MORNING RITUALS

In the morning the dogs like to greet me, a daily ritual.

I come down the stairs in the dark to hear a flap-flap in the living room. Aussie. looks up, inviting me to come and sit next to her on the sofa. She’s at her softest and most sensual. First I stroke her belly. Repeat for 5 minutes. Next she furrows her brow, her signal to roll one finger down from the top of her forehead to the top of her eyes. Repeat: a dozen times. Next is a soft, slow one-finger massage down her spine. Repeat: a dozen times.

It reminds me of my routine with Bernie after his stroke. The man who was up by 4 every morning wouldn’t get up till around 10. I’d listen for those sounds, come into the bedroom, and see him sitting on the edge of the bed looking out the window. Did he wonder how much longer he’d live this way? Was he gearing up for another day of exercise? Was he just wondering about the weather?

I’d sit next to him on the bed.

“How are you?” I’d say.

“Okay,” he’d say, regardless of whether he was okay or not. “How are you?”

“Fine. How was your night?”

“Okay,” he’d say, regardless of whether it was okay or not. “And how was your night?”

“Fine.”

Nothing conversations. I miss them badly.

Harry likes to sleep late and barely opens his eyes from the black chair he’s lounging on for my performance on the sofa with Aussie. But at some point, starting to think of breakfast, he’ll jump down and smash right into my legs with all the sensuality of a tank.

“Harry, the dermatologist says that I have a bad rash but it’s not an allergy to you.”

“I knew it.”

“Especially when I explained to him that I leave tonight to Boston to fly to London and then to Poland and then drive up to Oswiecim to bring and leave Bernie’s ashes at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

“You don’t have to do that for me when I die. “

“Thanks, Harry.  If you change your mind, let me know.“

“I doubt you’ll outlive me anyway.”

In the first Zen Peacemakers bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1996, someone brought up the idea of doing a fire ceremony in which people working out deep feelings of guilt or shame will write notes asking for forgiveness and we’ll burn them right there by the railroad tracks. And then we remembered the fires that burned by those railroad tracks and decided it wasn’t such a good idea.

That was the same year when I, coordinating a retreat for 154 people, arrived late to the Auschwitz Museum only to be taken aside by one of the Museum personnel and told that they’re missing 26 beds that they’d promised us.

“So what do we do for the 26 participants with no beds?” I asked.

“No problem,” I was told. “We put them in former Gestapo headquarters right in main camp.”

Harry paws my leg. “What else did the dermatologist say?”

“Well, Harry, he did a full body scan and told me I had great skin. So I reached a decision.”

“What’s that, Boss?”

“When I come back from Auschwitz-Birkenau I’m marrying the dermatologist.”

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LOVE IS A MIXED BAG

I think I’ve developed an allergy to Harry. That’ll teach me to have a night of debauchery with a dog.

One night a week ago I couldn’t sleep, tossed and turned for several hours. So Harry jumped on the bed and did what he’s always done, pushed against my body and stretched his head right towards my shoulder and cheek, nuzzling me and looking at me with big, brown, sweet eyes. He’d done this before many times and that particular night, nervous and lonely, I dearly appreciated his closeness.

“You’re such a good boy,” I murmured to him again and again.

The next day my skin felt funny. By nighttime a skin rash covered me from the top of my chest up to the chin and all along the left arm that had stroked Harry.

Who said love isn’t a mixed bag?

From the beginning, Harry was such a cuddler. On the very first January day, when my friend, Genro, and I picked him up from the Brattleboro SPCA, he jumped on the bed and, rather than staying a safe distance away, instantly pushed himself against me, snuggling against my shoulder and cheek, practically burrowing under my body.

I was charmed.

Not Aussie. “I have more self-respect than that,” she informed me, “not to mention that I have better things to do.” Like planning her next escape.

But Harry has always been the lover, the one who comes back again and again to check up on me when we walk in the woods, unlike his older sister, whose motto seems to be: Out of sight, out of mind.

