A view of St. Gallen from my room

Wednesday afternoon in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Tomorrow our retreat begins, ending on Sunday with a ceremony recognizing and honoring a new Zen teacher. Later that same day, on to Bern with friends, and on Monday there will be time for discussions about the Zen Peacemaker Order with co-spiritual director Jorge Koho Mello, who’ll arrive from Zurich. Later the next day, Tuesday, a return flight to Boston. If I’m not super exhausted when I arrive, I’ll drive home that same night.

Still in the same room overlooking St. Gallen, its big cathedral to the south, heavy clouds crossing beneath blue skies, reminding me of my day-to-day life, blue skies crisscrossed by gray clouds sometimes frequently, sometimes rarely, sometimes not at all. From Lori back home I hear that Aussie, who stepped on something long and sharp last Saturday, is still limping a bit and will miss out on some walks.

In the Sunday ceremony, I will ask my new successor, Franziska, to vow not to let the Buddha seed be discontinued. Not to let the realization of awakening, and more precisely, of being awakened, fade or even come to an end. She vows to carry it on, and I vow to support her no matter what.

Traditionally, this ceremonial exchange of vows takes place very privately late at night, dating back many centuries to a time when Buddhism was persecuted and new teachers had to be recognized in secret. But in this case we will do it in broad daylight in front of some 30 witnesses. And why not? We need all the help we can get. Perhaps the ceremony will inspire more people to take on the vow of awakening to the oneness of life, the One Body, not to let gray clouds mar our view of blue, infinite skies.

It’s easy to get discouraged when we look at the world. Violence, refugees, pandemic, climate change, etc. And then I remember that in China over a millennium ago, in the 8th century An Lushan Rebellion, two-thirds of the population died due to war, drought, and starvation. Historians say that’s approximately one-sixth of what was then the total world population.

In response, a few Chan masters began to develop new skillful means for how to awaken to the essence. Enough of purification rites, enough of texts and study. A treasure hides in every single moment of life, regardless of whether you judge it good or bad, full of hate or full of love. Can we see that?

To discover and walk through that gate—that was the work, that was the practice.

We’ve been laboring hard these past days, Franziska and me, studying and reviewing documents, looking at names going back a couple of millennia, planning the retreat and ceremony. It didn’t help that I arrived with a pinched nerve that sent bursts of pain up the left side of my back for two days. But this morning I woke up, got up, walked gingerly, and felt it was almost gone.

These are the days when you realize how many shoulders you’re standing on, that you’re being carried not by your own strength and willpower but by the energy of multitudes. My great hope is that those participating in the retreat and ceremony will see that they, too, are being carried forward, that so much has been given and done for their sake and on their behalf, that a great tapestry of mutual care was born before there was such a thing as birth and our job is to sew one more stitch, or even one-half of a stitch, in that unimaginable, timeless field.

We can do it however we choose. Franziska chose to do this by teaching, but we can do this by taking care of the garden, taking care of children, doing a good job. I couldn’t be here in St. Gallen if my sister wasn’t in Jerusalem, taking care of my mother.

From my window I see two hospitals in the center of town, and every once in a while, day and night, a helicopter lands on top of one of them delivering people who need care. At the same time, a giant crane circles round and round, raising and lowering blocks of cement to cover a tunnel that crosses the city. So much attention, so much care wherever I look.

The blog will be silent till early next week.

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A view of St. Gallen from my room

I arrived in Switzerland this morning. I will spend some days with Franziska Schneider, who leads Zen-Zentrum Im Grunen Ring in St. Gallen. We’ll do retreat together and finally, on Sunday, a ceremony recognizing Franziska as a teacher and lineage holder.

Here in Switzerland retreat centers are fully booked, as are movie theaters and concert halls. My part of the US feels very different. The airport in Boston was half empty on a Sunday night, but I still enjoyed watching the people,  especially since only Emirates and British Airlines seemed to be flying out of our termina,l with many Muslim passengers.

I have a fond recollection of paying $150 each way to fly between Paris and New York City one summer in 1982 on Pakistan Airlines. I’d sat next to a very elegant, elderly Pakistani man who was bemused by a single young woman flying to Paris on her own. The airline offered both Western and Pakistani cuisines and he suggested I take the latter, unless I was very attached to ham. I assured him that was not the case.

Many people have pet peeves when they fly; I have one, and that is when I approach my seat on the plane and find that my fellow passenger has loaded his/her blankets, pillows, bags, and sandwiches on my seat. This happens even when I board early. I stand at the aisle, the line behind me coming to a halt, while my fellow passenger starts taking back all his/her blankets, pillows, bags, etc., with a grimace of frustration, as though somehow all this is my fault. That didn’t happen last night, if only because the flight was about 25% full.

