COMINGS AND GOINGS

Yesterday I walked with a friend and our dogs in the southern part of Wendell State Forest, beginning with a wide, flat meadow. We could hear the sound of two heavy riding mowers behind us.

Leeann pointed out a stick standing upright in the ground, and next to it, a box turtle. She was a beauty, black with yellow rings. She’d dug up a hole in the meadow and was getting ready to jettison her eggs. We watched as she rose up like a flatbed truck, front part up in the air while the back tilted down to unload cargo into the ground.

“Not a great survival strategy,” Leeann said as we both heard the relentless chugging of the big riding mowers coming our way.

When we returned later mama was gone and the hole was covered up neatly. As yet, the earth hadn’t been turned up.

And then came last night. In the zendo we’d done a Renewal of Vows ceremony, in which we renewed our vows to the Buddhist precepts, confessed where we’d fallen short, and asked for forgiveness. Driving home, I saw deer everywhere. A narrow, white trail of clouds seemed to stretch out of the moon in the dark blue sky like an umbilical cord and then disappeared, and I thought of the trails of dust, some hundreds of light-years in length, that connect galaxies.

As soon as I came home I knew this had all the makings of a wild summer night. The dogs ran from one end of the yard to another, barking shrilly. Fireflies blinked on and off at the far end by the tall birches, where it’s especially dark, and I recalled a story I’d heard that fireflies are often accompanied by porcupines.

“Harry! Aussie!” They barely listened. It was a night of hunt and prowl; everybody who was anybody was out, and they weren’t going to miss it. They’d come indoors to lie down, then jump up and run out the dog door again and again, barking madly. Who wastes a gorgeous summer night on sleeping? Finally they stayed in and I fell asleep.

At quarter to three in the morning I opened my eyes. Both had shot like a cannonball down the stairs and out again, Aussie with her longer sentry warnings, Harry’s barks more shrill and clipped, two of his to every one of hers. I closed my eyes: When will this stop?

Something shrieked. I lay still. The cry started low and rough, then became a scream that pierced the air, and then silence again.

I grabbed my robe and ran downstairs, put on lights. “Harry! Aussie!”

Harry ran towards me from the very end of the yard where laundry lines hang. Aussie, as usual, was nowhere to be seen. I looked for light. Where’s my flashlight? Where’s my phone?

Found it, hurried out quickly but carefully. Were there sounds of chewing? Of a satisfied growl? Where’s Aussie?

She came running, not a mark on her, and I remembered that I hadn’t heard any snarls of struggle, just barking.

In the morning I went out and searched. Not a sign of anything anywhere. I looked out beyond the fence for a carcass, for crows landing on flat, bloodied fur. Nothing. But I knew that something had lost its light in the early hours.

“Comings and goings, comings and goings,” Bernie used to say sleepily on these occasions, if he even heard them. He often talked like that, as if he had death handled.

For me, nothing is handled. I couldn’t sleep for hours after that, the sound of horror and desperation ricocheting in my mind long after I’d returned to bed, while the dogs slept deeply.

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GOING WILD

“Aussie, the fence is back up. They sawed off the big tree that came down and fixed the fence.”

“Darn it, Harry, we can’t go wild anymore!”

My dog Aussie wants to go wild.

Not in the back yard, now thankfully intact, but in the woods, to which she runs every chance she gets.

In the woods, the two dogs espy a few deer up the hill heading towards the state preserve, and both run after them, Harry barking joyfully. Five minutes later Harry comes back; Aussie doesn’t come back. A half hour will elapse before I see her again.

On the way home, coming down to the car, they see a doe bounding down towards the creek. Off they chase again, Harry barking ecstatically. He comes back and drops on the ground, out of breath; Aussie doesn’t come back. More than an hour will elapse before a pair of young women text me that they see her, and I rush into the car, drive down the road, and bring her home.

In the car she sits in the middle of the back seat, panting. Her eyes are narrowed, nostrils flared like they never are in our back yard. In fact, Aussie’s eyes seem to get a little yellow, like the eyes of wolves, after a run of hours in the forest. She looks straight ahead, but she looks at something other than the road, I’m sure. Watching her from the corner of my eye, I can almost feel the drape of drooping leaves as she runs between the trees, smell the warm scent of deer, the flutter and whisper of small critters, the gurgle of the creek, the high-flying shadows of hawks. Call of the wild.