I started being more mindful and restricted my love, petting him only with the palm of my hands and then washing them with soap and water, not letting him brush against the rest of my body, shutting the door of the bedroom. Once or twice we fell off and I felt him against my lower arms, where the skin started crinkling  just an hour later.

He looks at me a little confused. He can’t understand why I’m so careful, he doesn’t understand the vigilance that’s come between us.

The eczema is still there. I will see the dermatologist tomorrow and ask him if, after nine allergy-free months, I have developed an allergy to my short-hair dog. I’ll ask him if it’s possible to love someone in your heart and find resistance in the body. It’s a source of stress, I’ll tell him.

He might ask me if there are any other places of stress in my life, and I’ll say: Well, as a matter of fact I’m traveling on Wednesday night. He might ask: Where to? And I’ll say: I am taking my husband’s ashes to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and leaving them there, as he requested. And he’ll say: Well, that might do it, too.

 

 

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A HEAD UP IN THE AIR IS NO GOOD AT ALL

A gloomy fall day with rain predicted for the next couple of days. I wrap myself in the gray wool shawl that Bernie had gotten me from Colombia years ago even as Harry gets busy smelling my butt. He’s not being a pervert, just smelling my pants to see if it’s the black walking pants or the black yoga pants. It’s the black walking pants and his tail smacks right left right left very fast. I put on sneakers and pick up an umbrella in case of rain, and off we go.

Once in the woods, Aussie rushes forward as if late to a meeting, and Harry, the younger brother, runs after her. I may or may not see Aussie for a while, but Harry will be back to check up on me, after which off he’ll go to find her again. He gets upset when he can’t figure out where she went.

I finally get to the creek; nobody’s there. I lean back against the tree that’s half a foot above the water, barely avoiding Harry who gallops down the trail and into the creek, drinks, and lies down blissfully up to his neck in the cold water. In early summer he was so afraid you couldn’t get him to wet his paws. He wouldn’t drink there, wouldn’t cross the bridge, wouldn’t scamper through anything liquid. Now he splashes through the creek after Aussie, who just made a rare appearance, emerging happily soaked on the other side.

We haven’t had much rain so the ground is dry in the middle of the creek, which makes it easier for them to cross. After many rains the creek becomes a sea, but now they’re already hungrily scanning the other side, their next frontier.

I don’t mind their scampering off. I like to be alone here.

We so much want to stay in the Land of Light. Years ago, Bernie asked me to write Instructions to the Cook. We were walking together down Ashburton Avenue towards the Greyston Bakery around 1990 when he brought it up, describing how it would be his “Zen manual” for doing community development work.

I listened for a while, and then ventured the opinion that while all that was well and good, the book also had to contain the dark side. It couldn’t back away from discussing the hard work and burnout, the many people who left, the lack of money that took us to the brink time and time again. I couldn’t imagine writing a book that was just full of bright and optimistic teachings.

He didn’t want that at all, of course, and eventually got Rick Fields to do the book with him. It was his best-selling book. The only “dark” piece in it was the last chapter, almost an afterthought, about his first street retreat in 1991.

Bearing Witness was more my cup of tea, and that was the book I wrote with him: retreats at concentration camps, street retreats in Holy Week, etc. Light without dark didn’t interest me; the dark had to be there. Sometimes, in my case, a little too dark.

“See you later, alligator.”

“Aussie, you’re back. And here’s Harry.”

“Not for long. We’re off!”

“Where are you running, Auss?”

“I’m chasing something, can’t you tell?”

“And where are you going, Harry?”

“I’m chasing her.”

“Aussie, what are you chasing?”

“Animals! Don’t you know anything? Can’t you smell them? Can’t you feel the movement in the air? Aren’t you awake? I thought you’re the one who’s all about being awake, so where are you?”

“Well, right now I’m walking away from the creek and back to where we left the car.”

“I know what you’re doing.”

“What am I doing, Aussie?”