The weather changed dramatically the weekend before I left. We had warm, humid days for most of September, but that ended with a big storm on Friday, and when the storm was over the air cleared and temperatures dropped. I popped my head out the front door that night before turning off all the light, and knew that fall had come. There was no mist. Gone the moths circling around the outside bulb, gone the mosquitoes and gnats, no sounds of mating from the river below, just dark, eternal trees. The hummingbirds are already gone and when I return home next week I’ll take down their feeders, wash them, and put them in the basement for next summer. That will also be the time to clean up the yard.

Back home, we live nature’s cycles. I lived another cycle earlier today. Franziska picked me up from the Zurich airport and took me to Lassalle- Haus, the beautiful Jesuit-Zen retreat center in Bad Schonbrunn, and there we had lunch with Niklaus Brantschen, a Jesuit and Zen master who led the House for many years.

I met Niklaus back in 1994 when I joined him and his partner, Sr. Pia Gyger, who then headed the order of nuns of Ste. Katharina-Werk, as well as Bernie for a street retreat on the streets of Zurich. Switzerland was being flooded by immigrants from Russia and East Europe and we met many of them on the streets. Since then, of course, Switzerland has given safe haven to many refugees from Syria, the Balkans, and Africa. We slept on park benches and walked around at all hours of the night.

Bernie in particular wanted to visit the Letten, a large park right in the middle of Zurich where the authorities permitted drugs of all kinds to be bought and sold. We later wrote about it in the book Bearing Witness.  Meantime, however, the authorities had come under a lot of pressure and closed up the Letten, so the addicts and dealers were back on the Zurich streets to do their business.

Niklaus and Pia continued to do street retreats in Zurich, and we talked about that over lunch today. One of the many gifts Bernie gave me was an appreciation and respect for genuine interfaith practice, where you plunge into the traditions, vocabulary, and practices of other religions. It was a very common thing at Greyston to have, in addition to Zen meditation, Sunday mass, Shabbat services, and Sufi Zikr. He’d send folks to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to meet with the Rector of the Cathedral and his close friend, the Very Rev. James Morton.

But I never quite appreciated that work till the first time I arrived at Lassalle-Haus in 1994, met Pia and Niklaus, and attended their annual interreligious dialogues. We participated in mass, they participated in Buddhist liturgy. Six years later we all met in Jerusalem to do a study of interfaith koans. The breadth of these practices at times takes my breath away. How did I ever acquire so much merit as to receive all these gifts?

So today Franziska, Niklaus and I had lunch, then sat on the terrace with coffee, and finally went into a small zendo and sat together for a short while. Bernie is no longer here, Sr. Pia is no longer here.

He walked us to the car, taking my arm. I said: “Niklaus, I am the least nostalgic, sentimental person I know, but when I’m in Lasalle-Haus I get nostalgic.”

He squeezed my arm. When we parted I said to him: “Zu Zamen halten,” which is what we used to say together back then at the end of each meeting: We go on.

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saying goodbye

“You know what I’m thinking, Chavale?”

“What are you thinking, mom?”

“Our prophets warned us that if we don’t obey God, if we don’t do what He tells us to do, terrible things will happen. The rains won’t come, the crops will fail, our enemies will kill us. Even the earth will swallow us up. Who the hell needs that? People are people. People have the right to believe in whoever or whatever they want!”

“Yes, mom,” I say. And remember the religious persecution in my home when I grew up. I wasn’t burned at the stake for refusing to live an orthodox Jewish life, but I was beaten and threatened with permanent exile from home and family, so I did the job myself, left home, and put two oceans between them and me.

That was then, this is now.

“What are we doing?” my mother continues. “Let’s just eat together, say grace, sing songs, and go home to the family. What else do we need, right?”

“Right, mom.”

“You were always the one who understood me.”

For a while I get lost in thought. There’s some irony in the fact that it took late-age dementia to bring out a more liberal, open, generous side of my mother. She has her memories, too, of a very harsh father and an impoverished upbringing—all before the Holocaust came along. I think of a conversation with my sister:

“Mom and I were talking,” she recounts, “and she mentioned how her favorite brother, Simcha, had groaned to her regularly about how hungry he was. So, I asked her: ‘And did you talk to anyone about how hungry you were, mom?’ And she said: ‘Who did I have to talk to about that?’”

In the end, I think, it all comes out in the wash. It doesn’t come out white and clean. Instead, it may come out a little faded and a little dreamy—and why not, given how long that laundry has been in the machine?

In 1969 my parents flew from New York to Ottawa to visit my cousin.

“I can’t tell you what a beautiful trip that was,” my mother said later, and then proceeded to tell me. “We were there for four days and we were treated so well. He took us on his boat in the day and we played backgammon in the evenings [my cousin was a champion backgammon player back then]. But you know what was the best thing of all?”

“What, mom?”