Common sense tells me that she’s not wild, she’s a domesticated dog, and my job is to take care of her. That means that Harry’s chase of deer, ending with his return five minutes later, is fine; Aussie’s foray for hours is not. Harry’s happy, shrill barking is fine; Aussie’s yellowing eyes, ears listening to long-ago, primal sounds, her obliviousness of me and other humans (she usually stays away from men, but on these occasions women too)—these aren’t fine at all.

“She’s used to the sounds of the house,” a trainer told me, “so the sounds of the forest are far more interesting to her.”

Is it just my imagination, or is she also listening to some wild, ancient voices inside, when home meant something very different from a front door that shuts behind her and a fence that keeps her in a large, enclosed yard? They say that humans like to listen to seashells because the sounds of the sea remind them of their own remote origins. Aussie in the woods is a dog following instincts thousands of years old and a primeval landscape only she can distinguish.

“She’s beautiful when she’s like this,” someone said to me.

“I can’t let this go on,” I replied.

After every escape she gets a leaner, more restless look in her eyes. She wants to follow a destiny not limited to three dead squirrels this past spring. Out there is bigger prey. It will outrun her, but she won’t give up. She has glimpses of her true nature and no one can tell her otherwise. She doesn’t miss humans, she doesn’t miss the pack.

Eventually, she comes home, drinks water, eats some dog food, and has a rest. Then the eyes turn to slits, she goes out through the dog door, approaches the repaired fence, and sniffs the air. Freedom is so close she can taste it.

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WHO TOOK THE TREE DOWN?

“OK, Harry and Aussie, who took the tree down? I want to know which one of you did this?”

On recent Friday mornings I chauffeur a young illegal migrant mother to various appointments. Today I came home and found that an enormous tree, consisting of three big limbs each of which could be a tree of its own, had crashed down in the back, taking down power lines, cable lines, and the dog fence.

There was no electricity and the dogs were nowhere to be found. They weren’t under the fallen giant, nor had they been electrocuted by the live wires.

As usual, Harry was the first to return, tongue hanging out, and made a beeline to the water bowl. Aussie sauntered back hours later, when the electrician was finishing restoring power.

People say over and over that this country is no good. Fallen wires and no power (which in our case means no water as well) are no fun, and the company had someone here within the hour, and power was restored within two. I don’t take that for granted.

The live cable wires will be fixed tomorrow. Meantime, dogs aren’t going anywhere in back.

In human terms, Harry’s about 8 and Aussie’s 12. I’ve adopted a kid and an adolescent; no wonder I’m so tired. What was I thinking of?

Last year at this time I lived with two old, sick guys named Stanley (a canine) and Bernie (human). Bernie after the stroke had a hard time getting around and needed lots of help. Stanley maintained his good spirits even while blind and deaf, but at times I looked around me and wailed: Is there anybody young here? I need some youth around me!

Right now I look at both dogs and say: “I need somebody to grow up—quick! Harry, would you stop barking so much?”

“I’m so excited to be alive, yipeee!”

“And would you stop jumping on me?”

“I’m too excited, I can’t stand still.”

I could use a couple of old fellas for balance.

If Harry is deeply loyal to me at home, he clearly sees Aussie as his guide outdoors. For a while there he was scared of the plank bridge in the woods and positively bawled after us when we crossed. When he finally crossed, it was to follow Aussie. And when she went into the water for the first time he whined and whined, then followed. And yesterday when she went into deeper water, he whimpered in resistance, and then followed.

As you can see in the photo below, they’re taking a water route to run away from home.

 

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MOTHER WENT UP A STEPLADDER

The house is gorgeous now. I sit at the picnic table and look up at the very tall trees that circle the back, the lilies and large-leaf hostas, and the incredible assortment of shade plants. In front, the rhododendrons have begun to sag but the young irises are opening their eyes for the first time.

Out of the blue it hits me that this may be my last summer here.

There isn’t a day that the beauty of this home doesn’t ambush me, summer and winter, and there isn’t a day when it doesn’t feel big, burdensome, expensive, and lonesome.

“Patience,” a voice counsels inside.

I wish I knew what I’m going to do, I snivel.

“Patience,” says the voice again.