“You’re thinking! That’s what you’re doing.”

“How can you tell?”

“How can I miss it? You’re not looking around, you don’t have your nose up in the air like a proper sniffer—“

“Not all dogs sniff the air, Aussie. Harry, for example, puts his nose down to the ground—“

“You don’t notice what’s under your feet, you don’t smell the bear scat that’s just behind that shrub, you have no idea an owl is looking down at you from high up that tree, you don’t sniff out all the good things of fall. You’re just walking with your head up in the air. What good is that?”

“A head up in the air is no good at all, Aussie.”

 

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A SNEAKY NOT-KNOWER

When I sit with Kwan Yin in the early morning, everything is dark. Aussie comes out and looks out alongside me while Harry, more sensitive to the cold, sleeps late. At first, everything is indecipherable, but as the minutes go by light returns, and you can see below what I look at when dawn finally comes up.

In my last blog I wrote of the previous night when I couldn’t sleep out of anxiety about money. I got the kindest responses from readers, offerings of empathy, love, prayers, and money, not to mention practical suggestions such as taking sleep and anti-anxiety medications. I appreciated them all.

The truth is that anxiety about something or other is one of many endless conversations that go on in my brain. It’s not the loudest conversation, and certainly not the most interesting. In fact, it’s a very mechanical monologue that I’ve heard many times, with the same key words repeating for added energy (like lines to get canned applause) and even the same pauses that enable the loop to rewind and start all over.

I learned long ago that Zen practice is probably not going to get rid of many of these conversations: Yes, but what about me?—How could I have ever done something like that!—How could s/he do that to me!—What’s going to happen to me now? What it will do is relegate them into background noise. It’s as if meditation is making a deal with some ADD students: You could stay and do your thing, but in the corner of the room. Or: You could keep on talking but bring it down a little, okay? My mind operates like a pretty well-run classroom most of the day.

But on occasion the rules get forgotten and old conversations get loud and messy, a little like Harry in the car who whines louder and louder in my ear as I drive: Where are we going? When are we going to get there? WHERE ARE WE GOING? WHEN ARE WE GOING TO GET THERE?

The space of disconnection that I occupy since Bernie’s death gives lots more room for spillovers. When things don’t feel clear and certain, those kinds of conversations get louder and louder.

In the early mornings Awesome Aussie likes to remind me of not-knowing.

“If you go deep into not-knowing,” declaims the Zen dog, “you’ll find your answers.”

“That’s tricky, Auss,” says I.

“Why, Boss?”

“Because when you really don’t know, Aussie, you’re letting go of your old ways of thinking. Since you don’t know, you can be curious about everything.”

“That’s me, Boss,” she says. “I get curiouser and curiouser, until—“

“Until what, Aussie?”

“Until the answer shows up.”

“That’s my point, Aussie. You don’t practice not-knowing to get an answer.”

“Then what good is it, Boss?”

“It’s good for nothing, Aussie, that’s why we do it. Get it?”

“No.”

“We practice not-knowing to go deeper and deeper into don’t know, not as an exercise to get an answer.”

“But don’t good things come out of not-knowing?”

“The minute you judge them as good or bad, you already know. See?”

“No. But I think I know what I am, Boss.”

“What’s that, Awesome?”

“I’m a sneaky not-knower.”

 

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NO DOG’S LAND

“How come you’re moving around so much, Boss?”

“Because you’re pushing against my shoulder, Harry. My left shoulder, the one that aches. Can’t you just curl up peacefully without pushing so hard?”

“If I don’t push against you I don’t feel you, Boss.”

“You’re one tough little dog, Harry.”

“How come you can’t sleep? Usually you sleep pretty good. I can push against you all I want and you don’t stir.”

“I’m thinking a lot.”

“What’s that?”

“Voices talk in my head saying all kinds of things, and I connect them with a story.”

“I see.”

“You do, Harry?”

“If I had voices talking in my head I wouldn’t be able to sleep, either, Boss. They must be talking loud!”