“We were just like everybody else. We had the roll-on luggage with wheels that everybody uses now, you know what I mean? Not the way we used to travel, with cheap suitcases that were always bursting apart in the seams. Whenever bags came down the belt that were torn open with the clothes hanging out of them, those were our bags. But not this time. This time we traveled like other American people, with American passports and nice luggage!”

If she had gotten a business class ticket she couldn’t have been happier. Finally, she was like everybody else here. She was middle class, no longer poor.

This came back to me when I was with Jimena last time, finishing up with food cards and more cash assistance for Hilaria (I won’t see her for two weeks). A young woman came by to talk to Jimena. She left soon, entered her car and began driving off. That’s when Jimena, who loves children, saw the little boy in the car. She took a few steps down and yelled: “Milton! Mi Milton!” And she waved her hands wildly and hallooed and jumped up and down to get the little boy’s attention.

The little boy waved from the car. He was nicely dressed and ensconced in his car seat, and the woman also waved as she drove away, and I wondered how many years it had taken her to finally get an old car and a real car seat for her child. I know the rules require it, but if you have a number of little children it doesn’t always work, so you drive hoping no one stops you. Assuming you drive. Assuming you have a car.

Yesterday I had a second appointment with the dentist. He finished off a root canal and set me up for a crown. I can’t complain, notwithstanding the hefty credit card bill that will arrive soon; my teeth required little dental work for many years. But now they need help; just think of how much chewing they’ve done!

And again, I thought of my mother. She also had good teeth, but age caught up with them, too. Every time she went to dentists and heard what was required she’d feign shock and then curse them for charging her so much. “They’re all cheats and liars, they want to make a fortune on me.”

“I don’t think they’ll make a fortune on your teeth, mom.”

“They’re crooks, every single one of them!”

She finally found a dentist who was still working at the age of 95. He did minimal work on her teeth for practically nothing; he respected her for being a Holocaust survivor. To put it somewhat venally, my mom has proudly cashed in on being a Holocaust survivor for many years.

Such small routine things we ordinarily never think about: roll-on luggage, an old car, a car seat, maybe a Red Sox cap on Milton’s head. Maybe, if we’re lucky, a dentist who’s not a crook.

Welcome to America.

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“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that is uncomfortable. I dare you.”

That’s what Michaela Coel said when she won her Emmy award the other day. I saw her series, I May Destroy You, and it fit the bill. It’s about Arabella, a writer who downs a spiked drink and is then raped in the bathroom of a bar. But more than that, it’s about a young black woman in London who writes a book (or at least tries), loves sex, drinks and vapes without stop, falls in love with an Italian and Italy, tweets constantly on her phone, insults people who get under her skin and then asks for forgiveness, has pink hair and no hair, and when faced with the choice of writing or party, chooses party.

Parts of her bewildered me, even appalled me. Mostly, I loved her. Coel wrote, directed, produced, and starred in that series. Talk about creativity!

If I’m a workaholic, Arabella is easily distracted. If I try not to react to someone, Arabella is right in their face.  If I’m disciplined, Arabella’s ready to ditch everything for a laugh. If I’m careful with men, Arabella takes the blood-drenched tampon out of her vagina right in front of the guy she’s going to have sex with. And even as I watch her hurting and getting hurt, I think to myself: This is life. This woman is flesh, blood, organs, hormones, bones and muscle, everything.

Is it any wonder that, other than giving Coel a writing award, the Emmys all but ignored the best series of 2020?

We ignore gifts at our peril. I fly to Switzerland to teach next week, and my hostess offered me her family’s apartment in the Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. It sounded perfect. I knew I’d be working hard, have worked hard till now, so what better than taking five days’ vacation in a beautiful area where I’ve never been?

There were lots of reasons why this didn’t work out, but if I were to summarize them, I’d say I fell victim to the what if’s:

What if I get sick and need to quarantine?

What if they change the covid rules?

What if I’m needed back home for work? (As if I’m that important)

What if I’m needed by somebody back home? (As if I’m that important)

What if my mother gets sick?

What if I miss this deadline or that meeting?

Here is a great idea, my intuition told me, a wonderful gift by a good friend. Experience has taught me that intuitions are a gift from the Buddha. You can’t account for them through history or psychology, they appear out of nowhere, undeserved, unearned, a treasure you find on the ground that says Pick me up and take me home!

And then the left side of my brain begins to batter the gift down to size: What if? How do you know this will work? You’ll hate being alone! Do you know what can happen while you’re gone?

The pile of what if’s gets heavier and heavier, with lots more layers of analysis and parsing, hair-splitting doubts and questions, and when it’s all over the gift has sunk under all that brain debris, can’t breathe, gives up the ghost.

One day I woke up as if out of a trance, said to myself: Are you crazy? and tried to change the ticket to enable those 5 days. But by then, even with no change fees, the higher fares made it impossible.