Whatever happens, I think I will stay around here, where we will be visited by thunder beings tonight. “Don’t stay in the center of cities or towns; do not be friendly with rulers and state ministers; dwell in the deep mountains and valleys to realize the true nature of beings,” said the teacher of Eihei Dogen, the great 13th century Zen mystic, to his protégé.

The dogs, too, are learning patience after their encounter with the porcupine and removal, between the two of them, of some 800 quills. I looked it up to discover that porcupines have as many as 30,000.

“Stanley died,” I texted my brother and sister in mid-August after we ended the life of my dog of 14 years.

“’Stanley died?’ That’s how we find out about it, just like that?” my brother said. “No warning, no advance notice?”

“Bernie died,” I texted them both in early November.

There’s an anecdote. Henry phones his brother, David. “Mother died,” he tells him.

“’Mother died’? Just like that?” David says. “Couldn’t you have made the news a little easier on me?”

“How?” asks Henry.

“You could have started with a story. Mother went up a stepladder to get the cat. The cat had jumped on top of the closet and refused to come down. When Mother reached for the cat, the cat jumped. Mother lost her balance and fell. It wasn’t serious but she decided to rest anyway. She woke up with a headache and made an appointment to see the doctor the next day. She went back to sleep and died.’”

“That’s not what happened,” says Henry.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you help me prepare for the bad news. What else is new?”

“Dad went up a step-ladder,” says Henry.

Yesterday marked 7 months since Bernie died and in that time I’ve had only two dreams about him. The first came two months after his death. I dreamed that we were both in the house; he was well and healthy, talking to some students or people he worked with in the office, and I was going away somewhere overnight or for a weekend. When I was ready to leave I went into his office: “Okay, I’m off,” I told him.

“Have a good time,” he said in that light, jocular tone he often adopted. “See you soon!” He got up and gave me a peck on the cheek, sat back down and continued to talk to the others, while I left.

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MAY THE GODDESS OF SPEECH

“May the goddess of speech enable me to attain all possible eloquence,

She who wears on her locks a young moon,

Who shines with exquisite luster,

Who sits reclined on a white lotus,

And from the crimson cusp of whose hands pours

Radiance on the implements of writing, and books produced by her favor.”

I can’t say that I get up early in the morning, go over to my desk, chant this invocation, and start writing, though many consider early mornings prime creative time. Before that there will be meditation, study, service, a little reading, and a few sun salutations, not to mention feeding the dogs. Only then will I approach the statue of Saraswati, Bernie’s gift to me so many years ago, sit down in front of the computer, and get to work.

First thing will be coffee. Well before 6 am, before activities pile up one after another like boxcars, I will stand on the upstairs landing and hear Aussie’s tail striking the sofa where she lies downstairs, playing guard. Harry likes to sleep late, preferably in my bed. Aussie’s station is usually downstairs, ever alert to the encroachments of deer, bear, coyotes, foxes, etc. I come downstairs and her tail keeps on pounding the sofa, an invitation to our daily morning hang out.

“How are you doing, Auss?” I ask her.

She turns onto her back. “You can talk and stroke my belly at the same time, can’t you?” she says.

“You’re a Zen dog, Aussie. Don’t you know it’s better to do one thing at a time?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says she, and turns even more, exposing the big tan spot of her belly.

Later today we were in the woods together when the two dogs ran into a porcupine. You can imagine the rest. Harry was the first to come back to me, spitting and gnashing his teeth at the needles around his snout (I finally saw a live physical example of the phrase, gnashing one’s teeth).. Aussie wouldn’t come back no matter what. When I finally went to get her I found that the dead porcupine had reincarnated itself in Aussie; she had so many quills in her she looked like the critter she’d killed, providing the perfect example of the punishment that befalls you if you hang on and hang on. She had them all over her snout, one right under her eye, inside her gums and tongue, and under and around her front paws.

“You look terrible,” I told her.

She cried. Harry was tough, not a sound out of him except for the gnashing of teeth. Aussie cried, even screamed with pain.

“Okay,” I said, “straight to the vet.” Later I would hear from the vet that they pulled out over 200 quills from Harry and more than 400 from Aussie.

It takes us a long time to leave the woods, and as I pull Aussie forward I think of two dogs I’ve known for a long time, both of whom died on Saturday, leaving their human companions bereft. You want life? I said to myself. Well, here it is, this is life.