“They are tonight, Harry. When they talk much softer it’s no problem, I’m used to having these conversations my entire life and usually they can go on without me. Tonight they’re loud.”

“What are they saying, Boss?”

“They’re saying I don’t have enough money.”

“What’s that, Boss?”

“Money is how I pay for your house and food, Harry.”

“You don’t hunt?”

“I don’t usually worry about it too much, but it’s hit me tonight. In fact, I think I’m having an anxiety attack about it.”

“Your anxiety attack is keeping me up, Boss.”

“How can it be keeping you up when you’re snoring against my ear, Harry?”

“Is an anxiety attack different from thinking?”

“It’s thinking speeded up, Harry.”

“I love speeding up when Awesome chases me!”

“This feels different, Harry. The thoughts come one after another faster and faster and get more intense till you feel that you can’t control anything.”

“Can’t you just stop, Boss?”

“Most of the time I can, but not this time. That’s when things get out of hand.”

“I know just what you mean, Boss. Aussie chases me hard and we run and run in circle, in and out of the house, but we stop when things get out of hand.”

“How do you do that, Harry? I’d like to stop my thoughts when things get out of hand, too.”

“I know it’s time to stop when Aussie starts snarling. You know how she is, Boss, she gets carried away and starts growling. Instead of chasing me in and out of the house she waits in ambush by the back door—“

“There’s no way she can catch you when you run your fastest, Harry—“

“–and she jumps out when I run past her and bangs me up good, and I’m such a delicate creature—“

“Your body’s as tough as a Pit Bull’s, Harry—“

“And when she does it again and starts snarling, I finally stop, and so does she. There’s a place we don’t go to.”

“What place is that, Harry?”

“No Dog’s Land. Dogs never go into No Dog’s Land, they leave it empty. We’re afraid of what can happen there, so we don’t go there. You should do the same, Boss.”

“What will happen to you if you go to No Dog’s Land, Harry?”

“Nobody knows. Nobody ever came back from No Dog’s Land, so we don’t know.”

“What happens if you end up there anyway, Harry?”

“If Awesome and I know how to stop, why don’t you, Boss?”

“Good question.”

“That’s why I push against you, Boss. As long as I feel you and you feel me, you’re not in No Dog’s Land.”

“But you’re hurting my shoulder, Harry!”

“That’s better than ending up in No Dog’s Land.”

“There’s got to be another way, Harry.”

“Just remember, if you stay away from No Dog’s Land, you’ll sleep better.  So will I.”

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THIS IS A CYNICAL POST

WARNING: THIS IS AN ELITIST, CYNICAL POST.  READ AT YOUR PERIL.

And now, for a rare comment on American politics. Rare because, since the 2016 elections, and seeing where the wind was blowing, I tried hard to keep on top of certain energies that occasionally reared up to the surface, surprising me with their intensity. They’re not doing anybody any good, I reasoned, so let’s not go there. Instead I got a red MAGA hat for folks in the zendo to serve as a talking piece when we do circle practice. See it, feel it, handle it, find something of yourself in that heavy red cotton.

Then came the decision to take troops out of northern Syria and the hat fell from my hands.

“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”

As someone commented on the endless media, if a corporate CEO had talked in this way the board of directors would quickly come together to discuss how to replace him/her.

I came to this country at the age of 7, and even then couldn’t help but notice how ignorant many Americans were about the rest of the world. As a teenager, I spoke to a travel agent one day about how to get from Israel to Europe, and she cheerfully suggested I take the train from Israel to Lebanon, Syria, then Turkey, etc.

“Those countries are at war with Israel,” I told her. She nodded helpfully.

What makes the ignorance worse is the arrogance that goes with it. “There’s a lot of sand they can play with,” said the President of the United States in discussing relationships among Turks, Kurds, and Syrians in Syria.

I tried to think of an equivalent in our own history:

“Our soldiers are having lots of fun water-skiing in the Mekong Delta.”