Michaela’s Arabella would have booked the right ticket from the get-go and never looked back. No what if’s, just hoping maybe for a hot Swiss guy and lots of wine.

Today was laundry and house-cleaning day. I gathered up the laundry and stripped the bed, creating more disorder in the process of achieving order, when the dogs started playing in the bedroom. They chased each other up and down the bed, Henry biting on Aussie’s tail and trying to pull her after him or else nibbling on her ear. At times Aussie, four times bigger and heavier than Henry, collapsed right over him, digging her muzzle into his neck, and stayed like that for so long I grew alarmed.

“Aussie, get off him!”

But as soon as she did Henry jumped up and grabbed her ear again: Do it again, Aussie! Do it again!

The house was a mess, pillows and blankets on the floor, the vacuum cleaner loud, the smell of cleansers and fresh laundry, and smack in the middle of it the dogs partied and partied.

Aussie, Henry, and Arabella. My new Zen teachers.

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Jimena and I sat outside her home, giving out food cards and discussing what else was needed, when a tall, dark, buxom woman arrived. She picked up a food card and then sat on the front steps along with Jimena while Jimena furiously worked on the woman’s phone.

“Lily [not her real name] is illiterate in both Spanish and English,” Jimena later told me, apologizing for leaving me a while, ”and I had to register the woman’s children for soccer activities and extra-help classes in the school. Now everything is done online but she can’t do it, she only knows her password.”

She leaves me to reflect on what it is to be illiterate in your native country and make your way illegally across the border all the way up to the Northeast, into another culture and language where you’re illiterate twice over. It’s not that there are no free classes in English here, there are, but most of these parents work long hours on the farms and rush home to take care of their children.

More important, they’re vulnerable. They’re afraid to make any waves, raise a voice, do anything that calls attention to them. And don’t many of us want to call some attention to ourselves? How many of us have lived an entire lifetime trying to stand out in the crowd, our system shouting: Me! Me! Me! Look at me! Listen to me!

Not if you’re in Lily’s situation. Or Hilaria’s sister, for example, who is taking care of Hilaria now. Hilaria, as you know, deaf her entire life, was hospitalized for seizures and came home after several weeks. Her sister took her in to take care of her while Hilaria waits for the brain swelling to come down and get stronger so that she could undergo needed surgery once they work out how to do this without medical insurance. Her meds alone, without insurance, are a lot of money.

The sister’s landlord saw Hilaria in the apartment and immediately insisted she leave. Jimena told me the story:

“I went there and explained what happened to her and that she needs care. She’s deaf and had seizures and was in the hospital for a long time. I told him she had her own apartment and her sons are there right now, but they can’t take care of their mother. She wasn’t trying to move in with her sister illegally, she just needed care for a while. He said she’s using water for her showers and therefore must leave. I told him they pay for their water, not him. It took a long time till he left them alone.”

“And her sister? Did she say anything?”

“They don’t say anything, Eve, they’re afraid. They pay their rent, they pay utilities, they work very hard, but anybody can say something crazy to them and they won’t speak up because they’re afraid.”

They’re vulnerable. People can hurt them; people can deport them; people can deport their children. There are many families with just one parent because the other was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So, they stay quiet. Their children, too, learn to stay quiet. They feel the sharp, raw edge all around them; it could give at any moment. They acquire new accessories: a mask, a cloak of invisibility, a muzzle on the mouth, or a toughness to scare away the terror.

“I think I’m going to die very soon,” my mother informs me when I call her this morning. “They can’t keep on beating me and beating me and expect me to just go on living.”

“Who’s beating you, mom?”

They. I go in to see the doctors and if I don’t give the right answers they slap me in the face.”

“What doctors, mom? What answers?”

“Chavale, don’t pretend you don’t know. Doctors. And they ask me questions that I don’t know and I get a slap in the face. Every day! One day my head will just fall off.”

“I’ll talk to them, mom, I promise.”

“You will?”

“I will talk to them and tell them they can’t beat you anymore, mom. We’ll all call them and tell them that, and they’ll stop.”

“You think they’ll listen?”

“I’m sure they will listen, we’ll give them no choice.”

I long ago learned to accept my mother’s stories arising from her dementia. If I try to persuade her that it’s not real she’ll hang up the phone. When things like that arise, we promise her we’ll take care of them, and that soothes her, at least till the next time. It’s very sad that experiences of Holocaust and an impoverished, neglectful family life come up for her day after day after a lifetime of brushing them off and trying to out-tough shadows and memories.

I wish my vulnerabilities and fears could be soothed so simply. When I look closely at what lies hidden behind confusion and stress, it’s old fears of messing up and failing, of again being unloved, again being abandoned. Same old same old.