Yesterday Harry and Aussie had been in the weekly dog party that takes place in our local preserve every Sunday. They’d splashed into the water with a young Golden Retriever. Aussie chased her to the other side while Harry stood, halfway in and halfway out, afraid to cross because the water was a little deep for him, but by the time the outing was over he’d gathered up his courage and splashed his way after the two dogs, proud and happy. This is life! I thought to myself, watching them have the time of their lives.

This is life, too! I told myself, pulling Aussie after me, crying and whimpering, Harry trudging grimly alongside, both dogs looking like Cujo. Yesterday was grand, today is suffering.

The people who lost their dogs on Saturday would do anything to keep on taking care of them, give them their medications, continue coaxing them gently into an older and older age. They would tell me that this life is good regardless of how it manifests.

Yom asal yom basal,“ I told Aussie in the early morning as my hands made circles on her belly. “Arabic for a day of honey, a day of onions.”

“A little lower,” she said, oblivious to the misery ahead of her. “Nothing like a good scratch first thing in the morning.”

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BURNING

“I burn, Eve, I just burn.”

I heard these words from a handsome young man from Florida almost 35 years ago. We were talking about what had caused a blonde college graduate, a great swimmer, on the threshold of life looking bright-eyed at all the options welcoming him with open arms, to come to the Zen Community of New York, where he spent most of every day on the floor of a bakery baking and finishing cakes, shrouded in bakery whites, taking five-minute breaks out on the hot pavement in the midst of the summer haze of southwest Yonkers.

He loved it. What he said was: “I burn, Eve, I just burn.”

The same is true about me. All my life, I’ve burned. Once it was for books and writing, then it was for Zen meditation, then it was for Zen-based social action, and now it’s again for writing. That, and the practice of living where each moment is both personal and impersonal, full beyond measure.

The point is, I had and still have passions; I burn. I never experienced Buddhism as the cultivation of detachment. For me, letting go enables me not to walk around dispassionately, but to plunge into every crazy, unfathomable moment.

For most of its years Buddhism was personified by monks, people who walked away from family, sex, money, jobs, and relationships. Yes, some did that because it was expected of them, much like the sons in many Irish families opted to become Catholic priests. Some entered the monastery because it fed them and filled basic survival needs. But the others? What passion animated them? When I read teachings of the great teachers, there’s passion in every word.

At the same time, I know many people who live day to day with very little passion. They may love their children and grandchildren, but other than that they seem to look at the life around them as if it’s all landscape.

They may love a movie, but they don’t love their work. They may love a TV series, but they don’t love this life. They get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and everything in between is remote. They talk about things, they don’t become them.

Maybe they can summon passion against people and things: against Donald Trump, Alabama’s new abortion law, against Muslims, Jews, or immigrants—or against the people who don’t agree with them—but they don’t feel passion for anything. Even if they have, say, passion for human rights and justice, they don’t have enough to do something other than, perhaps, proclaim their opinions to like-minded folks on Facebook.

If it’s a real passion, you’ll do. You’ll become. You’ll feel connected to something deep and alive; you’ll take risks and journey to the unknown. You’ll feel like you’re burning.

I was 35 when I moved into the Zen Community of New York. My peers, getting serious, got married, bought condos, and got jobs with good pensions. My parents wouldn’t visit and referred to my new work as “that place,” as in: Are you still in that place? Friends paid for dinner when I sat with them, but underneath it all felt I’d really gone round the bend.

How did I feel?

One Sunday back then I sat on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River with a fellow resident of the Community. We worked pretty much every weekend, but on that gorgeous afternoon we were able to sit and contemplate the majestic water. A sailboat cruised down the river, stroked lovingly by the sun, and my friend sighed and said, “What I wouldn’t do to be on that boat.” He turned to me: “What about you?”

“I don’t want to be on that boat,” I told him. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”

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STAYING IN THE SHADOWS

New irises after a rainstorm

I am waiting for Maria to come out of the Wellness Center with Elena and Paula. These aren’t their real names. Maria lives with her two young girls in a town not far from me. I don’t know where her husband is. In fact, I know nothing about her other than that she’s from Honduras and is in the last 3 months of pregnancy.