“Those Korean children aren’t afraid of being shelled from the air. Kids love boom-booms!’

“They can hardly wait to land in Normandy and start playing beach ball.”

“They only needed one thing in Gettysburg: Ear plugs.”

“Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas and New Year’s? That man didn’t like to party!”

And then there’s one of his fans in Louisiana who, when asked about Trump’s decision to withdraw troops and leave the Kurds to their fate, said: “ Hey. You had your help. We taught you how to fish, you oughta be able to eat.”

Yep, that about sums it up. And forgive this traveled, over-educated person pointing out that there isn’t too much water around northern Syria in which to fish. Or that Kurds, Syrians, and Turks have their roots in Mesopotamia and cultures millennia-old, long before there was even a gleam in anyone’s eye concerning the birth of a country on this side of the Atlantic. We’re teaching them how to fish?

If Donald Trump is the greatest president, the US is the greatest country. You say that billionaires pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle and lower economic classes? You say that all western countries and many others have medical insurance for all? You say that most European workers get at least 4 weeks paid vacation and home leave for family care, not to mention that a new mother gets to keep her job for after she gives birth and is ready to go back to work? THERE’S NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT IN AMERICA THAN FAMILY, UNLESS YOU COUNT GOD!

Just as I usually stay away from political talk, I also stay away from talk about catastrophe and the end of times. But recently, listening to an interview of Alexandra Fuller, I heard that apocalypse means revelation. That’s the kind of apocalypse we need, a revelation of things as they are, when we finally realize we’re not so grand and important, when we get a sense of our true proportions in this world. When the delusion that things are secure, that we will go on and on and on because bad things happen to other countries but never to us (Who remembers 9/11?), finally cracks.

And then we’ll need friends, whoever’s left.

Till then, nothing’s gonna happen. Certainly nothing like what’s happening to the Kurds, who luckily have lots of sand to play with, not to mention all that fish we taught them to extract from non-existent waters.

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ALWAYS SERVE THE TIOSPAYE

A big blue house has arisen near me. There was nothing there but the usual mix of tall canopy trees and saplings, but one afternoon a year ago I walked Harry and Aussie on the road and met an elderly couple, who happily informed me that their daughter would be building a house for her and them.

Over the past year I heard the endless loud rasping of electric saws and watched truck after truck drive up our country road loaded with the heavy trunks of trees taken down. A big clearing appeared, and then a big house with a deck in front and a deck in back. Big enough, I thought, to give separate living spaces for the daughter and the parents if they so wish.

As big as it was, it wasn’t big enough for me to live with my parents there.

I left my parents’ home a long time ago and proceeded to put much distance between us because I was sure I couldn’t become an autonomous adult anywhere in their vicinity. They wished to enforce an old, East European, orthodox Jewish way of life, resorting to violence when I was a child and pushing and threatening for many years later. I was an alien in their midst, weird, crazy, and always in the wrong. It took them years to mellow, during which they’d built their life in Jerusalem and I built mine here.

Now as I’m older, and especially after Bernie’s death, I think of what is missed when you live so far away from your family of origin, especially if, like me, you don’t have children of your own.  I don’t miss my mother as much as I do my brother and sister, and feel my distance from their families, too. The Zen Peacemakers became an alternate family for me and I love to see them whenever we get together, as three of us did this past week traveling to the Black Hills. But we’re spread out and don’t usually come together except in shared programs or projects. I have to invest a lot more in local friends and community.

Then there are our Lakota friends, with whom I spent the past weekend. In talking circles and in retreats, I hear them talk a lot about the importance of being loyal to their tiospaye, or extended family, and to their nation. “All the skills that you develop, everything you become, has to serve the tiospaye,” said an elder this past weekend to the young riders who rode for three freezing days to join the gathering at Bear Butte. They listened, nodding silently. Nothing else was more important.