What soothes me? Putting my hand through Aussie’s soft black hair as she nuzzles against my knee, reminding me that the computer isn’t alive but she is, that the screen has no heartbeat but she does, and that old voices in the head are nothing like two brown, bright eyes and dark, smudgy eyebrows. She’s saved me with her physical presence many times, just like my sister came to my mother’s home in the middle of the night a few days ago and lay alongside her in bed so that if a cult was coming to kidnap her, they’d have to get through her daughter first.

Marta [not her real name] asked for money to send her mother in Mexico. Her mother and family ran for their lives when a river flooded their Mexican village. Their small home was damaged beyond repair and they lost everything, including their beds. They are staying temporarily with relatives, but they asked their daughter for extra help just so they could eat. The family they stay with barely has food for itself, never mind for another family, so their daughter asked me for help to send them more money for food.

I don’t usually solicit money for people to send their families back home (they all send whatever they can afford back home), with one exception, and that was when a woman lost both her parents to covid in Ecuador and the undertaker wouldn’t release their bodies for burial till he received $400. We sent her that money. But this time, too, I thought to ask for money for this woman’s family because I thought of the floods in Tennessee, New York, and New Jersey, people drowning in basement apartments and cars.

They’re no longer the only vulnerable ones; so are we. The scale and substance are different, but in essence vulnerability’s the same: the sense of life lying in ambush, ready to overwhelm and even destroy, losing track of what, if anything, holds us up. I share that with Lily, I share it with Marta and with Jimena. With my mother.  Except that they haven’t put on their masks as I have, haven’t told life they could beat it hands down.

They ask for help.

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Happy Birthday to me!


“Aussie, I’m sick and tired of the ads that appear on my phone.”

“What ads?”

“At night I like to play word games on my phone, and in between games appear all these ads: Protect your brain, download this. Or: Keep your brain sharp! Or: Your parents should have played this game! Or: Doctors wish every person over 45 would download this! I’ve had it with all this fear-mongering about dementia and decline, as if any day now I’m going to lose my mind.”

“And why are you playing word games?”

“Because they’re fun, Aussie. Also, good for my mind. The point is, Aussie, age is a big deal everywhere you look. I went to get your dog food and—”

“What did you get?”

“The usual.”


“And what do I find? A dogfood line called Raw Longevity, Auss. Raw, as in raw food—”

“I love raw food!”

“And what about longevity? I mean, who calls dog food Longevity? Tell the truth, Aussie, are you concerned about how long you’ll live?”


“Do you worry about how you look?”

“Of course not, I’ll be 4 tomorrow (Happy birthday to me!) and the cutest thing you ever saw. You, on the other hand—”

“What, Aussie?”

“Well, for one thing, you’re not four. You could dye your hair, you know. You’d be a terrific blonde.”

“I was a blonde once, Auss, and it wasn’t terrific. In my 30s I colored my hair every color under the sun. I even had green hair once, but that was by accident”.

“If you walked me more you’d definitely look better.”

“I went to have coffee with a man I never met, Aussie. He was already waiting when I got out of the car and watched as I walked over towards him, and instantly I could see I wasn’t his type. He didn’t care for my mixture of brown/gray/silver hair, for a body that is no longer lithe—”

“You were never lithe—”

“Or slender or agile—”

“In my lifetime I never saw you slender or agile—”

“You only know me for three years, Auss. And now, it’s not just the ads about mind-saving games but also ads for games to lessen your anxiety. They ask you to move about 100 cubes a minute or find 50 differences between two photos in 30 seconds flat. Just looking at those ads gives me anxiety.”

“You know what I think? I think you’re afraid of not being loved anymore because you’re getting older.”

“That’s very insightful of you, Aussie.”

“You’re afraid that if you lose your mind nobody will care about you.”

“Maybe you’re right. I’ve had a good mind for most of my life. What happens if I misplace it or can’t find it? Like maybe leave it inside the freezer or something like that. Will you love me then, my young Aussie?”

“Yes, but make sure to write down what you give me for breakfast and dinner and when in case you forget.”

“Loss is the price you pay for love, Auss. Somebody once said: ‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.’”

“Who said that?”

“I don’t remember.”

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Under the forsythia tree

“So how was your date?”

“What date, Aussie?”

“The one you had a few weeks ago. The one where you actually went out and met somebody. Had dinner. Talked. Remember dates?”

“Tell you the truth, Auss, I forget what they look like. It was very nice.”

“That doesn’t sound so good.”

“Nice is nice,  Aussie. Only it’s not enough.”

“Hey, you had dinner, right? I mean, you had food!”

“True. Italian food.”

“Were you able to go out to pee?”

“I don’t usually go out to pee, Aussie, I can pee indoors.”

“Outdoors is much nicer. So, what’s the problem? You had food, you could pee. What else do you need?”