Today I picked her up with the two girls and took her to the nearby hospital for a pre-natal exam. That’s when she told me that one of her daughters is sick, vomiting and a fever, and that she needed to take her to the local wellness center as well. She asked me if I could take them and then leave, and they’d find their way home. I told her no, I’d wait for them, no problem.

The mother and the two girls are beautiful. Maria’s dark eyes shine with determination. She knows her work: take care of the two young, pre-school girls and her soon-to-be-born baby. My guess is she doesn’t spend much time wondering what her life’s about, her job is as clear as day. Wondering what our lives are about is more of a First World concern.

Her daughters’ eyes are fathomless. I wonder how much they’ve heard and seen in their short lives, how many hurried phone calls they’ve overheard, how many lowered voices. By now I’ve driven a number of undocumented migrants in our area, mostly mothers with young children who are remarkably quiet and well behaved. You don’t have to teach these kids to blend into the landscape, not have a crying jag out in public or make a scene, not pester their mother loudly about a candy or toy they want to buy in a local store.

The families I meet go everywhere together. For one thing, the parents don’t dare leave their children alone. Secondly, though they know other undocumented families, especially family members who’ve come here before them, that’s for holidays and celebrations. When you go to the hospital or to see the doctor, each family goes together but alone, with its own perambulator and car seats. Nobody’s left behind.

I’m proud of the services they get in our neck of the woods, of the community hospital that provides pre-natal exams, the local wellness center that won’t turn anyone away, the local police who prefer not to bother them so long as no crime is committed other than being here illegally. The single biggest “crime” is driving without a license, and that’s where people like me come in. I’m proud of the local groups that have sprung up since Donald Trump’s election to support these families, providing sanctuary, car rides, money, and medical care.

Both my parents separately escaped post-Holocaust Eastern Europe and came to Israel illegally. My father had fake papers, my mother had nothing but a 3 year-old orphaned nephew and the clothes on their backs. At the age of 18 she smuggled both of them aboard a ship in Marseilles and managed to make it all the way to Haifa, Israel, undetected.

Once there, the British forced all ships to dock offshore, with passengers disembarking onto a motorboat that brought them to shore only after a thorough check of their papers. While she might have considered swimming for it, she knew the little boy couldn’t. There was nothing to do but give themselves up to the British. I remember so well how she described that scene with the British officer:

He was a big man in uniform waiting to finish up and get back on the boat, typically British, heavy, with bulging jowls. I was small and thin. I took Menachem with me and approached him. He didn’t even look at me. I think I had to say “Sir” several times, probably because I whispered it from fear, before he looked down at us, and then I told him that we were stowaways. He got completely red, his entire face turned purple with rage. He started yelling, and Menachem started crying, and I was sure he wouldn’t let us off but would send us back to Marseilles.

That didn’t happen. They took them to shore and put them in a refugee camp that wasn’t half as nice as the place I picked up Maria and her kids from today. When I look at Maria’s girls and the way they look to the side, trying to hide from my gaze, I think of the spunky 18 year-old who took a little blonde boy with her on her long route out of a bloodied Europe to the Promised Land, and finally came out of the shadows to confess her audacity to a tall and heavy uniformed British officer with protruding jowls that got very, very red.

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LOOK-BACK TIME

Door sign on computer store in Greenfield, MA

I am returning home, the dawn of Memorial Day, flying from Jerusalem, Israel into the eastern coast of North America, which right now appears as a pink horizon. There’s still a long way to go. Another flight from New York to Boston, the Silver Line city bus from Logan Airport to Boston South Station, then a longer bus ride to Springfield, and finally a pick-up by my friend and home-sharer Tim, and a car ride home.

Tim has thankfully refrained from sending me emails about the antics of Aussie the Delinquent and Harry the Bandit, but I have a sense the 45-minute car ride will provide some crucial detail. He will start off by saying, “Everything was fine, they’re good dogs—but” and I will hear of the number of accidents Harry had on the spot of green rug behind the dining table, the herb plants someone ate up, a snake or two they’d throttled to death, and another fabric throw Harry had chewed big holes into and destroyed.

But before that my brother will have driven me down from Jerusalem (you always go down from Jerusalem, never up, unless it’s to heaven) and across the central plains towards Ben-Gurion Airport, as has happened more times than I can count. We don’t talk much because we’re talked out. Instead, I look up at the stars and wonder, for the millionth time, how my life has taken me such distances from my family of origin. There was a time when I racked my brain around that, but not for years now; still, it always merits a moment of wonder.