I have heard the same words said again and again at our summer retreats with them, and noticed, not with a little cynicism, that when they say this their white audience listens with bated breath, eyes gleaming with admiration. How many of you are really read to do this? I want to ask them. I ran as far from my tiospaye as my legs could carry me, and to this very day I don’t regret it. Most of us grow up trying to develop as individuals, find our own voice and follow our own vision. How many are ready to make the sacrifices necessary to put the family, the clan, the tribe, ahead of ourselves?

There are sacrifices either way. There is much corruption on the reservations, with governing bodies that favor one family over another, that award money, jobs, and patronage to members of their own tiospaye rather than to those who most deserve it. Top-down control is exerted unabashedly, discouraging entrepreneurs from starting small businesses and denying others opportunities that would benefit the entire nation.

The same is true in many Arab countries. From my experience I can attest to Palestine and Jordan, not to mention (from my readings) Syria and Afghanistan. We Westerners push on them a democratic form of government, which they pay lip service to, but Yasser Arafat stayed in control of Palestine as long as he awarded patronage to the heads of clans who then gave these out to members of their family. That’s how King Hussein stays in power in Jordan, it’s how the Assad family has retained control in Syria. Tribal heads control things in Afghanistan; no prime minster stays around long without their say-so.

This is part of the shadow of giving everything to the tiospaye. You get safety and security, maybe even a job or subsidy or gift. But what about the greater community? What about the nation? And what about the individual?

Then there are us Westerners, who grew up with a strong emphasis on our inalienable right to the pursuit of individual happiness. We cultivate our gifts, discover our voice, and ask ourselves again and again: Am I happy? If not, what will make me happy? The price we pay is that many of us are very, very lonely.

There’s no fault here anywhere, just a scale where one end talks always of serving the family and clan and the other points to realizing your own joy and satisfaction. We are somewhere on that scale, making lots of compromises and traveling up and down several notches. Regardless of where we land, there is usually a price to be paid.

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THE HORSE WILL CARRY YOU

 

Photo by Michel Dobbs

The riders arrived in late afternoon Saturday.

There were some 6 of them, mostly young people without the proper riding shoes and even, someone pointed out to me, without socks. The day was freezing, with gusts close to 40 mph, and they rode their horses on snow while covering the bottom half of their faces with scarves for protection against the cold. They tied up the horses and brushed them before coming in for a meat soup, some fried chicken, salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Later they would take the horses down to pasture.

Still later, an hours-long talking circle.

During the meal I heard whispers of a young rider living in a van for 2 years, someone else in very mean circumstances in a trailer park. The horses are their salvation. The horses are in their blood. “I did everything in my life,” one man tells me. “I did 12-step programs, psychotherapy, hypnosis. The only thing that helped me were the horses.”

This was a short weekend with our Native American friends at Bear Butte, South Dakota. I got there fast, and got home fast. My travels are usually like that; after doing what I came to do, I rarely stay anywhere an extra day or two to rest, I prefer to get back home as soon as possible. But this was too fast, leaving me not so much tired as confused, carrying in my stomach a rich meal I haven’t yet digested.

We arrived in the aftermath of snow, and while only several inches had fallen, the gusts blew hard all Friday and Saturday. The snow was enough to make travel difficult, especially on the reservations. As a result, only a few people showed up. It was but a momentary disappointment for we sat together with Renee and Manny Ironhawk and a few others, descended from survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre, and the intimacy of the group helped us plunge into stories and discussions. Mostly, I bore witness to how gallant, humble people try to save their culture, language and tradition against so many odds.

My husband, Bernie, felt that we had to awaken to the fact that we’re all one, all one unity. That was as close as he got to a concept of God. Buddhism has the archetype of the Buddha, who sat alone till he had a full experience of this, but Bernie believed that we need others to awaken.

I feel the same. I sit alone or with other meditators practically every day, but my gut tells me that awakening to the deepest essence requires me to meet the Other. And one of those Others (there are many of them) is the Lakota Nation and other Native people who were massacred by white people, whose land was stolen and plundered by white people, whose children were stolen from them and put in boarding schools by white people, and whose strong culture and spiritual traditions were prohibited and taken away by white people. That karma continues to this day.