“Good question, Aussie. I need some kind of hook. A kind of thoughtful intelligence. Humor. Sex appeal.”

“Sex appeal? At your age?”

“Yes, Aussie, even at my age.”

“You’re a roshi. Doesn’t that mean old teacher? Old teachers don’t need sex appeal. And they certainly don’t have it.”

“Who says?”

“That’s the trouble with you humans, you’re always looking for something you don’t got. He gave you so much—good food, good peeing conditions—that’s a lot to build on. Did Bernie give you food and good peeing conditions?”

“Indeed, he did. But Aussie, I don’t compare people I meet with Bernie. I try to encounter them on their own terms. The trouble is, it’s hard to build a bridge between two lives when you’ve already lived most of them separately, see?”

“You and I didn’t have trouble doing that, and I met you when you were so old!”

“I wasn’t even 69 when we took you from the pound, Aussie. Speaking of which, Saturday will mark three years since you’ve come here.”

“There you were, an over-the-hill, used up has-been, and me a young hottie. But did I mind? I shook my cute butt, gave you a lick or two, went right over that bridge you’re talking about. You were the older woman and I was the young chick, and we made it together. You know why?”

“Because I gave you food and good peeing conditions?”

“Voila. And don’t forget the steak on Saturday. You always buy me steak on my homecoming day. Try to make it a rib steak this time—with the bone, please.”

“Should I get some for Henry, too?”


Yesterday a big truck came down the driveway early morning to pump out our septic tank. The tank is under the forsythia tree in back and it took me ages to find it. But Lori dug it out and uncovered it, so all Calvin (not his real name) had to do was heave the thick, wide hose through the open gate and insert it deep into the tank, then return to his truck and turn on the mechanism that sucks the stuff out of the septic tank.

Calvin has done this every other year at our house for a long time, I know him and he knows me. He’s always liked to hang around and talk. Yesterday I noticed how he’d aged, his hair gray rather than blonde even as he looked fit in the usual overalls with the company logo. He told me I looked good though I was still wearing pajamas under a bathrobe (it was 7:15 in the morning). I made my excuses and left him to his work.

As soon as he turned the drain mechanism on the most awful smell surrounded the house. “We should have shut the windows the minute he came,” Lori would say later. It was the smell of rotten eggs, rotten everything, and though I knew it would go way down once the drainage ended, enough of it would stick around for several hours. And as I thought that while getting dressed, I realized that that was one of the reasons I’d left him quickly. Because it smelled. Not him, the work. It was our septic tank that smelled, and it was hard for me to be with the man who was cleaning it all out.

For a moment, I felt ashamed. It’s our shit, I told myself. It’s our good peeing conditions. And he’s just making sure we continue to have good peeing conditions in this house.

I hurried out. “Do you want some coffee?” I yelled because otherwise we couldn’t hear each other.

He grinned. “No, I had all that before I came here.”

I stuck around till he finished, and sure enough, the smell went down when the drainage ended. He asked me about the Kwan-yin in the back (“It’s Buddhist, right?”) and about the statue of the golfer that stands out front (it was left here by the house’s previous owners and was heartily disliked by Bernie). I guessed from our interaction over the years that he liked talking to me, maybe even found me attractive.

That used to alarm me a little when Bernie was down with his stroke and after his death, when I was alone, but this time I felt no apprehension.

He retracted the enormous hose from under the forsythia.

“The top of the tank shouldn’t be so deep in the ground,” he remarked as we both looked down at it. “Must be hard for you to dig it out and uncover.”

“Used to be hard,” I tell him. “This time my housemate did the work.”

“That’s good.”

We said goodbye. He walked to the door of the truck cabin and opened it. By then I was back by the front door. “See you again soon,” I said to him, knowing it would probably not be less than two years. Two years felt like a long time.

“I love you,” he said to me from a distance. I looked up, not sure I heard right. “I love you,” he repeated.

Then he climbed up into the truck, cranked up the engine, and drove away.

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“Aussie, look at me! Please, look at me!”

Aussie’s in the water, Henry’s not. He goes into his stalking stance, belly down on the grass, hindquarters up, begging for her attention.

“Here I am, Auss! See me? Ready to play!”

Aussie stands in the middle of the stream and won’t look at him. Looks everywhere else, just not at Henry.

“Come on, Aussie! Come on, Aussie!”

At some point she may suddenly make a fierce dash out of the water and up the bank where he’s standing, he’ll give out his small, ferocious snarl even as she runs past him, and joyously try to catch up. And sometimes she’ll just turn and run up the opposite bank, leaving him to go back around and over the log bridge that’s suspended over the water, then hurry to catch up with her.

