Walker, who ran for his life. Aussie jumped after him, pushed him down on the ground, and snapped and snarled over his trembling belly. Then she rushed back to her rock.
Molly joined soon, and more rock squabbles ensued.
“They’re fighting over a rock,” Molly’s human said, shaking her head. “Go figure.”
I started thinking about what we humans fight over. I imagined some beings somewhere, vaster and more intelligent than we are, watching us fight. About what? About who drives the car? Who pays for dinner? Who gets the promotion, the house, the money, the dog, the bigger toy rather than the smaller one?
Those beings must be shaking their heads: “Go figure.”