I, a white woman, has to bear witness to those on the other side of things, people who are minorities in this country by virtue of skin color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. I need this other side to show me things I’ve ignored and am blind to, otherwise what challenges my habitual way of thinking and the assumptions I make, safe in a zone of comfort and entitlement?

Traveling to the Black Hills helps lift the gauze from my eyes. The sky is big, the stars many, and at night the almost-full moon rose behind Bear Butte and shone in the darkness. Buffalo roamed here once. People rode here once, not just a few but many. The earth felt their hooves, and the earth responded.

Joan Halifax wrote: “Start to realize that transformation isn’t an adornment to your existing life, but its complete unraveling.” Back home I study and read books, I gain adornment after adornment till I feel heavy and slow, unable to respond nimbly to life. Out here with the Lakota something begins to unravel.

“Even with all your worries and afflictions,” an elder told the young riders on Saturday evening, “don’t forget your horse. The horse will carry you with everything that you carry.”

photo by Michel Dobbs
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PUT IT ALL IN SERVICE

Photo taken at Takini School, Howes, SD

Every time I look at the photo of the wonderful Violet Catches holding the hand of Greta Thunberg between the two of hers, I want to cry and cheer and tell everyone: Yes, there is hope for us!

And I hope to see Violet this evening.

Yesterday it snowed in Rapid City, South Dakota, part of a big snowstorm to hit the Great Plains. Luckily, I’ve arrived there today in the afternoon and will only have to contend with swirling snow and winds as we find our way to Bear Butte and a weekend gathering of the Descendants of Wounded Knee. Three of us (Zen Peacemakers) are going at the express invitation of Manny and Renee Ironhawk, a quick but packed weekend returning us to the East Coast very late Sunday night.

I have no idea how to support a gathering of families descended from those hundreds of Lakota, over a hundred years ago, camped below that low ridge with the big Hotchkiss guns blasting away at what were mostly women and children. The firing power was so lopsided (the Indians were previously disarmed) that it’s assumed that most of the 25 US Cavalry dead were also killed by their own fire.

“You can just hang out with them and listen,” said a friend who has spent years bearing witness at Pine Ridge.

I am certainly ready to listen to stories. At the same time, I think about my mother. I must have heard my mother’s stories of living through the Holocaust literally hundreds of times. Unlike other survivors who didn’t like to talk, my mother couldn’t stop talking. She’s also an excellent storyteller, and to this very day, at the age of 91, continues to be invited to speak in front of groups, especially around Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

But in all the years of watching her do this, I never got a sense of healing. She gets dewy-eyed in the same places of her narrative, cries in the same places, pauses while overcome with emotion in the same places. I feel that she relives the trauma again and again, though in milder form. She clings with greater ferocity than ever to the label Holocaust Survivor, and as her mind begins to fade she yields to frequent bursts of paranoia, telling me on the phone that the Nazis are coming back to hunt everyone down.

Telling your story is crucial to healing, but it’s often not enough. Some people get stuck in the same cycle of telling and reliving things again and again over an entire lifetime.

We had a number of survivors at our Auschwitz retreats in Poland in the early years. Some relished telling their stories in front of large groups, clearly enjoying the rapt attention. Others were more reticent, refusing to speak until a space of trust had been created. None were given center stage. Small council groups continued to take place at 7 each morning where other people told their stories: The Belgian woman who bitterly regretted not talking to her father for decades before he died; the Unitarian minister remembering the death of her daughter; a man crying over his wife dead in an accident, German participants recalling the silence that enveloped their upbringing.

Many times people said it was crazy to bring this up at a place like Auschwitz, but to me it wasn’t crazy at all. Auschwitz wasn’t just death, it was everything.