He’ll counter her smarminess by playing with the rat terrier Ginger ten minutes later, more his size, while I leash Aussie to prevent her from growling at Ginger for playing with Henry, who’s clearly her toy. But when it’s just the two of them they have their protocols, the dance they’ve perfected for almost a year now. Here are the rules:

  1.  Nobody goes after the other’s food. Henry did try a few times and was quickly disabused of any dream of success.

2.  If there’s a mole hiding underground and it’s time to dig, Aussie does the digging while Henry growls and supervises.

3.  Aussie always runs first and Henry follows. And if it’s deer they’re chasing, Henry will run for about 100 yards and then turn back, while Aussie will disappear for half the day.

4.  If Aussie’s playing with another big dog, both ignoring Henry completely, Henry reserves the right to bark. And bark. And bark.

5.  Seating arrangements in the car are fluid. At the start it’s Aussie in the back seat and Henry on the wide armrest between the driver and passenger seats. After a minute or two, Aussie nudges him aside and comes down on her belly, hind legs on the back seat and front legs on the armrest, and if she only put on her sunglasses she’d look like she’s on a cruise. Five minutes later she gets up and crowds into the passenger seat, too, while Henry adroitly makes his way back onto the armrest, sitting on his hindquarters and looking straight ahead, striking a Prince Henry pose. Some 10 minutes later they’ll switch again. Eventually Aussie will get back to the back seat where she looks out the window. She doesn’t look out the window of the front passenger seat, she disdains the sideview mirror, but I have not removed it so far, her protests notwithstanding. (It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)

6.  Sleeping arrangements have lately shifted. It used to be that Aussie slept downstairs (I’m on guard!). But this summer she came upstairs on account of all the thunderstorms. When the thunder and lightning start I hear paw scratches on the floor and then the quick jump on the bed. “Wow, Aussie, you’re heavy!”

“Make room under that blanket!”

“What about the sedative I gave you?”

”Triple it next time.”

We fight it out because I’m afraid of thunderstorms, too.

“You’re hogging the blanket! It’s covering all of you and none of me!”

“Who told you to get so fat?”

“Fluffy! I’m fluffy!”

And finally, when we come home to find lots of Amazon boxes on the front stairs with back-to-school supplies for local children, nobody—but nobody—is allowed to pee on them.

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I was at the dentist yesterday undergoing a root canal procedure, with a dentist and an assistant hovering over me.

I couldn’t talk (Whatever happens, don’t close your mouth!). I was further incapacitated by the heavy x-ray “blanket” they drape on you before taking x-rays, which they did several times during the procedure.

I usually like to tease Dr. Kim when he works on me. Once I wore a mala of skulls around my wrist and he asked me about it. “It’s the heads of all the dentists who screwed up my teeth,” I told him. He laughed so hard he had to put down his instrument.

Nothing doing this time. “Can’t you at least give me a running narrative of what’s going on?” I managed to garble out, but he shook his head, working quickly. He’d been delayed due to an emergency patient in the adjoining treatment room.

In the middle of it all, as the nurse prepared to do another x-ray,  I sat up a few inches and saw a framed picture of these words: “You are my happy place.” I groaned and lay back. And remembered this Zen koan:

”Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Kuei Shan. Kuei Shan said, ‘Old cow, so you’ve come!’

The Grindstone said, ‘Tomorrow there’s a great communal feast on T’ai Shan, are you going to go, Teacher?’

Kuei Shan relaxed his body and lay down; the Grindstone immediately left.”

Ah, the exquisite idiosyncrasies of Chan koan literature! Iron Grindstone Liu was a woman, an accomplished teacher, one of the very few women teachers mentioned. She could grind you right down to the essence if you engaged with her, hence her nickname. And yes, Old Cow was her teacher’s affectionate, respectful name for her.

She asked him if he was going to a big event. What did he do? He lay down. Maybe the floor was his happy place. Being the great Chan master he was, any place would have been his happy place.

Sometimes, in these days of covid, I want to go out and have fun. I miss live music, I miss dinners out, I miss going out with friends.

Much of my life has been full of activity. Even now, at the age of 71, I feel like I go from one thing to another to another, one job to the next to the next to the next, and at times I could feel a rushing energy go through my body that whispers: Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! I take a deep breath, even walk out into the back yard and visit with Kwan-yin, but the voice continues: If you don’t hurry you won’t get this done or that, you won’t blog, you won’t be ready for the class tomorrow, you won’t answer emails, and then the day ends. Your life will end, so hurry!

I’m taking things off my plate so that I could slow down. Don’t need to go to the great communal feast on T’ai Shan—or anywhere else, for that matter. I can lie down on whatever patch of earth life gives me and feel that I am already here, nothing remains to be done because it’s all here. My happy place.