I have been reading First Light, a classic book on modern astronomy, and seeing the light of the stars that has traveled millions of years, even from stars that have exploded and are long gone, I am aware that every time I look up I am actually looking back at the past. There’s a phrase for it, I learned: look-back time.

We don’t actually know what happened in the past. We have our stories and memories of it, or as Bernie would say, we have our opinions about it. But we can’t escape the illumination of the past, like we can’t escape primeval starlight.

The Dreamliner I am flying on doesn’t find its direction through starlight like the old ships used to do, and in the day we can’t see the starlight since we’re busy busy busy. But then comes nighttime!

So tonight I will go out with the dogs into the back yard. I will have to use a flashlight to avoid the holes in the ground that they have so helpfully dug up in their search for inner-terrestrial life, but I will try to keep my head up towards starlight, which is look-back time.

An astronomer in First Light says that if we could imagine our galaxy, the Milky Way, as the size of a dime, then the entire knowable universe, up to its farthest reaches, is only 4 miles long. “A small watering hole,” is how he put it, describing what’s inside the outermost edges of creation, beyond which there’s nothing we can see.

But the Zen teacher John Tarrant recently wrote: “Beauty announces that you have come to the end of the known universe.” Implying, to my mind at least, that beauty points to the known, but also to the unknown.

Which reminds me, for no logical reason at all, that Roshi Fleet Maull and I will be teaching at a summer retreat from August 21 to August 25 in Windhorse Hill in neighboring South Deerfield, which not only has a beautiful meditation hall but also looks down on the Connecticut River. Both our communities will sit together. Fleet will take time off from his wide-reaching prison work training prison staff in mindfulness throughout the province of Ontario. And I? Perhaps, after quitting zazen for the evening, I’ll take folks outdoors to look up at the stars.

For more information on the retreat, see: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/summer-sesshin-with-roshis-eve-marko-and-fleet-maull-tickets-61892930421

 

 

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HOT PINK TOENAILS

I’m lying flat on the Dead Sea, feet turned towards Jordan, hot pink toenails pointed to the sky.

I came down to the Sea last evening at around 7. It was over 110 during the day, but by 7 it had come down to a cool 98 degrees. On one side of the Jordan Valley Rift, the Israeli side, the sun had sunk behind the mountains, leaving t hem purple; on the other side, Jordan had turned into pink-blue haze. Later at night I’d see the lights of their Dead Sea hotels and resorts.

The staff is putting away the beach chairs and cleaning up the debris from the sandy beach, the lifeguards are gone. I walk down a wooden boardwalk which goes right into the oily water, holding on to thin rails, advancing towards a pavilion at the end of the walk where people who don’t wish to venture out too far can get into the water and hold on. But I, at the end, slowly lower myself into this sea that’s almost ten times saltier than the ocean, gray and dense at this hour, and with slow, focused strokes, careful not to splash and get any of it into my eyes, I make my way farther out.

Soon the boulders of salt disappear from under my feet. Slowly I turn and lie on my back, suspended between heaven and earth. I feel held and safe like a baby; nothing bad will happen to me as long as I remember not to move or turn too fast. Don’t make waves is taken very seriously in the Dead Sea, and everyone has stories of seeing someone ignoring the warnings and jumping into the water, head first, screaming when the water gets into their eyes and mouth.

Indulge in macho behavior, and the water burns. Bear witness softly, and it will hold you like a mother.

What do I think about in this belly of the earth, floating at its lowest point? At first, nothing. Then, catching sight of my hot pink toenails, I think of pedicures.

This morning I had my toenails done. They get dirty even in winter and I like to have them thoroughly cleaned and, in summer, painted. The woman who did it had come from Russia and lived in the city of Arad, in the south of Israel, half an hour’s drive away.

“I wanted to settle closer to the center [of Israel],” she told me as she worked, “but my sister left Russia and settled in Arad so I decided to live near her. Then my parents followed me from Russia, they settled in Arad, too, so now I don’t leave because my family is here. You have to be with your family, of course.” I thought of how far I chose to live from my family and said nothing.