The Great Plains aren’’t just about death, either. We’ll find snow, buttes and mountains, the motorcycle city of Sturgis, past and present melting into one. I call it a Mix and Match. Listening to stories of suffering, bearing witness to life now on the reservation, but sharing our lives, too, smoking cigarettes outdoors while speculating about the weather. I think pain and trauma heal when you start mixing them up with life.

There’s heaviness for me these October days before Bernie’s memorial, I can feel the extra layers. But these sensations are mixed with the sunlight and the dogs scampering among the colorful leaves, digging up dahlias, and a return to South Dakota to take in other people’s loss and catastrophe.

Pain is healed when it gets placed in a bigger context, in birth and death, jokes and the play of children, the frolics of new dogs, tears over what we had and didn’t have, and the sense that something continues even when you don’t.

And when a Lakota elder holds the hand of Greta Thunberg and blesses her. There they are, reaching across continents, cultures, and generations: the young Swedish teenager who can’t rest thinking of all that is dying around us, and the Lakota elder at Cheyenne River Reservation, encouraging us all to be the voice for those who have no voice. Both don’t look away from the suffering inside and out, and then put all of it in service of life.

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WHAT’S BIG AND WHAT’S SMALL?

“Do you love me?”

“Yeah-I-love-you.”

“It’s fall here again, so beautiful, can you see it?”

“You-know-I’m-color-blind.”

“Who’re you talking to, Boss?”

“I’m talking to Bernie, Aussie.”

“Does he answer?”

“You heard him.”

“I hear you.”

“Well, Auss, Bernie wasn’t much for personal communication even when he was alive, so I have to make this easier for him.”

This morning I said hi to Miss Compassion in the back and noticed she wore a green earring. I wonder if the caterpillar plans to stay there, attached to Kwan-Yin’s earlobe as it spins its chrysalis. Not the worst place in the world for a metamorphosis.

Bernie couldn’t talk. He loved, but couldn’t express it directly. Things were fine as long as I worked with him and joined his efforts. The minute I stepped out into my own work, he couldn’t find the bridge to me. We either talked about work, or else we didn’t talk.

Much of my private life with him I felt lonely and even invisible. When it came to appreciation, I got used to a radical diet. Even after his stroke, which turned both of our lives upside-down (differently for each of us), I didn’t hear anything like “What would I do without you?” (Answer: not much.).

After his death people told me that he talked to them a lot about me and what I did for him, and how he wouldn’t be alive if not for me. His caregiver told me that if she cooked something good for him he asked if there was enough for me, too, when I came home. But he couldn’t say those things to me directly. He thought them, but couldn’t speak them.

We had a small blowup about this once. I turned from the kitchen counter, looked him straight in the eye and asked, “Why can’t you say something to me?”

He looked back at me, bewildered, and said, “I don’t know.”

My father grew up in a shtetl where his father, the local rabbi, enforced a Method of Silence used by certain religious Jews to raise children, where nothing was expressed to children except for the most practical things (Eat your breakfast, go to sleep, etc.). When he finally left my mother after over 40 years of marriage, it wasn’t because his new wife was younger, as my mother thought, but because she was far more emotionally giving, even effusive, as my mother couldn’t be.

We want to be loved. Independent Aussie comes to me and leans her head against my leg, not for food or even a walk (it’s raining), but for attention.

I knew I was loved by my husband, but I didn’t feel loved. There’s a big difference. I know the stories—his mother died, his father and stepmother were uncaring—but those stories don’t nourish. You want to feel loved—not as a student, but as a wife.

A friend of mine, thinking of her husband after he died and their life together, said to me: “We invested a lot in our private life, so it was very beautiful. But we didn’t invest much in helping the world. You guys did. You led a big life.”

What’s big and what’s small?

I talk to Bernie quite a bit now, 11+ months after he’s dead. And since I know he wasn’t much for loving communication, I don’t hesitate to answer for him, using his tone and the slow pause between each word due to the aphasia he suffered from the stroke.

“Do you love me?”

“Of-course-I-do. And-I-miss-you.”

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