Bernie was full of action when he was younger. There were always a million projects going on around him, people hurried, people ran, but he, the center of it all, didn’t hurry, not even once. He wouldn’t speed on the road even if we were late to the airport, he’d be as cool as a cucumber. Someone would tailgate or cut us off; no four-letter word would come out of his mouth. Not a gasp, not a gulp, no sudden inhalation. He’d pause, then go on talking just as before after making sure the car was right.

He had lots of destinations, but he fully inhabited wherever he was—including that final bed in the emergency room of the hospital where he died.

Sometimes we’d plan to do something—have a talk, go out—and I’d say, “I’m quickly making this phone call” or “I’m quickly going to the bathroom. And he’d say, “You don’t have to do it quickly.”

Finally, after all these years, I’m taking his advice. I’ve always been a very slow student.

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For two days, small groups of women went out on the streets of Kabul to demonstrate for women’s rights and for their inclusion in the Taliban government. The articles I read didn’t say they were demonstrating against the Taliban per se, or the new government. They were demonstrating for women. For equal rights.

Their courage is indescribable.

They were mostly young, not having lived what their mothers lived more than 20 years ago. But they heard the stories and, weaponless, confronted the soldiers.

We, on the other hand, left in a big hurry, and as often happens when you leave in a hurry, we left many behind.

The safest country in the world, sandwiched between two oceans and two friendly countries north and south, is so afraid of terrorists that we created a visa system making it almost impossible for Afghans who helped us to get out. So many security agencies were involved, checking and double-checking on the referrals (Yes, but are you sure he’s not a double agent for the Taliban?), and bureaucracy was no match for the Taliban. In fact, bureaucracy fueled by fear is no match for anything. It’ll swallow up energy, innovation, and people’s dreams. And people.

A Latina friend, an American citizen, hoped to finally go on vacation with her husband and two children. They hadn’t gone on vacation since coming to this country, trying to save up money. They found a one-week package deal for vacation in Costa Rica and she submitted her application for a passport at the end of April, paying the extra fee for expedited handling. The family trip was scheduled for late July.

She never got her passport. The State Dept. announced there were delays in processing passports so three months’ wait was no longer enough. Too bad. They didn’t lose the entire value of the package for the four of them, but they had to pay penalties.

Is anybody accountable anywhere in Washington?

Meantime, almost 20,000 people were killed in gun violence in 2020 in the U.S. (not including suicide by guns) because practically anyone can get his/her hands on a gun, while Afghans who proved their value and support couldn’t get visas because they might be terrorists.

I look out in early evening. The sun still shines, but big rains and thunderstorms are on their way for the night and all day tomorrow. And even as I shake my head about how crazy this country is, I also think: It’s so beautiful.

In early September the trees are a dark, dark green, creating black caverns between the trunks. The western-facing leaves are lapping up the last rays of twilight while the others move lightly in the breeze. I’m sure that somehow, they know what’s ahead of them this evening. And I remember reading in Richard Price‘s great Overstory that leaves stir when humans pass by them. They register us, even as we usually don’t register them.

Where am I in these last moments of daylight? The Afghan women risking so much to claim human rights feel close even as I look at New England forests. The government repeats again and again how that far-away country is far away, not of critical importance to us here. But people wanting their freedom feel close. Women wanting education and jobs, the ability to support families and raise children, feel closer to me than the red shirt I’m wearing. They want to have a loud, intelligent, confident voice. A woman’s voice who cares more about life than death, who knows both tedium and patience, who plants, waters and harvests, who knows the cycles of infinity. Who knows the language of leaves and trees and won’t uproot herself from earth.

From where comes this resonance?

I watch a hummingbird drinking the sugared water I put outside for it. They’re usually not out so late, but the temperatures are warm, waiting for rain. This may be the last week I’ll see them here, they leave early.

My mother had a bad day just before Rosh Hashana.

“How am I?” she repeats my question. “Okay, I’ll tell you, but be very, very careful. They’re taking us away.”

“Where, mom?”

“They’re taking people to concentration camps. I’m all packed.”

“Mom, nobody’s coming, believe me. Nobody’s coming to get you, I promise.”

“I packed some food for the children.”

“Mom, nobody’s coming.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re in Israel, mom. They have good army and police, there’s our family. No one is taking you away anywhere.”

“I promise that I will contact you from wherever I’ll be.”

“You’ll be home, mom, with Swapna. It’s the new year, you’ll have company for meals, you’ll be fine.”

“If I don’t get in touch with you it’s because I can’t get in touch, not because I don’t care.”

My sister later confirmed that she did indeed pack a bag.

The wind is picking up, a flutter among the branches. Fall is coming, their fall. Everything is in that rush of foliage: the courage of women in Afghanistan, an old woman still living out her fears of 80 years ago, Henry the Chihuahua’s stuffed blue alligator on my lap waiting to be tossed and retrieved, a green hummingbird ready to fly south.

The compassion of leaves.

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.