Floating in the Dead Sea, I contemplate the hot pink toenails pointed towards heaven and remember other pedicures I’ve done,. Closer to my New England home there used to be a day spa with walls painted blue, no television and no music. Instead, the receptionist brought me herbal tea as I sat in a big chair and looked down at the dark hair of Irene [not her real name}, who was seated below and working on my feet.

You ask her how she is and she tells you. She lives in Springfield, has a married son who rarely visits and a brother who lives together with their sick mother. “When I divorced I lost everything,” she tells you. She works at three jobs to make ends meet. She does pedicures most afternoons and Saturday, makes tips as a waitress at a local restaurant five evenings a week, and is a private caregiver to an elderly gentleman on weekday mornings. She goes to see her mother every night in order to give her an injection.

“Can’t your brother do it?” you inquire.

“She says it hurts when he does it, but not when I do it.”

The day spa closed down and I have no idea what happened to Irene and whether she found a new third job.

“Why can’t you stop thinking about bad things?” my mother used to ask me when I was very young and couldn’t stop asking about what happened to the dead bird I’d found in the park, the woman seeking handouts by the supermarket, or the small moth caught in the spider’s web. “Why can’t you just be happy?”

Floating in the Dead Sea, hot pink toes flashing in the warm sulfur water so healthy for my joints and muscles, I think of Irene and pedicures:

Why can’t you just be happy!

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IN THE BELLY OF THE EARTH

My sister and I decided to move our hangout from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea in the Jordan Rift Valley, a deep fault that stretches out all the way down to Africa, separating the African and Arabic tectonic plates.

Ruth got accommodation in Hotel Daniel, one of an island of hotels in this, the lowest place in the world, and earlier today she drove us down from the Judean Hills, turned right at the Dead Sea and motored along my favorite drive in the world, the Dead Sea on our left, the Judean Hills on our right, past Ein Gedi and Masada till we arrived in the cluster of hotels on the shore of this most salty of seas, almost ten times as salty as the ocean. Here you stay afloat without swimming, in fact without doing anything.

Not doing anything, I believe, is the point. After 35 years of meditation, that’s still not easy for me to do.

“You’re going to blog?” my sister asked, shaking her head before I even responded. In fact, I’m the only one with a computer in the big, broad, upholstered lobby. Everybody else, probably with no or little meditation practice, knows how to do nothing.

I’m looking out the enormous windows at the Dead Sea, flat and a little gray in this hamsin weather, hot, dry winds blowing. A mere 104 degrees outside, going up to 111 on Thursday and Friday. I know, I know, the amount of energy it takes to air-condition these hotels and keep us all comfortable, well-fed, and feeling fine about the world is hard to imagine, comparable, in my limited experience, only to Las Vegas. But no casinos here. Instead we have spas, with warm sulfur water piped from the Sea into indoor pools and mud packs made from the black mud by the beach.

My eyes, however, veer towards the long, narrow road behind the pool and the beach that crosses the Dead Sea and stretches out, I believe, all the way towards Jordan on the other side. Naturally, it’s made of salt, and perhaps at sunset, when it’ll be a mere 95 or so, I will walk alongside the banks of white salt melting into the salty-bitter water, and see how far I can get. Better take a bottle of water.

I have a long history with this place, the bottom of our earth. When you drive down from Jerusalem, big blue signs inform you that you’re now at Sea Level, and the road keeps on going down till it reaches the Dead Sea, over 1,400 feet below sea level. At that point life feels different. It’s too hot to think, dangerous to expend too much energy. It’s a place for mystics and lazy people, hard on hyperactive folks like me..

I know, Jericho and its fallen walls are not too far from here, and Masada, where the Jews lasted for three years besieged by Roman legions, is only 10 minutes away. History happened here, but the place beggars history.

Somewhere in our body (usually the belly) is the place where the moment called Eve and the moment called the world meet with no problems at all, no tension or animosity, just Happy Together as the Monkees sang lifetimes ago. I think of the Dead Sea as that place on the earth’s body.

At 110 degrees you don’t sweat because it’s dry. Your eyes scan for the long-horned ibex climbing the mountains. If your joints hurt or if you have arthritis, the water heals you. Many years ago I spent an entire summer here untangling agricultural fencing, refused to wear a hat, and my hair turned effortlessly blonde.

Maybe later, closer to twilight, I will try to cross the border between two countries locked in conflict for years by walking far enough on a long, narrow bar of salt. No passport or visa needed.

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